‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.’ – Matthew 23:13-15
Jesus is talking to the religious regime of his day, a fact that makes me shiver, even here, 2000 years later as I sit in my comfortable study. It’s a tirade, no question about it, and against the people most valued and respected as authorities on right relationship with God. He denounces them thoroughly and at length. No wonder that later they find a way to have him killed.
I have my list of Christian religious teachers that I feel merit this same sort of tirade. People who turn the Good News to a set of rules for proper conduct, excluding anyone whose heart is different, are high on that tally. I would add that not only have they kept people out of the kingdom of heaven but they have made Christianity so odious that thousands of people will never discover the life-giving water of Jesus’ words and example. I can get mightily worked up when I think about that.
And, in fact, I did get worked up about it this morning. In my state of righteous indignation I stormed downstairs to make coffee. In an attempt to rinse out a cup I grabbed the sink faucet sprayer too hard and wound up spraying myself in the face. That woke me up in a hurry, I’ll tell you.
Recently I have learned that I have a reputation at the collective of art studios in which I rent space for being a woman of love and integrity, a Christian woman who lives her faith. This came as more than a little bit of a surprise to me, knowing myself as I do. But now, as I continue, with a wet head, to write this reflection, I remember what they have said. I’ve called myself a Christian, and people are watching to see what that means about how I live my life. Scary.
The central part of Jesus’ tirade is the issue of people discovering and entering the kingdom of heaven and our ability to either help or hinder them. Of course that means entering it ourselves – a tall order. Having come to a place of being centered in God, we can find the means to invite others. If we are not resting in God ourselves, we cannot help others get there. That is the basic truth of the situation.
But, in the meantime, I need to remember that harangues against religious authorities, while they might be important for Jesus, are not particularly helpful for me. They don’t exactly further my finding the door to the kingdom. And besides, I don’t know enough – only God does.
What is helpful is a spiritual practice that leads to fewer moments of being a hypocrite myself. More truth, less impulsive ego-driven action; this is what it takes.
What is helpful is finding the words and the images to tell the story of the abundant love of God. Jesus’ parables, Jesus’ moments of healing presence, the water of life that flows through the Gospels, these are mine to share in whatever ways I can. They will always be mine to share; nobody can take that away from me. And I will do them greater justice the more centered in God I become.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado