By Elizabeth Baumann
Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 23:1-12
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Throughout the gospels, Jesus clashes with Pharisees. He calls every spade a spade, throwing shade on the shady, never diplomatically skirting his language. He describes how the Pharisees angle for power and praise, and do whatever they can to manipulate things to their own advantage. They set high bars for everyone else and give themselves a pass. They are spiritually “full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”
Yet Jesus isn’t a revolutionary calling for their heads. He says: “Do what they say,” just not what they do. The high bar they set is the right height. They have real authority, “the seat of Moses,” and pulling them down to replace them would be nothing more than punishing a grab for power with another grab for power. The gospel is about another way, an inverse way, in which power is yielded, and strength dwells in servitude, which comes from honesty about who you are and your place in the world and with God.
Honesty and ingenuousness can’t be overrated if we’re going to grow into and live out the gospel. It will feel all wrong — that’s why the way is narrow. It feels natural and smart to shield our weaknesses and use our strengths. That’s what the Pharisees did. But Jesus is waiting for us to discover that freedom only comes thorough honesty about our failings. The one who laid aside all his godly power has blazed a path for us where weakness leads the way.
Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.
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