By Elizabeth Baumann
Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 23:13-26
13 “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. 15Woe 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.
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ 17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ 19How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.”
So much of the spiritual life is about congruity between inside and out. As we heard yesterday: it’s not that the Pharisees’ bar of holiness was too high! There’s nothing wrong with going out to make converts: we’re told to do it! There’s nothing wrong with tithing herbs and spices: God commanded it. It’s a good idea to wash the outside of dishes. But if we look only on the outside, we might as well not do anything at all.
It’s easy for us to light upon things that appeal to or are easy for us and just keep duplicating that behavior without going deeper. Think of the naturally argumentative person who gravitates toward the tell-it-like-it-is Jesus (who we see in lessons like today’s) and sees there a license for being abrasive and harsh with others, calling it “truth-telling,” but with precisely the wrong spirit. As long as we only focus on doing something instead of becoming something, we give ourselves a pass — and the doing tends to go wrong.
A good rule of thumb: real sanctification isn’t staying comfortable.
The Pharisees are smart people. Like all of us, they have an internal sensor telling them they can’t fulfill God’s law. So they side-step and do everything they can, and then everything they can get away with, without asking too much of their dispositions and motivations — in other words, without changing their hearts. It’s hard for us to fully face our need for heart-change, but unless we do, we are doomed to continually miss the invitation of Jesus to meet us there and be made whole from the inside out.
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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