Below is the text of a sermon I preached on November 3, 2002. It was the Sunday just after Paul and Sheila Wellstone died, suddenly and tragically, in a plane crash, just before the election. That election was important because President Bush was beating the war drum and Wellstone, a hero of mine, was an outspoken opponent of the war. It was very hard, at the time, not to see something nefarious in his death and how it affected the election.
What’s missing from the written text is that in my delivery near the end, I started to cry and had to stop. I recall feeling vulnerable and making a half-serious joke about hating that moment, which in the moment gave everyone a little relief from laughter.
I was thinking about that moment this week, as I’ve been doing some writing about shame. I wanted to make sure I had not lost this sermon, so posting here now.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a] wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
I can’t really talk about today’s text without talking about the irony I feel at the very fact that I am up here. After all, I have studiously avoided preaching or even attending a bible study in the five years that I have regularly attended the House of Mercy. So I chose to make my debut with a text that is, on the face of it, plainly opposed to the idea that anyone in the community of Jesus should stand up and teach the others. I could say that I volunteered to preach on this text to save our usual preachers the indignity of squirming their way out of the implications of this text for their chosen vocations. But that would be a lie. I’m not particularly altruistic or selfless. I resemble more the Pharisee than I do the disciple of Jesus.
In fact, as I read over this text for the thousandth time this afternoon, I realized that I have chosen to do a very stupid thing in trying to preach on it. Very stupid in the sense that whatever I say is going to be tainted by the text itself. Usually it’s the other way around, that as a preacher, you try and get out of the way of the text and make yourself invisible. It seems that with this text, however, that to do it justice is to stand and take the bullet, to step in the way of the oncoming train.
Soren Kierkegaard says that irony is the boundary land between the ethical life and the religious life, so if that is true, it seems to me that in order to understand this text, and to try and hear some good news in it, we must venture through irony. We’re no strangers to irony here at House of Mercy, but I’d like to make a distinction when I talk about it tonight. I don’t mean the kind of hip, cynical irony that I, like some of you, tend to banter around. That’s the kind of cheap, imitation irony that is really just a mask for fear. No, the kind of irony I’d like to look at in this text is the irreducible kind, the kind that is a real, inscrutable tension that can’t be passed off flippantly, or resolved by clever words, but must be lived out and experienced, because it is ultimately emotional and relational.
If verbal irony is when you say one thing and really mean another, the emotional irony I’m talking about is when you say one thing is true, and the opposite thing is also true. This is a paradox, a little like the Tom Waits lyric, “I’m glad that you’re gone, and I wish to the Lord you’d come home.”
You see, I’m deeply afraid of this text. I’m afraid because I know that I resemble more the person who does not practice what he teaches, who loves the place of honor at the banquet. I would be just tickled to have people call me ‘rabbi’. I am afraid because I know that inevitably this means that I will be humiliated. Perhaps this is the moment when it comes to pass.
So if you will pretend with me, just for a moment, that I am not doomed from the start, and that maybe there is some good news, even for me, in this text, let’s dig in.
The gospel means good news, but most of the words in this book are bad news, particularly for the Pharisees. Matthew’s Jesus is not a nice person. He’s constantly antagonizing the Pharisees, who don’t seem to have done anything to provoke Jesus, except to simply be who they are. I didn’t know much about the Pharisees when I started writing this sermon; maybe you don’t either. Here’s a little history.
The Pharisees were a group of Jews who first emerged more than 100 years before Jesus was born. Most of what we know about them comes from the Christian scriptures, where they are always depicted as sanctimonious hypocrites, legalistic, and cold-hearted bastards. They are always portrayed as the opposite of Jesus.
The other place we hear about them is from the Jewish historian Josephus, who claimed that the Pharisees were popular, faithful scholars who valued tradition and the sacred texts, simple living and ‘cultivated harmonious relations with others.’
It’s hard to understand how these two descriptions can be about the same group of people. What’s more interesting, I think, is that the Pharisees were probably the most liberal of the Jewish religious sects. They had the most flexible interpretation of the Jewish law, they believed in both divine providence and the free will of human beings, they believed that a person’s soul survives death and is punished or rewarded, in the resurrection of the body, and that the messiah was a son of David.
The Pharisees were, in other words, right on the same page with Jesus.
In today’s text we can see that Jesus thought so too. Jesus begins by saying, in verses 2 and 3, that what the Pharisees say is not in itself wrong.
At this point, I feel pretty suspicious of Matthew. It feels like the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel account is as venomous as the Pharisees he criticizes. In fact, it feels to me that Jesus and the Pharisees are more like feuding brothers, or quibbling siblings, or quarreling lovers, than like bitter enemies. It feels like Jesus might have some more, unspoken feelings toward the Pharisees than just animosity.
At least, those feeling are unspoken in Matthew’s gospel. It’s interesting to compare Matthew with the gospel of Mark in this regard. Matthew mentions the Pharisees more than twice (29) as many times as Mark (12). But in Mark, Jesus feels as much grief as anger. In Matthew, the explicit grief disappears, and we are left with all anger, all the time.
One of the most difficult things about loving those that are closest to us, is that it is very difficult to hold our anger and our grief together at the same time. And yet, not to do that is to be dishonest about our experience. The thing that is hardest about loving our families, friends, and partners, is that we have expectations of them, even if those expectations are never said out loud. Expectations that they will act toward us, will love us, just like we want them to. Sometimes, even needing to say things out loud is the biggest disappointment, since we really want those closest to us to read our minds.
I wonder if Jesus and the Pharisees are a little like brothers. Jesus’ chief complaint wasn’t that the Pharisees believed the wrong thing, but that they were obsessed with believing the right thing, and their obsession was getting in the way of their ability to love other people. Maybe he was most upset that they weren’t loving him the way he wanted them to.
You should know that I am the eldest son of four siblings. I have one brother. Like most brothers, we fight. Mostly, we fight because we are alike. Our biggest fight is over religion. The irony here is that we both grew up hating the Pharisees. And now, there’s a little bit of that sanctimonious pharisee in both of us.
I love my brother. I love him dearly. And no one makes me as angry as my brother. I think we know this about each other. I get angry at him, mostly, because I want him to be more like me, to see things more my way, to agree with me. He doesn’t. He has a profound experience of life that is all his own, and it is not my experience. Last spring he was here in town, and we had a very nice conversation. It was nice because I felt like both of us were able to say things about how we really felt to one another.
I’m always a little shaky, talking to those closest to me about how I feel. Because it requires me to not be smart, at least with my head. Instead, I have to talk out of my gut, which I’m not particularly good at. I feel weak. This is one of my identifying ironies, that the thing that is most important for me to do is the thing that I resist the most.
I wonder if this isn’t true in Matthew’s gospel as well. Jesus and the Pharisees were both steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. If family is at the heart of what it is to be human, then dysfunctional family, and particularly fraternal rivalry, is at the heart of the Jewish scriptures. Think of all the stories about feuding brothers. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Esau and Jacob, and most famously, Joseph and his many brothers. (I’m aware that in the Jewish scripture, sisters are painfully absent from these stories, which is no doubt the subject of another sermon).
These brothers suffer jealousy and rage, and compete for what they perceive as limited resources: for attention, love, honor, and inevitably, the blessing of their father. Some of the most famous characters in the Jewish scripture are also the most reprehensible: they lie, cheat, steal and murder their way through the bible, all so that they get the blessing, which is really another way of saying, so that they can inherit the power and love of their parents.
This is a really complicated subject: family, and inheritance, and blessing, and God. It’s complicated for me because of the story of my family. Maybe it’s complicated for you too. I’m going to very intentionally sidestep it and avoid it here, because I don’t know how, in the space of 10 minutes, to broach what is really at the heart of the human experience. This is where I become especially weak.
What I would like to broach, though, is this question: how can we hear some good news in the midst of such a difficult subject? I think I can hear the echo of a way, a signpost, in this text. It isn’t so much what the text says, but what it doesn’t say. I’m interested in the subtext, the context.
I’d like to suggest that the world of Matthew and the Pharisees is more like a sibling rivalry than a fight between the forces of darkness and light. Maybe with that metaphor, we can relax a little about the words that Matthew uses, and instead see them in a bigger emotional context. We can relax because we can identify with what it’s like to be in a struggle with someone that we deeply love. That kind of struggle is complicated. It resists easy answers. It resists cheap moralizing, because it’s a struggle that demands honesty and an honoring of both sides in the struggle.
The first half of the text is basically Jesus saying everything that the Pharisees do wrong. The second half is Jesus talking to his followers about how they should behave differently. The translation ‘you are all students’ in verse 8 is literally in the Greek, ‘you are all brothers’. Don’t worry so much, Jesus seems to be saying, about who is going to be first, who is going to be the favorite, who is going to be the blessed one. There is only one blessed one, and that is Jesus himself, the “greatest among you” who “will be your servant.”
It’s almost as if Jesus is aware of the sibling rivalry, and that he wants to diffuse it. I wonder if maybe Matthew has one intention, and Jesus has another. Here’s what I mean by that.
The first time Matthew mentions the Pharisees in connection with Jesus is immediately after Jesus first calls Matthew to be his disciple. Matthew says that the Pharisees ask Jesus disciples why he is eating with “tax collectors and sinners”.
To my ear, that is a strange phrase. Tax collectors and sinners. It immediately makes me suspicious, because Matthew was a tax collector.
Matthew, known as Levi in Mark’s gospel, was probably not the author of this gospel, but I would like to think it bears some of his personality. I have no idea what kind of man Matthew was, but here’s a little thought experiment, a little armchair psychology, based solely on his profession of tax collector. This was the person responsible for carrying out the economic will of the empire. The tax collector represented the economic disparity between the empire and those people whom it ruled; he represented the ‘haves’ to the ‘have nots’. Matthew worked for the Man, which put him in social limbo. Though he worked for the empire, the empire didn’t really want him. He was a necessary, disposable local convenience. Any other local, with some arithmetic skills and without the strength to resist the will of the empire, would do just as well.
And the Jews, the Pharisees especially, hated him. The Pharisees were about piety and sanctity and purity, and Matthew was a sell-out, a co-conspirator, weakling, unable to resist the lure of a little power and a little coin. So Matthew was really a nobody, not wanted anywhere, a misfit, an outsider. Just the kind of person Jesus seemed to gravitate towards.
I imagine that this gospel was written by a man who deeply loved Jesus, and who was at the same time, deeply ashamed of who he was and what he had done. One of the most common ways that people react when they feel ashamed, is to become angry, combative, belligerent, as if to protect the person inside who feels so exposed and embarrased. I hear that shame in Matthew: polemical, harsh, angry, so critical towards the Jews — his own people who have rejected him, and rejected the person who has taken Matthew under his wing. And because Matthew is ashamed of all that he is and had done, as a pawn of the empire, and because he found in Jesus someone who was not ashamed to call him by name and make him his friend and disciple, Matthew wants to defend Jesus, like a brother defends his brother on the playground. But like Peter trying to stop Jesus from going to his death, I wonder if Jesus really wants a defender.
When I read this gospel, I imagine Matthew puffing out his chest and throwing his weight around, lashing out at the people who he feels are his enemies, the people who hurt him.
All the gospels attest that Jesus was angry at the Pharisees. But Matthew leaves out the grief. He doesn’t hold it in tension with the anger, and I strongly suspect that it was because Matthew himself was so pissed off at the Pharisees.
I wonder if the scene here isn’t more like Matthew and the Pharisees as the siblings, and Jesus as the parent. That’s what I mean about Jesus having an agenda that is different than Matthew’s. Matthew seems to want to just crush the Pharisees beneath his heel; Jesus wants to heal the rift between all people.
Maybe, if I’m more like Matthew and the Pharisees, this is the good news that I need to hear. It’s this: Jesus has intentions that are not mine. Jesus wants things that I do not want. And if like Matthew I feel ashamed of who I am, and want to cover myself with the fig leaf of intellect or clever words, Jesus sees right through that and sees me as I am. And Jesus is not ashamed to call me his brother.
I don’t know exactly what good news to bring to you, other than myself. What I am is full of anger and grief and shame. I know that’s dark, and you’d probably rather not hear it. I would rather not hear it either. But if the gospel is anything, it is the good word that no matter how much we resist hearing it, it will not be overcome. No matter how much darkness we find in ourselves, no matter how much fear, God is not afraid to go in and find us, and to bring us out into the light.
It’s a dark time in the world. I’ve spent the last week especially, feeling sad and angry. I’ve been angry and sad with the world, and angry and sad with God. I think that must be the way it is sometimes with those that we love the most. But like the moment of clarity with my brother last spring, when we laid down our arms and spoke the truth to each other, I have hope that my anger and grief is not forever, that it is not the last word on the subject, that ultimately the last word is God’s, and that it is a good word, a word that welcomes us home, welcomes us to the table, where we eat with our sisters and brothers.