Faith In Real Life Blog: “Learning from the Flawed”
Sharing Christ’s Love Worship Series
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
November 2, 2023
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They 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. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
This is a pretty straight forward passage. It introduces a whole series of ‘Woes’ to the Scribes and Pharisees, condemning them and accusing them of hypocrisy. But as harsh as the words are, Jesus, perhaps unexpectedly, tells his listeners to “do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
1. It is way too easy to demonize and dismiss the Scribes and the Pharisees. But even as Jesus criticizes and chastises the Scribes and the Pharisees, he expects his listeners (including us) to learn from them.
2. We are all flawed. There is hardly a parent (or a preacher) who does not resort to the words– “Do as I say not as I do.” Implied in the statement is the confession that there is frequently a gap between what we say and what we do. Though it is preferable that congruence exists, it is not mandatory in order for us to learn or teach.
3. God has used flawed people throughout all of recorded history. The error is not in the flaws as much as it is in the unawareness of them and the failure to be accountable for them.
4. Paradoxically, the prominent flaw of the Scribes and the Pharisees was their failure to see or acknowledge their flaws. Some people insist they are right and dig in harder when challenged. It happens in politics, in churches and in families. It certainly happened with Jesus, and it was what killed him. The paradox lies in the fact that Jesus said they still have something important to teach us.
5. Jesus could respect even those who rejected him. The Scribes and the Pharisees represented a tradition of accumulated experience and knowledge. In real life, that accumulated knowledge should not be discarded because the teachers or pastors are stubbornly defensive and closed minded—or far, far worse—are literally abusive.
6. In real life, we often throw the baby out with the bath water. In seminary, a renowned professor’s son committed suicide. One of my peers asked why we should listen to him if he couldn’t protect his own family from such trauma. Our supervisor at the time asked him if he had read any of the professor’s books? When told yes, the next question was: ‘Did you learn from them?’ Again, the answer was yes. The supervisor then very pointedly said, “Then learn. His private life is none of your business.” The church does not have to be rejected because it has a documented history of flawed and hurtful people. The charge that the church is full of hypocrites has always been true. We do not practice what we preach. But that doesn’t mean we should ever stop trying or that we should be dismissed out of hand.
7. Jesus had no trouble holding the Scribes and Pharisees (and us) accountable. He consistently pointed out self-righteousness, self-centeredness and self-aggrandizement. But Jesus also said, look for what is valuable in those same people. He chastises in harsh and dramatic language: You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” but he not only warns, he says he will keep coming to show them and us a better way—even when they reject Him— “Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify….”
Next, Jesus begins to point out the huge gap between the law of love that existed in the tradition (long before he was born) and the way many of the religious leaders were actually behaving. They 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.
1. This is a very old way to maintain power. The use of power to maintain power is as old as slavery, gender inequities, literacy tests were used for years to limit minority and immigrant voting. Gerrymandering remains a common tool. In each case, there is little interest in equity, only retaining a position power.
2. The ritual purity laws and the requirements of ritual sacrifices made it impossible for the poor to be part of the first century religious community. There are however a large number of self-edifying rationalizations and religious interpretations that conveniently support the status quo in our own lives— not to mention the blind spots all of us have when it comes to seeing our own participation in such behaviors. Most of us are more than willing to get a ‘good deal’ on coffee or clothes without regard to fair trade or fair compensation. We are largely unaware of the true costs to communities that mine lithium for our batteries nor the human costs of their disposal. It is always easier to see specks in another person’s eye and miss the log in our own.
3. We are easily beguiled and blind when faced with the conflict between spiritual and secular values. When we see such discrepancies in others, particularly our leaders, it is all too easy to be judgmental.
They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi.
1. Again, most of us enjoy and need to be recognized. But we must always be careful that the ordinary desire for such attention does not become the way we value ourselves and others.
2. The problem is not so much that the Scribes and Pharisees were sinful and hurtful. Every one of us fits that category. It was their (and our) failure to see and be accountable that was the problem. It is only in seeing and being accountable that we can make the course corrections required to follow Jesus’ law of love. It is only then that we can begin to accept that our worth and value come from a God who knows and loves us. We need to be held accountable and we need to hold others accountable, but we must do so from a position of grateful humility.
The current conflict in Gaza has become a case in point for me to illustrate how easy it is to get caught up in secular values and lose sight of our spiritual values (which was the basic error of the Scribes and Pharisees). When the first attack by Hamas occurred, I was deeply pained and frankly retaliatory. But when Israel did retaliate, I was appalled at the ‘cost of war’ to innocents. I am also appalled at the rise of discord and violence emerging as individuals take sides to justify whatever side they favor.
Our world is worse when we resort to Islamophobia or Anti Semitism or, less extreme, when we appeal to historical narratives to justify current behavior. Those kinds of justifications belie the fact that the history of nations has almost always included displacing others. Indigenous peoples have been subjected, exiled, and killed by others since the beginning of human history. We routinely use violence to improve our self-interest. In real life, such people are lost to history both because victors write the history and after a few generations the new world order becomes the status quo.
This is the way of the world, but it is a way of the world from which Jesus seeks to save us. Paul writes (2 Corinthians 5:19) that “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” This is a very tall order. Reconciliation requires looking for a third way. Reconciliation requires we put down our weapons. Reconciliation requires we not hold on to the sins of others. No matter how ‘understandable’ retaliation is, such retaliation is not ok. If you try to live by that principle, you will almost certainly be hurt. And we will definitely feel helpless. In real life we will fail but we should have the humility to realize that our way simply does not work. Violence begets violence. The defense that “he started it” is as old as children’s quarrels.
I certainly do not know what to do in the face of such terrible conflicts, but I do know that though I want to take sides and I want to ‘prove’ my point, I must realize I have lost sight of God’s call. And I do so often. It happens on the national stage, the political stage, in families and between friends.
But woe to us when we fail to realize the futility of such conflict. We may not be able to imagine a world that seeks reconciliation and connection over self-protection and self-interest but we are called to live by those values. We may be hopelessly naive to believe that Christianity can belong in the real world, but I believe that is exactly what God calls us to do. Start in your personal life. Listen better. Find what is of value in the other. Remember your own struggles. Learn humility, be accountable. Direct your life to reconciliation.
“The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
May we seek to follow him even when he is but a dot on the horizon.