Sermon by Sue Waldron
In this morning’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the people – the crowds and his disciples about priorities….. about what is most important, and about seeing/discerning the bigger picture. At the beginning of the chapter he says (v2) that Teachers of the Law and Pharisees are the authorized interpreters of the Law, and the people should listen to what they say but they should not imitate their actions because they don’t practice what they preach.
A harsh judgement but this is a familiar theme for us – Jesus has given this sort of warning before, and we are not surprised or shocked. But how do you think the original listeners would have taken it? Remember the culture and context of the times – a patriarchal society – men are seen as having all the power, knowledge or wisdom – used to being respected, obeyed and not questioned or challenged. Jewish men and women would have held this sort of attitude towards the important leaders in the temple – and in fact the men would have stuck together to maintain the status quo. So it must have come as a shock to the Pharisees and other Teachers that the rabbi Jesus was trying to upset the comfortable balance – calling into question their way of living and serving God.
In the end though, it seems that most of them didn’t listen to what he was saying – his words and attitude did not lead to any public realignment of their attitude, and they didn’t change their ways.
There’s some interesting detail in this morning’s passage – Jesus tells them – you give a tenth even of mint, dill and cumin but neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law such as justice, mercy and honesty. Of course obeying the laws on tithing, was something probably all Jews did, to a degree. In the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus it is said that all tithes from the land, whether seeds or fruits – everything that is edible and has nourishment from the soil, belongs to the Lord. This was specially to be given to the Levites who did the material work in the Temple. So tithing the main crops of food was common practice, but the herbs grown in the kitchen gardens for flavouring food or healing, were produced in such small amounts that not many bothered with them – but the Pharisees would take a tenth even of what was produced by one plant – so meticulous were they in the detail of what they did. However as Jesus pointed out, when it came to other matters involving people who may have been mistreated, neglected or cheated by others – people who were suffering – they were not so meticulous in their attention to the help that needed to be given. In fact they could be hard, arrogant, turning a blind eye to the misery around them or even making promises and pledges that they never intended to keep.
It’s easy for us to condemn them, imagining that we have got our priorities sorted out – we are kind to others and try to help the needy … but how often do we get caught up in paying more attention to appearances than what’s really important? We like people to know we have helped this one and that, we pass judgement on someone else’s clothes or makeup – or if someone seems to be a bit grumpy, we turn away rather than looking beyond their demeanour at what might be going on within/inside.
The Pharisees and teachers that Jesus was talking about were so concerned about keeping themselves pure and righteous that they didn’t engage with the ordinary people on any deep level, and they didn’t seem to understand that in fact, the root of all the Law was love and compassion for one another. Because the Law did reveal the nature of God, their creator – but that was love not punitive judgement.
This seems to paint a rather grim picture of what the Temple leaders and teachers were like in Jesus’ time, but it’s not really fair to lump them all in one box. There are examples, even in Scripture of those who were not in it for their own glorification – those who were willing and able to rethink and examine their attitudes and priorities. There was Saul/Paul a Pharisee who worked zealously for his God, but was forced into a complete turnabout when he saw the light – a rude awakening for him, which left him out in the cold for a bit because people didn’t trust him at first – they remembered how violently he had opposed the Jesus movement. There was also Gamaliel whom we read of in Acts – a Pharisee, possibly from the party of Sadducees. He comes into the picture when Peter, John and the other apostles came up against opposition from the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Many of the Jews in Jerusalem were not convinced of Jesus’ resurrection or the other claims the apostles made about him, and they were envious of the growing following that the apostles had drawn in to them. So they warned them not to preach in the city. But Peter and John defied them – they were thrown into jail as a result, but they escaped with the help of an angel …. Things came to a head and the Council at Jerusalem wanted to kill them. But Gamaliel, who was part of the Council, a Pharisee and well-respected expert in the law, spoke up. He pointed out that time would tell whether the teaching regarding Jesus and his resurrection was in fact from God or whether it was simply human error. There had been so-called prophets in the past who had attracted large followings, but after their deaths, the movements had died out. And so Gamaliel was keeping an open mind and advised the council not to act hastily.
And as we know the message of Jesus, the good news about who he was … and is, continues to be preached 2000 years after that, and his followers still grow in number.
This month has become known as Women’s month in SA, and the Sunday sermons have reflected this in the personal sharing and the topics chosen. The experience of women in society - the challenges faced, the hurts endured, the difficult decisions that many had to make, were things that were shared by some of our young women. And we hear that has in fact got many men thinking …. questioning and discussing. The ground has been laid for open and honest communication between women and men in this parish and maybe even beyond! And I think that this was what Jesus was trying to encourage – of course in that society there were no forums of debate for men and women. Women were not consulted or heard, and you’ll remember the opposition that flared up when Mary dared to sit at Jesus’ feet, listening and learning from him. But Jesus deliberately pushed the boundaries and challenged preconceived ideas and judgements. Women were not inferior to men and we can tell this was his attitude by the relationships and friendships he kept.
And so in a sense Yvette Angoma was right when she said that Jesus was a feminist! This term has unfortunately become laden with negative connotations and some people think feminists are bra-burning, bitter, aggressive women who believe men should be treated as second-class citizens. But this is far from the truth. I think being a feminist means being committed to upholding women’s rights to do, think and say whatever is true for them – affirming their worth, ability and value in society. For a feminist theologian this means believing that we can be instrumental in bringing about that new reality where women are active in promoting the justice and healing in society as a whole and for women in particular. And so it means doing something to help women who are on the margins of society, stopping gender violence, educating all our children and teaching our sons and daughters how precious human life is. It means being a positive, encouraging influence, perhaps mentoring some of the younger women and men in this parish.
And so when it comes to prioritizing the things in our lives, our actions, our groups of friends – we should be aware of the choices we make …because those choices say a lot about our underlying values and beliefs. Are we in fact practicing what we preach?