Year A Proper 26 Matthew 23 2011
Authenticity vs. Showmanship
Maybe both the best and the worst of us in humanity are far better preachers than we are doers and deliverers of what we preach and teach. And maybe maturity has everything to do with our genuine willingness to bring a greater congruity between our esteemed words and those actions compatible with, not contradictory of, those words. Jesus, fully divine and fully human, loved and valued not just the right deeds, but also the right motives and attitudes. We, being fully human and ever spiritually in need of completion, will often settle for the right deeds and tolerate or overlook the improper attitudes and motives behind them. We do so, in part, because we ourselves are a contradiction in motion, either desiring to do right while we do wrong or overriding contrary emotions and attitudes and doing right anyway.
When one does what's right, but one's heart and mind are not fully in it, one is mastering showmanship. When one has matured enough to choose actions that are first of all very rooted in certain valued attitudes and motives, one is practicing and demonstrating authenticity. To think one thing and to do another might at times carry its own validity, if the doing proves preferable to what the thinking might have otherwise called into action. But to do something good because your mind and heart are greatly convinced and committed to it is not merely a sign of congruency. It's also an authentic witness of a fully persuaded person, with all parts of himself/herself headed in the right direction.
In the Matthew text we are studying, Jesus counsels all followers indeed to do/to follow the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees (v. 3). That's an affirmative response, as far as it goes. But he also calls them, and all other religious types similarly minded in the centuries since, to be more than persons who preach and teach a good line but lack active follow-through (v. 3). In verses 1 and 2, notice first the informal gathering of the crowds and disciples around Jesus. If you and I could imagine ourselves in the midst of such a gathering, I suspect we would consider Jesus being the only one in an esteemed position of authority. The rest of us, regardless of our life-stations before and after the gathering, are merely attentive spectators. Is it not our desire, may we safely say, to move Jesus out of his esteemed seat as teacher/rabbi/Lord? This is not so with the scribes and Pharisees. Verse 2 notes that they "sit on Moses' seat," that is, wherever they might travel, sit, or stand, they have an authoritative air about them that often also carries a kind of arrogance that wants to demote the stature of others nearby. Their humility before God is darkened by their pride and arrogance before others.
The scribes and Pharisees are an interesting kind of person. They are the religious legalists of the day, knowing religious Law down to its every detail. They've trained their minds to carry a vast knowledge of the Law, and their hearts and wills reveal a very deep dedication or burning devotion to God. Could we call this mixture of personhood legalistic lovers of God?
What is it that incurs Jesus' anger, recognized in and between the lines of verses 3b-7? I think it has to do with his wise unwillingness to allow showmanship to pass for authenticity and congruency...
For the last few weeks we've all been subjected to reruns of every scary movie ever made: zombies, vampires, guys in hockey masks, spooks with really long fingernails. Monsters in all shapes and forms are the flavor of the month of October.
It's hardly surprising that, as usual, popular culture has gotten the point of "All Hallows Eve" all wrong and totally forgets that the ultimate point is to celebrate "All Saints Day." The monsters get center stage and adulation. The saints are left to clean up the popcorn and sticky soda on the theater floor.
But the Church has gotten this All Hallows/All Saints holiday all wrong too. We've been convinced that "monsters" are easily identifiable. We think "monsters" are weird, warped, obviously wicked, bent on murder, mayhem and mischief. Alas, outside Hollywood "monsters" are not so easily identifiable.
A classic "monster" is a creature that takes the best of its qualities and uses them in a horribly wrong way. The amazing ability of bats to negotiate the darkness of night by using sonic signals to hunt swiftly and silently, is made murderous by, "the vampire." The agility and intelligence, strength and speed of the wolf are transformed into the terror of the hybrid hunter, "the werewolf."
What the movies miss is that the worst kinds of "monsters" don't take away life in an instant. They suck away our souls over time.
In today's gospel text Jesus was preaching against "monsters," individuals who took those qualities that should have brought out the best in them, and yet instead they warped those gifts into a misshapen, misinformed message. And Jesus offers them monster rehab...