October 30, 2011 -- 20th Sunday after Pentecost - Anne-Marie Jeffery

posted Nov 13, 2011, 3:38 PM by ajeffery@stmargaretsdc.org   [ updated Nov 13, 2011, 3:42 PM by Terry Brady ]

Being attentive to your authority

Matthew 23:1-12

How many of you have had the following words said to you,” Because I said so.”  I’m not going to ask how many of you have said these words. I have talked to many parents who promised themselves that they would never say them only to hear those very words coming out of their mouths.  It is the place we go when it has been a long day and our children have been asking why endlessly.  For many of us, getting to ‘Because I said so’ happens in the most stressful of times.  

In our passage today, Jesus is in the most stressful of times and I wonder if one more question was asked of him, he might not respond –because I said so.  Today’s passage comes after a series of attacks by the Pharisees who have asked question after question in an attempt to entrap him.  For weeks now we have listened to Jesus challenged by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priests, the Herodians, and the elders.   Jesus has replied to their sticky questions with questions and parables.  They have asked about John the Baptist, authority, paying taxes to the Roman Empire, and the greatest commandment in the law.  Each time the Pharisees and chief priests listen to Jesus’ responses, are threatened and plot again how to get rid of this Jesus man who is calling them out to be more faithful.  

To top it all, all these readings we have heard have taken place in one day while Jesus was in the temple the week before Jesus’ crucifixion.  So if Jesus is sounding a stressed and angry, he has reason to be.  The religious leaders who have been questioning him endlessly do not seem to have heard or understood anything of what he has been teaching and now Jesus launches into a tirade against the Pharisees.

One must note that when the gospel of Matthew was written, the Christians were in competition with the Pharisees - the only surviving Jewish group after the destruction temple in 70 CE so what is a brief scene in the Gospel of Mark becomes a lengthy discourse as the writer of Matthew tries to shore up a struggling community of Christians.  While Jesus tells the people to follow the teachings of the Pharisees, he says not to do what they do - criticizing not their teaching but their doing of that teaching.   The Pharisees are the interpreters of the law and have placed special demands on the people. These demands are “not burdens that flow from the text of the law, but burdens that arise from their own specialized interpretation of the law.”   Jesus also criticizes how the Pharisees enjoy the attention of being seen as the holy people who make their phylacteries – boxes worn on the head with a piece of scripture inside -  very large with long fringes so they could be noticed.  For the Pharisees, their position is more about being seen and using their authority in interpreting the law to control the lives of the people.   

Now it is easy at this point to start thinking of all the people we know who fit into this description.   I know as a clergy person that I have been less than kind when describing colleagues who seem to find it necessary to wear their clergy collar to every possible function even a casual event.   I am even more critical of ministers who use their position to tell people what to do.  I have heard stories of pastors who tell their parishioners who God wants them to vote for However, before we go too far down that road, it is probably best to listen to Jesus’ criticism to the Pharisees looking at ourselves and our lives rather than others.   

What Jesus is describing is a very human tendency to misuse whatever power and authority we might have or let the trappings and benefits of our position become the most important thing for us. How many of us as older siblings when left in charge of our sisters and brothers found ways to torture them rather than providing the usual care that one would expect of a baby sitter?  How often do we let whether we got invited to that important White House party or asked to speak a at a work function bother us for days on end? The power and trappings that come with authority are not bad, but the temptation to misuse them or let them become too important in our lives has a way of sneaking in to our lives especially when we are under stress.  It is like getting the point of telling our children ‘because I said so’ because it has been too long a day and they have been particularly difficult.  We all get there at times.   We are human.  The challenge is to be attentive to that tendency.  

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the people who continually demonstrates to me how one can be attentive in living into a position of authority and power. The first time I met him he was coming to speak at the graduation at my seminary.  I was not graduating and was an usher of sorts who stood in the entry way upstairs to guide people down to the auditorium.  Archbishop Tutu and his entourage came in.  They were running late and the people around him were very anxious to move him quickly to where he needed to be, but he stopped and greeted everyone in the entry way - the janitor, the ushers and anyone else standing around including me.   To him, we were important too - not just the graduates and other dignitaries waiting for him.  I remember that event and several others have described him as doing the same thing in similar situations. 

Many of us of carry some sort of authority in our lives where we can tell people what to do or advise people.  With that authority comes the very human tendency to abuse that privilege -whether it is at home or at work.   As people of faith, whether ordained or lay, we have a certain authority, not strong in this day and age, but I do find that when people are in pain or trouble, they will turn to the person of faith and ask for prayer or advice and in that moment we have power in our response.  We can say you’d better start going to church every Sunday or we can pray with them and tell them God loves them.  

As members of this church called St. Margaret’s, we carry authority.   We know where the bathrooms are and what’s available at coffee hour.  We know the flow of the service, our customs in going up for communion and which book to look in when there is a wrong hymn in the bulletin.   We have experience with being Episcopalian and living in the St Margaret’s community.  When a new person comes through the door, in our attentiveness, we can help him or her navigate a world which is familiar to us.    Our authority and power comes with the ability to do good.  Jesus was telling those around him that they would have authority and was teaching them how to use it or rather how not to use it.   

The question Jesus challenges the people with is the same one God asks of us this day: What will you do with the teachings and the authority you have been given?   Think about this question.  How do you use the authority God has given to you by the power of the Holy Spirit?   How will you be attentive to that authority?  As it says at the end of our second reading from First Thessalonians, which to me sounds like a prayer, “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.”    God’s word is at work in us.  Let us use what have been given for the glory of God.