sanctuary

Today’s Word: Matthew 23:13-26

Whoa. Woe. Today’s scripture is full of holy anger–Jesus continues his words to the religious leaders and he has something to say. He’s calling them out for their love for material things rather than the things of God. He’s pointing out the hypocrisy of tithing while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy. Jesus sees that they clean themselves up so that their outward appearance is respectable, while inside they are filled with greed and self-indulgence.

I’ve read the passage linked above over and over as I started to write today’s post. I mean, I’m nothing like these Scribes and Pharisees, am I?

Well.

Do you see the bird? He’s a Carolina chickadee, I think, perched in the bush watching me work at my desk. It’s not the best photo, and my office window is dirty, but this is one of the birds that lives in the bush near my bird feeder. The bush provides a bountiful sanctuary for him, his mate, and a pair of cardinals who fly up the feeder a few times a day.

Not too long ago, I saw a black cat with a fluffy white chest creeping along under my window. “Where did he come from?” I wondered. I worried about “my” birds, hoping that the bush was adequate cover for them–or that they could see the cat too, knew what he was up to, and had taken to the air. I reached out and tapped on my window–“Scat! Get out of here!” Don’t get me wrong, I like cats. But not cats that prey on birds.

I think about Jesus realizing that people he loves, people he came to save, are being deceived, treated unjustly, and that they are in danger. Or that people he loves, people he came to save, are the ones doing the deceiving, acting unjustly, and endangering others.

And then Whoa. Woe.

Advent isn’t the penitential season that Lent is, but there’s space to hear the words of Jesus and consider our own ability to “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and [neglect] the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (v. 23)

The word of the day post is over. But Jesus is still speaking (always). In this case, I didn’t include the finale of his words to his listeners. It’s not part of the daily lectionary for today, but tomorrow, we’ll move on to Psalm 102 and will miss these words (unless you read all of the daily lectionary selections).

I tell my congregation that I don’t think the Pharisees were evil people. They are often portrayed as the villains in the gospels, but I think inasmuch as we can see ourselves in them we have to meet them as fellow humans, flawed and believing they were doing the right thing most of the time. (And I think it’s more complicated that that, and it usually always is–people are complicated and we have to work hard not to reduce them to their worst versions.)

Two verses in the remainder of this exchange strike me today.

29“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’

I think I can relate to the Pharisees here. Believing that they would have stood against a grievous injustice (the killing of the prophets) but actively not standing agains the grievous injustices of their own day (as they sat comfortably in their own power and rights while their people were without power and rights).

If I were alive “back then,” I would have never supported slavery or the holocaust or the denial of civil rights! I would have done something about that! I would have spoken up!

But today, there are adults and children being mistreated, oppressed, and exploited around the world…in my country…in my state and city…and I am, for the most part, pretty silent about that. There is still slavery. There is still genocide. There are still civil rights denied. The poor are still living in systems of oppression. Many are denied mercy by their fellow humans.

And I’m pretty comfortable because I have enough power and rights that it doesn’t affect me so much.

The chapter full of Jesus’ words ends this way:

37“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38See, your house is left to you, desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Pray for me and for each other as we seek to be gathered by Jesus, even when it means we have to recognize our own unwillingness to yield to him.