Fourth Weekend in Advent 2020
Today, as we draw close to Christmas and look forward to 2021 with hopes for a more healthy new year, I have a follow-up to last week’s post, where I mentioned that the historical Jesus was religiously critical but not anti-religion.
We begin today with a well-known passage from Matthew and then I offer some brief observations, action thought-starters, and clarifications. [Next week, on Christmas Eve, a traditional poetic reflection. Then, as last year, I will be away from Another Voice for two weeks.]
Today’s passage: Matthew 23:1-6
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, saying: “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, carefully attend to what they say and do what they say; but act not according to their deeds. For they say, but they don’t do. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders. They themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by people. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the first seats in the synagogues.”
Observations and ActionThought-Starters:
- The historical Jesus, whose Hebrew name was Yeshua, belonged to the Hebrew faith tradition and had a keen knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. He did not establish a new religion. He did not set up a church. He called people to a new way of life. “I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness.” (John10:10) His early followers were called “followers of the Way.” — Thought-starter: How do we live and promote the Way of Jesus today? How can we really inspire and motivate people?
- The Fourth Gospel even tells us Jesus celebrated Chanukah (Hanukkah). “Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” (John 20:22-23) — Thought-starter: How do you imagine Jesus in the temple or in a synagogue? Did people stare in awe at him? Or did they raise their eyebrows when he walked in with his band of young followers?
- Jesus’ disciples were young men and women, inspired by his example, teaching, and divine wisdom. — Thought-starter: Where do young men and women today get their Christian inspiration? What do we need to do? Whose wisdom do they admire today? How can we speak meaningfully to them about Jesus?
- As the post-Resurrection community of Jesus’ disciples and followers began to grow, non-Hebrew members also joined. — Thought-starter: How do we welcome God-seekers today, especially those turned-off by organized religion?
- Post-Resurrection Christian structural developments led to two things: the composition of the Gospels AND the formation of Christian faith communities with their own Christian rituals, symbols, and leadership, independent from Hebrew communities.
- There was also a growing concern about passing on the heritage of Jesus the Christ to future generations. This called for religious structuring. — Thought-starter: What kinds of institutional structuring and re-structuring do we need today, especially in view of institutional misogyny, clericalism, and doctrinal rigidity?
- In the earliest Christian communities men and women held leadership roles and presided at celebrations of Eucharist. At first there was no ordination. No separate clergy. Later ordination was introduced, not to transfer some kind of sacramental power but for quality control. Only qualified men and women could lead Christian communities. — Thought-starter: How do we provide quality-controlled Christian leadership today? Have annual performance appraisals for clergy and bishops? Have parishes elect their pastors?
- In his comments about the “the experts in the law and the Pharisees” in the Matthew text, Jesus was simply stressing that even well-known religious authorities can succumb to distorted religion. We see that today of course. A young Catholic ordained minister told me last week that President Trump was sent by God and that President-elect Biden is an evil pro-abortionist and a phony Catholic.
- The “experts in the law” were part of the Temple hierarchy. The word “scribe” can be misleading because people today think it probably means a “secretary” who takes notes. “Experts in the law” had knowledge of Hebrew tradition and law and could draft legal documents like marriage contracts, documents for mortgages, for the sale of land, etc. Each village had at least one “expert in the law.”
- Pharisees were not part of the Temple hierarchy. They were a school of thought and a social movement. They believed in resurrection and in observing religious traditions ascribed to “the traditions of the ancestors.” They were not per se bad people! Some scholars think Jesus was a Pharisee and that his debates with them were simply par for the course. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Pharisee beliefs became the foundational and ritualistic basis for Rabbinic Judaism.
- Is is unfortunate that historical ignorance and antisemitism have denigrated the Pharisees and given us the pejorative word “pharisaical” meaning “overly self-righteous” and “hypocritical.”
Religion and Faith:
- Faith or “trust” is our personal and group experience of what we call the Sacred or the Divine: God. In Christian faith that experience is anchored in living in the Spirit of Christ.
- Religion is not faith. Religion is a system of beliefs, rituals, and symbols designed to help people understand their faith experience. We use religion. We don’t worship it.
- Unhealthy religion grows out of and supports clouded vision and hateful hearts.
- Religion is healthy when it points to the Sacred. It is unhealthy when it only points to itself: to rituals, symbols, and religious leaders. Particularly unhealthy when it manipulates and uses people for the leaders’ self-serving goals. When this happens, one needs a reformation.
- In Jesus’ days, as in our own days, some people have used religion-mixed-with-politics to achieve self-serving and ungodly goals. This combination was deadly for Jesus. It threatens our lives today as well.
Unified in Christian hope, we proceed peacefully toward Christmas…..
“By the tender mercy of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
PS: In response to a couple questions raised by Another Voice readers: My aim in Another Voice has been to not just pass on information but to offer a different perspective. My inspiration came from T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, the fourth and final poem of Eliot’s Four Quartets, a series of poems that discuss time, perspective, humanity, and salvation.
Little Gidding appeals to me as an historical theologian because it focuses on the unity of past, present, and future, and claims that understanding this unity is necessary for salvation. The lines I like especially are these: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.”