Matthew has brought us to the last week of Jesus’ life. The tension between the Jewish religious leaders and Jesus is escalating, and this chapter does nothing to help that.
As I have said before, I am thoroughly and unapologetically religious. Institutional and traditional Christianity is in my DNA. I don’t think religion is God’s Kingdom; it is not where one finds the life and divinity we are all after. Yet, I still value religion as a vehicle that often times transfers me into the Kingdom of life and divinity. I like the way Eugene Peterson balanced religion (or “church”) and Kingdom in this quote from Christianity Today a few years back:
What other church is there besides institutional? There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church because there is sin the church. But there is no other place to be a Christian except the church. . . . I really don’t understand this naive criticism of the institution. I really don’t get it. Frederick Von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree. There’s no life in the bark. It’s dead wood. But it protects the life of the tree within. And the tree grows and grows and grows. If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death. So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive. And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long. It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy and narcissism.
When I read a chapter like Matthew 23 I use it to inspect my own religious heart and determine whether Jesus could say some of the same things about me that he once said to the Pharisees. The following are the phrases in today’s reading that I think all of us who are religious need to dwell on today to assess how true they could be in our lives as well:
You must do whatever they tell you, and keep it. (23:3a)
They talk but they don’t do. (23:3b)
They tie up heavy bundles which are difficult to carry, and they dump them on people’s shoulders. (23:4)
Everything they do is for show, to be seen by people. (23:5)
You tithe . . . and you omit the serious matters . . . like justice, mercy, and loyalty. (23:23)
You scrub the outside of the cup and the dish, but the inside is full of extortion and moral flabbiness. (23:25)
On the inside you appear to be virtuous and law-abiding, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (23:28)
Inserted into his invectives, Jesus offers two recalibrations for those of us who may feel like we are more aligned with the Pharisees than with Jesus:
The greatest among you should be your servant. People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great. (23:11)
First make the inside of the cup clean, and then the outside will be clean as well. (23:26)
The hypocrisy, legalism, and self-important arrogance of religiosity can be kept in check by a well-maintained interior life that values humility not pride, service not power.