by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca)
Pharisees were good people who wanted to live by rules of the Bible, which for them was the law of Moses (the torah). Most of them had memorized it. And their rabbis had set it out in 613 rules which they thought must be obeyed to please God. You can imagine that was very burdensome for ordinary people. What Jesus offered was a wonderful way of freedom by the Holy Spirit. Rather than trying to obey rules, we can let the Holy Spirit create in our hearts both love for God and love for neighbors.
So in our reading Jesus sets out some ways in which their serious-minded discipline had gone very badly wrong (read Matthew 23:1-12). Let's pick three directions which could become dangers for us.
MAKING RELIGION A BURDEN - "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others" (Matthew 23:4). Jesus said "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:30). The yoke is the discipline which a disciple takes on when learning with a rabbi. And as we learn from Jesus we must beware of Sunday becoming a long round of interminable services. Quiet time, Bible study, go to church, teach Sunday school, attend committees, practice for a music group, and this praise service becoming too long and complicated.
We need time for our friends and families, recreation to prepare us for the hard work of the next week. That means instead of being bound by too many things we feel we have to do, we can plan our day by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to do what we can enjoy doing.
TRYING TO IMPRESS OTHERS - "They do all their deeds to be seen by others" (Matthew 23:5). There is the terrible tyranny of feeling we have to meet the standards that others lay upon us. Some of what others want us to be and do is good for their special task in the work of the Kingdom. But imagine an Olympics figure skater trying to develop the skills of a hockey player, or even trying to use the same routine as another competitor. We need the Holy Spirit to show us what we can be and do creatively to please our Lord. And when we do that we will be freed to be ourselves.
Jesus is not doing away with discipline. There are some rules for every kind of skill we want to pursue. In the world we are free to engage in mountain climbing, figure skating, piano playing, or any other discipline we choose. But we are not bound by the disciplines that others have chosen. Similarly there are many kinds of activity that Christians are free to engage in by the Spirit, but it does not help if we are constantly looking over our shoulder to please others. Please don't try to impress me.
DEMANDING RECOGNITION - Pharisee religion is always looking for outward signs of proper faith. They had rules about the proper clothing. "They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long" (Matthew 23:5). And when they thought they were conforming and doing rather well they wanted people to respect them. "They love to have places of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues " (Matthew 23:6).
Among Anglicans some wear a cross around their neck, carry a Bible or prayer book, kneel, pray sitting, or stand, and use their hands in certain ways. There is nothing wrong with any outward sign that we find comfortable. But beware of those who make any of these signs a proof of their piety, and expect others to do the same. The one outward expression that Jesus seems to delight in is that "the greatest among you will be your servant" (Matthew 23:11). But that does not give a place at the high table or up front in the sanctuary.
We have tremendous freedom to grow and be creative by the Spirit, but
as soon as religion becomes a burden, we find ourselves wanting to impress
others, or recognition becomes important to others, we are moving off the
narrow way that Jesus has in mind.