Doing Good and Doing Well
© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;
therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it;
but do not do as they do,
for they do not practice what they teach.
Tomorrow is Halloween, or, to be historically and liturgically correct: “All Hallow’s Even.” In our culture in general and, sadly, among Protestants in particular, it is seldom remembered any more the night before the celebration of All Saints Day, November 1st.
For many years now, Protestants have celebrated the day nearest Halloween as “Reformation Sunday,” rather than focusing on a pasted-over old pagan holiday as a theme for our worship. It still works for me as long as we remember that the key phrase in the Presbyterian part of the Reformation that swept Europe over 400 years ago was “a church reformed and always reforming.” It seemed to the Calvinists and others in what came to be called the Reformed tradition of churches, that a reformation must always be under way in the church, to keep it from degenerating into habit, or empty formalism, doing what we do because we have always done it that way. Of course, uttering a key phrase and keeping it ever before the church are two different things. Like all churches, we have our struggles with the temptation to follow what have been jokingly called the Seven Last Words of the Church: We never did it that way before.
In our scripture passage Jesus spoke of the “Moses seat.” It sounds quaint, antiquated, doesn’t it? Yet if pressed to do it, we could think of several contemporary “seats” that today are more figurative than real: seats of learning, county seats, seats of government. These all come from times when learning or government actually, physically involved a seat, someone in charge occupied an actual, special chair or throne and from there issued laws, decrees, decisions. The Greek word for “seat” is kathedras, a word that moved directly into Latin in the word we associate with “cathedral.” We usually think a cathedral is mainly a really big church, but lots of really big churches are not cathedrals. And the reason is that a cathedral is a church where a bishop occupies the seat, the cathedras of authority. When the pope speaks ex cathedra, it means he is announcing an opinion “from the throne” that carries the full authority of his office. Professors occupy the authority of their own offices by what we still refer to as a “chair” at a university. The disciples knew that Jesus was about to commence teaching them when he sat down.
At the time Matthew’s gospel was being written down, it was the Pharisees who sat upon Moses’ cathedras in the synagogues. It was really a seat, a chair from which they delivered their sermons. It was a seat of authority. But as anyone in a position of authority can tell you, the Moses seat can also be a hot seat. The difference can be seen in this way: Put yourself in a place of privilege and you put yourself on the hot seat. Put yourself in a place of service and you put yourself on the Moses seat.
Whenever a person in a position of authority sees that position as a call to service, an opportunity to be helpful and useful for the sake of others – as in the best traditions of public service – then that person occupies the contemporary equivalent of the Moses seat. It is an authority that serves not self, but others.
On the other hand, whenever a person in a position of authority sees that office as an opportunity to lord it over others, to promote their own opinions rather than seek what is best for all, to see the seat of authority as a seat of privilege, then they place themselves not on the Moses seat, but on the hot seat – they set themselves up as targets for criticism, and rightly so.
Moses was the servant who never got to the promised land, but whose selfless service made it possible for others to get there. Compare that with the service of those who work as hard as they can to use a position of authority to make certain they reach the promised land ahead of everyone else.
In the Bible, true greatness generally seems to come from a place where it is least expected, from the lowly, the poor, the meek, the youngest child of Jesse rather than his oldest, from the baby in the manger rather than Herod sitting on his cathedras.
I recall once, several years ago, when a newspaper quoted an official in the US State Department who said that poor people in third world countries cannot be helped much by means of financial aid or loans, because he believed that poor people are often poor due to a native inability to do any better. This sounded ominously like things that used to be said about minority groups and women in our country not that many years ago. A biblical concept of humility flies in the face of self-importance and jingoistic attitudes about the economic conditions of others trapped in oppressive social norms.
I have a friend who once occupied a chair on the faculty of a large state university. Some of his work in agriculture was internationally known. With all the honors and awards he had received, we can be certain that he was an authority in his field. But he liked to recount the story of the day that he, brand new know-it-all professor from the big university, was called out to a local farmer’s livestock yard to offer some advice on improving the conditions there for the farmer’s pigs. Other farmers stood around the holding pen, eyeing with suspicion the professor with his clipboard and scientific instruments and his air of infallibility. Their suspicions of his imperfection were confirmed when he stepped, with his 11 inch high boots, into a pen that was 12 inches deep in manure. It was a testimony to this man’s humility that he often told this story on himself.
The calling of a professor who holds that chair at that university is one of service to agriculture, and if he forgets that, if he begins to treat his position of authority as a privilege for himself and his own prestige rather than as an opportunity to be of help to others, then he has exchanged the Moses seat for something else altogether, in this case, a manure bath.
If as we read the story from Matthew’s gospel – with its famous “do what they say but not what they do” – if we find in it an occasion to feel rather superior to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, then we have certainly missed the point. The portrait offered here of the Pharisees is a portrait of unbelief, which is a portrait that can be painted any time and any place. We need to remember that this story is not included in a Jewish book, but in the Christian New Testament, to serve not as a brick bat to throw at other people, but as a warning to all those who accept a call to service in the name of Christ. It details an attitude that it is not impossible to find in the Christian church, one that has indeed been found in the church in every age since the time of Paul. Karl Barth called it the “temptation to glorify themselves in their individuality by means of the Gospel rather than to glorify the Gospel in their individuality.”
One portion of this passage about which I ponder is the brief reference to those who “make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” (v. 5) Really to appreciate this, it is helpful to know what a phylactery is, and why fringes were worn at all. But it’s not necessary. Anyone who has ever taken on a job or responsibility which called for a certain kind of dress or special uniform knows exactly the sort of human self-importance Jesus is referring to here. I’ll never forget the special day that I was able to put on a pulpit gown as an ordained pastor, something that is now becoming passé in many churches. Medical professionals take on special status in hospitals with white jackets or surgical scrubs, military personnel take on prestige attached to ranks worn on shoulders and arms. But we must remember how fragile all such outward marks of human importance really are.
A physician I know wanted to point this out to children in a children’s sermon once. He wore a white lab coat to the church chancel, and carried a black doctor’s bag. He asked the children if they knew what he did for a living by the sort of clothing he was wearing. They all shouted out that they could tell he was a doctor, but he said, “No, I’m a milkman!” and opened his doctor’s bag to give them cartons of chocolate milk.
No matter what they were, the Pharisees’ fringes were long and their phylacteries broad for the same reason that our automobiles are shiny and our good deeds are so often paraded around in front of others. We want to let others know how good or impressive we are, and in so doing, spoil the good that we try to do, call attention to ourselves instead of the Gospel, and so claim our faith as a call to self-importance rather than service. When Jesus says that there were folks who loved the place of honor, the best seats, don’t we have to admit that he is talking about us? Who wouldn’t want to be at the head table, why would anyone choose to have a rotten seat, when a good seat guarantees not only a good view, but the added benefit of demonstrating to others how important we are? One Bible scholar helped me keep this view in perspective when he titled his comments on our passage: “Jesus Condemns Jewish and Christian Pharisaism."
A story is told about Dwight Eisenhower’s mother, who was the very essence of selfless Christian humility. It is said that during the second world war, while riding on a train, she found herself next to a very talkative passenger. Having no idea who Mrs. Eisenhower was, her seat mate took advantage of the long ride to talk endlessly about her son to one who was the mother of the Supreme Allied Commander, telling her how proud she was that he had been made a corporal. Finally, the realization came upon her that she had been dominating the conversation, and she said to Mrs. Eisenhower, “Tell me about your son.” Her entire reply was, “My son is in the army too."
Baptism has been called the ordination service that empowers all believers with the authority of the gospel. We are all called to be proclaimers of the Word of God with our words and our lives. Our faith is not a call to privilege so that we may lord it over others, but a call to service so that we may live for others, no matter who they are. I hope that the coming month of November, a month devoted to giving thanks, will provide us all with an opportunity to rededicate our lives to Jesus’ example of selfless service for others.