Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees…
In my neck of the woods, people have recently finished celebrating the biggest holiday of the year, Ramadan. The entire area is transformed by the observance of this holiday. Market hours change, work times shift, and at the end, people are all dressed up for big parties and feasts. Think of it like Christmas in the States, except with rice and sauce instead of a turkey and dressing.
For Islam, Ramadan is the holiest month. It is said Muhammad received the first words of the Qur’an during this month and it is a time of spiritual reflection. The entire month, Muslims spend their daylight hours in fast, breaking it each evening as night falls. This action is supposed to be spiritually purifying as the act of self-denial releases one from the material and allows them to focus on Allah. The aim appears to be renewed piety and zeal for the faith.
In reality, my observations of the event have left me a little jaded. During the day, people mope around with long faces, spitting periodically so that anyone in eyesight knows they are not even swallowing their saliva. Furthermore, the attitude towards those who do not participate is obviously condescending. While it is possible to see the truly devout using this time for reflection, it appears many are more concerned with making a spectacle out of their piety. Needless to say, this has had me thinking.
In one of his discourses, Jesus addresses his disciples about this exact issue. Jesus begins with the following words:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12)
Jesus uses the actions of the Pharisees as a classic example of what not to do. He points out the sharp contrast between their actions and the true condition of their heart, and in the verses following this passage, he gives very specific examples of their hypocrisy. Read the chapter; his words are pretty heavy.
But be careful how you view this passage. It would be easy to hear these words of indictment and direct them towards anyone but yourself. Indeed, it was that initial reaction that reminded me of this passage during Ramadan. The natural tendency is to point the finger and pick out the sins of our neighbors. Yet, Jesus is really doing something different here. He is not shaming the actions of some foreign religion, but providing a warning for his own people. He is pointing the finger inward.
“Practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do,” is the admonition Jesus leaves his disciples and the crowds of listeners. Remember, all of the people in the crowd were Jews, and Jesus is talking about the religious leadership of the day. He is discussing flaws in their own religion not the religion of others, a lesson we could learn from today.
In the midst of this special month, my temptation has been to criticize the actions of those around me. Instead, this passage has reminded me to check my own hypocrisy at the door. How often do I tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders? How often do I do my deeds to be seen by others? How often am I looking for a pat on the back, instead of humbling myself to be the servant?
Jesus tells his followers to get their house in order. He tells them to clean the inside of their cup first, so that the outside may be clean also. (Matthew 23:25-26) Why do we spin our wheels and waste our time pointing out how wrong everyone else is, when the commands of scripture are directed towards those who abide by its words? We must expect those who are not believers to act like unbelievers. Why be shocked by their actions? Why spend effort criticizing the way they live, when the Bible is quite clear that it is normal for lost people to act like lost people. (Romans 1)
Instead, let us critique our own actions. Let us make sure we are living authentic lives. Let us make sure the inside of our cups are clean. Then, instead of fussing about how wrong their religion is, we might actually be able to share ours.
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