We’re on Day 3 of this Holy Week Series, starting with Palm Sunday and yesterday’s reminder that Jesus’ first act after coming into Jerusalem on a donkey was to turn tables over in the temple. I’m not trying to blog through every scripture or only follow the but rather honor some of the different days of this critical week in the Christian faith, drawing on some old blogs from years past and writing some new.
In the gospel of Matthew, after Jesus does his temple sweeping, he goes on to share several different stories in the verses that follow, one that is focused on faith that can move mountains and two stories about our propensity toward religiosity.
It made me think of a post I wrote many years ago called the great distraction. I definitely believe in the value, challenge, and beauty of the scriptures, but I think we waste valuable time focused on picking apart passages and talking about the Bible that could be better spent on actually living and practicing the Bible. That part is far more vulnerable.
Jesus–God incarnate and a Jew–obviously had a high value of the scriptures. He referenced them often in the gospels. Yet, so often when he did he used it to make a point to the Pharisees and those clinging to religiosity–the law is easier than love.
One of his most pointed and angry discourses is a few chapters later in matthew 23, the “Woes to the Pharisees.”
It’s brutal, and this is what he says:
“They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (v. 4).
“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues” (v. 5-6).
“Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (vs. 8, 11-12).
“Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either” (v. 13).
“For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith…You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!” (vs. 23, 24).
“First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness” (vs. 26, 28).
Yikes, those are some strong words! Words I think we all should consider listening to–no matter how right or left we are–because none of us are exempt from the tendency to control people or limit God or think we have it all figured out.
The focus on “law” is a great distraction that prevents us from opening the door to the Kingdom of God and while we’re talking about theology, the world is crying out for hope.
Ultimately it distracts us from the bigger work at hand–bringing resurrection and hope to dark places in this world.
We make a lot more room for the Kingdom of God when we suspend our need to defend correct doctrine and being “right,” whatever that right is.
We honor the Word of God by offering presence and cups of cold water and taking our hands off the need to control or convince–trusting the Holy Spirit and and that some kind of transformation, no matter how big or small, usually happens.
Jesus was really focused on turning our tendency toward being distracted by rules, regulations, and doctrine upside down.
Over and over he said his ways would require more of us than following the letter of the law. Loving our enemies, setting down our stones, touching lepers, advocating for those whose voices were silenced, giving up our power, ego, and need to be right, receiving and giving grace is heavy lifting that gives us plenty to focus on.
It’s easy to point my finger at the religious right, but I’m convicted on my reflex to become a religious left Pharisee, too, which is just as easy to do. Pointing out specks while blinded by my log and closing the door to the Kingdom of Heaven in more subtle ways is its own form of violence.
It reminds me of what Parker Palmer says, “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering.”
So much of this “great distraction” is our violent, human attempt at self-protection. It’s easier to focus on rules and laws and ways-we-think-it-should-be than wrestle with the glorious mess in our hearts. As I think about the gospel stories this week, I’m reminded that the kind of raw vulnerability Jesus calls us to is often terrifying and we’re always looking for an easier way.
God, this Holy Week and far beyond, may you keep disarming us.