This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Then Jesus speaking to the crowds and to his disciples, said: 2 “The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees now occupy the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore practice and lay to heart everything that they tell preach but do not practice. 4 While they make up heavy loads and pile them on other people’s shoulder’s they decline, themselves, to lift a finger to move them. 5 All their actions are done to attract attention. They widen their phylacteries, and increase the size of their tassels, 6 and like to have the place of honor at dinner, and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted in the markets with respect, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ for everybody. 8 But do not allow yourselves to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and you yourselves are all brothers and sisters. 9 And do not call anyone on the earth your ‘Father,’ for your have only one Father, the heavenly Father. 10 Nor must you allow yourselves to be called ‘leaders,’ for you have only one leader, the Messiah. 11 The person who wants to be the greatest among you must be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and whoever humbles themselves will be exalted.
This critiicism of the Pharisees is pretty swingeing. Were all Pharisees like this? And did Jesus not care if he condemned the sincere with the hypocrits? It’s not a minor issue. If Jesus was careless about how he denounced groups of people, we would have to accuse him of wrongdoing. After all, the various anti-pharisee passages in scripture along with the use of the word “Jews” for those who sought Jesus’ death, contributed over centuries to Christian persecution of Jewish people. So can we see this passage as wholly or partly the invention of “Matthew”?
We know that around the time when this Gospel was written, followers of Jesus Messiah were being expelled from the syngogues as the Jewish diaspora strnethened its organisation after the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Doubtless some of the anger of that separation spills over into the accounts of Jesus’ historical opposition to the Pharisees. Still it’s not good that generations of Christian people have imbibed unjust denunciations of the Pharisee movement in Judaism.
We have nevertheless a devastating picture of the arrogance which can affllict religious leaders in any time and place. The “piling up of heavy loads” on the shoulders of believers and the pleasure taken in petty matters of dress and public honours, are well known here in Scotland in the behaviour of its ministers; just as they remain notorious amongst the Catholic hierarchy in Rome. Indeed I have to sk if Matthew’s Jesus would have been pleased to hear me addressed as “reverend.” A common defence of this sort of thing as to see it as an excusable of maintaining the dignity of clergy. But Jesus’ wrords make it a matter of true doctrine: “call no one on earth your “father” for you have only one Father”. To usurp the titles of God and his Messiah is a kind of blasphemy. Leaders of the Christian church must learn humility, practice service and be suspicious of all elegant distortions of evangelical equality.
26 So, also, the Spirit supports us in our weakness. We do not even know how to pray as we should; but the Spirit himself pleads for us in sighs that can find no utterance. 27 Yet he who searches all our hearts knows what the Spirit’s meaning is, because the pleadings of the Spirit for Christ’s people are in accordance with his will. 28 But we do know that God cooperates for good with those who love him — those who have received the call in accordance with his purpose. 29 For those whom God chose from the first he also destined from the first to be transformed into likeness to his Son, so that his Son might be the eldest among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those whom God destined for this he also called; and those whom he called he also pronounced put right; and those whom he put right he also brought to glory.
The force of this passage is that Paul sets out the transformation of human lives by God’s goodness in Jesus Messiah in the context of God’s plan for the renewal of the creation. The restoration of human goodness is part of the restoration of the good creation. God’s plan has not wavered from the beginning although human sin has challenged it. The pleading of the Spirit is not for forgiveness – which has been freely given- but for the full liberation promised by God. But while human beings await that liberation, they can find themselves as God’s partners in doing good, for all of them have been chosen to be transformed into the likeness of God’s son. There is no implication here that only some have been destined to this glory. Some may appear to refuse the call and decline the honour but who can tell if they will finally hold out against God.
I’ve changed the tranlsation of the Greek word “edikaiosen” (justified) in verse 30. Scholars have argued whether it means, “made righteous” (The traditional Catholic position) or “declared as righteous” (the Protestant position), but I have abandoned “righteous” as unusable in moderm English, and have avoided the modern evangelical translation “put right with God”, as well as the ambiguous “justified” and said simply “put right”. This rightness does not happen all of a sudden or indeed fully in this life, but I trust it shall in the life to come.
There is no need here for daft speculation about predestination. Calvin got his knickers in a twist imagining that if God has chosen some he must also have rejected others. Jesus did not die for “the elect”; he died for all. In him God reveals that he chooses all. The temptation to limit the love of God by human logic is in any case mistaken. The consequences of that mistake were that Calvin imagined he could tell who had been rejected by God; he could tell by the sin and squalor of their lives. So it came about that just those who were given most attention by Jesus became those most neglected by some of his followers.
Paul always proclaims the scandal of God’s universal love which is communicated through the particular history of Israel and of its Messiah.