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The scribes and Pharisees were leaders in their congregations, but they behaved like little lords.
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works, for they say, and do not do.
"They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. All their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.
"They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.' But do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Matthew 23:1-12 NKJV, condensed
Keepers of the Faith
Moses was long gone, but his words were kept alive by determined individuals who refused to allow the treasured texts to perish from the earth. As commanded in the book of Deuteronomy, they kept the Law in mind night and day. Passages of scripture, written on tiny pieces of parchment, were bound in leather phylacteries and strapped to their foreheads. They sewed symbols of faith into their clothing and attached them outside their homes. Such practices served as a reminder to themselves and a testimony to all who passed by.
The scribes, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the priests and leaders of local synagogues were keepers of the faith, and zealous to protect it from error and corrupting influences. They were much like you and me, probably looking back more than looking forward. They liked their sacred traditions, just like some of us like the old hymns. They enjoyed their feasts the same as we celebrate the rituals surrounding our holy days. I'm sure they had their own versions of our pot luck dinners and fundraising bazarres.
But Jesus faulted the scribes and Pharisees for focusing on strict obedience to the details while missing the meaning of the Law. They memorized what Moses said and got so absorbed in making sure that every i was dotted and ever t was crossed, that they failed to allow space for the spirit of kindness and mercy which pervaded the commandments of God.
Here's what happens--today, as it did then. Start with a familiar commandment. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy; six days you shall labor, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God." The commandment raises questions about work, rest and holiness. Decisions must be made on these details. Once the regulations regarding the Sabbath are established, self-appointed judges are needed to determine when the norms are broken and enforcement is necessary.
All this leads to a shift away from the intent and spirit of the original commandment and onto the use and misuse of the dictates surrounding it. Religion then centers on extraneous restrictions. Any difference of opinion is disavowed because it threatens the cohesion of the group. Things get ugly.
Jesus gave an excellent example of this when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, the priest and Levite could not help the wounded traveler because of an ancient law about touching dead bodies. To do so would temporarily prohibit them from performing their duties at the temple. So they looked at the battered man lying on the ground, but thinking he may die at any moment, they left him there unaided. The rules of their faith did not give them enough maneuvering room to be a compassionate "Good Samaritan!"
Jesus chided these Pharisees for making faith a burden by attaching so many man-made conditions that it broke the backs of those who sought to live a righteous life. He also berated them for spending so much time in the showroom and so little time in the storeroom. They loved titles, head tables, the applause of their peers, and being introduced as Dr. so and so. They were like little lords, telling everyone else what to do and not lifting a finger to be helpful.
It's a problem we can identify with today. People want to believe, but the lives of God's messengers, both public and private, get in the way and make us cynical. But here's the good news, the validity of the Gospel does not depend on the integrity of its proponents.
We know from hearing stories about the Dead Sea Scrolls that the ancient Hebrew Scriptures were stored in clay jars and hidden in obscure desert caves. By the time the manuscripts were discovered in the 20th century the jars were cracked and falling apart, and the texts were torn and difficult to piece back together. Think of the loss if the whole lot were tossed because the clay pots looked a wreck and the texts were hopelessly brittle.
The amazing stories of God and God's people continue to be stored in imperfect vessels. It takes time to clear the dust and puzzle over the various fragments. But we don't throw everything out just because the pots are cracked. Do what they tell you, Jesus said, but don't do as they do! So don't allow the trappings of religion to distract or discourage you.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: When have you found treasure in an unlikely package?
Make a list of some trappings of religion which irk you? What can you do to stay focused on the heart of the Gospel and not be sidetracked by the aggravating actions of others?What words would you use to describe how Jesus felt about the Pharisees?
Discuss the similarities and differences between religious people today and the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels?
It has been said that the Pharisees didn't need anything, so God could do nothing for them. What would you like God to do for you?
As I sit in worship I see men in suits and ties and ladies in hats and heels. In the same pew I also see people in shorts and sandals with tattoos showing. Do you view this as a positive or negative occurrence? Why is appearance such a big issue in some congregations?When have you felt unwelcome because you didn't look like everyone else?
Although Jesus thought the Sabbath was a perfectly good day to do the works of God, he was consistently condemned by the scribes and Pharisees for performing his miracles on the Sabbath. Whose side would you take on that argument? What are some good works you do on your "day of rest"?Which is easier on the Sabbath-- Refraining from activity, or honoring God with deeds of love and mercy? Following the rules, or figuring out how to be a compassionate person?
Do you feel uncomfortable when Jesus speaks to religious leaders in such a negative way? Is Jesus talking to you or to the person next to you?"Do what I say, not what I do!" In what circumstances have you caught yourself in the predicament of not practicing what you preach?
Why is it hard for leaders to remember they're not working for themselves?What role does humility play in leadership?What are some instances when you felt your congregation lost its focus?
Think of yourself as a vessel containing the good news of God's kingdom. What does your vessel look like to you and to others?