Sunday, October 26, 2008

Woe, scribes and Pharisees!

Today’s sermon is taken from the 23rd chapter of the book of Matthew, which begins, “Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”

The book of Matthew was known in early Christianity as the favorite gospel of the “Ebionites.” The Ebionites (from the Hebrew word for “poor men”), according to some scholars, were the faction of 1st-century Christianity made up of the family and early disciples of Jesus of Nazareth, who were led after his crucifixion by his brother, James, the bishop of Jerusalem and leader of the Jerusalem Christian sect in the Acts of the Apostles. The Jewish/Roman historian Josephus documents their struggle against the Temple hierarchy, which culminated with James’ assassination in 66 CE.

The 23rd chapter states their case, from the mouth of Jesus himself.

After his initial accusation of hypocrisy against the Temple establishment, who essentially served as Rome’s provincial bureaucracy, Jesus continues, “For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”

Hmmm…sounds like Jesus is preaching class warfare. How unRepublican.

“But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries [little prayer boxes with scripture inside], and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.”

More class warfare, and a direct challenge to the chief priests. But who would he be talking about today? Televangelists, for sure, who hardly do their praying in the privacy of their rooms, as Jesus recommended. But given that we’re a culture ruled by Mammon, you have to go to Mammon’s temples to get a precise corollary: luxury boxes at sports stadiums, or skyscraper penthouse conference rooms. CEOs, the high-level managers of our global empire, live a life different from ours, as the Temple poobahs did then.

But here’s where Jesus gets really subversive, and essentially guarantees his removal by the authorities:

“But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”

This was the central principle of Jesus’ ministry, revolutionary in its rejection of imperial social structure, and responsible for Christianity’s viral spread among the imperial lower classes. It is also the same egalitarian principle central to the Enlightenment of the West, rediscovered (after Gutenberg printed his Bible for the masses) in the Judeo-Christian social gospel of “the poor,” those Jesus called “blessed,” and turned into concepts of democracy and freedom by philosophers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It was the basis for the abolitionist movement, and for the civil rights movement, and continues to inspire peace and social justice activists today. We are all created equal—what a concept.

I have to note an important point in these last verses, related to that. When Jesus talks about one “Master, even Christ,” he’s only talking about himself in the most general terms. Jesus was raised in a clan related to both the king “messiah” (a Hebrew word translated into the Greek “Christ”), David, and to the priest “messiah,” Aaron, through the tribe of Levi. “Messiah” is the essential noble spirit of humanity, as expressed through heroes and other “messiahs” like Moses and Joshua, or virtually anyone at a given moment in time. Heath Ledger is a modern “messiah,” having sacrificed himself to his art. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were “messiahs.” It’s an archetype of human hope.

The “Ebionite heresy,” declared as such by the imperial church after the pagans Paul converted became a majority of Christians, is explained by the Oxford Dictionary of World Religions: “The sect emphasized the ordinary humanity of Jesus as the human son of Mary and Joseph, who was then given the Holy Spirit at his baptism; it also adhered to the Jewish Torah.” But who knew Jesus better than his family? On the other hand, how could such a modest character keep an empire under control?

Jesus spends the next twenty verses, the bulk of the 23rd chapter, laying out a bill of particulars against the scribes and Pharisees, famous for its repeating opening line, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” It’s an indictment of the Sadducees who ran the Temple, and shut off the central sanctuary from the masses, and cheated the people and polluted the Temple with their own inner filth. It’s also an amazingly accurate portrait of today’s “Christian” right: their sanctimonious worship of “prosperity,” caring nothing for the victims of a massively unjust social structure; the demographic most loyal to corporate profit, shiny and clean in their persona, but “within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.”

Iraq, anyone?

After his tirade at the scribes and Pharisees—concluding with, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”—Jesus then explains very clearly how the concept of “messiah” works: to redeem the nation from the corruption of the scribes and Pharisees, “Behold,” he says, “I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, all these things shall come upon this generation.”

(The last sentence can only be true if he’s talking about every generation--or if an early editor knew about the destruction of Jerusalem shortly after James' death--but it was to the early apostles’ advantage for prospective converts to believe, as they themselves did, that Jesus was talking about the generation he was directly speaking to—which he was. They were an apocalyptic sect; and the Kingdom of God was already within, even (or especially) after Jesus’ own crucifixion. Adjustments in interpretation only had to be made when the first generation of Christians finally died off. And the gospel writers knew it was good propaganda.)

More important than the possible inaccuracy of Jesus' prediction is the apocalyptic message that he is conveying here: you may kill me, and others, but justice will ultimately be done.

This is exactly the nonviolence philosophy taught by Gandhi and King, that "the arc of the universe bends toward justice," and is the essential messianic message: it is the nature of humanity that people will always stand up for the truth, and for each other, just as they are doing today. And in the end, the truth will finally set us free to live in the Kingdom of God, where we are all “brethren” and have no masters.

Jesus’ jeremiad against the scribes and Pharisees concludes on a tenderly sad note, and with an apocalyptic riddle:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

“For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

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