Scripture: Matthew 12:1-12. The scripture readings may be found at the end of the sermon.
This is a written transcription of the video message Jana Reister offered on Sunday, November 1, 2020. The full video can be found at knox.org/sundaynovember1
Last Sunday we had the joy of presenting and blessing Knox’s Sunday School third graders with their very own bibles. This was part of a festive outdoor Sunday School event for families led by Tina Hubert and her fellow leaders. Every year the 3rd graders attend a special class to learn about the bible, and every year their teachers, Miss Paige and Miss Nancy, invite me to come with my big heavy bag of bibles, which is a great joy for me. I spend some time sharing a little about each bible, from the one I received when I was their age to the ones I used in seminary, to the big study bibles I use today. After the show-and-tell, we then discuss an important fact: Whether we have one bible or a hundred, it won’t make one bit of difference in our lives if we never what? Open it and read it!
When we do read our bibles, then comes the interpretation: What does God’s word mean for our own life, and how do we apply it? Since we each come to the scriptures as unique individuals, with unique life experiences, we may each understand and live out the message differently from one another. We need only consider the thousands of different denominations and non-denominations of Christian churches and the various types of Jewish houses of worship – orthodox, reformed, humanist – to realize we don’t all agree on how to live out what the scriptures teach. The same was true in Jesus’ day, as today’s passage illustrates.
Jesus and the religious legal experts and rulers of religious law, the Pharisees, have been challenging one another throughout Matthew’s Gospel. They are all Jews, sharing the same scripture, seeking to faithfully worship the One True God yet diverge in how they interpret and live out God’s decrees.
New Testament scholar Greg Carey points out that Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus as an “unauthorized Jewish teacher,” who lacks the high education that the authorized teachers – the Pharisees and legal experts – had. However, Jesus speaks about the scriptures with “compelling authority,” amazing the crowds. His miraculous healings amaze them even more and he has drawn quite a following (Workingpreacher.org, Matthew 23:1-2, 11/1/20).
The religious leaders try to draw the crowds of fellow Jews away from Jesus. And Jesus seeks to draw the crowds away from them, out of his concern that the leaders are leading the people down the wrong path. Jesus doesn’t criticize the actual law the teachers are teaching, for it is God’s law given to them through Moses long ago. Most of the population could not read well, nor would they have owned their own copies of the scriptures, so they depended upon these religious authorities with their expert knowledge to tell them what God’s law actually says so they can adhere to it. The problem comes when the religious experts add their own interpretation on how to be faithful to the law. The result was that they heaped more and more rules upon God’s law. “They tie heavy packs together, impossible to carry,” Jesus points out, “and lay them on the shoulders of others” (Common English Bible, p. 49-50).
We learned last week from Matthew 22 that when the religious rulers asked Jesus which of all of God’s laws was the greatest, Jesus, in what was a new interpretation of their shared scriptures, reduces the law to just two: love and love – love God, love others. Recall what Jesus says about God’s law in Matt 11: “…it is a yoke that is not impossible to carry, but easy to bear.”
So, when Jesus witnesses the impossibly heavy burden laid upon the crowds, he responds with compassion for them and with righteous anger toward the leaders. In obedience to God, Jesus must bring into the light the truth, that though devout in their study and teaching of God’s commands, the teachers are not practicing what they preach. They seek after honor and status, while the majority suffer.
Life was very difficult for those in Palestine during Jesus’ time. They lived under the oppression of Roman occupation and suffered and lost a lot. It is human nature to hang on tightly to what power, security, and control one still has under such circumstances. The religious rulers were no exception. Life was scary. Fear can turn anyone inward, to focus on our own welfare, with little emotional capacity to consider the effects our choices may have on those around us.
Jesus sees the effects. When the backs of some are breaking under heavy burdens due to the choices – conscious or not – of those with privilege and power, something is wrong with the system; something is clouded in the hearts that created the system.
This scenario is not foreign to us today. The ever-growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor is well known and felt. The burdens of the marginalized are increasing, and more rapidly than ever during this pandemic. Policies continue to be passed or thwarted that serve to keep people of color from their equitable share of resources. The backs of some are breaking under heavier and heavier burdens, while others go mostly unaffected, a sign that something is wrong with the system. Something is clouded in the hearts that created and uphold this system.
Every day we are subject to fear-based politics and news reporting, fueling a very human fear of losing what we have, or not getting what we need or believe is our fair share. The fruits of fear mongering are felt by many of us in this election season, as the daily news reveals. Many of us worry about the threat of intentional disruption at polling places, about violence during or after the election. And people on both sides of the political divide struggle to hope that civility will return or that we can become a nation united any time soon, regardless of who wins the election.
But there are others who are meeting the fear with hope and action. Faith leaders around the nation, committed to God’s law of love are responding to our present reality by organizing non-partisan groups of concerned citizens to serve as a peaceful, moral presence at polling sites to help protect everyone’s right to vote. One such initiative, co-sponsored by the Christian journal Sojourners, is training clergy to serve as poll chaplains. I attended this training last week. The lead organizer, Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, kicked off the training by reminding us of the foundational reason we were there. She said that what is happening in American politics, in the rise of race-related hate and violence, and the upheaval at our polling places is “an imago dei issue” — an image of God issue.
As a woman of faith, Dr. Williams-Skinner was lifting up the story of our creation according to the biblical witness – that God created humankind in God’s very own image, and calls us and all creation good (Genesis 1). The imago dei — the image of God — of some, however, is not being honored; it is being disregarded altogether. Some of our nation’s laws suggest that some of God’s children are less worthy than others – less worthy of freedoms some enjoy, less worthy of basic human rights, less worthy of what is needed to simply stay alive. That this reality exists suggests, it seems to me, that our society is revealing what happens when who it is that gives us life and breath is forgotten.
The scriptures remind us, though. It is our loving God, who, as the apostle Paul reminds the church in Rome and the church today, “shows no partiality’ (Roman 2).
The local chapter of the non-partisan organization Souls to the Polls, a group led by African American clergy that helps transport voters without means to their polling places, gathered last Sunday to do their work. Souls to the Polls aims to offer a peaceful presence at polling sites.
While participating in last Sunday’s Souls to the Polls, I was awakened and sobered as an African American candidate shared with us that while she was campaigning at the Board of Elections last weekend, she and her supporters were confronted by a group of people espousing racists ideas, who assaulted them with hateful and racist names. Yes, this is an image of God issue.
When any of God’s children forgets who they are in the depth of their being, they forget their true nature, the nature that we all share: God’s nature. We all bear the image of God, whose names are Love, Grace, Mercy and Compassion. When we forget our imago dei, we can become blind to the imago dei in our fellow humans. We may forget that we belong to a trustworthy God who cares and provides for us. We may then become prone to what the religious rulers in our story experienced, and start tampering with God’s Law of Love, distorting or contorting it in attempts to feel safe and protected from a frightening world.
Jesus was confronting an imago dei issue in Matthew. He seems to come out swinging, yet he maintains God’s Law of Love as he speaks truth to power and hope to the powerless. In his obedience to God’s will, Jesus desires all people to come into God’s way of life. As he critiques the leaders, he hopes to wake them up to their own imago dei, that they may change their hearts and lives and know a new freedom. As he encourages the crowd to do as their religious leaders teach but not as they do, he reminds them what imago dei life is. It is not seeking to lift oneself up to the heights of worldly status and acclaim, for all people are already lifted up by the only one that counts, our God our Creator. Imago dei life is not seeking fancy titles or names, for God has already named every one of us with the Truth – calling us My Beloved.
Image of God living is one of joyful sojourning with our earthly siblings – whether family, friends, stranger, perceived enemy, those we assume we will never relate to, and those we assume could not possibly understand us. Our job is to help one another remember our imago dei, to help one another see the Divine Image in all, when worldly clouds move in to hide it.
And isn’t this the role of saints, to remind each of us of our imago dei, of our own sainthood? James Finley, Christian contemplative teacher and author, based on his definition of saint, offers some helpful questions for us to consider on this All Saints day, to help us reflect on the saints in our lives past and present, and how we may serve as saints for others. Let’s reflect together:
“Where would we be without that person who saw in us a value we couldn’t yet see? Where would we be without that person to whom we revealed a most painful thing, the thing we’re most ashamed of, and instead of judging us, sat with us and accepted us in a way that helped us to accept ourselves, echoing how God eternally accepts us in our brokenness.” As we recall all the ways our saints have helped us reclaim our imago dei, “we then realize we’re called to pass that on, we’re called to be that for each other, which is the holiness of daily life…” (Turning to the Mystics podcast, 9/21/20).
In the name of God whose image we share, Amen.
New Revised Standard Version
Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.[b] 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.[c] 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.