The ending of Fences

Matthew Chapter 23

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.[you are all brothers] 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

13 ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. [Other authorities add here (or after verse 12) verse 14, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation15Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell [Gehenna] as yourselves.

16 ‘Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.” 17You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18And you say, “Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.” 19How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it;22and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.

23 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

25 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

27 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” 31Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehenna? 34Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.

37 ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38See, your house is left to you, desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

The ending of fences
  To be read gently…

In Chapter 22 I imagined some Pharisees gaining an unexpected respect for Jesus' trust in God because of his honest reply to their trap about loyalty to Caesar. It meant they shifted from wanting to trap him towards testing how seriously should they take him.   His answer to their test question about the greatest commandment only increased that respect. He said  love for God and love for neighbour can never be separated. "You are right, Rabbi!" says someone in Mark's of the story.   (Mark 12:28-34)

In Matthew's telling of the story we then see these Pharisees experience a profound revelation. A key plank in their understanding of the world, and in their desire to be faithful to God, was suddenly pulled from their eyes. They knew before they knew they knew, that the Messiah, and everything he meant, was quite different to their expectation. What we often take as a trick question about the Messiah was really a question about love and neighbour, and implied a great change from the common expectation of a conquering Messiah. How can you love God as a military conqueror!?  And so the text says "No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions."  This was not because they'd been vanquished in an argument, but because they had been given an insight that turned everything on its head. It was a time for reconsidering everything.

Like those Pharisees, we all walk away from the inspiration of God. We all need time to unpack. We all have moments like Jim Trott in the Vicar of Dibley… when, after lots of No, we say Yes.  

Except sometimes we never say… Yes. A deep-seated fear of the cost of the great commandment blinds us to its simplicity and to its grace— to the life it gives us—  and we refuse it. Or perhaps it is more true to say we seek to defuse it by limiting its reach into our life and behaviour. 

[The Pharisees] goal was to "make a fence for the law"—in others words, to protect it from infringement by surrounding it with specific rules of interpretation and application to daily life. Their original purpose was admirable, to enhance inward faithfulness to the law in daily life. Alyce McKenzie

But the real fence is the protection of me from what I know, without knowing, to be the cost of loving my neighbour as myself. It is a fence of fear. All the rules, all the keeping of doctrine, all the being morally pure, is about keeping me safe.

Phylactery albs and stoles, the status given to clergy, and the upholding of right doctrine, all blind us not to the gospel, but to our fear. Lay folk have their own set of stumbling blocks which we clergy also share.  We become unfaithful—untrusting— because of our fear, but we cannot see that. We see that we are faithful. So, blind, we end up here, at a passage conveniently left out of the lectionary, outraged by a long list of Pharisaic failings:

29 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.”  31Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Ghenna? 34Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.

Exactly this is happening in Australia now.

One day, many years from now, another prime minister will stand up and to a teary gallery apologise for the damage done to refugees in detention. We will be told that we didn’t know then what we know now. We will hear testimony of destroyed lives. But we did know. We always knew. We just chose not to hear and to silence those who tried to remind us of the truth. Richard Flanagan writing about the Australian hero Gillian Triggs.

And it is happening in the church in its rear-guard victimisation of LGBTI folk who want to marry, fencing off God and faith from those we define as different. Not to mention its still too prevalent avoiding responsibility for sexual abuse towards children.

Matthew 23 tells us that Phariseeism ends with the destruction of Jerusalem "the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 38See, your house is left to you, desolate." It begins with us.

Church, state, and individual are all the same. We all fear the loss of privilege that would follow if we were to be truly compassionate and just. We know this at the deeper levels of ourselves, even though we don't know it, and are blind to it, in our surface protestations and justifications for our behaviour.

And so, being blind, we are proudly humble. (Matthew 23:11-12) A country boy from SA, never ordained, ended up being the Moderator in another state. At the opening of Parliament, many yars ago, he saw the Archbishops of two major denominations arguing over who would go last in the procession into the chamber. He said, "I shoved the Usher in the back, and the doors pushed open, and we all went in, leaving those two to sort themselves out!"

We less liturgical churches are the same. We substitute leather covered bibles and copious marking of the text for phylacteries and fringes, and say Pastor instead of Rabbi.

It happens because even though God graces us with deep insights and joy, we do not submit to the greatest commandment. Yes Matthew, and especially Matthew 23, reflects the rivalry, hostility and eventual separation, of the Pharisaic Jewish survivors  and the new Jesus Jewish survivors of the fall of Jerusalem. But Matthew is deeper than this. Matthew is also writing critique and warning for his own faith community. Matthew shows us how easy it is to become those we despise, how easy it is to be saying:  “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” as we are doing it ourselves.

Shedding the blood of the prophets is the end point of not loving our neighbour as ourselves, the endpoint of seeking to love God without loving our neighbour. We can't love God if we don't love our neighbour. If we don't love our neighbour our love of God becomes something else. It becomes self serving, about our salvation, and becomes a fence which if we are very fortunate, we may one discover we have been building between God and us. Shedding the blood of the prophets, the defence of what we imagine to be our true faith, is our attempt to silence the Spirit among us.

I have been a gold standard Pharisee, and have been appalled at what I have said and done earlier in life, all in the name of faith. I have found only one protection. If there were a need for fencing, it would be here. A constant vigilance is required to avoid lapsing into Pharisaic certainties. And an even greater vigilance is needed to avoid publicly preaching openness and a certain humble agnosticism towards life, while yet living in an inner rigidity.

But the only protection— the only vigilance I find works— is to remove the fences altogether. To trust—  to faith—  that I will not be lost to God, or go astray, if I simply love without fences. Because real love of neighbour is to remove the barriers between us. For in its essence, love is mercy. It is compassion— feeling with. Loving as I love myself is, first of all, to be alongside, especially alongside those who are the least in society, and especially alongside those whom the pharisaical me would despise. I cannot fence my faith and still love.

The command to love God and to love our neighbour is not an imposition. It is grace. It is an invitation to begin the path to freedom. For when the fences are removed I make the great discovery that…

… there can be no pride. Alongside, unseparated, eyes open  at last, I see that I am the same. Simply human. We are all brothers and sisters. My heart is softened because I see what I have always hidden from myself: we are all human. I am no worse, and no better. I can forgive myself. I do not have to judge others. God loves me for me, as God loves them. I do not have to be better, or special. There is nothing to fear.

When I face the fear and pull down the fence, I find the fear losing its potency. I find there really is a security in trusting God. There is healing. It's almost as though life is finally beginning.

Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Anger Without Pain (2014)
The Mysterious Burden of Freedom (2011) 
The Humble Greatest (2008) 

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.


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