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?

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