Call no one Father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.
These words come to us in a gospel that critiques the established religion of the day in a big way. Matthew presents the way of Jesus, not as an alternative to Judaism, but as an alternative to the temptation of honorific titles, whether Rabbi, or Father, or Teacher. If you follow Jesus, says the Good News, you need not call anyone by any title, because Jesus offers a religion of community. Jesus calls each of us to be equal among disciples.
The gospel calls into question the human structures that obscured the essence of faith and God’s call to us. The gospel gives us several examples of these human structures, such as…phylacteries. Now, I know that some of you have been on the edge of your seat wondering: what the heck is a phylactery?
A phylactery was a small leather box containing a portion of the Hebrew scripture, called the shema. Like our creed, which comes from the word credo, or I believe, the shema is a sacred text named for its first word: Hear. The shema comes from the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you shall love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul and all your might.
At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, a cantor sings this in Hebrew at the beginning of every service. Shema Israel, adonai elohenu, adonai echad. In a stone structure the size of a football field, it is hauntingly beautiful to hear.
The same passage of Deuteronomy goes on to say:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.
In Jesus’ time and in our own, Orthodox Jews use their phylacteries to literally bind the word of God to their forehead. Jesus does not object to this practice. It is scriptural. What he objects to is the size and showiness of the phylacteries he was seeing. Now, Jesus’ reference to these strange objects is not a trivial aside, but is central to his teaching: in turning the container of the word of God into a status symbol, God’s people have lost sight of God.
Anybody hear an important message for our own time? Over time, we have turned church buildings into containers for the word of God, and put too much of our energy into making and maintaining beautiful, perfect buildings. Nothing wrong with offering our very best to God. The problem—which has gotten organized religion into quite a pickle—is when we think of church as a building, rather than as a people or a gathering. Church is the container, it is not the word of God nor the work of God.
And so in today’s Gospel Jesus warns: Do not lose sight of God and God’s kingdom in the trappings around God’s word. Another warning in today’s gospel is do not tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others. This could be a protest slogan. All around us, in our city and in the world, at this very moment, people want to throw off the heavy burdens placed on them by others.
Those burdens are the result of structures that are so entrenched in our society that anyone who tries to question them is accused of being inarticulate, unpatriotic, or worse.
Griff and I spent time in the Occupy camp on Friday and experienced the complicated mix of activists, doing important organizing work, and people used to being on the streets, their shoulders long ago crushed by the burdens of others. The camp is full of people with very real and complex needs, which the Occupy organizers and activists are trying to meet while also addressing the wider issues of economic injustice. Economic injustice, war, and poverty are what result when Jesus’ teachings, about outward trappings, social status, and distribution of wealth and power are ignored.
Did I just say that the anger and indignation of the Occupiers is aimed at people who don’t follow the teachings of Jesus?
I’m a pretty pluralistic gal. But I also think Jesus was onto something. I had an ethics professor in seminary who said that all Christian moral teaching could be found in Philippians 2. Let us imagine taking on the mind of Christ in our time and place.
Jesus gets very specific in today’s gospel about human structures and constructs—containers, trappings, titles, and hypocrisy—that get in the way of our work of unveiling the Kingdom of God.
Regardless of where we are in our own journey, our work always begins with paying attention. That’s what Jesus asks of his disciples, and it’s what the Good News always asks of us. Pay attention to the stress we put on external trappings for the word of God. Ask ourselves, honestly, are we asking others to carry burdens we would not carry? And finally, do we secretly wish for exaltation rather than humility? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you’re in good company. Welcome to the human race. The kingdom of God begins with paying attention.
And it begins with gathering, in all kinds of imperfect containers, to share what we have, to eat and drink together.
As we gather around this table, let’s gather in solidarity with those who are without food and without homes, who are not even invited to some tables. Let’s gather in solidarity with people everywhere who long for justice, freedom, and peace. Let us gather around this table celebrating the great and unending feast that happens whenever we share bread and wine in the name of the One who invites us, in every moment, into promise and hope.