Proper 26A 2005 Matthew 23:1-12
On this Halloween night some little people might come to our door holding out bags and chirping, "Trick or treat!" It isn’t
really likely, though, since Joel and Sarah and Emma have moved away and grown up and Rachel has grown up. Unless some grandchildren
happen to be here,
For some Christians, Halloween has become a bone of contention and a source of divisiveness. Some see it as a pagan virus
infecting the celebration of All Saints’ Day. On the other side, others emphasize its origin as a mockery of paganism
and its recent status as innocent masquerade. For our part, if we remember, we’ll some less unhealthy goodies, and
stand by just in case
I’ll remember my own childhood. "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys." And my brother dressed in Hopalong Cassidy clothes
for a year, not just at Halloween.
Imagine Jesus of Nazareth—our eternal contemporary—dressed in Western clothes and joining The Wagon Train of pilgrims
headed for the promised land. In today’s text Jesus explains the nature of the conflict. It has to do with stance,
with posture and with pose. Jesus casts the Pharisees in the role of hypocritical cattleranch owners. They are the self-righteous
pillars of the community. They are settlers who seek to preserve the spiritual frontier for themselves alone. They have the
religious range under their control. They do not especially welcome outsiders.
The pilgrims? They are the meek and humble who have entered this dangerous territory to settle down and farm.
The Pharisees are conservative the law-and-order contingent. They hand down the laws but don’t necessarily let the laws
interfere with their own agenda. They enjoy and exploit their positions in town. They like to be seen. They wear the best
costumes. They are center stage. In their presence, people remove their hats. They are called leaders. They control the territory
of the spirit. Really what they have is not so much faith as it is vested interest.
The difference in the two positions is that the Pharisees (range barons) prefer a closed environment with secure places (the
best ranches) for themselves, while Jesus stands for an open range for spiritual individualism with all its attendant risks
and responsibilities. The way of the Pharisees is safe. The way of Christ is dangerous.for those who enter into this frontier
territory of the spirit and faith and seek to remake it in Christ’s image.
But what is this new frontier? It is service and love. Love of God and love of neighbor. The servant is not to be concerned
about his or her own welfare or even position. The servants may not play it safe but are to risk themselves in the vanguard
to advance the master’s cause. (1)
Rosa Parks, who died earlier this week on October 24, epitomized this servant leadership in and by the Body of Christ. Widely
regarded as the “mother of the civil rights movement,” her calm, dignified civil disobedience, as an African-
American woman breaking the law by refusing to yield her seat on a bus to a white man, dramatized the injustice of racial
segregation in public transportation and galvanized the movement for civil rights. (3)
Perhaps the single most basic Western movie theme is the conflict between two kinds of cultivation of the earth. In the 19th
century, the interests of the wide-ranging cattle industry clashed dramatically, and often violently, with the interests of
the more apparently ecologically-friendly agricultural communities. And it also has lasting implications for stewardship,
when you think about it..
George Stevens's Shane (1953) may be the clearest -- as well as the most subtly nuanced -- expression of this theme. A gentle
wilderness settler community in late-19th-century Wyoming, depicted as a virtual extended family that planting crops and raising
pigs, is threatened by an invading cattle baron, who, to protect and assert his interests, hires a squadron of amoral toughs.
The latter proceed to bully and terrorize the farmers. These farmers are tough and resourceful in their way, but helpless
in the face of well-armed professionals.
Into the middle of this conflict rides Shane -- a wandering, enigmatic loner, sent by chance, luck, or God. He not only defends
the settlers, but also tries to help them marshal their own forces and organize against the cattle baron. And he seems to
try to settle in among them himself.
It seems very clear at first that the settlers are cooperating with the earth, while the cattlemen are exploiting it. It
also seems clear that the exploiters are by far the more proficient at violence: it goes with their lifestyle. Shane must,
in the end, stand alone against their worst representative. And then he must depart. He cannot be integrated into the creative,
nurturing, agricultural community. He cannot become part of a family, and he cannot become a farmer.
Here is where the suggestion of the supernatural, and the very biblical world picture expressed in this film, becomes very
strong. Shane's characters, as even the reviewers at the time noted, are all fully rounded and fully human. The settlers
are not one-dimensionally good; their weaknesses, their cowardice, and their own species of greed are clearly revealed.
Nor are the cattle baron and his henchmen demonized: they are shown as cruel men, but men with their own legitimate concerns
and sympathetic humanity.
All but one: Wilson. Tall, serpentine, clad in dark monotone, he is played by Jack Palance and has nothing sympathetic about
him, no legitimacy, and ultimately nothing human. He laughs sadistically at the misfortunes of others, increases conflict
wherever he goes, and kills -- simply because he likes killing. In all this, he more strictly fits the biblical concept of
the demonic than the various devils who have populated more recent "exorcism" movies. He is less spectacularly, but far more
effectively, evil. Wilson’s appearance in the wilderness, where conflicted humans are tempted, and must make decisions,
should surprise no reader of Genesis.
No biblically literate person will fail to recognize Shane -- and to understand why he cannot join the family. Because Shane
also is inhuman: he is of the same species as Wilson. The difference between them is only that Shane is not a fallen angel.
He is an avenging angel of the Lord in the biblical tradition and style. He is serious, dangerous, very powerful, and more
than a little frightening. He is a Godsend, all right, but one that makes everyone, friend and foe alike, uncomfortable.
Shane has been sent to restore Biblical order - divinely ordained human dominion - in the wilderness. When he defeats the
devil, he must leave: real, biblical angels are not welcome for long in human dwelling places. (2)
Now back to the Gospel: Probably the most important issue is whether Jesus actually engaged in this black and white, not
at all apparently subtly nuanced, rant against the religious leaders of the synagogue. And more than that, how do the harsh
condemnations of this chapter fit with Christ’s great Summary of the Law about loving God and neighbor?
It is probably best to consider the bulk of this chapter as Matthew’s elaboration upon some harsh statements of Jesus
against some of the religious leaders. The angry rant is more that of Matthew and his community against the religious leaders
of their time than it is that of Jesus. The harsh anger toward the religious leaders reflected the actual sentiment of Matthew’s
community facing persecution and abuse by both religious and political officials. Nevertheless, the faultfinding also serves
as a negative example of leadership for the leaders of that community.
This is likely in light of the exclusion of Jewish-Christian members of the early church from synagogue worship and the collusion
of some Jewish leaders with Roman officials in persecuting the followers of Jesus in the latter first century AD when Matthew’s
gospel took its final form. In its context, it served Matthew in several ways. First it continued his differentiation of
the Christian congregation as distinct from the Jewish synagogue. And second, it served to warn the leaders of the Christian
congregation not to become like the Pharisaic rabbis of the j\Jewish synagogue from which Matthew’s Christian Church
It is worth noting that Jesus commended the actual teaching of the religious leaders, respecting their authority as successors
to Moses; it is their failure to practice what they taught that he condemned, along with their making the demands of the law
“heavy burdens, hard to bear,” compared to Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden.
It is part of the human condition that we spend a great deal of time and energy ranting against our leaders. It does not
matter whether the leader is the President of the United States; another national, state, or local elected or appointed official;
our employer or our supervisor; the bishops and other clergy; or whoever.
Most often, the rants occur in the absence of the leaders who are their subjects and with the assumption that the participants
will not report the content of the rants to their subjects. Rants against leaders are a form of gossip that is very popular.
We’ve seen a number of recent examples: whether or not false or misleading information was used to justify acts of war;
lack of preparation for and inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina; policies, programs, and budget priorities that that
are said to favor the wealthy, but neglect the poor; attempts to legislate or codify values or beliefs that are not universally
held, without respect for different values or beliefs; and indifference to the loss of human life by violence, and a world
where too often law and justice do not seem connected.
But where were we servants, the Body of Christ? Where were we? Were we fast enough? Could we have been faster? Could we
have done better? With any of it?
Teresa of Avila put it this way:
Christ has no body now but yours
no hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
compassion on this world
Christ has no body now on earth but yours." (3)
1. Adapted from Lection Aid for Proper 26A 1999
2. Adapted from The Revd Dr. Clair McPherson, ‘Hollywood Classics to Set the Stewardship Mood”, Trinity News,
Vol. 52, No. 2, pp 14-15.
3. Adapted from The Revd Theodore W. Johnson, “Ranting against Leaders”, Bodybuilding for Proper 26A 2005