Sunday, 5 November 2017

‘Do whatever they teach
you and follow it; but
do not do as they do’

The table remains bare if our words and our actions are not inter-connected (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 5 November 2017,

The Fourth Sunday before Advent (Proper 26).


11.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert, Co Kerry.

Readings: Joshua 3: 7-17; Psalm 107: 1-7, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2: 9-13; Matthew 23: 1-12.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last Sunday, we learned graphically in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, how all the Law and the Prophets – everything taught by Moses and Prophets – depends on, hangs on, the two great commandments, to love God and to love our neighbour (see Matthew 22: 34-46).

His summary of those guidelines for living came in a conversation Jesus had with a lawyer in the Temple, in front of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the two groups most concerned with teaching what is meant by the Law and the Prophets.

In this morning’s Gospel reading (Matthew 23: 1-12), we are still in the Temple with Christ in Holy Week, the week leading up to his Passion, Death and Resurrection. There in the Temple, Christ has silenced his critics among the Sadducees and the Pharisees, showing their lack of understanding of the core messages of the Prophets and the Law in the Bible.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, he turns to speak ‘to the crowds and to his disciples’ about the scribes and the Pharisees, and their attitude to and teaching of the Law and the Bible.

Christ tells the people in the Temple that the Pharisees have authority to teach the Law, and he concedes that they are in an unbroken chain that goes back to Moses, for they ‘sit on Moses’ seat’ (verse 2).

But while honouring their teachings, the people should be wary of their practices. In their interpretation of the Law, they impose heavy burdens on others, yet do not follow the Law themselves.

Externally, they appear pious. They wear teffelin or phylacteries, small, black, leather boxes, on their left arms and foreheads with four Biblical passages as a ‘sign’ and ‘remembrance’ that God liberated their ancestors from slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 13: 1-10; Exodus 13: 11-16; Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; and Deuteronomy 11: 13-21). They also have lengthy fringes or tassels on their prayer shawls (tallitot, singular talit), as visible reminders of the 613 commandments in the Law (see Numbers 15: 38, Deuteronomy 22: 12).

Christ gives four examples of vanity (verse 6-7): they love places of honour at banquets, the best seats in the synagogues, being greeted with respect publicly, and being called ‘Rabbi,’ which means master and later becomes a title for the leader in a synagogue.

We are warned about the dangers built into loving honorific titles, such as ‘teacher,’ ‘father’ and instructor (see verses 8-10) – perhaps for me that means Canon and Professor – because, of course, we are all students, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all disciples and children of God.

Yet I too am a father and have been a teacher and a tutor. Is Christ warning against the position; or against seeking honours that have not been earned?

It is a truism that parents must earn the respect of their children, not seek or demand it. Most parents have, at one time or another, said to their children: ‘Do what I tell you, not what I do.’ Needless to say, children never listen to parents when we say something so silly.

All parents know, on the other hand, that actions speak louder than words.

Perhaps this morning’s reading reflects later tensions between the Jewish synagogue and the new Christian community. But, in Christ’s own days, people expected a Pharisee to be a careful observer of the Law. Unlike the Temple priests and village elders, the Pharisees did not have a high social status.

Before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the Pharisees were a relatively modest group of people without political power and they tried to live out Jewish tradition and the Torah seriously and conscientiously in their daily lives. The Pharisees saw the Law as applying not only to every aspect of public life, but to every aspect of private, domestic, daily life too.

There is another well-worn statement: ‘It’s not where you start out but where you end up.’ The Pharisees started out with good intentions, but some of them ended by seeking to be great, seeking to be exalted (verses 11-12). They started out being concerned for holiness, but some ended at exclusion. They started out seeking to recognise God in all aspects of life, but some of them ended by seeking recognition at banquets and in the synagogue (verses 6-7).

Christ calls us to live in such a way that we can say to the world: ‘Do as we say and do as we do.’

The problem here may not so much be a conflict between words and actions, but the need to make the connection between words and actions. Words must mean what they point to, and the actions must be capable of being described in words.

Most of us, as children, learned by watching how adults behave, we learn as members of the human community. As a child, when I needed to learn how to use a fork, I did not need a lecture on the hygienic and sanitary contributions that forks have made to the benefit European lifestyles since the introduction of the fork through Byzantium and Venice to mediaeval Europe; I did not need an engineering lecture on the practicalities and difficulties of balancing the prongs and the handle; I would have been too young to read a delightful chapter by Judith Herrin in one of her books on how the fork-using Byzantines were much more sophisticated than their western allies or rivals who ate with their hands (Judith Herrin, Byzantium – the Surprising Life of a Mediaeval Empire, London: Allen Lane, 2007, Chapter 19).

The same principle applies to everything else, as Andrew Davison of Westcott House, Cambridge, points out in his contribution to Imaginative Apologetics (London: SCM Press, 2011), the same principle applies to how we learn about everything else in life – cups, books, bicycles and so on. He might have added love – the love of God and the love of one another.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s steps in the Great Palm House in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Recently, on a number of occasions, I have visited the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. There, in the Great Palm House, are the steps on which the great 20th century German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein regularly sat in contemplation and thought while he was living in Dublin in the late 1940s.

Even if you find Wittgenstein difficult to read we can find useful insights in his writings.

Wittgenstein teaches us that thinking and language must be inter-connected. ‘Words have meaning only in the stream of life,’ he says. Thinking requires language, language is a communal experience, and, as Davison points out, we learn language as members of a human community and through induction into common human practices.

We can talk about prayer, forgiveness, and most of all about love itself, to others. But if it only remains talk and has no application, then the words have no meaning.

In our New Testament reading (I Thessalonians 2: 9-13), Saint Paul reminds the members of the Church in Thessaloniki that they are witnesses to Christ not only in their beliefs but in the way they live their lives and in their conduct towards the new Church members.

Like a father teaching his children, he urges and encourages them, and pleads with them to walk in God’s ways, so that God’s word becomes made active in those who believe. In All Saints-tide, this is good advice on how to live as saints, as part of the Communion of Saints.

We might remind ourselves about last Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 22: 34-46), when Christ tells the lawyer sent by the Pharisees and the Sadducees that the greatest commandments are to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ and to ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ And, he adds: ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

If the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the young lawyer were teaching and acting in conformity with these laws, if their words and actions were inter-connected, then there would have been an unassailable ring of authenticity to their teaching.

We may say we believe in the two great commandments, but we only show we believe in them with credibility when we live them out in our lives. There must be no gap that separates what we teach and how we live out what we teach in our lives.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘They love to have the place of honour at banquets’ (Matthew 23: 6) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 5 November 2017.

Collect:

Almighty and eternal God,
you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints:
Grant to us the same faith and power of love,
that, as we rejoice in their triumphs,
we may be sustained by their example and fellowship;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Peace and Blessing for All Saints-tide:

Introduction to the Peace:

We are fellow citizens with the saints
and the household of God,
through Christ our Lord,
who came and preached peace to those who were far off
and those who were near (Ephesians 2: 19, 17).

Blessing:

God give you grace
to share the inheritance of all his saints in glory ...

‘They love to have the place of honour at banquets’ (Matthew 23: 6) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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