A sermon on Matthew 23: 1-12 by Nathan Nettleton
Many of the bitterest disputes in our world present themselves as being over correct moral behaviour. People seem to care a great deal about how other people behave. Often there are other major issues just under the surface, but the presenting issue is a concern to prevent immoral behaviours that could infect and corrupt the wider community. At its most violent, you can hear this rhetoric from groups like Islamic State in their war on those they regard as immoral infidels, most of whom are in fact other muslims. It is certainly true that most of those who are fighting under the Islamic State banner are not well-educated muslims and have a pretty limited knowledge and understanding of Islamic moral teaching and law, but they are often pretty rigorous and fanatical about those parts that they do know about. They see strict compliance with those laws as being a crucial identifying mark that divides those who are blessed by God from those who are under God’s curse, and so they believe that they are carrying out God’s will in ridding the world of immoral infidels.
Now, although it is easy for us to be critical of such violent extremism, the truth is that we have no shortage of similar views in the Christian churches. At least in our part of the world, it is fortunately not common to find such things taking the form of physical violence and killing, but that probably has more to do with social constraints than it does with actual ideology. It is still, on occasions, expressed in ways that condone the idea that death is a fitting consequence of immoral behaviours. Let me give you an example. In recent decades, one of the biggest moral disputes in the churches has been about homosexuality. More recently, the focus has narrowed down to the issue of same-sex marriage, but that is simply an indication of how far the debate has already come. A few decades ago, the morality crusaders were still defending the criminalisation of all homosexual activity. Now the last line in the sand is whether society could give the same public and legal honour to same-sex relationships that it gives to heterosexual relationships. So the ground has moved enormously. But whenever the ground moves so enormously and so rapidly, there is a backlash. Those who see themselves as losing the ground from under their feet fight back all the more ferociously. No doubt things like the Islamic State violence are expressions of such a backlash in their world. Conservative Christians, fearful of losing their ground entirely, are doing their best to hit back in our world.
At the next Assembly of the Baptist Union of Victoria, there will be a motion brought by a group of 26 churches which will attempt to ensure that if the government changes the Marriage Act to allow same-sex marriage, Baptist Pastors will still be prohibited from conducting same-sex weddings. One of the things that is interesting about the current state of the debate is that this proposed motion is now splitting the conservative churches that would have all been expected to back it a decade ago. Many of our bigger churches, although they haven’t openly changed their minds on the issues, have become very sensitive to the social research that shows them that this issue is alienating the younger generation from the churches, and so churches that have prided themselves on pitching a relevant message to a well-understood target demographic are not wanting to have anything to do with generating more publicity for an alienating message.
But of course, the real issue here is not marriage legislation, but how the churches respond to and relate to people whose sexuality falls outside the heterosexual mainstream. That is a deliberately broad description, because although the heat is mostly about homosexuality at the moment, it is not that long ago that it was just as hostile about people like me who have been divorced and remarried. The fundamental worldview at stake is one that seeks to define the normative lifestyle and behaviours that are seen as good and acceptable to God, and that assumes that anything that falls outside those boundaries is therefore abhorrent to God and deserving of whatever punishment we can muster to control, suppress and eliminate it. So although it is rare to hear actively church-going Christians advocate the use of violence against homosexuals, I have heard Christians suggest that the higher than average suicide rates among church-raised homosexuals is simply a God-ordained consequence of their sinful lifestyle. Now I do understand why we would be reluctant to think of these suicides as a consequence of the way we have treated people — condemning them, demonising them and driving them over the brink of despair — but to deflect all blame onto an angry and disapproving God seems not only cruel and heartless, but blasphemous. And it is not all that far removed from the attitude that says that we would be doing God’s will if we became the executors directly.
In our gospel reading tonight, we heard the beginning of the harshest moral condemnations Jesus is recorded as having ever uttered, but they are directed not against sexual sinners or against any other group that was usually regarded as being the obviously immoral ones of his era. Instead they are directed against those who were almost universally thought to be the absolute exemplars of religious devotion and scrupulous morality. Everyone regarded the Pharisees as the absolute pinnacle of morality. Even non-Pharisees were agreed on that. Nobody thought that anyone could be more morally upright than the Pharisees. But Jesus is clearly breaking ranks. Not only does he say, on a number of occasions, that political traitors and prostitutes will be getting into heaven ahead of the Pharisees, but here in the fifth great sermon of Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus condemning them in no uncertain terms. But it is far too easy for us to hear this and to simply think “O yes, they must have been terrible, those Pharisees, so legalistic and hypocritical.” But Jesus is not condemning them for being Pharisees, but for the way they behaved and treated people, and we are just as prone to falling into the same patterns of behaviour and the same ways of treating people. These things did not die out with the Pharisees.
The line that really catches my attention tonight is in verse four where Jesus says that “they 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.” It seems to me to speak so directly into so many of our contemporary moral debates, and it seems to point to two different ways of approaching matters of morality: burdening people, or lifting the weight and helping them.
Moral teachings and regulations can be imposed as an unbearable burden. This is especially obvious in the case of things like prohibitions of homosexual behaviour, because the impact is so unequal. Personally, I have never experienced prohibitions of homosexual behaviour as burdensome, because for me it is a bit like a prohibition on stabbing myself in the eyes with sharp stick. It is just not something I have any inclination to do, so committing myself to not doing it is not the least bit burdensome. But I have had the experience of being a divorced person, still in my early twenties, who was told that unless I was able to be reconciled to my first wife (who had already gone and married someone else anyway) then I had to be celibate for the rest of my life because any sexual relationship with anyone but her would be immoral and adulterous. So when I get to know gay guys and come to understand that their sexual attraction to other men is just as much a part of who they are as my sexual attraction to women, then I realise what it must be like for them to face the burden of a moral teaching that says that there is no morally acceptable context in which that attraction might find physical expression. I can feel the weight of that burden, because I once attempted, without success, to shoulder something similar.
Now the primary issue here, in terms of what Jesus is saying, is not whether either of those teachings were wrong. I now no longer hold the conservative views I once held on either of those issues, but it would be easy to point the finger at me and say that I changed my mind on one of them out of pure self-interest, and that my change of mind on the other just proves the slippery slope theory — once people start getting lax about one issue, they quickly slide down the slope into laxness about everything. But Jesus’s words about heavy burdens and lifting a finger would still speak just as clearly into these issues if we all held the view that divorcees and homosexuals must remain permanently celibate.
Because you see, Jesus is not expressing an opinion on any particular moral issue here. What he is saying is that no moral teaching is appropriately preached, demanded or enforced by people who are not willing to lovingly and graciously get alongside those who are affected and give them all the help, encouragement and support they need to be able to bear the burden of the teaching. Without offering that friendship and that help, thundering about supposed moral evils is just a pharisaical tying of burdens on other people’s backs without raising a finger to help. The pathway to real growth in morality and righteousness is not made welcoming by strict laws and threats of condemnation and punishment, but by genuine friendship and supportive community. Cripplingly heavy burdens are not attractive. Gracious friendship, encouragement, support and help are always attractive.
And for the model of this in action, look at the one who is describing these differences to us. Jesus is one who was often criticised by the religious and morally upright for his non-judgemental friendships with those who were regarded as moral failures and as a danger to the moral health of the community. Somehow, in his company, such people felt safe and supported and able to begin to see the possibilities of their lives in new ways. So the things he does say about seeking righteousness always come out of a sense of real solidarity with those who are struggling and are entangled in webs of sin that they can’t seem to find any way of breaking free from. Even when Jesus speaks so harshly about the Pharisees and their burdensome leadership, he speaks from the position of one who is criticised by others for befriending and eating with Pharisees, and from the position of one who shares their burden of being a religious leader and moral teacher. For Jesus, solidarity and friendship always come first, and any confronting of behaviour comes only within that secure relationship.
And most importantly, and most illuminatingly, Jesus speaks as one who does far more than just lift a finger to help us. Jesus speaks as one who knows that he is on the way to the cross. He speaks as one who is himself carrying the greatest burden of all, the full weight of the violent sin and hostility of the world, bearing down on his shoulders in the form of a wooden cross and savage nails. And Jesus bears this burden willingly, surely not happily, but willingly, in order that all those who are tired and heavy laden might come to him and find rest and find themselves set free to be transformed in his image into a new people whose God-given righteousness might not fit in the old burdensome load of harsh regulations, but will lead us all through the cleansing waters and into the promised land of life and love and mercy to the glory of God.