In the eighth week of lockdown, and having not ventured any further than the top of our drive, I was running out of things to do. I have never been bored - and don’t even understand the concept - but was beginning to fear that I might have to… so I fired up my trusty computer and began to do some serious housework on it.
If you are anything like me, your computer will have all sorts of stuff going back for years, much of which you will have forgotten, and some of which you really should have deleted, stuff which makes you cringe when you now open it.
That said, there will be other stuff. Hey, I ask myself, is the following little homily one of mine, or did I lift it without attribution from the work of AN Other? Either is possible, but I’d like to think that it’s one of mine. It hit my computer on the 22 August 2018. The following Tuesday, according to my diary, the Gospel reading was Matthew 23:23-26, and I was celebrant and preacher somewhere in East Wivelshire.
If we look through the Gospels, we find lots of examples of Jesus “having a go” at the Pharisees. In Matthew’s Gospel (ch.23), as well as other issues, Jesus touches on two areas which in my view are relevant to our Christian living today. First, he attacks the mentality of those who are sticklers for tiny details of ritual or doctrine while ignoring the fundamental issues of justice, compassion and good faith. The Mosaic Law levied a tithe on agricultural produce. Some rabbis scrupulously applied the law to the most insignificant of plants. Ridiculous, we might say – but that’s what they did.
A strict Pharisee too would carefully filter his drinking water in case he might swallow a small insect, which would be regarded as unclean. But, in being so careful of such silly bits, he might well overlook matters of much deeper importance. Jesus is not criticising a conscientious carrying out of rules and regulations. It is the attitude of hypocritical moral superiority which concerns him.
One can also meet practising Christians in 2020 who tie themselves in knots trying to observe the pettiest of regulations and can end up becoming shackled by so-called scruples. What is more, they can be highly critical of others whom they regard as ‘lax’. As just one example: folk who are more worried about not having fasted appropriately before Communion than focusing on what the wider implications of taking part in the Eucharist really means.
The second point that Jesus makes is to criticise those who concentrate on the tiniest details of external behaviour while totally ignoring the inner spirit.
There are certain Christians who speak and write at length about all the things that are not being “done right” in our Anglican Church, in its liturgy, and who claim for themselves a level of doctrinal and moral orthodoxy to which even Canterbury does not attain. Sometimes even Justin Welby does not come up to their expectations. The poor fellow just can’t win, whatever he does!
What is striking about these folk is the almost total absence of a sense of love and compassion in their writings and actions. They are only interested in “truth” and “orthodoxy” as if these things could exist outside of the nitty-gritty of human living. They can be more concerned about the tiniest rubrical details of the liturgy than about the Eucharist as truly a sacrament of a loving community prayerfully centred on the Person of Christ.
On the outside, their behaviour is impeccable but inside there is a total lack of a true Gospel spirit, the spirit of love and integrity, of compassion and a sense of justice for all. Instead, there can be a heart full of self-righteousness, criticism, anger, resentment, contempt for those who do not think the same, all cloaked in this outer veneer of moral and ritual rectitude.
These two attitudes are closely related and all of us can be touched by them in one degree or another. Let him or her who has never criticised another fellow-Christian cast the first stone!