Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (November 5, 2017)

Today’s gospel sounds a bit strange: phylacteries, tassels, don’t call anyone teacher or father. It comes from Matthew’s Gospel, so we need to put on our Jewish ears to understand, for it was written for a Jewish audience.

The Jews were well aware of the continuity of their faith: God had revealed the law to Moses, who handed it on to Joshua, who handed it on to the elders, who handed it on to the scribes and Pharisees. [In football language, the Scribes and Pharisees missed the hand-off; they fumbled the tradition.]

What Jesus was saying equivalently is: “Insofar as the Scribes and Pharisees have taught you the great principles of the law which Moses received from God, you must obey them.”

What were the great principles? Think about it; you know them as well as I. The first three commandments . . . Regard reverence for God; the last seven . . . Regard respect for our fellow humans. The Ten Commandments are about two things: reverence for God and respect for others. Sounds like last Sunday’s Gospel: the primacy of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves was Jesus summary of the law and the prophets.

The religion of the Scribes and Pharisees became a religion of showiness because they took the Ten Commandments and spelled them out and out until they had 613 rules that were - in their words - fences around the commandments. For example, keep holy the Sabbath was a commandment, but the fences around it to make sure that no one “trespassed” included highly specified handling of food, footsteps allowed, etc. Etc. The love of God and neighbor became sidetracked with the “things of religion”.

We heard today some strange words that may be puzzling: phylacteries & tassels. In the book of Exodus, we read: [The Commandments] “shall be to you as a sign on your hand and a memorial between your eyes.” The idea, of course, was to pay attention to the commandments ready at hand, in the forefront of your consciousness. The Scribes and Pharisees wore at prayer - and still do - except on the Sabbath and special holy days - small leather boxes strapped to their wrists and forehead, called phylacteries. They each contain four important passages of the Hebrew bible. The scribes and Pharisees even increased the size of these to draw attention to themselves.

They wore tassels to remind them of god’s commandments; these are still worn today at the corners of the Jewish prayer shawl. They were enlarged to draw attention to themselves not to experience the will of God.

The design of the scribes and Pharisees was to draw attention to themselves. The design of Jesus was/is not to pay most attention to oneself. “He who loses himself finds himself.” “The greatest among you shall be the one who serves the rest.”

What are the lessons for us? Each of us has to examine our own situation. There are as many lessons as there are people in church this morning. I would suggest two questions for our consideration:

First, how do we focus too heavily on the things of religion and miss the reverence for God and the respect for our neighbor? It is easy to do. My reflection on this led to an insight. “Things” for me at this point in my journey are prayers “said” not prayed. Distractions during the prayer of the mass can lead to mass becoming a thing. The effort toward praying the Mass invites and involves relationship with our community and with our Lord.

Second, how do we draw attention to ourselves? Do we want to be the star, the center of attention? Football again provides an example about drawing attention. Who do we hear about? The key players! The starters. The coaches. Even the strong bench. The fans - “the 12th man.” Who does not get mentioned? The team servants! The squirters of Gatorade, the towel carriers. They are off-camera. Almost invisible. Nobody mentions them.

Doesn’t that remind us of Jesus’ words about the greatest being the servant? Doesn’t that remind us of Jesus’ actions? Taking a towel. Washing with water his disciples’ feet at the last supper.

Who is more Jesus-like in this Eucharist? I who preside and preach or the bread baker, the servers or the sacristan? Each plays a role in the celebration. This is community.

We will finish this sermon. I ask you to ask yourselves:

  • How do I lose sight of the great principles of reverence and respect and substitute practices that are not relational?

  • How do I - no finger pointing - draw attention to myself in the practice of religion?