Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

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I’ve always respected my father as a leader.  I consider it a privilege to have his example of Christian leadership in my life.  He’s a man who leads by example.  He does his best to get the job done right and always treats those under him with respect.

We all interact with leaders.  Many direct from behind by telling others what to do rather than leading by example.  We know of the parents who demand that their children do as they say and then do not live up to their own standards.  We know about politicians and celebrities who lecture about social responsibility while living in mansions.

Jesus is a man who led by example.

Jesus never asked anyone to do anything for him that he would not do for them.  He asked only, “Follow me” and then provided his example as a means to lead those he called to salvation.

For this, Jesus was also a threat to the established religious and social order.  There are always those who are privileged by the established regimes and governing institutions.

A hierarchical system serves those at the top.

And yet Jesus (after sending a rich young ruler away disappointed) promises his followers in his kingdom that the current roles would be reversed:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:28‭-‬30)

Jesus repeats this maxim, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” at the end a parable in the next chapter.  In the parable, there are workers in the vineyard show up early and then cry “unfair” when those who show up later receive the same compensation.

That is not a message the religious elites and privileged classes want to hear.

I mean, they (and their ancestors) put their time in, and therefore they deserve the place of recognition and respect.  Follow the rules, earn the prize.  God was obviously blessing them for their careful religious devotion… right?

Then here comes this agitator, this Jesus, who dares to challenge and rebuke them.  Not only that, this provoker, he tells them the tables will be turned, roles will be reversed and their kingdom will be left desolate.

Jesus begins his sermon in Matthew 23 by taking direct aim at the unhelpful religious elites.

The text…

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:1‭-‬4)

There is a derisive tone to those words.  In one line Jesus tells his audience that they must respect those in the position of power and then in the next, he describes those who hold those positions of power in a way that could be considered disrespectful.

I do not take the advice Jesus gave to, “be careful to do everything they tell you,” as an endorsement of the rules.  I believe it is simply an acknowledgment of the real power they held.  To “sit in Moses’ seat” meant they could have you killed and that is pretty good reason to pay attention.

These religious elites, who saw themselves as better than everyone else, did not “practice what they preach”, according to Jesus.  They heaped on a “cumbersome loads” of standards and yet were not living up to what they preached.

This could mean a simple double standard: one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other people.  It might also indicate that they loved the “letter of the law” more than the Author of the law.

I believe it is the latter.

The “experts of the law and Pharisees,” we are told, “diligently” studied the Scriptures, thinking that in their to devotion to them they had eternal life (John 5:39) and the rich young ruler also claimed to have kept the commandments from boyhood.  There is every indication that these were devout and sincere people.

However, where the Pharisees went wrong was in what they prioritized.

Jesus prioritized people over the letter of the law.

Read Mark 2:3-283:1-6.

When a man was forgiven and healed, the Pharisees were more concerned with their interpretation of blasphemy laws than they were in the miracle.

The Pharisees were more concerned with looking righteous in the eyes of their religious peers than they were in the well-being of those of lower position who needed healing and salvation.

In questioning why the disciples of Jesus did not fast along with everyone else, there was a lack of understanding that unique circumstances can demand a departure from the normal religious routine.

Regarding the Sabbath they saw a rigid true-for-all-time black and white standard, but Jesus reminds them of when David’s servants violated the Sabbath and points to the humanitarian intent behind the law.

Jesus, in his anger against the legalistic thinking of the religious elites, heals a man on the Sabbath.  For this defiance of their tradition they began to plot how to kill him.

The law of the Pharisees is described as a “heavy” and “cumbersome load” by Jesus.  But, in describing his own way, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

While the religious elites would not risk contamination (as depicted in the story of the Good Samaritan) and were “not willing to lift a finger” to move the burdens they put on others, those who followed after Jesus were instructed:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

The self-righteous elites were about preserving their status and image by following a religious code and demanding others live up to it, while Jesus led by his example self-sacrifice and urged his followers to prioritize love for others over their tradition.

The letter of the law is indifferent to the real needs of people.  The law is uncompromising and cruel.  It does not care about the impossible burdens it placed on those less privileged and powerful.  The law condemns all people to death.

The Spirit, on the other hand, is a comfort and helper in our time of need; he brings grace to those who will receive it.  A true follower of Jesus walks according to the Spirit (Romans 8, Galatians 5) and will help to carry burdens and bring newness of life.

Jesus speaks against the attitudes of Mennonite religious elites today.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been spared the worst that the Mennonite religious culture has to offer.  Yet, a lighter dose of the same wrong attitudes does surface from time to time.

My own experience with the uglier side of the denomination is pretty tame compared to what others have experienced.  In the conference I’m a part of (Keystone), we didn’t have the control-freak bishops playing “religious policeman” and constantly adding to the rules or micromanaging and excommunicating people who don’t fit the mold.

However, we do have the complacent unhelpful attitudes of those Jesus rebuked and the same resistance to change.  Many will only help in their religiously prescribed ways (words of encouragement, offered prayers, etc) but do not offer much burden-carrying outside the range of our established protocol.

Mennonite employers will often use their position to privilege themselves, nobly willing to move heaven and earth for their own families, but too often at the expense of employees and their families.  I know first-hand accounts of men who work less than bankers hours (for good pay) while expecting those under them to pick up the slack.

There can also be the attitude that those who aren’t as successful as we are did not try hard enough or otherwise “deserve” it.  We too often hold those raised outside of our communities to a standard we are only able to achieve because of our home and heritage.  We expect others to rise to our own level when we should be bringing ourselves down to theirs.

To follow Jesus means to give up our special privileges for the good and welfare of others.  It means to humble ourselves and lead the way he did in when he left heavenly glory to live and die for us.  We too must step down to meet people where they are and help them to carry their burdens.

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

That is how to be a Christian leader.

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What’s in a word?

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Words are interesting things.  The word “gay” for example.  According to my grandpa it once just meant happy and excited.  In Webster’s 1828 edition dictionary it carries the same basic idea.  However, compare that definition to those found in modern dictionary and the change is significant.

Words change in meaning.  Words like “retarded” to describe a person have been replaced with terms like “special needs” by those trying to soften the label.  But as a result, now saying “he’s ‘special’…” takes a whole new meaning and doesn’t imply greater or better.  Changing the labeling word has not removed the stigma associated with mental handicap.

Are Black Men Thugs?

The word “thug” is another word that has seemed to have evolved in meaning.  It once meant “ruffian” or a murderous criminal and yet lately it is often used for a much more specific group of people.  Thug seems the new favorite word to describe a young black person involved in a violent confrontation and that has raised the hackles of numerous social commentators who say it is a racist code word.

Richard Sherman, the ever so outspoken Seattle Seahawks cornerback, put it plainly when he suggested that the word “thug” is the new N-word. 

I do not go as far as some do, I do not believe it is a word used exclusively for young black men, and I do not believe all who use it intend it with a racial connotation.  I am doubtful President Obama or Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore, meant their usage of “thug” as racist and believe we should give all people the same benefit of doubt regardless of skin color.

That said, that doesn’t mean those who are describing “thug” as a new racist code word are totally wrong either.  I myself began to suspect something amiss with the word before it became a topic of widespread outrage and media hand wringing.  It was because of overzealous spam posts of conservative (white) friends that I began to wonder about the usage.

Will the Real Thug Please Stand Up!

A story, “INSTANT JUSTICE: Black Thug Tries to Bully ‘Little’ White Teen…BAD IDEA,” links a video showing a white teen mercilessly beating a black teen.  I can hardly see the justice in it.  Furthermore, if “thug” is just a general term for a violent person, why is the more violent of the two in the video only a “white teen” and not also a thug?  Hitting a dazed opponent seems thuggish behavior to me.

Another story, “High School Thug Bullies Classmate for ‘Talking White’ — Doesn’t End Well for Him,” shows one black teen harassing another and things turn violent.  Again race is the topic.  Again the one delivering the beating is the “classmate” and not labeled as a “thug” like the other guy.  It is a bit murkier because both involved are black.  But nevertheless you have “thug” versus “white” in the title and a curiously sympathetic accompanying article.

A third video, “NY Thug Picks Fight With Wrong Trucker, Gets Beating Of A Lifetime,” also starts after the fight has already began (removing context) and again the word “thug” is only used to describe the black participant.  Again the suggestion seems to be that the beating was a justified response.

Why is a young man described as “black thug” or “thug” and not just as a bully, harasser, instigator, etc?

I can’t read the minds of those who posted the videos.  But the framing of these stories does cause me to wonder about the intent in sharing them.  It would be as strange as a title, “Offended Young People Provoked by Thug Police,” to a story about the Baltimore rioters pummeling officers with rocks.  There would seem to be an intent to bias the reader at very least.

The (Thuggish) Hypocrisy on Both Sides…

Not every use of “thug” carries an extra racial overtone.  I believe it would not be fair to characterize it as a racist term or all those who use it as racists.  It is unfair to assume every person who uses a certain word has loaded it up the same as you do.

The word “racist” itself can be used in a prejudicial and unjust way.  The usage of the term “racist” to describe an offending white person is probably as damaging to them as any other contemptuous and derisive term.  Words like “privilege” and “redneck” are also questionable.  They are words used to categorize people and often unfairly.  Sure, many people use those terms as descriptive or even as terms of endearment, but the same is also true of “thug” and the N-word. 

In fact, the popularity of the word “thug” used to describe young black urbanites could have come in part to use of the word as a self-description: 

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Understandably is is different when a word is used as derogatory and not as a term of endearment.  But it should also not be a surprise when descriptions we use for ourselves are picked up in popular dialog and become a nucleus for stereotypes.

Making ‘Thug’ a Taboo Word Is NOT the Answer.

I am reminded of the wise words of W.E.B. DuBois in reply to Roland A. Barton in 1928 about the topic of names (please take the time to read the whole letter) and his solution:

“Your real work, my dear young man, does not lie with names. It is not a matter of changing them, losing them, or forgetting them. Names are nothing but little guideposts along the Way. The Way would be there and just as hard and just as long if there were no guideposts, but not quite as easily followed! Your real work as a Negro lies in two directions: First, to let the world know what there is fine and genuine about the Negro race. And secondly, to see that there is nothing about that race which is worth contempt; your contempt, my contempt; or the contempt of the wide, wide world.”

As an alternative to abolishing words (that will soon replaced by new words to fill the vacuum) and being offended at every turn: Be the solution.  The solution, of course, is to live outside of the labels used to box us in and beyond identities built around race.  The solution ultimately is for everyone to do unto others what they want others to do to them (Luke 6:31) and abandoning their right to retaliation.  Be what you want others to be.

Words come and go, so don’t let them define you!

Height Privilege is Overrated

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There’s no denying the advantages of being tall. 

Tall people are able to reach higher to get something off the top shelf and can see over a crowd.  It is a competitive advantage in many sports where factors like wing span or vertical leap can potentially earn millions and worldwide popularity.

It is a distinct social advantage to be tall.  Height seems to increase a candidates chances for winning elections, statistics show that taller men fare better in wage earning and in attracting female attention.  It is historical too, tall men seem to have been admired since at least the time of king Saul:

“Kish had a son named Saul, as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.” (1 Samuel 9:2)

Height is a factor in how people judge qualifications and character.  Short men who gain power are besmirched with the ‘Napoleon complex’ label to describe them.  I can’t imagine a tall man being called a weasel or rodent.  Furthermore, why is person lacking character called a “low life” or an insult to “belittle” a person?

This is obviously systemic discrimination and an insidious prejudice that seeps into the very way we construct language, right?

According to a Slate article, “Short Changed,” the proof is in the numbers:

“Economists have known for a long time that it pays to be tall. Multiple studies have found that an extra inch of height can be worth an extra $1,000 a year or so in wages, after controlling for education and experience. If you’re 6 feet tall, you probably earn about $6,000 more than the equally qualified 5-foot-6-inch shrimp down the hall.”

Armed with this knowledge, one could peg many things lacking in their life to their not being tall, they could claim their leadership skills have been overlooked because they were shorter than another candidate or claim their ambitions would be cast in a more favorable light if they had been accompanied by a 6′-2″ commanding presence.  A single guy of shorter stature could accuse women of being superficial and small-minded for rejecting him and could possibly be right.

But this also gives a lame excuse for lack of effort and honesty…

Maybe a guy is short and a jerk?

Or he’s not actually qualified despite his oversized ego?

Statistics tell us a story and they probably do indication some slight injustice towards short men.  But some damage could be self-inflicted as well.  When a person assumes they are handicapped or victims of discrimination they can react in a way that damages their own reputation and the conditions they create for themselves cause their own disadvantage.  If taller men have a psychological edge, then shorter men may be more prone to inferiority complex and a lack of confidence that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Life isn’t fair and there is no simple solutions to correcting these types of subtle injustices.  Measures taken to fix privileges of height based in overall statistics would likely create only another level of injustice if other disadvantages were not also considered.  How can we decide the benefits of beauty so that ugly people are properly compensated or determine what was a product of simple lack of trying?  Should we punish those naturally confident to make life fairer for those of timid disposition?  It is impossible to right every wrong.  It is hard to find who owes who when all things are taken into account.

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Nick Vujicic and Kanae Miyahara

My advise is to use disadvantages (real or perceived) as motivation rather than as an excuse to fail.  Nick Vujicic, pictured above with his wife, was not only born short, but he also has no legs and arms, but that didn’t doom him to a life of despair. 

Some of us have likely been discriminated against more than others on the basis of our height, age, gender, weight, ethnicity, race or beauty, but it should never be our excuse to hide behind.  We all have unique challenges, but these challenges we face can prove our strength of character and overcoming these giants will be to our credit.

It is interesting that the man who was picked to lead after king Saul (who had turned out to be an irresponsible and jealous man) was not picked for his unusual height or beauty:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  (1 Samuel 16:7)

David, the king who followed Saul’s reign, despite flaws, had courage and made no excuses.  David’s claim to fame was slaying the giant Goliath who had taunted Saul and his army to a contest that nobody including the tall king was willing to take on.  What David lacked compared to Saul in stature or notable appearance he made up for with faith and a good heart.

Short or tall it is better to be a David (or married to one) than a Saul.  Heart trumps height even if nobody but God notices.  So make no excuses and take on the challenges before you without fear or doubt.