What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:5-12)

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The world loves distinctive dress and titles.

If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes.  Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.

The world judges by outward appearance.

People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold.  Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns.  The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.

The church, unfortunately, is not much different.  The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.

What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?

Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5‭-‬12)

The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.

Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves.  They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.

Jesus was unimpressed.  It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful.  Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.

But how is this applicable today?

Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.

However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then.  We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.

Here’s what we are doing:

1) Seeking the important seats:  I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter.  There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers.  Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention.  And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?

Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting.  From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.

Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children.  There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies.  We should always be considerate of others.

That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.

2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.

Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms.  The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.

How do I know this?

Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said.  I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.

Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying.  Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee.  With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.

And we do this too.  We may not seek fancy titles outright.  However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms.  Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls.  As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles.  Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…

3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress.  There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.

It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair.  They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23).  Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.

That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.

Which leads to my next point…

Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness.  They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion.  And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.

Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level.  We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are.  The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.

Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites.  We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded.  We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.

Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?

Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:

All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)

We are told to be distinctively dressed.  However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance.  Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)

Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order.  We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded.  It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.

If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob.  Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist.  I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.

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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!