Jesus often had occasion to take issue with the religious leaders of his time. The Pharisees really wanted to serve God well but they seem to have got caught up in the many details and perhaps couldn’t see the wood for the trees. The lawyers, or scribes, were professionals who worked hard to make sure that rules were in place which would protect the people from breaking the commandments but the list became burdensome. It would have been better to have listened to the prophets down the ages who demonstrated in word and deed what God required of his people.
The readings at the 2pm service on Thursday were Psalm 98, Ephesians 1:1-10, Luke 11:47-end. My reflection is given below:
There seem to be some people in this world who like to live dangerously. Not for them the 9 to 5 job, a house with a mortgage, a family, a bit of a vacation each year and the prospect of a reasonably comfortable retirement on a pension. Instead such people are busy pushing themselves to the limit in dangerous places: scaling mountains, trekking in the jungle, sailing single handed round the world, wrestling crocodiles, catching deadly snakes. The more dangerous the activity the better.
Jesus had been speaking to the Pharisees. He had pronounced woe upon them because they washed their hands scrupulously but their inner life, their hearts, were still full of wickedness. They tried hard to tithe even such as herbs, in order to give God his due, but they neglected justice and actually loving God. They loved to be noticed as important in public places. Jesus even called them unmarked graves, indicating that they made others unclean when they came near. Having heard all this, a lawyer challenged Jesus. He really must have liked to live dangerously!
Many of the lawyers were Pharisees, a strict religious sect who expected people to keep the law in every detail. The lawyers are also called scribes in the New Testament. Up to the second century BC all the scribes were students of Scripture but from then some were lay scribes who spent their time looking at the most minute detail of the law without reference to Scripture. It seems this lawyer felt he was being tarred with the same brush as the Pharisees and decided to complain. He should have known better!
Jesus then addressed the issues he had with the lawyers. Woe to them too. All their careful study of the law had resulted in creating a huge burden of rules and regulations designed to fence around the commandments, to make sure that no one inadvertently broke one. They decided how far a person could walk on the Sabbath, what kind of knot they might tie, how much weight would be considered work if it was carried. Having created the burden they did nothing to help the people to carry it. Instead they used their clever minds to find ways to get around the very laws they had created so that they could wriggle out of the demands made.
As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus saw them as being hypocritical in their treatment of the prophets. In building wonderful tombs for the prophets, we might imagine that that showed admiration for those commemorated. Down the ages people have done the same thing for famous and inspiring people who have died. In years past the saints had wonderful tombs, often in cathedrals. People looked up to the saints as examples to them, pointing to God and helping to bring them God’s blessings, and they honoured them as best they could. Jesus didn’t see the lawyers doing anything good in building the tombs. Instead he said that the lawyers were as guilty as their forefathers who killed the prophets.
Prophets are uncomfortable people to have around quite often. They act as spokespeople for God and they expect that the people will respond to what they hear. Many of their messages are not pleasant to hear; they may warn or admonish those who are not living as they should. They often tell their listeners what behaviour is required of them. They can also teach and give good advice and encouragement. They often pray for the people, interceding on their behalf, as Moses had cause to do on many occasions.
Often prophets suffered. Sometimes this suffering was what God required of them in order to properly demonstrate his message. Ezekiel lay on his side for 390 days to symbolise the judgement that would come on the people. The other kind of suffering came at the hands of those who didn’t want to hear the message the prophets brought. Jesus mentions two prophets, the first and the last from the Old Testament. Abel had listened to God and knew what kind of behaviour God expected. He lived the way God wanted him to. When he brought his offering of a lamb to God, God looked on him with favour. Abel pointed the way to correct behaviour without speaking, a prophet without a voice. When his brother Cain came with his offering God, who sees the heart, did not accept it. The state of Cain’s heart was shown by the fact that he murdered Abel in a fit of jealous rage.
Zechariah lived at a time when King Joash was persuaded to abandon the worship of God for the worship of idols. The Bible says that God sent prophets to bring the people back to him but they would not listen. God’s spirit came upon Zechariah and he asked them why they had disobeyed God’s commandments. He told them that as a result God had abandoned them. Far from repenting, the leaders plotted to kill Zechariah. (That seems chillingly to point to what happened to Jesus). In the end King Joash himself ordered Zechariah’s execution in the Temple court.
The lawyers Jesus was talking to had not taken the messages of the prophets to heart. Like their ancestors who killed the prophets physically, the lawyers killed them by not regarding their message which was for more than just the time in which they spoke. Had they listened to the prophets they might have been ready for the arrival of the Messiah, someone far greater than a human prophet, one to whom their history and prophecy had pointed. As it was, they stood in Jesus’ presence, they saw his works and yet they rejected him as their ancestors had rejected the prophets.
Jesus accused the lawyers of hiding the truth. They had become so tied up in their arguing of the finer points of the law that the truth was lost. Those who looked to them for guidance and example were led away from God, not towards him. The complexity of the man-made law made it too difficult to understand what God was like and what he truly wanted of his people. The love of God was no longer seen clearly. Instead the rules made him seem like a demanding tyrant.
Like those who wanted to kill Zechariah for asking them why they didn’t follow God, the Pharisees and lawyers became furious at Jesus’ words which pointed out where they had gone wrong. They plotted to kill Jesus if they could find a way to trip him up in his own words. They wanted to silence him forever.
We, of course, can comfort ourselves that we are not religious lawyers who are spending our days building fancy tombs to the great and the good of a bygone age and creating new laws. Or can we? What about our church buildings which mean so much to so many people? (Just because this is a virtual cathedral doesn’t give us an excuse as we feel attached to it too). In many places churches are threatened with closure as they are almost empty and the people there become very upset at the thought. However, we have to ask, if we were truly living out the words of Jesus, Prophet, Priest and King, wouldn’t the churches all be full? Are we actually silencing Jesus in much the same way as the lawyers did, keeping him as a dead prophet by ignoring his words? Meanwhile we make rules about who is in and who is out of the family of God.
The message we should be telling the world is a simple one of hope, forgiveness, acceptance and love. It’s the message that Paul wrote to the churches in the area around Ephesus:
‘God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.’