Matthew 23:1-5; 13, 23-28
When I was in the 6th grade there was a guy in my neighborhood that decided he would make my life very difficult, and began to bully me. I was a fairly small kid so I was an easy target. One of the ways bullies work their intimidation is by having a few of their friends along with them, which is what this guy did. Bullies also seem to enjoy dragging out their intimidation over a period of time. For a number of days at school, and on the school bus, he would tell me what he was going to do to me, and his friends would chuckle. He would stop me in the hall, with his friends behind him, and give me a few shoves or call me a few names, and on the bus would sit behind me and harass me. And through the process he would be counting down to the day of reckoning, when he and his friends would get off the bus at my stop and attack me. As the day drew closer I was really worried. It’s not that I hadn’t been in a few fights before; it’s that I had a perfect record – I lost every one. I didn’t know what to do. What do you do when you can’t come up with any solutions and you feel a sense of desperation? You pray! I prayed, and in those prayers of my youth it became obvious to me that no matter what those guys did, I should not respond by striking back, which, I have to admit, didn’t seem like a very wise course of action. But Matthew 5:38-39 came to mind, because we had talked about them at church and they stuck in my mind – You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes on the right cheek, turn to them the other as well.” I have to admit, that didn’t sound like great advice to me. I didn’t want to lose a tooth and I didn’t want a black eye, but this was the advice of Jesus. On the way home from school that day, I got on the bus, and this guy and his friends came down the aisle. He slides into my seat and pushes me against the wall of the bus, and reminds me it was the day they were getting off at my stop. And then he asks me what I was going to do about it. I gave him my answer – that up to that moment I was still thinking might not be the wisest course of action – but I thought what have I got to lose? So I looked at him and said I’m not going to do anything. You can guess his answer – are you a chicken? Well, I was afraid, but I was trying not to let that show. My answer just popped out; it was something like this – Jesus said I shouldn’t strike back if someone hits me so whatever you do I’m not going to do anything back. And I remember his reaction so well. He had one arm behind me on the back of the seat and the other on the seat in front of us and he started shaking his head up and down, like he didn’t know what to say. He just kept shaking his head and finally said, okay, okay, okay. And then he stood up, went to another seat, and never bothered me again. I couldn’t believe it – I thought, wow, this stuff really works!
There are times in life when we have to stand up and say something, and it is often difficult to do so. As we continue our series of messages called Think Again, we come to a man who decided to speak up. His speaking up so altered world history that there is a holiday to commemorate what he did. It’s not a major holiday, but it’s an important one, nonetheless.
The man’s name is Martin Luther, and the holiday is Reformation Day. October 31st of this year was the 495th (1517 AD) anniversary of his actions that led to the recognition of Reformation Day.
On that date Martin Luther took an article he had written – Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (better known as his 95 Theses) – that sounds like a real nail-biter, doesn’t it – and nailed it to the door of All Saints church in Wittenburg, Germany. It was a list Luther had compiled of grievances and questions that he believed must be addressed by the Catholic Church. At the time, Luther had no idea that he was setting into motion a series of events that became known as the Protestant Reformation. His simple act of nailing the 95 Theses on the door of All Saints church completely reshaped our world, to the point that had he not done so we would not be sitting in this church today.
One of the many contributions Luther made is the idea of speaking up, of protesting against the things that need to change. Though Luther never set out to create the movement that became Protestantism, we are Protestants because of him. The word Protestant comes from protest or protestor.
There are many things that should cause us to speak out, and certainly at the top of the list is the abuse of people.
Our Scripture passage for today cites a few verses out of a longer passage. In these verses Jesus is absolutely blistering in his criticism of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. These verses are Jesus’ protest against the way religious leaders such as the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees were treating people.
Listen to what he has to say.
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples,
2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;
3 therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. 4 They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.
5 But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.
13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.
24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.
28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Jesus has some real issues with these guys, and rightly so. They were imposing such a heavy burden of guilt and hypocrisy and judgment and works oriented religion upon people and because they were doing so Jesus speaks up and is absolutely withering in his criticism.
The world, sadly, hasn’t changed much. People are still being mistreated, and we need to speak out about their mistreatment.
One of the great tragedies of modern warfare is the horrendous violence directed at civilians, particularly women and children. Violence, and particularly sexual violence, has become a tool used to devastate populations.
Week of Compassion is a partner in Speak Out Sunday – designated as next Sunday – which is a time to bring awareness of sexual and gender based violence both locally and around the world, and Week of Compassion has information on their web site. But it’s not just in warfare; it’s right here in our own country, and in our own community. Did you know that in the United States, 1 out of every 3 women are victims of sexual and gender based violence? One out of every three. Look around this morning and start adding up numbers and that’s a lot of people.
Our news media’s current obsession is the David Petraeus scandal. I wish they would remember there are some other things that bear mentioning. They are consumed with that story, while they have almost completely failed to mention that within the ranks of the military violence against female soldiers has increased dramatically in recent years. Those are our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and daughters. And the added tragedy is that some of our most trusted institutions have failed us in this area – schools, universities, the military, and even churches. Who will speak up for these people? We must. We cannot be silent at the abuse of people.
Can you imagine if some of our greatest social problems got the media coverage to match the Petraeus scandal? The media is far too silent about many of the struggles facing people. We get a few mentions of poverty, but it doesn’t get much coverage. A piece buried in the news the other day was a surprise – do you know what state has the highest poverty rate? California, at 23.5%. Not what you expected, is it? Do you know what state is second? Florida, at 19.5%. The recession has exacted a painful, painful toll on people.
There are many people who are forgotten by our larger society. They live on the margins of life, struggling to get by. They are the people who fall through the cracks, they are the children who are abandoned, they are the single parents struggling to raise their children, they are the lonely, they are the abused, and they are our relatives, our friends, and our neighbors.
One thing churches have done far too often is to speak against people, rather than on their behalf. Too many times churches have been quick to point a finger of judgment and too many times churches have been quick to speak words of condemnation. Imagine the difference if churches were quicker to speak up for people instead of speaking in judgment of them.
Jesus always stood up for others. He stood up for the woman taken in adultery, when the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees wanted her to be put to death by stoning (John 8:1-11). No wonder Jesus spoke so harshly to these men – look at what they were willing to do to this woman. He stood up for the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26). She was ostracized by her own community and even the disciples were troubled that Jesus spoke with her. He stood up for the woman who anointed him shortly before his crucifixion (Mark 14:1-9).
In 1521, four years after he nailed those arguments on the church door, Martin Luther stood before the Roman Emperor and leaders of the church to answer charges of being a heretic. One of the most brilliant theologians of the day, Johann von Eck, asked him this – Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand Scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? I ask you, Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain? Luther’s response has become famous for his bravery and conviction – I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against the conscience is neither safe nor right. God help me, here I stand. Amen.
(Word of God Across the Ages, Bill J. Leonard, 1981, Nashville: Broadman Press, p. 34).
It’s tough to speak up. It’s tough to challenge authority. But walking in the way of Jesus means there are times when we cannot be silent.