Scripture: Matthew 23:13-26
Key verse: (13) “You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”
Reflection: “Jesus never judged anyone and neither should we.” That was the comment made by the candidate for ordination on the floor of Presbytery that day. I remember wondering, “Has he ever read Matthew 23?”
Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel features five of seven “woes” Jesus proclaims to the religious leaders of his day. They are blistering, providing a tangible example of what some of our Advent prophecies concerning the Messiah might mean. Last Sunday we heard from Isaiah 11:4, “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Matthew 23 certainly embodies this “holy dope slap,” as one of my friends puts it. It fulfills some of the prophecy of Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” Jesus really lays the wood to these religious leaders. He calls them “hypocrites, blind guides, and white washed tombs,” just to name a few of his pointed invectives. He criticizes them for striving to convert people, but making them twice as much a child of hell as they are. (Ironically, Jews were not known for proselyting, so I’ve always wondered who Matthew’s Jesus was talking about here.) He judges them for following the letter of the law, but totally missing the spirit of the law defined by justice, mercy, and faith. He accuses them of being absorbed by outward appearances, but neglecting the greed and self-indulgence that fills their hearts. He charges them with building monuments to prophets of the past whom people like them killed. Ouch.
Jesus never judged anybody? For the record, he never judged the crowds. He never judged sinners — he forgave them. But Jesus absolutely judged self-righteous religious people who thought they had it all figured out. I wonder what Jesus would say to the church today. How do we lock people out of the God’s kingdom? How do we refuse to enter it ourselves? How do we get caught up in the rules and regulations of religion and miss what faith is all about? How do we honor profits of the past whose words we reject in our own time? As a religious leader of my day, Jesus’ words leave me trembling in my boots.
In the midst of this Advent season, let us consider these questions. As people of faith, how do we miss the mark? How can we open ourselves to God’s beloved community and welcome those who seek it? How can we keep focused on loving God with all we are and our neighbors as ourselves? How can we honor the prophets of yesterday by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God today? Matthew 23 calls us to live in response to these questions.
Prayer: Forgive me, O God, for all the times in my life when I’ve fallen short of your hopes for me. Help me hear your challenge not as a word of judgment, but as a corrective born of love and your desire for me to be who you created me to be. Free me to live in faith that I might know the joy of deep communion with you and with all my neighbors. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.
Author: Joe Clifford
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].