4th Sunday before Advent
Sunday, 5 November 2023
Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost
It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.
This morning’s Gospel begins by drawing our attention to the Scribes and the Pharisees. A distinctive group of people who could easily be identified. But who were they? What do we really know about them, as opposed to what we imagine we know about them? The scribes and the Pharisees can easily become a wee phrase that simply means ‘those people over there who aren’t us’. Those people over there whose opinions and understandings we think we know – and probably won’t like. Those people over there who didn’t listen to Jesus, who chose to take a different path, who don’t have the truth, because we are the keepers of the truth.
The scribes were just as we might imagine – the people who scribed the sacred texts. And that is the practice to this day for the most holy of Jewish texts – scribes hand write the Torah on a scroll. Practice in contemporary Synagogue life is that when a new scroll has been commissioned, the final letter or letters are not included in the work of the scribe and are added by the Rabbi or leader of that particular community. It's a moving moment in the life of that scroll as its new community actively takes ownership of it.
The Pharisees on the other hand were religious scholars. And what was distinctive about them is that they believed, as many contemporary theologians do, that the Scriptures speak into the situation within which people are living; that the Scriptures need to be interpreted and re-interpreted; that God speaks to us and continues to speak to us through the words of the sacred texts.
The Pharisees were not the Temple priests. They weren’t the people who kept the temples and their sacrificial practices going. They were lay people who, I imagine because of their ability to bring the word of God to the people in a way that felt relevant to them, had a massive following. Don’t be mistaken, they were influential and powerful. But they were also radical. Their dialectic approach can be seen in contemporary Jewish scholarship and they are usually credited with the evolution of synagogues and Jewish places of teaching after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. They are the people who enabled Judaic theology to evolve, to remain alive and relevant. They were committed to holding a balance between Scripture and the oral traditions of their faith.
So this morning’s Gospel sees Jesus calling out the Pharisees. He’s not calling them out for their teaching, but for their way of being in the world.
It appears to be important to the Pharisees to be seen to be who they are; to be respected for who they are; to hold a particular authority within their communities. We’re told that they love to hear people call them Rabbi.
That need to be the voice of authority on a whole range of subjects is something that we are very familiar with in our contemporary world. I guess that the Pharisees were the first century equivalent of Influencers. They were engaging with people who knew the Scriptures, but who wanted guidance on how to interpret and follow them. It seems to me that we scrabble around in our contemporary world looking for the people who will guide and interpret our understanding of the world which we inhabit. As individuals and communities, we’re not always good at coming to our own views. It’s easy to be swayed by the louder voices. We know that there was a time when particular newspapers played a significant role in the winning and losing of General Elections – and boasted about that.
People continue to be significantly influenced in their thinking by what they read and hear. I guess that is especially true in a world where a news briefing or opinion piece is always available to us. Perhaps we find a commentator whose views resonate on one issue and then, in a way that is actually quite lazy, we look for their views on all sorts of other topics. Or we find people who we think are like us, are part of our ‘tribe’ and we fall in with the dominant view or mood.
I think that what Jesus was saying about the Pharisees was that the people needed to be discerning about what they took from interactions with them. Remember that the way the Pharisees thought and taught was to talk it out, to engage in robust dialogue.
Jesus is perhaps reminding the crowd that it’s OK, actually there are times when it’s good, to disagree. He modelled exactly that. He disagreed with the religious authorities. He took them on. He spoke with a different voice that they hadn’t heard before. Some people were convinced, and others weren’t. But his voice was heard and the invitation was to reflect, to pray about whatever was challenging and then, and only then, to form an opinion.
And that is the way of being and engaging that Jesus invites us into. He invites us to listen, to reflect, to pray and then to respond. Jesus’ way is not the way of instant response. It’s not the way of blindly following regardless of whether that is sensible or not. There may be an immediate visceral response to a situation, but we need to make time for a more measured intellectual and emotional response to emerge.
The prophet Micah is perhaps pointing in that direction. It’s hard to read this morning’s verses without relating them to what is happening right now in the conflict zones of our world. Micah is pointing towards the need to look at both oppressed and oppressor. Perhaps to recognise that those distinctions aren’t always clear. To acknowledge that the situations that may appear to be black and white are actually immersed in many shades of grey.
Across our world, right now, innocent people are victims of the decisions and ambitions of the powerful. And there are powerful people on all sides in all situations, just as there are victims on all sides in all of those global situations.
Micah reminds us that the voice we should be listening out for is the voice of God. And that voice may say something we didn’t expect. We may not hear God’s voice immediately. But what we do know of God is that God is in the midst of the pain and the anguish; in the midst of the confusion and the despair. Where else could God be?
The last verse of this morning’s Gospel reading reminds us where our focus should be. Those who are concerned about how they are perceived will be brought low. Those who humble themselves will be lifted up. I think for our purposes this morning, humbling ourselves is primarily about getting our egos out of the way, getting our desire for tribal approval out of the way, recognising our own helplessness in the face of such trauma, and listening. Listening to more than one voice. Listening to the word of God in scripture. Listening for the movement of the Spirit and finding the courage to form our own views and perspectives.
We may well encounter the voices of people who don’t dress like us or whose heritage is different from ours. Some people over there who it would be easy to dismiss. This morning’s invitation is to listen, to really attend to what we see and what we hear
I want to finish with some Midrash – that is the oral tradition that is a legacy of the Pharisees.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.