Matthew 23:1-12 (CEB)
Ways of the legal experts and the Pharisees
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide phylacteries for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honour at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’
“But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher. But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up.
The crowds came to listen to Jesus – it must have been something of a popular spectator sport. If some kind of miracle wasn’t happening – then the Scribes and the Pharisees were getting a bashing – and that was always fun to watch. Many must have listened gleefully and cheered him on, adding their own choice insults and less-than-polite gestures to the embattled religious bigwigs. I have to say that it does make me a little uncomfortable to read the multiple passages where Jesus bashes the scribes and the pharisees. Maybe they did deserve it, maybe not – who am I to judge… but when the same group is regularly bashed and a crowd is pleased, it makes me nervous. Recently it’s Muslims, immigrants, asylum seekers… bashing them is a real crowd-pleaser. Tonight in Cranbrook it is a group of Travellers who have set up on the station car park. Playing to a crowd mentality, a mob-culture makes me nervous. Is that what Jesus was doing? I suspect not. I think Jesus was playing quite a subtle game. Fuelled by genuine anger at what was being done in God’s name – he lets fly at the Scribes and the Pharisees, and maybe he DOES encourage the crowds to join in – but for a reason. For once the crowds have joined in, and Jesus rails on about hypocricy and pride and seeking places of honour, suddenly the crowds are trapped – they are trapped into condemning themselves. It’s what Isaiah did with his masterful song of the vineyard:
Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it. He expected it to grow good grapes— but it grew rotten grapes. So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes? Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard. I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to rain on it. The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!
(Isaiah chapter 5:1-7)
The crowd are booing the vineyard – knock it down – burn it!!! Then they realise THEY are the vineyard and it is too late – they have condemned themselves.
Jesus has adopted Isaiah’s trick (The very same trick that Nathan plays on David in 2 Samuel 12). We are drawn into booing someone else – Pharisees and Scribes – and then it is too late, for we realise that WE are the Pharisees and Scribes… and it is too late – Jesus has helped us see ourselves as we really are – and we don’t like it… do we?