The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26), November 5, 2023

October 25, 2023 | by Beth Hayward

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Matthew 23:1-12

If you’re preaching the gospels over the coming weeks, it’s a long haul through Matthew; this, on top of the energy required to get us through this busy season to the new year almost in reach. I urge you to catch hold of what holds energy in the texts, what draws you toward novelty of interpretation, and run with it. You don’t want your preaching to be hard slogging. Advent awaits and you want to arrive there with a bit of wind left in your sails. Besides, any text that contains the words phylacteries and fringes, must contain some rich nuggets of wisdom.

Before we delve in, a reminder and caution. Tension between Jesus and religious leaders is a common thread throughout Matthew’s gospel. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that it’s easy for us preachers to accidentally fall into old patterns of interpretation. First thing to avoid today is picking on the Pharisees. This can too quickly land with an antisemitic tone that is harmful in a pluralistic culture and not accurate to the text. Others have written extensively about the historical context of the day, look to reputable sources to avoid any nuance of antisemitism in your interpretation.

Since this is the Process and Faith commentary page let me suggest one way to lean into preaching through a Process lens is to hold the text beside tenants of Process thought. A rich place to begin is with Jay McDaniel’s “20 Key Ideas in Process Thought.” These are not specifically tenants of Christian Process Theology, but all can apply with just a bit of work. I come back to these often when preaching, to test whether the text before me resonates with one of items on the list. This can provide interesting preaching angles. If you’re looking for a great summation of Christian Process Theology, McDaniel also offers this:  I can’t say enough good about his ability to put big ideas into relatable words.

There are several tenants of Process thought that reverberate with this text but today I’m feeling drawn to number nine from McDaniel’s list: “The Primacy of Persuasion over Coercion: There are two kinds of power – coercive power and persuasive power – and the latter is to be preferred over the former. Coercive power is the power of force and violence; persuasive power is the power of invitation and moral example.” From a Christian Process Theological stance, we’d speak of God as a persuasive presence in the universe. We’d speak of the ways that God is not all powerful in the traditional sense, that God does not abdicate power, instead God’s power is, by nature, always persuasive and never coercive. We turn to the text, with this in mind.

Jesus doesn’t tell us that God is persuasive, instead he models it. Addressing the crowd, Jesus critiques the actions of religious leaders who puff themselves up and demand behaviour from others they are not willing to ask of themselves. A close look reveals that his primary concern is not those religious leaders but the great crowds of people before him. He’s not so much condemning as he is inviting the crowds gathered to live from their truest authenticity. His invitation is for self-reflection that leads to action: lives measured against what God asks of us, not what the world is willing to accept. He seems to be inviting us to think before we act, to ground ourselves in a bigger story of compassion and humility. There is nothing coercive about this, no “do this or else,” no sense of shame or judgment. He simply invites the crowds to practice the teaching of their tradition.

It gets me thinking about how followers of Jesus for most of the mid to late 20th century, certainly in the west, didn’t need to think about what it meant to practice the teachings of our tradition. We held a place of cultural dominance that allowed us to avoid the kind of self-reflection that clarifies and refines the interpretation of our teachings. One of the hidden gems of the church losing social status is that we need to get far clearer about who we are and why we do what we do. These days, people want their leaders to be authentic, they question authority, they demand congruence of values and action. The best way to offer any of this is through a posture of humility.

It’s in the last few verses that this passage really comes alive for me. Specifically, when Jesus says that you are not called to be instructors. I think of the countless ways that the church has assumed itself to be the instructor of all things moral, ethical, social, even political. It can be easy to slip into knowing what is right and endeavouring to instruct others, (this holds for the left as much as the right). And let’s not fool ourselves, keeping up appearances is alive and well.

What is demanded here, or should I say what is invited, is to put aside our need to be the teachers. The alternative, presumably, is far more work. If Christ is the instructor, what does that mean? It can’t mean merely using 2000-year-old texts to find all answers. Instead, there is an implicit role of discernment here. If Christ is the authority in our lives, then it is through our spiritual practices that we determine what is the appropriate course of action in any given circumstance.

Focus here on the invitation to humility, to a life of not knowing, of deep curiosity, of listening to the Holy in our midst. Yes, there’s a caution to avoid puffing ourselves up, but the invitation is so much greater. What isn’t said quite strongly enough is the truth that life is so much more fulfilling when we live humbly. The teaching of this passage is about the humble being exalted. To practice Christian teachings is to be humble.  Seems to me you could dig deep into what it means to be spiritually humble these days and to consider how this might be persuasive in inviting others to be part of a renewed humble expression of Christian discipleship.

Finally, not to be overlooked is that Jesus is addressing the crowds. The work of discerning the call of the divine is best done in community. The work of continually rooting in humility, happens in community. Maybe you lift-up times you’ve seen the power of community, from a stance of humility, being persuaded by Spirit to take action that once seemed utterly impossible.

Beth Hayward is an ordained minister with the United Church of Canada. Having served congregations from coast to coast in over 20 years of ministry, she describes herself as a practical public theologian. Beth is particularly interested in the ways Process preaching can inform authentic communal experience and transform the way people engage with their neighbours in a pluralistic world. You can connect with her through her website