“Live Up to the Label”
Texts: Matthew 23: 1-12 and 1 Cor. 1: 1-2
I want to begin the message today by dropping in on a conversation that was held between a tourist and a shop-keeper in Itewan, Korea. Itewan is a large marketplace area where tourists come to find and buy all sorts of stuff, from garments to electronics. (It might be in the same league with Hong Kong’s shopping districts.) Holding up a nice-looking sports jacket, the tourist asked, “What brand is this?” The shop-keeper replied, “What label would you like it to be?” The tourist responded with the brand name he preferred and so the shop-keeper reached into a drawer, took out that particular label, and sewed it onto the jacket. (Instant designer menswear!) Buyers today must beware of designer knock-offs because they have been around for a long, long time: Gucci, Pierre Cardin, Bill Bradley, Bill Blass, Coach, Versace and others have all been copied. Labels are easy to sew on garments, but also easy to sew on ourselves: Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples, Catholic, etc. But the label doesn’t really identify the true cloth from which the believer is cut. Like any quality jacket, one must “Live Up to the Label.”
The portion of scripture I read today from the beginning of First Corinthians identifies a label by which the early followers of Christ were known: “saints.” Paul said they are “called to be saints.” And this term is used throughout the Epistles, particularly by Paul. Often his salutations and his farewells include this word. In the Old Testament, the term “saints” extended to those persons who were set apart from the unhallowed world so that they would be clean enough and pure enough to lead God’s people. Because God stands in special relation to creation, certain things can be holy – like people, even an entire nation can be holy. Israel is called holy, a people set apart from others, God’s chosen people. In the New Testament, those who make up the church are called “saints” because they too are set apart to God. The Roman practice of isolating and persecuting the early Christians actually reinforced this sense of holiness or “saintliness.” The young church is seen as the new Israel, the new community separated from the world around it and dedicated to God. Their successors (us) will be the people of the end times to whom God will make good his promises.
I like the way Wheaton College professor and theologian, Gerald F. Hawthorne, summarizes things. “Because God is holy, that is … perfect in goodness and justice and love and purity, it is expected that his special people will pattern their lives accordingly.” Hence, (Professor Hawthorne concludes) ethics (our beliefs in action) belongs together with religion (our professed label). Relationship with the God of the Bible demands a moral response in accord with the character of God.” [I should have used that quote in my message last week : “Be All that You Can Be” in accord with the character of God. As my wife often reminds me, “Hindsight is 20-20!”]
But our scripture reading from Matthew 23 today gives us another label to examine (not a particularly flattering one) – HYPOCRITE ! There is nothing comparable to this passage and its sustained denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in any of the other Gospels. Mark 12 and Luke 20 have parallels to this one but they are much shorter! Matthew elaborates in order to make his meaning perfectly clear. The teaching of the scribes and Pharisees is okay – “do whatever they teach you and follow it.” What is so objectionable is the pretense around their teaching. Jesus gets specific, saying, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” ‘Phylacteries’ is a word that always needs some unpacking, but it can add to our understanding here. Hebrew tradition mandated that religious people wear scripture on their bodies, strips of vellum inscribed with special (kosher) ink and quoting passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy. They were mounted in little pouches and worn on the forehead (sometimes called “frontlets”) and also in the bend of the left arm. They were perceived and used as amulets (to ward off evil). When someone broadened their phylacteries and added decorative, “long” fringes, it amounted to ‘strutting their holy stuff’ in public. They were not in accord with the true character of God! [Someone has suggested that phylacteries were the printed-message Tee-Shirts of ancient times. (My daughter Cady’s favorite message Tee-shirt is: “Once in a while someone amazing comes along. HERE I AM.”) Here’s another Tee-shirt saying that sort of reflects the Pharisee’s attitude: “I am who I am… Your approval isn’t needed.”] The Pharisees, you see, were simply living up to the wrong label!
In the scripture reading today, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of preferring “to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,” and taking delight in honorific titles. That’s hypocritical! The true way of God is not pretentious at all. It is the way of authentic humility – the message of lowliness Jesus emphasized throughout his ministry. You heard his voice in verses 11 and 12: “The greatest among you will be your servant… all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus is looking for genuineness, transparency, the attitude of the person who is not seeking personal gain or recognition, but simply the opportunity of doing service. That matters, not the pretense or the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees.
Today is the day after All Saints Day. And it would be appropriate to apply our consideration of labels to someone who was called a “saint” for all the right reasons, Francis of Assisi. Although Francis was born into a merchant class family and enjoyed all the benefits of the new monetary economy in Europe, he had a profound religious experience early in life that led him to embrace a life of poverty. Voluntarily, he gave to the poor all he had and if his parents gave him more, he gave that away too. Dressed in rags, he spent his time praising the beauty of poverty to any who would listen. He would work to rebuild abandoned chapels and went off frequently to enjoy the beauty and harmony of nature. At one time, his father had him locked up in a cellar and appealed to the authorities. The bishop decided that, if Francis was not willing to use his family’s wealth responsibly, then he must give it up. So he gave up his inheritance and even returned the clothes he was wearing to his father. He left naked into the woods, where he lived as a hermit. In late 1209, he heard a reading of the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 10) where Jesus sends his disciples out to PREACH, taking with them no gold or silver. After that, he merged his voluntary poverty with preaching and identified with those who were poor out of necessity. After this conversion, he ‘Lived Up to the Label’ of a devoted Christian until the end of his life. His final words were: “I have done my duty. Now, may Christ let you know yours. Welcome, sister death!”
The original Greek meaning of the word hypocrite, our other label, was rather precise. It meant an actor or someone who, in Greek drama, hid his face behind a mask and played a part on the stage. The evolution of the word after that is obvious, but Jesus gave it a new twist. He condemned those whose lives were built around such superficiality and who totally misunderstood the real nature of religion. Jesus was concerned that such people would mislead others as to the real nature of God; that these “blind guides” would place obstacles in the way of those seeking God. This is a permanent danger with the institutional church and its leaders. Our dogmas and practices sometimes inhibit or repel those searching for God. Too often we hear people say, “I don’t go to church because there are so many hypocrites there!” True, but in the church we are seeking to follow the genuine example of Jesus. [Did you ever hear about the response Billy Sunday made to someone who used the “hypocrites in church” criticism on him? He said, “Go look in the mirror and see that you make their number one LESS!”] Sometimes we don’t even realize the level of our own hypocrisy. [For example, several years ago, a U.S. Senator, out on the campaign trail, was speaking in a city especially hard-hit by unemployment. The Senator delivered an impassioned speech. He decried the flood of foreign goods into the U.S. and called for strict import quotas. His staff was so pleased with the speech that they rushed a copy of it over to the local radio station. They were about to broadcast it when the station receptionist pointed out that the speech was recorded on a SONY tape recorder, delivered to the station in a Yugo and wrapped in a plastic container Made in Hong Kong.] They didn’t air the speech.
Perhaps that crazy holiday we observed last Friday night can give us some needed perspective here (Halloween). We all feel the impulse at times to put on costumes and pretend we are something or someone else. It can be fun. [In my lifetime I’ve gone to Halloween parties dressed as a Hobo, an Arabian Sheik, as a Frog with his Princess and I even dressed one time as an “Outhouse.” I’m not so proud of that one!] The pleasure derived from pretending and impersonating, though, is the essence of drama really. When matched with adequate characterization and good dialogue, it produces dramatic literature (especially comedy). Who will ever forget the image of the deceptive Mrs. Doubtfire?
While pretending and dressing up is acceptable in theater and imagination and with little costumed trick-or-treaters, it is unacceptable in religion and living out one’s faith. Something deeper, more genuine, more personal and more lasting is called for. Scripture cautions against those whose profession of faith doesn’t match up with their practice – those with an inconsistency between their words and their actions. We must avoid the virus of hypocrisy by accepting the antidote offered by Jesus – practicing lowliness and simplicity; not tooting your own horn, but playing on the heart strings of humility. In an unhallowed world we must “Live Up to the Label.” We are -- “called to be saints.”
Our Hymn of Affirmation is # 602, “O Master Let Me Walk with Thee.” As we re-commit ourselves to saintly service, if there is anyone who wishes to unite with this church officially by transfer of faith or by confession of Christ Jesus as Lord, you are invited to come forward and, well, ASK for the Label. Let us stand and sing!