A Religion for Show

28 August 2007. Memorial of St. Augustine of Hippo
Matthew 23, 23-26 A Religion for Show

The Gospel today is part of Matthew’s seven woes of the Pharisees (Luke has six). These woes are Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees, Scribes and Teachers of the Law. Teachers of the Law includes those who instructed children in the law, who wrote legal documents for others and those who took upon themselves the role of interpreting the law according to the teachings of earlier Pharisees. There are two strong words in the Gospel today: He called the Pharisees, “Blind” and “Hypocrite”. To be a hypocrite is to be a fraud, a deceiver, a fake. He puts on a show. They have concerned themselves with the minute interpretation of the law (50 volumes!), but they neglected the more important matters of faith as justice, love of God, and mercy. In their mistaken passion for the law, they lost sight of God and the purpose of the law.

Jesus first example is in verse 24, “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” Leviticus 11 said that if an insect fell into one’s drink, they should be removed from the cup before it dies, or else it contaminates the drink. But any animal smaller than a lentil (eg. Garbanzos, chickpeas, etc.) like a gnat (common name for non-biting flies, looks like a mosquito and comes swarming like flies) are exempted. Although for many of us, we do not want a dying insect in our drink! The point of Jesus was that the Pharisees concern themselves with the smallest detail of the gnat, but did not mind swallowing a camel. The camel was explicitly unclean under biblical law (Leviticus 11, 4), but were the largest animal in Palestine. By focusing too much on minute matters, they neglected the weak and the needy. With all the rules and regulations they put unnecessary burdens on others while neglecting charity. The essence of the Law is love, justice and the mercy of God. The law without love is empty. In other words, they missed the mark.

Someone who misses the mark mistakes the externals as the most important than the human heart. Like giving more attention to the outside of the cup than its insides. Like fashion. Michael Bergin mentions in his book, The Other Man, how he felt like a commodity in the fashion industry when he was starting as a model. What matters is what they want to get from you, and not who you are. The photographer took a picture of his abs without even looking at his face. American author and social columnist, Fran Lebowitz said that “All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”

Presentable means how we look. We judge by what we see. The clothes we wear. How long the reader’s skirt should be. Is our religion for show?

Quite the opposite with God. It is desirable that what people see externally is a reflection of who we are. There is no pretension when what we are and how we appear are consistent. What you see is what you get. Like mothers who see the truth in us. The ideal then is best said using a 20th century Chinese proverb: There is only one beautiful child in the world; and every mother has it.

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