“(Some) Pharisees, Gnats, and Weighty Matters”

1998 Covenant Conference
Morning Worship, Friday, November 6, 1998

“(Some) Pharisees, Gnats, and Weighty Matters”

[Matthew 23: 13 – 24]

by Michael Livingston
Campus Pastor and Director of the Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary

Russell, Aaron, Chastity, and Kristen. The names sound so ordinary, so all-American. Boy friends and girl friends. The double date ended in death. Can we cast this image from our minds? Matthew Shepard hanging on a fence, dead after eighteen hours in freezing cold, cut and bleeding, killed by a fatal blow to the back of his head? Crucifixion? Wild-West warning akin to the “practice of nailing a dead coyote to a ranch fence as a warning to intruders” (NY Times 10/13/98)? After they left Matthew, they went back into town and picked a fight with two Hispanic men who both suffered head injuries.

Message received. We are together, one, or we are utterly alone.

Today it is a young gay man; yesterday, it was James Byrd, Jr., hitchhiking down the road in Jasper, Texas; the day before, it was a woman jogging in Central Park. Tomorrow? Hate is on a journey, a crusade. It knows no bounds. Our century, not yet over, reeks of it. Our history, still in the making, soars with discovery and progress and is soaked with the blood of hate. And the weapons we yield are racism, homophobia, sexism, and, God help us, religion. Our intent is not always malicious.

And, God help us, religion! The Gospel writer Matthew was not above it. He was mad. Or something like it. Maybe he was just passionately determined to make the case against the rejection of Jesus by “the Jews.” He lumps the Scribes and the Pharisees together, “hypocrites,” and exposes their blindness to the truth, their blindness to the one sent by God to set humanity right. “Woe to you. . . .” He pronounces judgment upon their hypocrisy, meaning perhaps not that they are deliberately dishonest, rather, they were faulty in their teaching, badly missing the intent of the tradition they interpret and transmit. They extend themselves for converts, only to feed them insubstantial, nonessential food, neglecting or ignoring the substance of a nourishing, saving faith — Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel. They swear compromising oaths, while Jesus preaches: “Let your word be Yes, Yes, or No, No. Do not swear at all” (Matt. 5:34, 37)

Jesus did not hesitate to light into those whose words and actions assaulted the humanity of a neighbor. His condemnation approached invective, whether directed toward dictator or disciple. His images of retribution would make his movies R-rated — under 17 not admitted without an adult! He called Herod a fox; he stormed through the temple like a tornado through Kansas. He promised some religious folk that tax collectors and harlots would get to heaven before they did (Matt. 21:22). Causing a problem for children? Wear a boulder for a necklace and follow it to the bottom of the ocean! Your eye feasting on sin? Pluck it out and throw it away (Matt. 18:9)! To the insincere, he said, “I don’t know you; go away” (Matt. 7:23).

So there is little doubt among the community of New Testament scholars that Jesus pronounced the woes in the discourse in the text under discussion. But the context is lost, and Matthew has done what we all do, what I do. He took aim at them and let them have it. The stakes were too high, and we must help stop what Matthew and others started — blaming the Jews, that sweeping, indiscriminate condemnation made of bizarre theological confusion. It’s like blaming capital punishment on Congress because they pass the laws, or the Republicans in general because they popularize the concept, or Texans in particular because they are so good at it.

The truth is, humanity — variously frightened, enraged, lacking vision and courage, apathetic, alienated — humanity put Jesus on the cross, Joan on the stake, Martin King, Jr. on that balcony. Humanity tied James Byrd to the back of that truck, hung Matthew Shepard on that fence. We did it.

For the Gospel writer Matthew, “they” were the Jews. For us it’s the Bob Jones University crowd barring gay alums from campus.

“Dear Gay Alum,

With grief, we must tell you that as long as you are living as a homosexual, you, of course, would not be welcome on the campus and would be arrested for trespassing if you did visit.”

I wonder if he signed it: “Yours in Christ” or simply: “Sincerely, Jim Berg, Dean of Students”? Isn’t it illegal to send explosives through the U.S. Mail? I would tremble before opening every piece of mail thereafter. No thank you, Jesus.

Just as we know who “they” are, they know us as well. We are “they” to some of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the PC(USA). The moment requires plain, straight talk. We must risk all, even division — not desire it, not tempt it, not rush foolishly toward it. We must risk all for the fundamental truths of our faith: All our created in God’s image. Jesus offers salvation for all. The Holy Spirit “sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor.”

So I will tell you what I believe.

I have not preached one sermon on the matter of ordination of gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons. Not one. I am on record and in print once addressing the subject, and I didn’t volunteer for that assignment. I am neither bursting with pride at this relative silence, nor am I suggesting ambivalence at engaging the discussion in public. In conversation and other informal settings, I do not hesitate to make my convictions known, but honestly, I am almost hostile to the discussion. I intend no disrespect on those on both predominant sides of the issue who have spoken and written, preached, led workshops and seminars with intelligence and passion. This has been critical work and by it, many, many people have been moved to reflect more deeply upon this question and the profound web of implicated connections in theology, science, Biblical authority, hermeneutics. We are a richer community for the sharing of the deeply moving personal stories and the fresh and, in some cases, ground-breaking scholarship that has been offered to the church. From my own context, I think of Leong Seow’s stimulating and challenging book.

But I tell you, the entire enterprise is at once illuminating and harrowing, grace-filled and frightening, essential and baffling. Honestly, for me there is nothing to talk about, less to negotiate. I will not strain gnats with some Pharisees while a camel is stuck in our digestive tracts and a ton of weighty matter lies unattended. I will not ask a slave to remain so. I will not ask anyone to accept second-class citizenship in the body of Christ.

Let me say it plainly, and wonder what else there is to say: Let each and every dear one who hears God’s call in the wonder and mystery of God’s grace and providence — let each one stand before the church for examination and confirmation of that call. And let us beg God’s forgiveness for the hypocrisy at work in our midst, and our complicity in it.

This is what this extended discussion has felt like to me much of the time:

(Some) Pharisees at the Wheel.

We are driving down the highway
towards someplace good to go.
Ninety-eight years into night.
It is raining gnats;
The windshield is clouded
with them.
The little we do doesn’t help;
wipers swat in vain.
Dimming the light makes it too dark to see,
more speed
increases the volume and density of the cloud,
slowing begets miniature mayhem in slow motion.

In the rear view mirror
camels lie
dying on the road.

Gnats: myopic proof-texting, strict constructionist hermeneutics, polite pretense. Constitutional badminton!

We must embrace one another, of whatever opinion, in the body of Christ, accepting the grace of our communion. And we cannot meekly accept compromise on the truth we know and believe. We must not abandon our friends, our brothers and sisters, ourselves. They will come for you and me. We cannot be in that crowd.

I ask forgiveness for my anger and my impatience. Judge me, as God will. And do not think me carving out some high moral ground for myself here. Mine is just another perspective, I trust shared by at least a small but growing minority. In this we are all saints, hypocrites, scribes, and pharisees.

The louder, the more one swears to him or herself, “I am right!”, the less that one can claim to be good. Being right isn’t enough. We must be faithful. Patient, kind, lovers, not clanging cymbals. I do understand this.

There are moments when it seems we, all of us in our groups, our separate annual meetings, know and swear, in Matthew’s terms, “by what is on the altar”; know and swear by the value of the gold in the sanctuary, know before whom the door ought to be barred. Pharisees and gnats.

In God’s grace, may we at least more often gather around the same table, all of us, even the Lord’s table, and there meet each other and find Christ in our midst.

Jesus is the one who abandoned the throne of heaven and took the weightier matters into his own hands, unto himself: justice, mercy, and faith.


[Congregation] Amen. 

Charge and Benediction

In a difficult and confusing time, we must be clear about who we are and what we believe and to whom we belong. We must remain faithful to the Gospel which has claimed our lives. We must hold onto one another, gathering around the Lord’s table, remembering. We must trust that God will lead us through even this time.

And now, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all this day and forever. Amen.

[Congregation] Amen.

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