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Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 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. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Today we hear Jesus endorsing the authority and power of God’s law, whilst also criticizing those who administered that law in his time, the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus tells the crowd to heed what they are being taught, and to put it into action. But … Jesus is also cautioning the crowds against adopting the ways of their religious leaders: do not do as they do.
In a less enlightened educational climate it was not uncommon to hear an adult say to a child: ‘Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you!’ This pernicious doctrine was never anything more than a way of establishing and maintaining power over a weaker person. This irrational doctrine is condemned utterly by Jesus in today’s reading.
In the life of the Church there is often talk of the ‘Good Old Days’. Similarly there can be an over-abundance of influence from those who espouse the mythology of those ‘Good Old Days’. In reality a census of church attendance on Mothering Sunday 1851 reveals that, as a percentage of the population, engagement with the Church of England was at an alarmingly similar rate to attendance today. Yes, there were spikes during and immediately after major world conflicts but, basically, there never were any ‘Good Old Days’ of perpetually filled pews. There was a time of greater respect for and generosity towards the Church. There was a time of local social condemnation for non-Churchgoers. But, as in every other aspect of our lives, there were no ‘Good Old Days’. Demanding that we behave as they did in earlier times is to behave as the scribes and Pharisees condemned by Jesus today.
In today’s reading Jesus is urging us to follow the path of faith with total commitment and sincerity. He is warning us of the dangers of mindlessly copying our predecessors because ‘it worked for them’. They lived in a different time, and their relationship with God was no less problematic. Yes, we learn from our ancestors and from those more knowledgeable than ourselves, but we then need to bring that learning into our world. God has not changed, but we certainly need to. We need to constantly ask ourselves whether our preferred way of carrying on is God’s way, or are we just dreaming of those ‘Good Old Days’ that never really existed?