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Proper 26 | Ordinary Time 31, Cycle A

Sunday between October 30 and November 5 inclusive

The principal theme in most of the texts selected for our use this week is that the leaders among the People of God should be humble, diligent servants of God. Those leaders who are not humble, diligent servants of God are soundly condemned in these texts. These texts are, therefore, almost entirely parenetic, concerned about lifestyle. The proclamation that is present in most of these texts is proclamation of condemnation.

Joshua 3:7-17
This miracle story about how, as commanded by the Lord, Joshua directed the priests who were carrying the ark of the covenant to step into the waters of the Jordan River, and the Lord held back the waters of the river until all of the people of the nation had passed over the river on dry land is said in Joshua 3:7 to be an affirmation of Joshua by the Lord. Within this series of texts, therefore, Joshua 3:7-17 provides a counterbalance to the texts designated for this week in which religious leaders are condemned.

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
In these portions of this psalm of thanksgiving, the Lord is praised for redeeming and bringing back to Jerusalem the people of Israel who had been scattered into many faraway lands. The Lord is said to make desolate regions fruitful for those who are faithful and righteous and to turn productive areas into salty desert for those who are wicked. The power of the Lord over nature depicted here has some similarity to the acclamation of the power of the Lord in holding back the waters of the Jordan River in the Joshua 3:7-17 miracle story.

Micah 3:5-12
False prophets, priests, and seers who accept money from wealthy people after proclaiming what the powerful people want to hear are soundly condemned here and blamed for the destruction of Jerusalem and of its Temple. Unlike the false prophets, Micah is portrayed as filled with the Spirit of the Lord and, although the people do not want to hear it, condemning the people for their sins.

Psalm 43
In this third segment of a single psalm that is numbered Psalms 42 and 43, the psalmist cries out to God, asking diligently for recovery from a disabling illness and affliction that is preventing the desired pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. The plight of the psalmist is made more severe by the actions of unjust and deceitful men who have been oppressing the psalmist.

Matthew 23:1-12
Among the most significant aspects of the prophetic function is the condemnation of one’s own religious leaders who show outward signs of great piety but ignore or take financial advantage of the poor and oppressed in their society and religious community. It is likely that John the Baptist, Jesus, and many other Jews during the first century openly expressed this kind of criticism and condemnation of some persons within their own religious leadership, especially of Caiaphas and others within the Temple hierarchy. There are many instances within the Jewish Rabbinic Literature of negative criticism and condemnation of such religious leaders. Research and publications by prominent Jewish biblical scholars during the past eighty years indicate that most of the Pharisees of the first century condemned any religious leaders in their own and other Jewish groups who tried to exalt themselves. Throughout the centuries the Jewish tradition has been noteworthy for its relentless internal criticism. It is likely that some portions of what we have in Matthew 23:1-12 may have been based on reminiscences by followers of Jesus of what he said in condemnation of religious leaders among his own fellow Jews, especially of Caiaphas and other Temple priests.

Internal religious criticism, however, becomes external religious criticism when a group separates itself from its parent religious community and continues to criticize and condemn the parent religious community’s leaders. This is particularly inappropriate when criticism and condemnation of specific offenders becomes general criticism and condemnation of entire groups of people. The problems are greatly compounded and severe injustice emerges when the criticism and condemnation are incorporated into what becomes the sacred Scriptures of the new community of faith and the new community of faith is accepted by totalitarian governments using their power to try to pressure members of the older religious community who are relatively few in number and are powerless to accept the new religion that has become the civil religion of the state. All of these circumstances occurred as Christianity developed as a hybrid religion with a Jewish “mother” and a Greek “father” and after a few centuries of persecution became basically the civil religion of the Roman Empire and of its successors. Texts such as Matthew 23, therefore, should be subjected to conscientious criticism by sensitive and responsible Christians today, especially by those who use texts such as Matthew 23 in their Christian proclamation and parenesis.

The polemic against the Pharisees becomes much more vicious in the verses following Matthew 23:1-12, but the problems begin with verses 1-12. The Matthean redaction of Mark 12:37b-40 resulted in this more extensive composition in Matthew 23:1-12 that became the base for the series of vicious “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” condemnations in Matthew 23:13, 15-36. For our own integrity as Christian leaders today, we have the responsibility to redirect what in these texts became external criticism back into internal criticism. This should have been done during the canonization of the Newer Testament process. It would have been far better had it been done at that time, but since it was not done then it belatedly should be done now.

The least that we should do with Matthew 23:1-12 is translate “the scribes and the Pharisees” of Matthew 23:2 as “our religious leaders,” and “the synagogues” of Matthew 23:6 as “our religious gatherings.” In 23:5, “their phylacteries” and “their tassels” should be written as “their devotional aids” and as “their religious garments,” and “rabbi” in 23:7-8 should be translated as “my lord” or as “my teacher” in order that we may again use these verses properly for internal self-criticism. If even subconsciously these texts are used today in defamation of Jews, it would be better not to have used them at all.

The proper use of Matthew 23:1-12 will focus on verses 11-12, which record a reminiscence of what the Jesus of history probably said publicly many times. This portion expresses the unifying theme we can see in some of the other texts that have been selected for our use this week.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
The beautiful analogy that Paul used in 2:7-8, that he, Silvanus, and Timothy were “tender” in their care of the followers of Jesus in Thessalonica, like a mother nursing her child at her breast, ties this text into the unifying theme of humble, diligent servants of God. In verse 9, Paul wrote about the diligence that he, Silvanus, and Timothy had showed while they were serving in Thessalonica. This analogy and model is equally appropriate for us in our time and place.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen