Fringes and Phylacteries

Then 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. — Matthew 23:1-12 NRSV

Somehow, when I read this story I’m reminded of the emperor’s new clothes. The emperor struts around wearing what was purported to be the finest in garb although the emperor had to take the tailor’s word for it since he couldn’t see a stitch of it. That tailor was a real salesman. Nobody else could see a stitch of it either, but the emperor was convinced of his excellent attire and proud to be seen in it. Nobody said a word — except a small child who brought the entire parade (and the emperor) to a screeching halt. Out of the mouths of babes, they say, come the real truths. The emperor found out the reason he couldn’t see a stitch wasn’t because he needed a new ophthalmologist, he just needed a dose of the reality.

Clothes have always been a status marker — the more wealth and prestige someone has, the better the quality (and quantity) of their clothes. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees and scribes were the top dogs and their dress reflected that. They were in positions of religious power and they enjoyed it to the hilt. Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t enjoy being in a position where they were the most important person at a formal dinner, be able to get the best seats at the symphony or\the ball park simply because of their rank, or even enjoy having lots of people look to them for guidance or help? Who wouldn’t want to play the leading role and be recognized as such, to be able to set policies and practices, even if it imposed harsh burdens on the people who supported the infrastructure? It’s all part of being top dog, whether in Biblical times or now.

The lesson isn’t just about clothes or even status. It’s about saying one thing and doing another, especially those in positions of power or authority. I think of the government officials who have spoken out so forcibly about honesty and transparency but who have been found to have committed grave lapses in ethics. Ministers and televangelists who have been so vocal in their condemnation of immorality suddenly find themselves in TV news reports that shine a light on their own behaviors and compromising situations. Everybody makes mistakes, but when someone is in a position of power or authority, it behooves them to live up to what they tell others to do, especially when those people who are being told what to do are also being asked to continue to “support God’s work” or “support our efforts to …” It’s enough to make a body lose their appetites if not their faith in authority, possibly even in God.

Jesus talked about being a servant, even and especially if they were in a role of leadership. It isn’t about going around washing people’s feet or letting them get in the elevator first or even pitching in to actually work (rather than just pushing the workers) on a project that’s closer to deadline than completion; it’s actually about the spirit of the thing. Doing it for the wrong reason, doing it so that people will see and admire the person rather than the act and how it is performed, creates pride in the doer that can easily lead to them believing their own press.

I’m no leader, not by any stretch, still, I have my own part to play in being a servant who practices what I preach, whether or not, according to St. Francis, I use words or not. I’ve found that sometimes doing something quietly and not having anyone see it can be a very joyful thing. Oh, I don’t think it’s terrible to be praised for something I’ve done or feel pride in it, so long as that pride doesn’t become an addiction, something I absolutely have to have. I also have to be careful not to make being humble a form of arrogance as well. That’s as dangerous and as prideful as walking around with long fringes or wearing a ball gown to help feed homeless people at a shelter. I have to match my words to my actions, the lesson I think Jesus was trying to get across.

It’s all about motivation, and motivation is everything — whether I wear long fringes or merely stand in the crowd and watch the emperor go by. Oh, and I need the courage to tell the emperor to change ophthalmologists because he can’t trust what his eyes are trying to tell him.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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