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Burdened Vessels

November 3, 2002

Matthew 23:1-12

by Tony Grant


Burdened VS Privileged

Last summer, on a clear Sunday afternoon in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, a twenty-five ton powerboat ran into, and over, a sloop under sail. The powerboat was a Tiara 4000 Express with a top speed of 33 miles per hour. The sailboat was an ultralight Colgate sloop, moving at about five miles per hour. It is not hard to imagine who came out on top. The powerboat hit the sailboat smack in the middle, demolishing the cabin and partially submerging it. The crew of two on the sailboat were thrown into the water, and quickly rescued. The operator of the powerboat said he did not the sailboat. How can you not see a sloop with a thirty-five-foot mast and raised sails? [Sherwood, J. "Powerboat plows into sailboat," Soundings Newspaper, September 2001,]

What we have here is a clear case of a burdened vessel beating up on a privileged vessel. For generations, seagoing folks, nautical folks, have used the terms "burdened" and "privileged" to define the status of two ships encountering each other. The privileged vessel is the one with the right of way, the right to proceed uninhibited by the other. The burdened vessel is the one that does not have the right of way, the one that must stay out of the way of the privileged vessel. For example, sailboats are privileged and motorboats are burdened, meaning that motorboats must yield the right of way to sailboats under sail. This obviously did not happen on that clear Sunday afternoon in the Chesapeake Bay.

While Jesus spent a fair amount of time on boats, he did not use the terms "burdened" and "privileged" in a nautical sense; but he knew all about privileges and burdens. "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat," says Jesus; "therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it" (Matthew 23:2-3). Jesus has no problem with the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. He respects their teaching and administrative authority, an authority neatly summed up in the expression, "Moses' seat. " Moses' seat was a seat of power, much like the seats of power we know today in city halls, in state capitals, in Washington, D.C., on Wall Street, and even in religious centers such as Vatican City. Many of us will be voting this Tuesday for candidates we want to send, or return, to certain secular seats of power. It does not bother Jesus that a seat of power exists. What makes him furious though is that the power-people are blatant hypocrites.

Let us talk about what hypocrisy is. I have here a newspaper. Suppose I said to you that newspapers are wonderful things even as I begin to tear up the newspaper, ripping it into tiny pieces. As I destroy it, I continue to talk about the many good features of the newspaper: the weather report, local news, sports scores, comics, advice columns. I finish by showing you a pile of shredded paper, and say, "Yes, you really should read the newspaper," and offer you a handful of paper scraps. Does it make any sense to praise something and then tear it up. Of course not! That is exactly what Jesus was talking about. Jesus got mad at people who praised the good commandments of God, but then broke them.

"Do not do as they do," Jesus thunders, "for they do not practice 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" (vv. 3-4). The Pharisees tell people to keep all these rules and regulations, but they do not keep them themselves, and they do not help others keep them.

Jesus considered pharisaic purity laws to be human traditions. "Listen and understand," he calls to the crowd in Matthew 15: "it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles" (vv. 10-11). Now I remember the first time I every read that verse in Matthew 15. It struck me immediately that if Jesus made that statement, he was not a Jewish Rabbi, at least not in the ordinary meaning of that term. In that one verse, he threw out all the dietary laws of the Old Testament. As far as spirituality is concerned, it does not matter what you eat. But it matters what you say and think and do.

Eating hotdogs is not a sin. Murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander--those are sins. And in a direct attack on the Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus accuses them of breaking a clear commandment of God when they give support to the temple instead of to their aging parents. It is far more important to obey the commandment to honor your father and your mother, he says, than to follow the tradition of dedicating property to the temple (15:3-6).

Jesus gets livid whenever privileged people beat up on burdened people. Notice that Jesus turns honored nautical tradition on its head. On the water, a burdened vessel must serve the interests of a privileged vessel, but in life in the Christian community, Jesus says, it is the other way around: The privileged serve the interests of the burdened. At the very least, the privileged do not increase the burden of the already burdened.

What is a Christian Leader?

Here is the real question Jesus is asking: What are the characteristics of a Christian leader? Contrasted with the leadership style of the Pharisees and Scribes, the Christian leader leads by deed as well as by word, and is not concerned with recognition, accolades, or titles. Greatness is defined by our relationship with God, not by our power over other people..

The gospel of Matthew was probably written during the seventies, after the destruction of Jerusalem. Matthew is dealing with a crisis as Christianity diverges from Judaism. With the temple's destruction in A. D. 66, the authority of the Sadducees and Chief Priests vanished. Into the leadership void step the Pharisees, who never were associated with the temple, and those who now interpret the traditions in light of a new Jewish reality (the Scribes). The two groups are not necessarily separate. It is this new stream of post-temple Judaism that evolves into the rabbinic Judaism that we know today. Caught in the middle of this development are Matthew and those Jews who have converted to Christianity. What kind of leaders do we need now, they ask? And look back to Jesus for answers.

Matthew describes Jesus as the new and better Moses. Jesus fulfills and even improves the law. Likewise, the people of the new community formed on Jesus must be better and more faithful than Jewish leaders.

Jesus declares that the Scribes and Pharisees are not worthy to sit on "Moses' seat." The term "Moses' seat" is found nowhere else in Scripture. Clearly a metaphor, "Moses' seat" represents the authority to rightly interpret the law of Moses. Matthew says that only Jesus rightfully personifies and interprets the law, for Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets.

Part of the Jewish leaders' hypocrisy is represented by the wearing of phylacteries and tassels. Phylacteries were small leather boxes worn by males during prayers. The leather boxes contained verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy. During the Babylonian exile, Israelites attached phylacteries to remind themselves of their primary allegiance to YHWH. The tassels on the prayer shawl were likewise an example of devotion. To Jesus, this conspicuous show of piety was distasteful.

Jesus says that if we want to be Christian leaders, we should lead by humility. Humility is not defined by obsequiousness, or servile excessiveness. Rather humility is a recognition of our relationship to God. This relationship is the only source of Christian power.

Jesus offers a word of judgment today against some contemporary religious leaders who are more concerned about self-promotion than service to others. For example: Televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch purchased a Newport Beach palatial mansion "with ocean and city views" for close to $5 million. Jan told a reporter they moved because they needed "a larger yard for our dogs." ["Home sweet home," The Door, January-February 2002, 42.] I wonder what Jesus would say about that. I have the feeling that I know and it would not be pleasant.

Justice not Charity

Back to our thought about privileged and burdened--not vessels but people. Justice is done, in a divine sense, when privileged people do whatever they can to assist burdened people.

Keep this in mind on Tuesday when you go to the polls, and ponder it whenever you encounter a person who is more burdened than yourself. As Christians, we are naturally going to have a variety of opinions on a broad spectrum of political issues, but we cannot be divided on the issue of social justice. Jesus makes it clear that it is wrong to side with privileged persons, those who "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others" (23:4) ... those who "do all their deeds to be seen by others" (v. 5) ... those who "love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace" (vv. 6-7).

When it comes to justice, we Christians cannot be on the side of the privileged, nor can we say we are neutral on that issue. Bishop Desmond Tutu said, "When the elephant has his foot on the tail of the mouse, and you say you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." Nor will the burdened people of this world. In every place and in every time, disciples of Christ are called to do what they can to relieve the burdens of people around them.

William Sloane Coffin, the former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, believes that Christians certainly have to do whatever they can to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. That kind of action is very basic, and very biblical. "But they also have to remember that the answer to homelessness is homes, not shelters," he writes. "What the poor and downtrodden need is not piecemeal charity, but justice." [Coffin, William Sloane. Passion for the Possible. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, 36.] When we take a stand with the burdened of this world, we are challenged not only to alleviate the effects of injustice - hunger, nakedness, homelessness - but to eradicate the root causes of it.

Too often we act like party animals on a powerboat, recklessly churning through the waters of injustice without regard for the needs of others. It's not enough to pat ourselves on the back when we charitably pull out of the water those whom we have cast in by our foolish behavior. When we feed, clothe and shelter the homeless, we are doing what we can to rescue burdened people who are trying to keep their heads above water. But would not it be better if we didn't put them there in the first place?

Jesus wants us to focus on justice, not charity. He challenges us to obey his divine rules of navigation, which call for privileged people to give the right of way to burdened people. He commands us to look out for the burdened vessels around us, and to do what we can to assist them.

Remember the story of the Chesapeake Bay crash. It is fascinating to note that the operator of the powerboat says he did not see the sailboat. In much the same way, we often do not see the burdened people around us. They are invisible to us, unless we look at the world through the eyes of Jesus.

And doing justice is never without controversy. When we try to seek justice in any specific situation, or on any given issue, there is always some truth on both sides, and there be be good people on both sides. Let me take a specific example.

Down near the border in the Southwest, one can see narrow paths that run through the grass here and there. They are the paths worn by undocumented migrants, illegal aliens, attempting to enter the U.S. and find work. Since the border has tightened up, these migrants are choosing other routes, often a journey that takes them through the inhospitable desert. As a results, scores have died from hypothermia or dehydration, unable to find water.

The Rev. Robin Hoover is trying to do something about it. He heads a group called Humane Borders, and they have begun setting up 60-gallon tanks near these well-traveled but dangerous paths in Arizona. They erect a 30-foot pole with a blue flag at the top.

Hoover is trying to change immigration policy so that the water stations will not be necessary. But until that happens, the water is there for those who otherwise might perish. They also provide blankets and medical kits to shelters on the Mexican border, and maps that point out the location of the water stations. [See "A thirst for justice," Mother Jones, July/August, 2002, 19.]

Rev. Hoover sees himself as responding to a desperate need by people in trouble. Some people however regard him as a dangerous radical--even though he is not doing anything illegal. Some would say that he is helping illegal aliens get into this country. He replies that they are already in the country. The desert is American territory. All he is doing is stopping people from dying in thedesert. Some would say tht they should not be in the desert in the first place. Hoover would agree but he would add that they are in the desert and they are dying, so what are you going to do?

The truth is most people would like to do nothing. But Hoover says that Jesus will not let him do that. Now you may or may not agree with Hoover and his Humane Borders organization. But this example shows us something about Justice. We would like for everything to be clean and simple and for everyone to agree on what justice is. They never do. We wold like for everyone on our side to wear white hats and everyone on the other side to be blackhearted villains. They aren't. seeking justice is hard work, and sometimes it is difficult to know if you are right or wrong. Jesus knew that. He knew he was setting us a hard task, but he gave us the task anyway. The task is to look around at our community and help those who are burdened.

Paul Hawken said, "You can blame people who knock things over in the dark or you can begin to light candles. You're only at fault if you know about the problem and choose to do nothing." [Paul Hawken, The Sun, April, 2002.] Christians are not people who can choose to do nothing when others are suffering.

William Sloane Coffin writes,

Let Christians challenge the rest of the nation, not try to resemble the rest of the nation. Let them proclaim the biblical norms for justice that give primary emphasis not to accomplishment, but to need. There is no reason why the well-to-do should begrudge the checks that allow the elderly and the disabled to live better. Why should a nation resent the free medical care that allows poor mothers and their children to see doctors more often? When Congress created a food-stamp program, recipients not only ate better, but had a little money to spend on other things. When Congress subsidized Section 8 housing, families fortunate enough to get a certificate lived in somewhat nicer apartments and paid far less rent ... .

In the long run it's cheaper to eradicate poverty than to maintain it. Every year we pay huge sums for poverty in crime and prison construction, in output lost because of unemployment. And, as Teresa Admott has written, "Ending poverty would not only save us money; it might save our souls."

[William Sloane Coffin, Passion for the Possible (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 42-43.]



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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