We entered in to Lent on Ash Wednesday of last week. We reflected on the theme of living meaningfully and fruitfully. We considered the need to make changes in direction as we begin the Lenten journey with Jesus. There are times that the Spirit leads to launch into a process of major change such as when we feel called to a new vocation or to change locations. At other times, we sense an inner conviction about certain, deliberate adjustments in order to live more joyfully and fruitfully. You were left with the question: How is God speaking to you about change during the period of Lent?
Today’s theme contrasts a religion of imposed expectations and a faith that liberates us to live passionately and creatively. Every social group has written and, mostly, unwritten codes of behaviour. I had a friend in Vancouver who was an accomplished lawyer. She presented refugee cases before tribunals on which I was a decision maker. The written reports she submitted were always pertinent to the case. The clients were well prepared to give testimony. The closing arguments were succinct. I was surprised when she told me that she planned to give up her legal career. She went on to share that there had been social pressures in her ethnic group and her family to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. She did not feel called to law. Law did not touch the passions of her heart. She wanted to be a writer. But the unwritten code of family and ethnicity did not value that vocation.
David Livermore’s work on cultural intelligence has helped us to understand that organizations have unwritten cultural codes and expectations. Professional success in an organization requires recognizing and embracing the code. Acceptance and advancement are based on fulfilling expectations. Lack of conformity puts people on the margins of the group and may eventually lead to dismissal. There are many positive things about such codes because they create a shared ethos. But they run the danger of becoming too rigid and too heavy. The company Kodak was once a mighty industrial empire. The code of unquestioned loyalty to film spelled the end of Kodak long before it declared bankruptcy. The code did not allow employees to question the direction of the company until it was too late to save it in a world that was going digital.
You can see this phenomenon of loyalty to a code within political parties. Politicians that belong to a particular party seem to answer questions in such a predictable manner that you are left to wonder if they are reading from a book of authorized responses. Here in Canada, one of the 14 candidates for leadership of the conservative party, Michael Chong, believes that carbon taxes should be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is not the conservative party line or message. There are allegations that he is not an authentic conservative. He does not match up with unwritten party expectations and codes. In the US, John McCain questions about Donald Trump make him a maverick in the Republican Party.
We sometimes feel the pressure of conformity in organized religion. There can be an unwritten code of public expectations that involve aspects of life like clothing, a specialized vocabulary, certain types of music, the “so-called Christian family,” permissible attendance deviations, levels of financial support, and friendships with people of other faiths. The code is so strong on LGBTQ and climate change issues that it can be hard to find safe places for discussion. Pastors and pastors’ families often feel a heightened set of expectations that need to be met for acceptance.
Along the way, some of us learned the skill of looking pious. We raise our hands in worship when others raise their hands. We look happy even when we feel bland or depressed. We can get by that way. We have learned to play the public part so that we fit in to the group.
Here is the problem. It can become easy to play the faith game without having our hearts in it. We conform to outside expectations while we lose our passion for faith. Organized religion can tame people into being nice rather than being prophetic witnesses of Jesus. We may become passive rather than creative. Some people struggle more than others to free themselves of the power of an imposed code. They lose a grasp on what St. Paul called the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Scripture: Matthew 23.1-10
Matthew 23 contains a series of critical pronouncements against the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes were men that had been given the privilege of an education. They could read and write in a social setting that was mostly illiterate. Hebrew scribes were trained in the Torah and taught its moral instructions. Most scribes carried out their duties under the direction of the high priests and associates in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were men who emphasized the radical separation of faithful Jewish people from the Roman Empire and its many ethnic groups. The performance of the purity code was both a political protest and set of religious practices. The purity code created dividing lines or boundaries between Jews and Gentiles, between observant and non-observant, and to a certain extent between socio economic classes. It was an impossible burden for the poor to practice the code of ritual washings, tithing of produce, Sabbath, and food preparation.
The code of purity, in theory, was motivated by a sincere desire to order all aspects of one’s life to show respect for God. The problem was that scribes and Pharisees could get caught up in maintaining public performance in contrast to the unseen inner life of the heart. They could play roles that earned acceptance and respect in the community. But that acceptance and respect could degenerate into the end goals. When that happened, the inner life could stand in sharp contrast to the outer life. We call this hypocrisy. We know about hypocrisy because we have all played the game at one time or another. Organized religion can work to promote hypocrisy. This tendency to play a public role is the reason that the gospel writer, Matthew, retained the criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees long after the mission of Jesus. He saw the same tendencies in the Christian church.
The scribes and Pharisees made faith a matter of the code of the Torah, the Law, with all its written and unwritten expectations. Jesus made faith a matter of a call to follow him. It was offered to women and men. He called poor and rich. He called people with physical and emotional problems. He called young and old. He called people caught up in shame and people caught up in the pursuit of honor. In every case he called people to freedom.
- They were freed to join a diverse community in which they found their place as sisters and brothers. There was gender, social, and ethnic equity.
- They discovered unity in the confession of one Father and one Teacher. The confession did not require a professional class of people called scribes. It was not about separation based on performance to an outside code. The faith and the teaching was life giving.
- They transformed the pursuit of public recognition and status into a motivation for mutual service to the community and the world around them. The greatest of the followers of Jesus would be those that humbly served the needs of others.
When we read this passage from Matthew, we may begin to feel something stirring in our hearts. Jesus is coming at Lent to remind us that he calls us discover freedom through following him. Faith is not a matter of external expectations that are imposed on you from outside. Faith is a response that starts in the heart before it is expressed publicly with words and actions. We are invited by God to:
- Attend to the teaching of Jesus in the company of sisters and brothers.
- Celebrate that together, with all our diversity, we belong to the household of God, our common Father. This identity is more important than what is written on our passports and our cultural backgrounds.
- Learn to practice the supreme virtue of humble and sincere service. This service builds relationships. Your unique gifts and talents, your passions and creativity, are developed and offered in new and meaningful ways.
Question: Group Work
- Breathe slowly. Be comfortable.
- Describe a time when you felt external pressures to match expectations or performance standards of others?
- How can you develop a faith that is based on the heart rather than external expectations?
- Can you identify a particular gift or passion that you would like to develop in order to serve others? What holds you back? What grace from God do you seek?