Sunday, November 5, 2017

false prophets: yesterday and today

May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christians who take their faith seriously wish to do all that Christ commanded us to do, understanding that the salvation of their soul is intrinsically linked to our humble obedience to God's law. For that reason, our Gospel reading today can sometimes raise questions for faithful Christians, particularly those in the mainstream denominations that value the traditions of the Church. The passage seems to condemn the idea of there being religious leaders with teaching authority, leaders who possess titles of honour and wear distinctive dress. And yet our clergy have a particular form of apparel, especially during liturgical services; they have titles such as Reverend or Father or even my Lord Bishop; and they most certainly have the authority to teach and preach, both from the pulpit and elsewhere. So what is going on here?

The first thing to note is that there is not really a problem here at all; if there were, then the Church has being getting things wrong in this regard almost since the beginning … the same Church that Christ founded, called his body on earth, and said he would send the Holy Spirit too in order to lead it into all truth. However, the problem only arises if the passage is read out of the context of the remainder of Sacred Scripture and also from the context in which our Lord is delivering this teaching.

Let us begin with Scripture. In both Old Testament and New we clearly see religious leaders having authority from God in order to teach his children. The Old Testament prophets spring immediately to mind; and in the New our Lord himself sent out the 72 to the towns and villages to prepare the way for his own coming, saying to them that the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. And the letters of St Paul are filled with references to his teaching authority, that of the Apostles, and others. The Pentateuch, or first five books of the Bible, gives detailed instructions on the sacred garments to be worn by the priests while engaged in sacrifice and leading the people in worship. And concerning titles, again we find these commonly used in Scripture. In the New Testament, for example, our Lord gives those in his inner circle the title of Apostle; elsewhere we read of Episkopoi, the root of our word episcopal, or bishops; and Presboutorous, the origin of our word Priest; and St Paul in many places refers to himself as the spiritual Father of those under his pastoral care. So there is nothing scriptural that speaks of these traditions of the Church which have been practised since the earliest days. Which, of course, is good news for me!

Looking to the context in which our Lord gave this teaching, we see that he is making his remarks directly of the religious leaders of his day. Among them were hypocrites, men who taught the law of God but did not live it; worse, they added to the law, by their teaching making it harder to live. For them titles were not a mark of respect for the office they held; they took it to be an honour personally granted to them. And they wore distinctive clothes when they were out and about in the streets, not to give glory to the Almighty by way of practising a ministry of presence, doing their best to keep God before the minds of men by acting as a visual reminder by the manner of their dress. But rather, they sought respect for themselves, that none should be in any doubt of the high office they held so that they would always be treated with greater courtesy and dignity than all around them.

Naturally, Christ spoke against such men. They abused their sacred office for their own gain; as did the prophets and teachers that the prophet Micah condemned in our Old Testament reading. Such behaviour was not to be tolerated then; and neither should it be tolerated now. Church leaders who preach the truth of the Gospel but fail to live it are a cause of scandal to the faithful; something we know all too well from recent events in this country. How many souls have lest the Church because there were those who were supposed to be shepherds, but acted instead as wolves? With respect of Church doctrine, those privileged to be teachers of God's truth have no authority to make it any harder than it need be. So, for example, we may preach against drunkenness, but we may not try to claim that all drinking, even in moderation, is evil. We may preach against gluttony, but we may not try to forbid certain foods, claiming for example that it is more virtuous to be a vegetarian than to eat meat. Neither, it must be remembered, do we have authority to abrogate or reduce the force of any teaching, arguing that it is somehow more pastoral to allow those who find a particular teaching hard to live by to ignore it, or say that since certain teachings do not fit in with the values of the secular culture they must now be abandoned. Such behaviour, to paraphrase our Epistle today, takes what is the word of man and tries to present it as being the word of God. It may well bring earthly glory to the false preacher; but it does nothing to bring glory to God, and does nothing that aids in the salvation of souls.

For the salvation of souls is the purpose and aim of our faith. It was for that reason that our Lord severely criticised the religious leaders of his day who behaved hypocritically; it was for that reason he came to earth and suffered and died for our sins; and it the reason why we must do our utmost to be faithful to him and the teachings he gave us – something that I pray all here will be, this day and always, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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