Back in the late 1980’s, when I was barely out of college I lived for about 6 months on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.
But my Martha’s Vineyard was not the Martha’s Vineyard that most people know.
This is because I didn’t live there during “the season” – I lived there during the off-season.
The difference between the season on the Vineyard, and the off-season on the Vineyard, is like the difference between a cat when she’s warm and soft, sleeping in your lap, and a cat when she’s cringing under the porch in the rain, all sad, wet and bedraggled.
The reason I was on the Vineyard, was because I was in love. That was nice! I think I’ve told you parts of this story before. I was in love, so I went to the Vineyard. But that was only part of the story. The good part of the story.
I was also young, confused and sporadically unemployed. I managed to get menial jobs here and there, but none of them seemed to last very long.
We lived in the basement down the end of a road on the outskirts of Vineyard Haven. I soon learned that I could walk out the back door of that little house, make my way through 20 yards of scrub oak and underbrush, and find myself under the high tension wires that connected the towns on the Island with power.
I had an old coat that I bought at a Thrift store – it went down to my knees, and was made out of some species of stained canvas that was impervious to the cold. I’d seen the guys who work down in the harbor wearing such coats.
So, in the mid-morning, after my girlfriend left for work, I’d put on that coat, head out back, and wander through those somber gray days of my youth leaving footprints in the sand under the high-tension lines, wondering if this was it?
Is this it?
It felt both frightening, and strangely romantic.
I knew enough not to imagine poverty itself as being romantic. I was fearful of getting stuck there. But at the same time, I was wonderfully alive to my environment – to the moment that I was living.
And there was something else.
I gradually became aware that when other people happened to see me, they would avoid me.
This had never happened to me before.
Before this, I’d been a child – an innocent person. This was the first time I was aware of myself as someone that other people might not trust.
All of a sudden, I was a threat – some guy wandering around under the high tension wires in the middle of the day, in his harborcoat, and his unemployed shoes.
There are some interesting contradictions built into the gospel story that Deb read for us earlier.
One of these contradictions affects me personally, so I want to spend some time today investigating it.
The first thing that Jesus teaches in today’s passage is that
‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it;
This statement states quite clearly that the people should listen to and follow the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. However the reason that the people should listen to and follow the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees is not because they are worthy of being listened to and followed, but because they “sit on Moses’ seat.” As far as Jesus is concerned the scribes and Pharisees themselves do not command the respect that is given to them – it is their position (sitting on Moses’ seat) that commands respect.
No sooner is this statement out of his mouth, though, then Jesus goes on to say:
…but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
This is not the next sentence – it is the same sentence!
In the same breath Jesus says: Follow what they say, since they hold an important position, but don’t do what they do because they themselves don’t practice their teaching.
So what is the takeaway? Should the scribes and Pharisees be followed or not?
The logic feels a little circular, but in the end the message is clear. Jesus has no problem with the teaching itself – he just has a problem with the teachers.
The teaching is good.
The teachers are not good.
So follow the teaching, not the teachers.
There is an important distinction at work here. It is that there can be a big difference between an individual-who-holds-a-position and the position itself. This logic is not hard to follow, but it is, nevertheless, a very easy truth to lose track of.
When we see a “police officer” driving by in their police cruiser, we do not turn to our friend and say –
“Look, there goes a-person-who-holds-the-position-of ‘police officer’ driving by.”
No, we don’t say that.
We say: “There goes a police officer driving by.”
The first statement might be more accurate, since it would at least admit the possibility that there could be a difference between that specific person driving by, and our cultural assumption of what a police officer is supposed to be. But for the sake of convenience, and because the distinction itself hardly seems worth all the trouble, we recognize and refer to the person-who-holds-the- position of a police officer simply as “a police officer.”
In our minds, then, that person is not so much a person anymore. He or she is a police officer. We think of them, for all intents and purposes, as automatically absorbing all the cultural roles and assumptions that go along with “a police officer” even though it is certainly possible that this assumption may not be entirely correct.
And this, of course, is true of any job title. A job title, then, is not just a convenient way to refer to someone – it is also a web of cultural assumptions that are typically assigned to that role – assumptions that may or may not be true of any given person who holds the title.
Now the ambition that a person who has a certain job title generally aspires to achieve, is for their behavior to conform to the web of cultural assumptions that are implied by their job title. When they do this, they are “good at their job.”
But Jesus, in this passage, insists that, even though it is rather inconvenient, it is crucial that we be able to distinguish between the “seat of Moses” and the “person-who-sits-on-the- seat-of-Moses.”
And Jesus is right to insist this!
There is often a difference between what the person is supposed to do and what the person actually does.
Consider the clergy who were caught sexually abusing people in their care.
Are those priests really priests? Do they deserve that title?
What about lawmakers who are more interested in creating a media circus than enacting legislation?
The law enforcement who use unnecessary force on people they are sworn to protect.
Pharmaceutical companies that raise prices on drugs that sick people need to survive.
Soldiers in places like Myanmar and Syria, who turn their guns against their own people.
Do any of these people deserve their titles?
No, they don’t.
Because they are not what they say they are.
They have not acted “in good faith.”
Jesus has led us to an interesting and necessary truth – that it is crucially important to be able to separate a person from a person’s job title. If we are blind to this distinction, we allow people with mischievous or evil intent to use their job titles as a screen for bad behavior.
But the skill that Jesus offers us – that is, the ability to separate the individual from the assumptions that are placed upon that individual by the surrounding culture – this skill is a great deal more versatile than we have seen thus far.
Indeed, this skill is crucial in all realms of human interaction.
When I see a pretty young woman, for example, I must be as open to the brilliance of her intellect and spirit, as I am attuned to our culture’s obsession with sexualizing and objectifying her physical appearance.
That is crucial!
When I see a Black teenage boy walking in a gated community, I must see him, first, as a young man who probably just went down to the 7/11 to get a bag of skittles. I must not succumb to the prevailing cultural assumption that he is a thief casing the joint or a drug dealer in search of children to corrupt.
When I see a person in a wheelchair, I must recognize that person, first, as human with dignity and purpose, not as a person who cannot walk and therefore must need my help.
And when you see a young man walking down along the high tension powerlines in the middle of the day wearing a faded harborcoat… don’t assume that he is a threat.
Who knows, he might grow up to be a Christian minister.