Bob Woods: Choices: Mosquito or honeybee?

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If you think a mosquito is small and has little influence, try sleeping in a hot room at night with just one of those little blood-suckers - remember its high-pitched whine and its sharp little stinger.

On the other hand, consider the sweet honeybee. This little creature flies around from flower to flower spreading pollen around, and carries it to its hive to make sweet honey.

We humans have choices. We can be like the pesky, blood-sucking mosquito or like the sweet honeybee. In Matthew 23:1-12, Jesus talks about it all with a group of religious leaders of his own day. Let's listen in and be careful to apply his words to our own lives.

Read the gospel:

Yes, Jesus knows what mosquitoes we humans can be in our dealings.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus reminds us, God is the great one. The rest of us are equals, brothers and sisters. And twice he mentions humility.

On Oct. 5, 1403, at the age of 18, Agnes du Rochier became a recluse in the parish of Sainte Opportune. She imprisoned herself in a small room in the church with only a small window to see and hear the mass through, and through which her meals were served. This was something widows and young girls did. They were called recluses. The ceremony of reclusion was conducted with pomp; the church was hung with tapestry; the bishop performed high mass, preached, and then went and sealed up the door of the room, after having sprinkled it plentifully with holy water. Agnes du Rochier died at the age of 98; she was born rich.

In my estimation, this is a waste of a good life. She might have been of great value by visiting prisoners or poor, sick persons, but instead, she spent 80 years locked in her chamber - by her own choice.

In our reading, Jesus is being critical of the Pharisees, who are stuck in their own chamber. The Pharisees were playing games in seeking the good life - games of success. They carried large packets full of scripture, had long tassels on their cloaks, wanted the best places at feasts and reserved seats in the synagogues, and they wanted to be greeted with respect in the markets and to have people call them teacher. They were putting on a show of being more spiritual than others.

We all like to impress people. We all desire status in the community. We all have our heads turned by flattery. However, if we get stuck on needs of material comfort -status, power, etc. - and believe that this is the ultimate goal of life, we miss the true joy of living. We never discover true fulfillment.

In our Bible study last week, we learned that early Christians were considered atheists because they did not believe in the divinity of the emperor. This is the very reason why Jesus was crucified.

The crucifixion of Jesus was legally performed. Jesus was tried, convicted and punished by death according to Roman law. His crime was political. The proclaiming of himself as King of the Jews branded him as a dangerous competition for power.

But even more, Jesus upset the Jewish legal authority. Among his indiscretions, he traveled long distances on the Sabbath, and he healed on the Sabbath. But Jesus didn't violate these Jewish laws out of disregard for the Torah or disgust with ritual. He did it to honor God.

Jesus wasn't concerned with practicing Torah observances to perfection. Jesus was concerned with practicing the heart of the Torah. Jesus disregarded Sabbath restrictions and performed miraculous acts because his focus was on establishing a relationship with people. He wasn't interested in ritual details for ritual's sake. Jesus was interested in reaching out to human beings and establishing personal relationships with them. Jesus demonstrated God's concern and compassion for each and every person. As Jesus denounced the Pharisees in today's gospel text, he called attention to two great failures in their teachings.

First, they opted for things over people. The Pharisees had a great concern to show their piety and purity through their large packets of scripture and their long fringes. They wanted to be seen in all the right places and wanted to be shown the right amount of respect. But they lacked compassion: They won't lift a finger, Jesus said, to help ease the burdens on the people's shoulders.

Second, Jesus doesn't appreciate the elaborate hierarchy of ritual that the Pharisees took so much pride in mastering. He scoffs at their use of titles: rabbi, father, teacher or master - none of these should apply to those who would call themselves Jesus' disciples.

Jesus turns their whole system upside down: "The greatest among you will be your servant," and "those who make themselves great will be humbled," while those "who humbled themselves will be made great" (verse 12).

What sort of spiritual leader are you?

Are you the mosquito or the honeybee?

In the mirror of this text, what do you see?

Jesus said, "The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." Amen!

Bob Woods is the pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Craig.

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