Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-- the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Reflection Celebrating the differences of a particular group’s identity without simultaneously affirming an appreciation of our shared humanity leads to the fracturing of families, communities and countries that is igniting dissent everywhere we turn today. In his book The Disuniting of America the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. discusses identity politics and makes the argument that a liberal democracy depends upon affirming a common ground from which society and culture functions. Schlesinger avers that politics based on group marginalization fractures society and ironically undermines efforts to end marginalization by accentuating polarization. He suggests "movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than… perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference.” * I believe this is where we find ourselves today and what Jesus recognized when he spoke to the crowds and disciples in Matthew’s gospel saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees … 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” In other words, the religious and political leaders elevate themselves and marginalize others, identity politics prevail.
Just in case you are wondering, phylacteries are small leather boxes. Inside the box is a piece of parchment – hand-written on the parchment are the words of the Shema- the Jewish prayer that begins – “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One…” This Torah prayer identifies the Jewish people as the monotheistic people – the people of the One God.
An interesting thing is, the blue cords and fringe on the hem of a person’s garment were
so fundamentally associated with the wearers identity that when they wanted to seal a
legally binding agreement, they rolled out a slab of clay and pressed the hem of their
garment – like a signature – into the wet clay. The hem of a Jew’s garment is the mark of their identity. So when Jesus is instructing the crowds and the disciples and he denounces the Jewish officials behavior, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long,” he not only challenges their excessive displays of piety, he also challenges their identity politics.
This begs the question, what about the people who have no blue cord or fringe on the hems of their garments? How can they enter into contracts? Have access to property? Have a place in the community? From the perspective of identity politics being not affiliated with the “right” group, they are marginalized and oppressed.
But Jesus comes to deliver the people from oppression and marginalization so in single sentence he wipes out social, political, and religious identity politics. “You are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father, the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” In one sweeping statement Jesus effectively erases the affirmation of differences that perpetuate marginalization.
All people, including the rabbis, the rebels and the ruffians, all people are equally students of the ONE teacher, the One father, the One Instructor. This is humanity’s common ground. It is in affirming our common ground rather than accentuating our differences that we transcend marginalization and begin to heal our fractured families, communities and culture. Our true identity is sisters and brothers of the One God.
As faithful people of the One God I believe we need to ask ourselves “Where do we find our identity? Is it in our social, political or religious group affiliation? In the ways we feel marginalized or empowered? How will we be identified as people of God if not by the quality of all of our relationships ? It is time for us to “aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture,” transcending and including our distinctions as revelations of the extraordinary common ground of our humanity.
*Schlesinger, Jr. Arthur M., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, Whittle Books, 1991. Revised/expanded edition W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
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