Day 196: Matthew 23:5

They do everything so that people will see them. Look at the straps with scripture verses on them which they wear on their foreheads and arms, and notice how large they are! Notice also how long are the tassels on their cloaks!

[Throughout Chapter 23 Jesus delivers a long and detailed critique of the religious institution and practices of Jesus’ day.  I’m going to look at my own very subjective perceptions of today’s Christian practices and see how I think they measure up according to the words of Jesus.] 

So what is this thing Jesus mentions about straps with scripture verses on them?  It’s the Law!  It was required that the men should tie scriptures to their arms and heads.  Today’s orthodox Jews attach tefillin, cube-shaped black leather boxes that contain scriptural passages, to their heads and arms during the morning prayers. It’s one of the many Laws that Jews still obey while Christians do not:

 “Israel, remember this! The Lord—and the Lord alone—is our God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.  Never forget these commands that I am giving you today.  Teach them to your children. Repeat them when you are at home and when you are away, when you are resting and when you are working.  Tie them on your arms and wear them on your foreheads as a reminder.  Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

And the tassels?  Today these tassels are worn on tallits (prayer shawls). Same thing.  Commanded by God, still observed by Jews, ignored by Christians:

The Lord commanded Moses to say to the people of Israel: “Make tassels on the corners of your garments and put a blue cord on each tassel. You are to do this for all time to come.  The tassels will serve as reminders, and each time you see them you will remember all my commands and obey them; then you will not turn away from me and follow your own wishes and desires.  The tassels will remind you to keep all my commands, and you will belong completely to me.  I am the Lord your God; I brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord.” (Numbers 15:37-41).

Jesus doesn’t say that these practices should be eliminated.  What he objects to here in this scripture is pretention.  He objects to those who try to be conspicuously pious.  He objects to competitive religious practice and spiritual one-ups-man-ship.  He objects to the notion that bigger is better when it comes to things like tefillin and tallits.

Pretensions.  We all know that Jesus didn’t like them.  Jesus said we shouldn’t worry about what we wear (Day 51).  He said God’s promises are revealed to the humble (Day 9).  So followers of Jesus avoid these kinds of pretensions, right?  Well, most Christians don’t really look much different from anyone else.  Unless someone has a big tattoo or is wearing a giant cross it’s not easy to identify them as Christians.  Sometimes people carry their Bibles around, but they are usually not conspicuously large.

There are some groups of Christians who are required to wear special clothes.  The Amish, of course, wear unique, old-fashioned clothes.  There are also other churches that have special dress requirements.  We used to attend United Pentecostal Churches whenever we had the opportunity.  United Pentecostal woman (and others in similar holiness/apostolic churches) are easily identified by their long skirts, high necklines, covered elbows, and sensible shoes.  The women’s hair is also a dead giveaway.  They are not allowed to cut their hair and they are required to wear it pinned up.  It’s really ironic.  While the intent is humility, these unusual styles of dress separate them from the rest of society and make them conspicuous.  Kind of like wearing g those oversized scripture bands that Jesus mentions in this scripture.

I don’t think most people don’t like having to wear special clothes.  At the Pentecostal church we attended in Chicago the assistant pastor’s wife used to wear the right clothes, but when it came to her shoes it was pure vanity.  Stilettos.  Her own little rebellion.  I like this picture to the left of some United Pentecostals at a church we frequented in Michigan.  It shows the pastors’ wives cutting loose a little bit at their ladies’ luau.  They are perfectly attired according to the letter of the Law.  Everything is covered and the hair is just right.  You just have to look past the scandalous sunglasses, coconut shells, and grass skirt.

So I would have to say that it’s uncommon nowadays for ordinary Christians to try impress others with their holiness through their clothing or accessories.  If anything it’s the opposite problem of “undercover Christians” who dress anything but modestly.  I know of one pastor who criticizes women who come to church showing too much skin.  He tells the women not to come to church “Sexy for Jesus.” He says Jesus isn’t interested.  In the past it was not uncommon for people to wear fancy, pretentious clothes to church, but casual dress is the rule in most churches nowadays.

No, when it comes to both putting on the glitz and wearing weird clothes to impress others with their piety the Razzie Award has to go to the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Take the Pope, for example.  As someone who is supposed to have an intimate relationship with Christ, you would think that he would dress modestly like everyone else.  Humbly.  It boggles my mind how those Popes dress.  Come on – crowns, gold jewelry, fancy robes, flashy shoes.  Bling everywhere.  They probably wear diamond encrusted underwear.  I don’t trust anyone who tries to tell me how God wants me to behave when they can’t even figure out how to dress appropriately.  Come on.  The current Pope receives accolades for dressing “humbly” by wearing his “choir dress” and “ordinary dress” but I don’t think anyone would confuse him with an ordinary person.  His clothing sets him apart.  Jesus would not be impressed.

Priests generally wear funny little white clerical collars and black shirts all the time to set themselves apart as holy guys.  Mainline Protestant pastors used to wear these, then it seemed that they downgraded to turtlenecks.  Nowadays most of them dress like normal people except on Sundays when they wear simple vestments like albs with colorful decorated stoles.  No bling allowed.  Contemporary church pastors dress like everyone else, a sort of business casual style.  You would never be able to pick them out of a crowd as being special.

So overall it seems like we are trending in the right direction on this one.  It goes to show that if church leaders read the words of Jesus for a couple of thousand years some of these simple ideas he threw out there start to sink in and take root.  But it’s a slow, slow process indeed.

What does this scripture say to you?


 

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