Daily Reflection
February 19th, 2008

Maureen McCann Waldron

The Collaborative Ministry Office
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"The scribes and the Pharisees... all their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels."
Matthew 23

We may not know what a phylactery is or how to lengthen a tassel, but when Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees, the message is clear - they are using these traditional symbols not for prayer but to bring honor to themselves. Their prestige from being religious leaders is used to get places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues.

A phylactery is simply a small box containing scripture which is tied to the arm or forehead during prayer. This very visible sign of devotion (still used by some today) was being corrupted by the religious leaders who wanted the admiration of all.

It's always easy to dismiss the religious leaders of Jesus' day as dense and judgmental. But sometimes we may wonder if we are really all that different. We may catch ourselves wanting to impress people by how we look or the importance of our jobs. If we carry titles which bring us honor, we may enjoy using those titles just a little more often than necessary. Perhaps we want to show people that we are devout, or how much we are giving up for Lent or how much time we spend in prayer each day. Hand-in-hand with each “blessing” of ours may be a judgment about people who don't have important jobs, don't look as polished as we do, and even those who pray differently or less publicly, or something that does not fit our standards.

Just as there is nothing wrong with the phylacteries or tassels of the religious leaders in Jesus' time, there is nothing inherently wrong with titles in front of our names, good jobs, or wanting to be holy. But as Jesus cautions us in today's gospel about titles and honors, he seems to be asking what priority these things have in our lives. How important are they? Have they become the focus of our lives?

Jesus is clear and direct: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” We must be servants for others, he says. Nothing is more important than caring for others and tending to those who have less than we do.

Jesus defended the weak and vulnerable of his day. A devout Jew, he broke with many traditions of his day, standing by lepers, speaking with women and making friends with tax collectors. He shows us with his life how to be a servant and how to stand up for those who have no one else. Carrying out that call from Jesus is not easy and may cause discomfort in our lives, but it is clearly what we are called to. Be a servant. Be humble. Don't judge. Don't move toward honors but away from them.

Jesus is not leaving us to deal with all of these challenges alone, but is there with us in those challenges. We will fall and fail and still, when we sit quietly opening our hearts at the end of the day and listen, we can feel the deepest love Jesus has for us and know that tomorrow we can try again.

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