November 5, 2017

22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Micah 3:5-12
Matthew 23:1-12

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Wearing or not wearing religious symbols in public has become a contentious issue in the Western world nowadays. Here in Australia, ordinary people and politicians are still arguing about whether to ban or not to ban the burqa, the Islamic dress that covers a Muslim woman’s entire body. It has always been a controversial issue.

But other country, like France, has taken further steps. In France, people don’t only argue about the burqa; they argue about religious symbols in general. There is a law in France that prohibits people from wearing any religious symbol in public places, especially in public institutions like schools, universities, or government offices. People who wear the ‘burkini’ - a full-body swimwear that is often worn for religious reason - are often arrested and fined.

In the United Kingdom, a woman was once disciplined for wearing a cross in her workplace. And in Quebec, a province in Canada, a political party once proposed a bill to ban all religious-based clothing in the public.[1]

Understandably, many people in the Western world nowadays feel uneasy about wearing religious symbols in public spaces. Many fear of a backlash. After the September 11, many Muslim women choose not to wear modest religious headscarf, like the hijab, because of fear of being targeted in public spaces.

All these seem to be the opposite to what the people in Jesus’ time experienced. Then, people who wore religious symbols publicly were given special recognition and respect. Those symbols displayed not only their personal piety, but also their important roles in the society.

First, we need to remember that there were many Teachers of the Law and Pharisees and Priests who wore religious symbols in public genuinely to reflect their calling and belief. They did not abuse these symbols by using them as a tool to gain more recognition and power in the community.

I can give you some modern examples. I know many clergy people today, men and women, from a particular church denomination, who choose to wear the clerical collars whenever they are in public spaces like the hospitals, schools, trains stations, or even shopping centers. These people wear the collars not to show off, but to let other people know that they are available for a chat. For them, the collar is like an open invitation to the public to feel safe to approach them.

I remember my own experience while I was doing my chaplaincy training in Royal Perth Hospital. I deliberately wore the cross every time I was in the hospital. Just like the others, I wore it not to show off, but to let people know of my role in the hospital so that people could approach me if they have any concern about spiritual matter.

But the cross served another purpose: it stopped people from making the wrong assumption that I was a doctor. I can’t remember how many times people approached me in the hospital, thinking that I was a doctor.

But, in all seriousness, it actually takes courage to wear religious symbols in public nowadays, especially in the midst of such negative public sentiment of religious institutions nowadays. But there have always been some people who wear these symbols as a tool for self-aggrandizement. This was especially true in Jesus’ time.

Jesus was critical of the religious leaders in his time who wore religious symbols publicly not to serve others, but for their personal benefits. They knew that the more pious they seemed to be in the eyes of the public, the more recognition and influence they got.

But for Jesus, what important was not what one wore, but what one did. The religious symbols meant nothing if those who wore them did not truly practise what they preached. The symbols were meaningless if those who wore them did not show genuine love for the people under their care.

Jesus, however, was not the first person to challenge the religious authorities for their apparent moral failure. Many generations before him, the prophet Micah also criticized the corrupt religious leaders in Israel. In his time, Israel’s progress as an agricultural nation had created a great divide between the rich and the poor. And, instead of siding with the poor, the religious establishment - the priests and the prophets - had become an elite class themselves. They charged money for their service, including from the poor. They became corrupt and took bribes. They said one thing, but did another. As the result, they led the people astray.

This was the reason why in the new community that Jesus was creating, no one should lord over the other. Even more than that: in his new community, those who wanted to be leaders must become servants for others.

We can see this in the life of the Apostle Paul, as it was reflected in the part of his letter to the Thessalonians that we read this morning. Even though he was an influential leader in the young Church, especially amongst the Gentile Christians, he did not want to burden the Thessalonians by supporting him financially in his ministry. Instead, he earned his own money by working day and night.

This was why the people in the Thessalonian congregation listened to his words. They listened because they could see that Paul was genuine with them. They listened because they knew that Paul didn’t preach the Gospel for his own benefit, but for their sake.

Friends, what we do speak louder than what we say. A survey once asked Christian people in Australia about the reason why they became Christians. Different people gave different answers. But most people said that they became Christians because of other Christians. In other words, these people became Christians because of the examples shown in the life of other Christians that they witnessed.

These people did not become followers of Jesus because of the Christian symbols that other people wore in public. These people did not become Christians because of the Christian bumper stickers that some like to put on their cars. No. These people became Christians because of the good examples of other Christians who lived their life faithfully and genuinely.

Friends, who we are is shown not by what we wear or how we look, but eventually by what we do. Our hearts and our actions are more important than our appearance. God sees our hearts and actions, not appearance. But, also as important, other people too will value us not by what we wear or how we look, but by what we ultimately do in and with our life.

Toby Keva

[1] Seasons of the SpiritTM SeasonsFusion - Pentecost 2 2017, p. 145.