February 2, 2020
I’ve become interested in the Salem witch trials lately. I’m listening to a good podcast about the trials and have also read up a bit on the early Puritan religion. I’ve come across a practice that we might want to try at our church—to keep people engaged. It seems that in some Puritan churches a man would walk around the worship space with a long pole. On one end of the pole was a feather, to tickle the chins of anyone who fell asleep during the sermon. On the other end of the pole was a hard wooden knob to bop children who were giggling or otherwise causing problems.
So, if you see a slot for “chin-tickler” on the next worship volunteer sign-up sheet, you’ll know what’s going on.
The Puritans, it turns out, had all kinds of rules people were expected to follow. Going to church—and staying quiet and awake while they were there—was just one of them. Praying every morning and night was another. Avoiding “lewd and unseemly behavior” was also important; a sea captain was once put in the pillory for two hours as punishment for kissing his wife outside their house when he returned from a three-year voyage.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day, you may have heard, had a pretty extensive list of rules as well. There was the Torah—the Jewish law laid out in what we now have as the first five books of the Bible. All Jewish people tried to follow Torah. But Pharisees also tried to follow the “oral law”—instructions given to Moses on Mt. Saini that didn’t exactly make it into writing, but that they needed to follow anyway. So, lots of rules.
And during Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were in the midst of a significant transition. They had been something of an activist group, highly political in their engagement with the world. But during that transition time from BCE to CE, under the leadership of a man named Hillel, the Pharisees began to turn inward, to focus more on personal piety and less on political engagement.
When Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” I wonder if his statement is, in part, a critique of the increasingly privatized version of religion being promoted among the Pharisees.
A few years ago at a writing workshop I became friends with a young Catholic sister, Tracy Kemme. Just this week I read an article about young women entering religious life, where Tracy’s story was featured. The article explained a distinction I wasn’t aware of: “nun” is a term particularly for Catholic religious women who commit themselves to relative isolation, to prayer, study, and worship. Others, like Tracy, are properly referred to as “sisters.” They also take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but live their religious lives more connected to the world.
When I met Tracy four years ago, she was serving a parish that included many immigrant families—mostly from Central and South America. In the article, I learned that two years ago she was arrested in Washington D.C. while protesting in support of DACA recipients. Her social media posts asked people to pray for her and to call their representatives.
It seems that this is a constant religious tension and negotiation—personal piety vs. faithful worldly engagement. And I wonder if it’s not at the heart of what Jesus is trying to teach here:
“You are the salt of the earth.”
“You are the light of the world. . . . No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand.”
Salt is not much good sitting by itself. It is used to season or preserve other foods. We are salt of the earth, not salt sitting alone in a cabinet.
And light is useful for illuminating other things; it lets us see and interact with the things—and people—that surround us. We are the light of the world, not the light of an altar candle in an empty sanctuary. There is—there must be, Jesus says–a public element to our faith. A solely personal piety is “no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
Which brings me to something that has long bothered me about this passage—the image of putting a basket over a lit flame. I mean, isn’t that a pretty significant fire hazard? But now I wonder if this isn’t part of Jesus’ point. Personal piety is worse than useless–it is potentially dangerous.
The Salem Witch Trials are a good—if extreme—example of how personal piety can be weaponized. In 17th Century New England, it could be considered evidence that you were a witch if you didn’t go to church often enough or didn’t defer to the religious authorities enough or if your personal morality—especially, for women, your sexual morality—was at all questionable. Larger issues of justice were ignored in favor of promoting a particular type of Puritan piety.
I think that piece of the witch trials is pretty well known—the promotion of strict religious practices and oppression of people who didn’t properly comply. But here’s something new I’ve noticed in listening to the podcast about the trials this week: so very many of the men accused of witchcraft were known wife and child abusers; and in at least one case a child molester. While the mostly teenage women accusing their neighbors of witchcraft and sending them to the gallows did terrible things, I’m also coming to understand that their “fits” and stories of being tormented by “specters” of their neighbors was possibly the only way they could have any power in their community. And while the specters were made up, some of the torment and abuse they claimed to have suffered was very real.
Somehow, there is something about the culture of personal piety that often allows personal sin to go unchecked. People would prefer to ignore it, and if it can’t be ignored, it is dealt with not in a sense of bringing justice and restoration, but in a sense of shaming people to behave better so that they don’t make others in the community look bad. In one case I heard about, when it was widely known that a man was beating his wife, both the husband and wife were punished by being forced to stand back-to-back in the public square for the day. The husband’s children paid his fine, leaving their step-mother, the abuse victim, to stand in the town square alone all day.
Obviously, there was a lot going on in Salem Massachusetts in 1692 beyond an unhealthy emphasis on personal piety. And there were many problematic aspects of religious leadership in Jesus’ day beyond obsession with following rules. I don’t mean to oversimplify. But I do think that here, towards the beginning of Jesus’ most famous sermon, he is warning us of the dangers of a too-personal faith. He is pushing us to consider how our faith impacts the world.
How are we salt? How do we enliven and protect people around us?
How are we light? How do people see God in our lives? How do we help reveal truth?
It would be easy to take Jesus’ teaching here and run with it—run as far away from rule-following and personal piety as possible. Which is probably why right after telling his followers that they are the light of the world, Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
Keep this line in mind next week, too, when we get to the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said . . . , but now I say to you . . .”. Jesus is not letting us off the hook. He is not saying that our personal spiritual lives don’t matter. That our daily life choices are of no consequence. That we don’t have to follow any rules at all.
We are still called to worship and prayer; to kindness and charity; to follow all of the commandments—as best as we can understand them in light of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus doesn’t say that our righteousness should disdain that of the scribes and the Pharisees, but that our righteousness should exceed theirs. We should do more, not less.
Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis insists that “Matthew has high standards for discipleship,” and we see that very clearly in this passage. The struggle of the faithful—and possibly my greatest faith struggle—has long been this tension between social action and personal piety. But Jesus isn’t playing favorites here. Both are expected.
Which sounds exhausting.
Except that, in a life of faith—like that of my friend Tracy—both aspects inform and energize each other. Her hours of worship and prayer prepared her for her protest action and her arrest. Our prayer and worship and scripture study and other personal disciplines feed our desire—and our ability—to address pain and injustice in the world. Our involvement with the world, as salt and light, sends us running back to God for peace, for comfort, for direction—and, sometimes, in gratitude.
With the Pharisees—a major Jewish group—in the midst of a debate about whether faith is about social action or personal piety, Jesus tells his followers that both are necessary for a faithful life; that it is all connected.
It seems to me that each of us has our own emphasis in our lives of faith–on personal spiritual practice or on active engagement with the world. And I certainly am not saying that there is some sort of magical “balance” that we can achieve; a sort of 50/50 split between piety and activism. But, while people of faith may express their faith in different ways, I do believe the teachings of Jesus indicate that both aspects of faith—in some measure—as essential to our spiritual health.
Maybe you want to think this week about where your emphasis lies. Do you tend to lean more toward personal spiritual practice or toward active engagement? And whatever your leanings, try to do one significant thing in the other direction. If you’re a “doer,” you might spend some time in contemplative prayer. If you’re a “pray-er,” you might volunteer at LINK or Family Promise or participate with Justice Matters.
These words we have from Jesus in scripture are a gift for us as we struggle to live faithful lives today. I’m so glad to be spending a few weeks with you looking at the Sermon on the Mount, because it seems, in so many ways, like a completely modern message. Like Jesus is speaking again the words that his struggling followers most need to hear.