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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Matthew 23:1-12

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 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. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

This week we are looking at my personal theory of Atonement, which aligns most closely with the Moral Influence Theory, one of the earliest theories posited by theologians, as early as the 4th century. There are several interpretations of this theory, but most importantly, this theory doesn’t look strictly at the death of Jesus as a means of salvation, but instead sees the cross as a ramification of the moral life of Jesus, thus holding Jesus up as a martyr due to the radical nature of his moral example.

The Moral Influence Theory looks at the life of Jesus, all of his words and actions that define who he was as a human walking among us, as well as his death and resurrection. His death is understood to be the catalyst that will transform societies, hopefully inspiring us to live as Jesus taught—to compassionately hold space for one other while acting justly and creating equity for a broken world. To live a moral life means that we take seriously the consequences of the choices we make. Free-will is a huge part of the Moral Influence Theory in that our choices have consequences, and we are called to align our lives with that of Christs on a daily basis.

Throughout the ministry of Jesus, he taught people to pay attention, to be aware of their behavior. Through his parables, he was providing illustrations that they could understand about how to behave; how to treat one another in community. Jesus never parted from this path.

On at least two occasions Jesus had the opportunity to outline what must be done to achieve eternal life, and both times he comes back with, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” In Luke 10 he continues with the story of the Good Samaritan and adds the concept of showing mercy. No where in Matthew or in Luke, when referring to loving God, or eternal life, does Jesus say anything about accepting Jesus as a personal savior, being baptized, or joining a church. Instead, he talks about our behavior. He repeatedly points back to our behavior and tells us how we should live; what justice looks like, and how God expects us to treat one another.

In Matthew 23:1-3, Jesus rails, once again, at the scribes and Pharisees while admonishing the crowd saying, ”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.”

Jesus tried to reorient the people toward a purposeful life filled with action, a life designed to promote justice and create equity for all. He also understood justice and equity as part of the inheritance of the Hebrew people as a collective. Atonement, in the Hebrew world, was a collective act of reconciliation. Jesus called people together as a community, not as isolated individuals. The idea of individual salvation would have been strange to Jesus, who called together his own community to then serve in community.

Christ, in Jesus, becomes the best example of moral living and is the foundation of our Christian faith, which promotes moral ways of being in the world.

What we see too often in the present day is the watering down of Jesus’ call to live a moral life, replaced by forgiveness offered by the cross, regardless of how I live. Those who are proponents of the Moral Influence Theory argue that Jesus’ life is designed to affect change in us individually and at the community level. We are forgiven when we learn to forgive ourselves and others. We are saved when we offer salvation through practical application like feeding, clothing, and rescuing people at their darkest hour. When we love others, when we offer hope to the most marginalized in our society, when we live just and equitable lives, we are meeting our moral obligation.

Free-will is not for the faint of heart. For every action, there is a consequence. To be the change we want to see in the world is not easy. It takes commitment. We hold ourselves to a higher moral standard because we understand what is at stake. All of the social ills of our day are affected by our actions; how we personally respond to racism, violence, and the rights of the marginalized. We must be willing to “take up our own cross and follow Jesus,” to see that the world needs us to show up and be accountable for our words and actions.

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