Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Sermon / Homily on St. Matthew 23: 1-12

Anatomy of a Spiritual Disaster - Abusive Religion Revealed

by John Jewell

Scripture: St. Matthew 23: 1-12

When religion is not rooted in the love of God, it is not only devoid of God -- it is dangerous. Not only does it not serve people, it oppresses them. Genuine spirituality, driven by God's love encourages and nourishes people's lives -- it can lift them to the heights of heaven. Deceitful religion on the other hand, driven by self dominates and subjugates peoples lives -- it can drop them to the pits of hell!

History is littered with names like Jim Jones and his Jonestown -- David Koresh and his Waco. There are countless thousands of lives that have been damaged by abusive religion -- not as severe as Jonestown or Waco perhaps -- but wounded by toxic religion nevertheless. It is unlikely that any of our churches does not have at least one family or friends of one our families that has been touched by abusive religion.

We have made some gains in our culture with respect to abuse. Physical abuse, domestic violence and child neglect have all been the subject of legislative and practical reforms. Emotional abuse of persons has received acknowledgment as an important problem.

Spiritual abuse or abusive religion on the other hand has a ways to go. Except for a few high profile cases, spiritual abuse is not perceived as a major issue. The civil government rightly keeps "arms length" when it comes to church-state issues. Yet, spiritual abuse can be an extremely debilitating power in someone's life.

Some years ago, a woman who had just begun to attend our church asked if I would visit her daughter. The 23 year old daughter had just returned home after three years in a cult. She was under the care of a psychiatrist and on anti-anxiety drugs. She agreed to see me, but was extremely fearful of religious leaders of any kind. "Be sure not to bring a bible or even quote the bible," the mother pleaded with me -- almost apologetically -- " sends her into a panic."

Our initial visit was very low key. "De-programming" was not an issue here. The young woman's sanity was. She was the picture of fragility. She sipped a cup of coffee while holding on with two shaking hands, a cigarette pinched between two nicotine stained fingers. Her eyes were windows into emptiness. Without emotion, she described a bit of her life with people who came to her initially with such love and acceptance that she felt she had discovered a true home at last. She moved in with the group and happily worked and turned over everything she made. She was building up treasure in heaven that no one could ever take away from her.

Then the demands began to build and the teaching sessions went late into the night. Contact with "outsiders" was displeasing to God. Parents, pastors, teachers and friends would all try to lead them back into a life of sin and evil. She would be cut off from God forever.

After three years, she grew suicidal and hopeless, called her brother and he found her and brought her home. The physical part of her bondage was over. The spiritual part was deeply embedded in her soul. Toward the end of this first visit, she finally gave a glance that could be loosely described as "at me" and spoke directly to me.

"I know that I have turned into something evil now -- and that God hates me!"


Not all negative religious experience has gone to this extreme, but wherever religion results in something toxic instead of nourishing for our spirits, there is abuse.


Spiritual abuse is not new. It is something that angered Jesus himself and in today's gospel lesson he spells out for his followers; [1] Characteristics of abusive spiritual leaders and [2] Clues for avoiding abusive spiritual leaders.

[1] Characteristics of abusive spiritual leaders

In a few sentences, Jesus gives four characteristics of abusive religious leaders that cuts through their outer appearance and reveals inner corruption. These characteristics provide good diagnostic insight when we find ourselves wondering about religious leaders and systems we encounter.

These leaders were hypocritical: [Verse 2] The scribes and Pharisees have the content right, but their behavior is not consistent with the content. They are experts in bible, but their behavior does not match their teaching. Rather than seeing themselves as servants of what they teach, they imagine that they are masters who are above their subject matter. The byword of this characteristic is so well known, any of us can finish the sentence, "His problem is that he does not practice what he ___________ ."

These leaders were oppressive: [Verse 4] One of the critical failures of the leaders Jesus addressed was their approach to religion -- they saw religion as being about rules and regulations. It was clear in Jesus' ministry, however, that true religion was about a relationship with God. Jesus brought joy. They brought judgment. Jesus taught about a God who gave them love. They taught about a God who gave them labor. Jesus said his yoke was "easy" and his burden "light." They on the other hand would "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others..."

These leaders were pretentious: [Verse 5] Another key attribute in the life of abusive spiritual leaders is the fact that they are pretentious. They are all about "show-biz." The heart of this failure is that they are "other directed" instead of "God directed." Their inner reward system is tuned into what others think and how others perceive them rather than by what God sees. They sometimes can not help themselves, they are "on stage" in their religious living and are in need of an audience.

Key scripture for this flaw is 1 Samuel 16:7, "...the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." When Jesus was alone, he was the same person he was when he was with others. When he was with God, he was the same person he was all the time. Question for reflection here is, "Am I the same person when I am alone as I am when I am with others?" In other words, people who change when the "spot light" comes on -- are pretentious.

These leaders were arrogant: [Verse 6] This is the key to the other characteristics. The people Jesus collided with were people who were filled with self and self-importance. When a soul is filled with self, there is no room for God. This was the heart of the Edenic tragedy. Whereas Adam once had a God-centered spirit, he wound up with a self-centered spirit. Instead of fellowship with God and his soul-mate Eve, there was alienation and blame. Adam and Adam's feelings became more important than persons and more important than God. The arrogant heart which loves the "places of honor" and "the best seats" is a heart that has no place for God.

With these words, Jesus has presented his "closing argument" on the anatomy of a spiritual disaster. Now he teaches his followers what characteristics they are to embrace. Characteristics that will help them identify and avoid abusive spiritual leaders.

[2] Clues for avoiding abusive spiritual leaders

Three characteristics will insure the authenticity of the spiritual experience of Jesus' followers -- then and now! Embrace and grow these qualities in your life and you will safeguard your spiritual life and build a safety shield against abusive spirituality in your own life. These three spiritual gems belong to those who are:


The actual word Jesus used in describing his followers was "brothers." You have one teacher and you are all brothers. Christ is the only "Master" teacher. There is an equality amongst the followers of Christ as all are learners and students. One is not greater than the other and a sure clue of abusive spirituality is when this sense of mutuality in the community of faith is absent.

This does not eliminate the need for leaders in the community, but the model of leadership Jesus lived out and taught was that of the servant leader. The person who helps care for the people of God is an "under-shepherd" -- not an "over-shepherd." The First Epistle of Peter has it nailed, "...tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it --not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock." [1 Peter 5:2-3]

There is an openness, mutuality and approachability with those who are genuine spiritual leaders.


"Call no one your Father on earth, for you have one Father, the one in heaven." The sense here is not that we need to quit calling our earthly fathers "father," -- but that our ultimate dedication is to God alone. This is a reiteration of the first commandment to "have no other God's before me." Worship belongs to God alone. When we have made God our first love, all else falls into its proper place. We do not ask or seek the allegiance of another's heart in any ultimate sense.

Genuine spiritual leaders who receive the love, allegiance and loyalty of others are anxious to have that love, allegiance and loyalty passed along to the Lord. They do not keep it for themselves.


This is the capstone quality. "The greatest among you will be your servant." This is the single most powerful diagnostic tool for evaluating spiritual leadership. There is humility instead of arrogance. Jesus himself set the example by emptying himself and taking the form of a servant. [Phil. 2:7] Genuine spirituality sacrifices self to lift up others.

Jesus clinches his point with the truth that God will do the "exalting" and "humbling."

And this is where the whole struggle between Jesus and the religious leaders who wanted him eliminated rests. Abusive spiritual leadership finally wants the place of God. They might not even be fully aware of it, but when self becomes central and God becomes peripheral, the spiritual disaster is all but sealed.

The model is in Isaiah 14:12-14 taken by many to be the prophets words of doom to the Evil One.

"How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, "I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit on the mount of assembly on the heights of Zaphon; I will ascend to the tops of the clouds, I will make myself like the Most High."


These words spell out the bottom line in abusive religion and abusive spiritual leaders. The anatomy of a spiritual disaster which we have traced out over these last few weeks can be stated in a few simple words.

To become filled with self is to become emptied of God!

May God grant us grace to grow the qualities of openness, dedication and humility as we build a healthy family of faith.


Discussion and Reflection on the Text

There is an important, if subtle, point in Jesus' comment about the Pharisees. They "sit on Moses seat" and we should therefore not dismiss what they teach nor what they say is important to practice. The words are right, but the behavior does not match the teaching. They do not practice what they preach.

There is a veneration here for "Moses seat". The teaching of Moses, the Torah is the word of God. The word is true even when the people are not. We are to value the word even when the behavior of those who bring the word does not match the word. There is a warning here that goes to the old saying about, "... throwing the baby out with the bath water." I can recall very clearly the adamant statement of the woman who said to me, "I can not accept Christ after everything Christians did during the Crusades." I guess this is why I never tire of using this line in the pulpit, "The reputation of Jesus Christ is on the line in the way we live our lives."

If I were to pursue this theme in a message, I would bring in Paul's joy over the fact that the people he ministered to received his word / message as "God's word". It is this word which is "at work" in the believers.

Which leave's a wonderful question. "What is it that is 'at work' in our midst?"

The remainder of the passage is the essence of our full text sermon.

The final verse in the gospel could also yield a homily on the theme of exaltation and humiliation. The key is in the relationship between God and self. Exalting self is to violate the very first commandment. To "humble" self is to recognize that there is One who is above and before us.

See Also:

Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 5th sunday after Sleebo

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