Monday, 5 March 2012

A Load of Old Tassels

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Tuesday, 6th of March, 2012, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Matthew 23:1-12

A Load Of Old Tassels

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The trouble with the use of Scripture in our day – and perhaps in every day – is that we make the mistake of thinking it’s talking about us. It’s like a sort of inverse paranoia, but whereas the psychological kind, in which we falsely believe that others are talking about us, and plotting against us, which leads to anxiety, this kind leads us to mis-read what is actually there, and leads to complacency – of course we must be right, because the Bible tells us so.

For members of the Christian churches, and perhaps especially the more formal and structured kind, and most of all for the clergy, today’s Gospel makes pretty uncomfortable reading. I well remember the first time I was addressed as “Father”. I had taken evening prayer in Binsey church when the vicar was on holiday. He had lent me his rather smart 39-button cassock for the occasion, and I had walked all along Binsey Lane wearing it, not because I needed to – it was actually rather a warm summer day – but in the hope of being seen in it. After the service a man older than my grandfather, said “thank you, Father”. I wasn’t ordained at the time, nor even an ordinand - “call no one on earth your father” - but surely it would have been churlish to put him right? And what was that smart 39-button cassock if not a modern edition of phylacteries and tassels?

It is entertaining to read the New Testament commentators wriggle and squirm on this one. Most of them are personally familiar with being called “father”, or “doctor”, or “professor”, which is surely the same as “rabbi” in this context? “Of course,” they seem to say, “this particular teaching refers only to how the disciples must treat one another; or applies only while Jesus is personally present with them; or should be read as a criticism of Pharisaic Judaism in Palestine in the later part of the first century; and it should on no account be taken as a judgement on the subsequent, still less the current, practice of the church”. Anything but read what’s actually there, and let us use our cleverness to get ourselves off that hook. As that distinguished theologian, Dorothy Parker, might have parodied it:

“Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.”

And for once, strikingly, and challengingly, the Bible is actually about us. These verses look us in the eye and ask the quiet question “are you disciples, or Pharisees; is your faith in God, or in a load of old tassels?”

The Good News is that God chooses to see through the tassels and still find us. Here, he encourages us to see through them, and to find God. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
March 2012


  1. Richard,

    Thanks for the insight. I'm off to make sure that the Tassels are all tucked away out of sight.

  2. I look forward to you developing your opening sentence: "The trouble with the use of Scripture in our day – and perhaps in every day – is that we make the mistake of thinking it’s talking about us."

    As a definitely not Anglo-Catholic and raised in a Lutheran-Protestant church I must confess to not understanding all the symbolism of the clothes and the rituals. I can see that they can become like icons leading to a deeper truth but they can also become self-serving, limiting and shoring up egos and distract from the reality of the truth they're pointing to.

    It's ok to call someone Father if it works?

    1. I'll have a think about something on Scripture!

      And it's OK to call someone Father, particularly if HE works!