This is the manuscript I used on Sunday for my message at Shepparton Baptist Church. As usual, I went a bit off topic at some points. Happy reading!
Bible reading: Matthew 23:1-12 (NIV)
A Warning Against Hypocrisy
23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a]wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is 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 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Introduction to sermon
A man had a habit of grumbling at the food his wife placed before him at family meals. Then he would pray a blessing over the food.
One day after his usual combination complaint-prayer, his little girl asked, "Daddy, does God hear us when we pray?"
"Why, of course," he replied. "He hears us every time we pray."
She pauses on this a moment, and asked, "Does he hear everything we say the rest of the time?"
"Yes, dear, every word," he replied, encouraged that he had inspired his daughter to be curious about spiritual matters.
However, his pride was quickly turned to humility...
"Then which does God believe?”
Do you walk the talk or are you like this dad? In one moment grumbling and the next giving thanks to God. Do your normal actions not reflect your religions actions? Do you walk the talk?
In our passage this morning we take a look at a pretty confronting passage. A passage that demands that we sit up and take notice; notice of God and notice of our actions.
Our reading today is very much an entry into Jesus getting stuck into the Pharisees and the Scribe with his “woe” statements. If you ever have someone thinking that Jesus is a soft, feeble and timid person, give them this passage to read. For me, it’s far more expressive than Jesus getting angry with the money changers and tossing their tables. It’s in this chapter that Jesus gets stuck into the piously religious of his time; the Pharisees and the Scribes. There are a few tricky statements in this passage so let’s take a look at them.
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Sitting in Moses seat (or chair) tells us a few things. There wasn’t a special chair where that they sat. It refers to a teaching position or a teaching office. They have taken it upon themselves to teach in the tradition of Moses. The fact that Jesus put it that way is telling. Jesus wants to point out that Moses’ teaching is authoritative. He even tells people to make sure they do what the Pharisees and the Scribes ask them to do; especially when it comes to the teaching of Moses. Then Bang! Jesus wallops the Pharisees and Scribes right over the head.
Don’t do what they do; they don’t practice what they preach. Listen to what they are teaching you but don't behave like them.
What’s interesting here is that Jesus isn’t completely shutting the Scribes and the Pharisees down. He is supporting them in their teaching of the Holy Scriptures.
Their teaching is accurate, but their actions are not. Bringing Moses into the statement makes sure everyone know that Jesus is talking about the Pentateuch, the first five books of the bible. Not necessarily the additional laws that have been instituted to ensure compliance.
As an explanation, Jesus tells the listeners that these people command that people do all sorts of things to remain true, but they don't do it themselves. It’d be like me telling you that you have to pray for an hour 3 times per day and read your bible for 2 hours per day and never do it myself. I’d also be pretending that I did and expected you to be very impressed with me.
Jesus continues to tell us the problems that these religious elite have. Everything they do is with an eye on who is watching and seeing how important and devout they are. Phylacteries were little boxes that had verses of scripture in them. They were worn on the forehead and the left arm (near the heart). This seems to be about passages like
Exodus 13:9 This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that this law of the LORD is to be on your lips. For the LORD brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.
They were worn by adult males and usually at morning prayer times. Having a wide phylactery suggests that they wanted to make sure people knew that had one on them. The other suggestion is that wearing outside of the prayer time (or the synagogue) was another effort at making sure everyone saw how devout they were. It’s the same as the tassels.
This reminds me of a time I was travelling on a train in Melbourne. There was this guy who had a big black bible with him. He was reading from it…well, that’s what he was trying to look like anyway. He spent more time looking around to make sure people saw him than reading. He wasn’t focused on God or the bible. He was trying to draw attention to his religious dedication. It may have been an attempt to show the world the Bible. There are better ways than that.
Jesus accusation to the Pharisees is that all they wanted was public recognition. They wanted the best seats at the table; they wanted people to come up to them and show them deference. It was all about their reputation with man and not about God.
From verse 8 to 11, we find Jesus saying a few things that make us sit and wonder. Don't call people teacher, don't call them father, or instructors. These are word and labels we use every day. Are we wrong to use them? I don’t think so. If we remember the thrust of what Jesus is talking about, that is people focused on being greater than others; we get the idea of what he is talking about. We are not to give people the respect due to God. We have one Teacher, Jesus. We have one Father, God, we have one instructor, the Messiah (Jesus). Don’t put the teachers (including pastors!), fathers or instructors above Jesus. Our priority is God. Nor are we to seek titles of honour ourselves.
Personally, I struggle to be called Pastor Richard. There are two reasons. One is that I don’t like titles. I am and always have been Richard. Sure, I have Reverend at the start of my name and a few little letters after it, but I am still Richard. People tell me that it is a mark of respect to call me pastor. If that's the case, I’d like to call you by part of your work. Glazier Colin, Teacher Jason, Retired Brian, Financier Robert. The other part is that I am not just a pastor if I am even that. If you want my full title as Reverend, I am an Ordained Baptist Minister but please don’t call me Ordained Baptist Minister Richard! The government considers me to be A Minister of Religion. Both are mouthfuls.
Verse 11 and 12 again points to Jesus. He is our priority and Jesus Himself will become a servant of us all. We are to follow His example. Leading is serving. Serving is leading. If we do both with a heart focused on God, we will be humble. It’s less about your actions than it is about your heart attitude. You could behave humbly, but if your attitude is the same as the Pharisees (look at me, look at me), it’s the same as being too proud.
How are we all feeling? Anyone feeling proud that they aren’t like the Pharisees or Scribes? Do you think that you’re more authentic in our faith than the religious elite of Jesus’ time? Or are you suddenly feeling a bit worried that your actions aren’t with pure motives? Maybe you are just super proud of your humility at the moment. Part of the problem with this passage is that it affects all of us but in different ways.
Let me tell you about some observations I have made about our actions when it comes to us and our motives for doing things.
I’ve seen it, and I’ve heard other people talk about the act of giving thanks in public as an act of making public our God. That’s a problem. We don’t give thanks to show other people that we do it; we give thanks to God because we are grateful. It’s pretty much having a broad phylactery on our forehead so others can see it. A bit like the guy on the train pretending to read his bible.
Or turning up to prayer meetings just we can claim we were there and show how very prayerful we are. If you turn up to be noticed at a prayer meeting, my suggestion not to be there but if you come to a prayer meeting to pray together, excellent!
It can also be seen when people like to quote bible verses at you. We all need to remember what the bible says. Many people do it fairly naturally. I have seen others who quote the bible to show you how much they know. It’s more about impressing other people than showing a real understanding of what the bible says.
How we act comes down to why we do it. Are we trying to look good or are we focused on God?
Back in the days of Jesus, many Pharisees and Scribes were obviously trying to make a good impression on their religious acts. Showing their faith in what they wore, where they appeared (at the head of a table), who they mixed with, how they spoke and how well they adhered to the law. While that is still a problem today, there is also a tendency to do something else as well. The tendency is to try to be so humble that we end up proud of it. We end up trying to impress people with how humble we can be. How pious we are, how deferential we are. Given that pride is such a terrible sin in the eyes of our time, we work so hard at not showing it, that we end up doing exactly what we were trying to avoid.
The test for us is that we need to reflect on whether our motivation is to be seen…
…or to live out our faith.
Jesus makes it clear. All of our actions are not to make other people aware of what we do or to be impressed with us. All of our actions are to reflect our faith in Jesus; to make Him known through the natural outworking of His Spirit within us. Sure, we try and do good deeds, or we try and say the right things. That's normal. The problem is our motivation.
True humility is not concerned about what anyone else thinks of us. It doesn’t look around to see whether we are noticed. It isn’t being pleased with titles. It isn’t trying to impress anyone. It isn’t about trying to get people to show deference to us. True humility is all about Jesus. It’s recognising that He died for us, all of us. It’s being willing to worship Jesus in all of our actions and not giving two hoots about who sees us or doesn’t see us.
True humility may not look notably different on the outside. It’s hugely different on the inside.
So, how do you look on the inside? What is your motivation? Is it to be noticed and impress people or is it to worship and glorify Jesus Christ?
It’s a tough question to think about. It's hard to reflect on our motivation. Please remember that this is not to cause you grief and guilt but to ask you to challenge yourself to be more like Jesus.