Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Matthew 23:1-12 Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘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. 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Who here has ever heard the phrase “practice what you preach?” Can you tell me what it means? It means that the actions you do in the world should match the things that you say are important. If you talk about doing something, you actually have to do it. If you say it’s important to be generous and you persistently act stingy in your daily life, you’re not practicing what you preach. While this advice is directed to everyone, it can be particularly hard when leaders say one thing and then do another. Jesus is using the example of his community’s leaders that he is frustrated to instruct his disciples on how to do better. Because, at this point in the story, Jesus knows his time is short, and the disciples are going to need to step up and lead. And, it will be vital that they practice what they preach.
Sharon Ringe opens her commentary on this scripture with these words: “As a resident of Washington, DC, I recognize political rhetoric, caricatures, and trash-talk when I hear them, and I hear them loud and clear in Matthew 23:1-12.” It is wise too when in his life he preached this particular sermon. This story takes place after the celebrations of Palm Sunday, but before Jesus’ trial. It is a time that would have been tense. And, Jesus has some particular frustrations with leaders of his religious community.
When we modern Christians read about what would have been arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees, it is important to remember that Jesus wasn’t arguing with people that were a different community than him. This argument is between people who serve the same God and follow the same religious laws. For too long too much hatred has been directed towards Jewish people by Christians who read Jesus as saying Jewish people were particularly bad or dangerous. He wasn’t. Cheryl Lindsay, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that Jesus’ argument isn’t with Jewish people, but with leaders within their shared community who are preaching one thing and living another.
Sharon Ringe notes in her commentary that the Pharisees were a group of lay people with a particular interest in studying religious law and offering interpretations on how to follow it. When Rome destroys the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, the foundation of interpretation of the law that the Pharisees laid would grow into the practice of Jewish communities having rabbis as leaders. So, this is a group of people who took religious obligations seriously, as Jesus did. But, the Pharisees and Jesus had disagreements. And, he grew frustrated when he saw influential lay people who were Pharisees not living into the faith they taught. Have any of you ever gotten angry at someone who said they were a Christian and then turned around and did the opposite of what they taught? I know I have. Ringe called the argument between Jesus and these particular Pharisees “a family fight, and the name-calling and harsh rhetoric flourished.”
Cheryl Lindsay’s commentary on this text reminds us that Jesus continued to find Jewish religious law to be a useful and good guidance for living in covenant with God. He never told his followers that he came to “abolish the law.” In fact, as Lindsay says, “Faithful adherence to these guidelines for right living in relationship to God, neighbor, and self is not the problem but is commendable when done with humility and devotion.” What Jesus does think they are doing wrong is using their authority as trusted interpreters of the law to gain an unfairly special place in the community. And, they demand that some people sacrifice more and work harder than they do. Jesus is suspicious of anyone who’s faith is simply another way to brag or to gain praise and attention for themselves.
Ultimately, Jesus tells his disciples that what will be most important for them won’t be getting fancy titles, or special privileges, or an easy life. What will be most important is that they fully live into the promises they made to God and trust that God will fulfill the promises made to the people. To live out that promise is to commit to what Lindsay calls the “road of love, service, and humility.” Does anyone here have a good definition of humility? Yes. Those are good definitions.
Humility means something like not thinking you’re better than someone else. Not trying hard to be thought of as the most powerful or strongest. It doesn’t mean you are ashamed, or anything like that. It does mean being connected to others, and not above them. For Jesus, following the example of Moses and of the Bible means not putting yourself above others or striving to make other people suffer. It means being willing to make sacrifices to care for those who need it and offer love as Jesus did. Humility also means knowing that you will make mistakes sometimes and being willing to hear people when they say you have. Acting with humility also means that you might need to make amends for things you have done wrong.
It is not always easy to live with humility. If it was, Jesus wouldn’t have had to keep telling his disciples how to do it. They really needed to be reminded. If we want to follow Jesus, we don’t need to be the best or the fanciest or the most powerful. It does mean we should work to be loving and work together for justice. If we’re going to practice what we preach, that means we can’t be concerned about being the first or the fanciest or the most well-known. It does mean that we’ll try hard to love as Jesus did. So, this week, as you look for ways to live out your faith, know that you don’t have to do it in ways that gets everyone’s attention and everyone’s praise. You can start small, offer a kind word, write a letter to your congressperson, call someone who you know is having a hard time. These might seem like humble, small acts of faith. But, Jesus tells us that this is what our faith is all about.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Elizabeth J.A. Siwo-Okundi, "Proper 26," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Cheryl A. Lindsay: https://www.ucc.org/sermon-seeds/sermon-seeds-greatness/
Sharon A. Ringe: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31/commentary-on-matthew-231-12-2
Carolyn Brown: https://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/10/year-proper-26-31st-sunday-in-ordinary.html
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.