Matthew 23:1–12

Called to Be Consistent—and Humble

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

November 5, 2017

 

Though not the heart of our passage last week, after providing instance upon instance of Jesus’ authority being challenged by various Jewish leaders, all of whom ended up being amazed and silenced at his teaching, at the end of chapter 22 of Matthew’s Gospel, we’re told “and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions” (v. 46). Whether the questions came from the Herodians—or from the Sadducees—or from the Pharisees, Jesus’ responses to their challenges by means of his understanding of Scripture far surpassed theirs—and they knew it.

But though these religious leaders may have given up on challenging Jesus, in our passage this morning it’s clear that he was not yet done with them. Though we’ve noted how in the past he had warned his disciples, for example, that they should “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod,”[1] now we see him speak not only to his disciples but also “to the crowds” in general in verse one.[2] And what Jesus had to say about their leaders, about those who should have been concerned about the people’s spiritual and general welfare, was a horrific indictment. For those who had been called by God to represent him and guide others in his ways fell far short of this calling in the way in which they carried out their task. In verse 2, Jesus began—albeit briefly—with the positive in stating, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” Because these leaders[3] were charged with the responsibility of providing the content of the law God had disclosed to Moses, they ought to be listened to; their teaching ought to be obeyed. The problem wasn’t with the content of the law for, again, the law was God’s communication to his people that they might know what loving him and loving others—the sum of the Law and the prophets—looked like in practical, real-life, day-to-day terms. So to the degree that these leaders taught in ways that were consistent with God’s disclosure, those hearing were told that they “must be careful to do everything they tell you” for this was God’s law. But in what follows, it’s clear that these leaders have fallen far short of their call for Jesus goes on to condemn at length their hypocrisy and lack of humility.

After indicating that the crowds and his disciples should carefully do what the teachers of the law and Pharisees taught, Jesus pointedly added, “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (verse 3b). Their practice was the very embodiment of hypocrisy for they said one thing but did another. As we’ll see, the specific form of their hypocrisy was that they pretended to serve God—but were really in it for themselves. And Jesus backed up this serious charge not only in our passage but, if you’re interested, you can read the “seven woes” he gives to the hypocritical “teachers of the law and Pharisees” in the remainder of the chapter.[4] Starting in verse four, he noted how on one hand, they “…tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders,” and on the other, “…they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Now scholars are in agreement that the “heavy, cumbersome loads” mentioned here isn’t referring to a physical load but is rather a reference to how rabbinic tradition expanded upon God’s law, making demands of the people that were impossible to meet.[5] Though this tradition initially was intended as a way of helping the faithful understand the practical application of God’s law, its “massive obligations had become burdensome and oppressive.”[6] So rather than showing others how they might best fulfill the law and the prophets, that is, how best they might love God with all their heart, soul, and mind and their neighbors as themselves, these religious leaders who had been called to help the faithful live out the Scriptures had, in effect, made it impossible for them to do so.

So the first problem Jesus identified in these leaders is that they were hypocrites in pretending to help others live out God’s law but in reality were oppressing them by demanding standards that were impossible for them—or anyone—to fulfill. And it’s easy to recognize why this could be so deleterious to the lives of those they were teaching. For what’s the point in presenting God’s principles if those standards have been magnified to the point where they could never be be met? No wonder Jesus accused these leaders of “shut[ting] the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (verse 13). Jesus’ anger was more than justified for by the misapplication of God’s teaching, these leaders were keeping people away from God. Rather than presenting God’s law as a means of applying what genuine love looks like, they added to that law to the point that it was impossible to fulfill. So it’s no wonder that Jesus was so hard on the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for they were called to—and viewed as—representing God and upholding his standards.

As a point of contrast, notice the difference between their application of God’s law and that of James, the brother of our Lord, who challenged the faithful in a way that is in keeping with God’s law—that is in keeping with genuine love for others. James begins by asking,[7]

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. 19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Do you see the difference? The teachers of the law and Pharisees made it impossible to keep God’s teaching by adding to its demands to the point where the obedience of these added demands became an end in themselves; whereas James is consummately practical in noting that our faith in God should result in our care for others; our faith in God should result in our caring for his image-bearers. To put it another way, the sum of the law and the prophets requires that our love for God be manifested in our love for others. So don’t profess faith in God and then see a brother or sister in need and simply wish them well. No, do what you can about that need—give them clothes; provide them a meal. For in these simple acts of caring for others, others will be enabled to see God’s love for them.

You see, whether or not you and I are aware of it, we are Christ’s ambassadors here on earth. By virtue of our professing to be Christians, of being followers of Christ, we are viewed by others as representing him and his teaching. This is why it’s so important that we be consistently loving towards in our actions—because these good deeds are an expression of our faith in and love for God. We’ve all known or heard of people who have turned away from Christ as a result of seeing some unkindness or even cruelty done by one or more of his people. They’ve understood that, ideally at least, disciples should behave like their masters and if the disciples are uncaring, so, too, must be the one they claim to follow. In different ways Jesus and James are making the same point: if you profess love for God, be sure you are acting in loving and caring ways towards others.

As we celebrated Reformation Sunday last week, I still have Martin Luther on the brain. He, too, understood the importance of this principle. Having had a life-changing realization that it isn’t our love for God that saves us—for who could ever love God enough to merit salvation?—but God’s love for us that saves us, Luther came to understand the place of good works in the life of a believer. Good works, he taught, are not for the sake of winning God’s favor or gaining merit in his eyes for Christ has already done that for us. No, good works rather are to be an expression of our gratitude for all that God has sacrificed in his Son, Jesus Christ, making it possible for us to be reconciled to him. So if we haven’t good works in our lives, Luther suggested, perhaps it’s an indication that we’ve never experienced salvation in Christ in the first place. So let us who have experienced Christ’s salvation seek to be consistent in our words and deeds: if we profess love for Christ, then let us find ways to care for those whom he’s placed in our lives that they might either deepen in their love for Christ, if they already know him, or come to know Christ if they don’t.

Now Jesus’ further point of contention with the teachers of the law and Pharisees was that they were plagued with wrong motives for they did what they did not for the sake of bringing glory to God but for the sake of bringing glory to themselves, verse 5: “Everything they do is done for people to see:” And we’re provided with a list. First, “They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long” (verse 5). Now the phylacteries were small leather boxes containing Hebrew texts that were worn either on the left arm or forehead as a reminder to keep the law. Wearing these became a way to obey—very literally—the Scripture that states, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.”[8] But in making their phylacteries wide and their tassels long, these leaders were drawing attention to just how spiritual and godly they were. This might be similar to a believer today wearing a large cross around their necks as a way of drawing attention to themselves—the bigger the cross, the greater the Christian. But second, these leaders “…love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues.” And finally, “they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’[9] by others.” Positions of authority can be a heady narcotic, can’t they? To be in a position of authority allows you to be in a place where people see you stand out from others. And there are perks that often come with such authority. In the case of these leaders, they wore “wide phylacteries” and “long tassels” to distinguish their own importance. Perhaps a rough modern-day equivalence would come from the military where the uniforms one wears indicates one’s rank. The teachers of the law and Pharisees clearly enjoyed being seen as five-star generals but the problem was that they seemed to view everyone else as being there to serve them. Further they relished the VIP seats of honor they were offered at banquets and synagogues. And they loved being called “Sir”—or “Rabbi”—by others even in the marketplaces. In other words even beyond the synagogues where they taught.[10] But whereas ranks are a practical necessity when one is in a military position of protecting one’s country from potential enemies that seek to harm and destroy, ranks are completely inappropriate for one who claims to represent God. As we saw in the parable of the wedding banquet a few weeks ago,[11] we are all equally in need of God, no matter who we are. And we may all only come to God’s table if we are clothed with the wedding clothes he gives us through his Son; we may all only come to God’s table if we are wearing Christ’s righteousness, not our own. For it is Christ’s obedience, not our own, that qualifies us, that allows us to come before our holy and loving and merciful Father in the first place.

What these religious leaders didn’t understand is that the life of faith is one of service, not rank; of serving others, not demanding to be served; of honoring others, not of demanding honor. For all of us have been made equally in God’s image, and all have been equally called to do God’s bidding. As Jesus explained starting in verse 8, “you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.” And, again, verse 9, “do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” And finally, verse 10, “Nor are you to be called instructors [or Master], for you have one Instructor [or Master], the Messiah.” Now the point here isn’t that we can never refer to others by their titles, but rather this is a reminder that as believers our loyalty is to be first and foremost to the Lord. We should never put others in the place of God; we should never honor other believers in the exalted manner that these leaders relished and expected. Because for the believer, God is to be our Teacher. And for this reason he has given us his Spirit, that we might better understand and discern his Word;

For the believer, God is our Father, and for this reason we are to look to and depend upon him in all things;

for the believer, God—that is, Jesus himself, is our Messiah!

So we should be careful about unduly elevating our brothers and sisters—or ourselves—to positions God never intended. Though this may be tempting at a human level, Scripture tells us that God’s ways are not like our ways.[12] And because his ways so far transcend our understanding, he calls us to look to him for all wisdom and guidance. As Peter similarly reminds us,[13] “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because”—and here he quotes Proverbs 3—“‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’[14] Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Earlier in the proverb Peter quotes yet another tie among faith, humility, and service is presented: “27 Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act. 28 Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back tomorrow and I’ll give it to you’—when you already have it with you.”[15] Do you see the interconnectedness that should exist between faith in God—and caring for others—and, knowing God’s love for us, living our lives with humility and gratitude before him and others?

Well, having noted the ways in which the disciples and crowds ought not to act, Jesus ended by explaining positively what God’s ways do look like starting in verse 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.” And with Jesus, this isn’t just talk. Throughout his life he exemplified this servant attitude, perhaps most memorably when he washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper just a few days before his crucifixion.[16] But though examples of his servanthood can be multiplied many times over simply by reading through the Gospels, this communion Sunday it’s appropriate to remind ourselves that the greatest instance of Jesus’ servanthood is that he, the eternal Christ, took on human flesh that you and I might be reconciled to our loving and heavenly Father. Listen to Paul’s exhortation from Philippians 2:[17]

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Though Jesus is the greatest among us, we must never forget that he who was eternal Christ, one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, left his exalted place and came in human form to die for us willingly and shamefully on the cross. And for having done so, he is now exalted at the right hand of the Father where he pleads and prays for us.

So if ever we wonder what it means to be consistent in our faith, we need look no further than his life; if ever we wonder what it means to be humble in our walk, we, again, need look no further than him for he is our one and only Messiah who points us to our one and only Father in heaven and teaches and guides us, individually and corporately, by means of his one and only Holy Spirit who now indwells us.

I want to close by reading words from John that beautifully and powerfully encapsulate all of these lessons:[18]

16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.

Let us pray.

 

[1] Mark 8:15. Matthew earlier indicated Jesus stating a variant of these words on the same occasion, Matthew 16:6: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the Herodians followed the Sadducees in their opposition to the Pharisees and therefore were often associated with the Sadducees <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7605-herodians>. This identification may explain the discrepancy in the two Gospel accounts.

[2] A much condensed version of this chapter may be found in Mark 12:38–40: 38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” And Luke 20:45–47: 45 While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

[3] Ibid., concerning Moses’ seat “Traditionally understood as referring symbolically to the authority of Moses. However, recent archaeological evidence had revealed a literal chair found in early synagogues. Whether literal or figurative, it refers to a place from which experts on the law taught.”

[4] Starting in verse 13 [#1] Jesus states, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to….” Verse 15 [#2], “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are….” Verse 16 [#3], “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’” Verses 23–24 [#4], “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Verses 25–26 [#5], “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” Verses 27–28 [#6], “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Verses 29–32 [#7], “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!”

[5] Zondervan NIV note on Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

[6] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 23:4.

[7] James 2:14–19.

[8] Deuteronomy 11:18. See also Deuteronomy 6:8: Tie [these commandments] as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

[9] Literally “my lord.”

[10] Crossway ESV Study Bible notes that the title “Rabbi” was “used generally for outstanding teachers of the law, most frequently heads of rabbinical schools.”

[11] October 15, 2017, “You Are Invited,” Matthew 22:1–14.

[12] Isaiah 55:6–9 [and what follows verse 9 goes on to elaborate upon this]: 6 Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. 8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

[13] I Peter 5:5b–7.

[14] Proverb 3:34.

[15] Proverb 3:27–28.

[16] Matthew 26:14–39; Luke 22:24–27; John 13:1–17.

[17] Commonly referred to as the “Kenosis” or Christ’s “Emptying” himself for us and our salvation.

[18] I John 3:16–24.

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