The Lectionary verse I chose to base it on is Matthew 23:1-12 which reads:
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 obey them and 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 loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for men 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 in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master 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 ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.[b] 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
And here is the sermon I gave:
Hypocrisy & Servanthood
Have you ever heard, or maybe even used, the expression “do as I say, not as I do?”
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus uses that phrase to condemn the actions of the Pharisees. He says “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” Just who were the Pharisees? They were the largest and most influential religious-political party during New Testament times. They appear in the Gospels as opponents of Jesus. Paul was a Pharisee and we recall how he used to persecute, and even put to death, Christians before he became a man of God. The Pharisees controlled the synagogues and exercised great control over much of the population.
The term “Pharisee” means “separated ones.” Perhaps it means that they separated themselves from the masses or that they separated themselves to the study and interpretation of the law. They saw the way to God as being through obedience to the law. The Pharisees opposed Jesus because He refused to accept their interpretations of the oral law.
In this gospel lesson, Jesus does not deny that the Pharisees know the law, in fact he tells the crowds and his disciples that “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.” Sitting in Moses’ seat meant that they were like Moses in interpreting the law and acting as judges in disputes regarding the law. So they certainly knew what the laws were. And since they took the Scriptures at face value, Jesus said their instructions should be followed. However, Jesus warned the people of the Pharisee’s legalism which valued their own rules and regulations above the Scriptures. Legalism simply means strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.
In verse 4, Jesus condemns the Pharisees because “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders...” What is the heavy load they tie up? The Pharisees counted 613 laws from the Old Testament that they said the people were to do in order to live lives that were pleasing to God. All of these social regulations added up to immense burdens on the Jews for their day-to-day lives. By focusing on these 613 religious rules and regulations, the Pharisees neglected the weightier issues of love and justice. They saw no “wiggle-room” in the law. Indeed they accused Jesus of breaking the law for picking grain for his disciples to eat on the Sabbath. They also condemned him for healing the sick on the Sabbath.
Imagine the weight of your religion on your shoulders if you thought the only way you could be “religious” was by obeying all of these 613 religious rules. What a burden it would be.
Even though Jesus does not use the word “hypocrite” in this gospel passage, he certainly is pointing out the acts of hypocrisy that the Pharisees display. Hypocrisy is the act of pretending to be what one really is not, especially the pretense of being a better person than one really is. We can see this in the verses where Jesus points out “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;”
Let’s take a closer look at this. Phylacteries were small boxes containing Bible passages that were worn on the forehead or arm. This custom was based on Exodus 13:9 which says “This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the law of the LORD is to be on your lips. For the LORD brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” And Dueteronomy 6:8 which says “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” But from such passages as Proverbs 3:3 “Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.” that God meant his word to be more than outward adornment – he meant for his word to be held in our hearts.
The tassels that Jesus refers to were worn on the corners of garments in order to remind the Israelites of God’s law. Numbers 15:38-40 states“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God.” In order to be seen as especially righteous, some hypocrites would make their phylacteries conspicuously large and their tassels unusually long.
To the Pharisees their phylacteries had become more important for the status they gave than for the truths they contained. Jesus exposed the hypocritical attitudes of these religious leaders. They knew the Scriptures but did not live by them. They didn’t care about being holy – just appearing holy so they could get the people’s admiration and praise. Even today there are many people who may know the Bible, but they don’t let it change their lives. They say they follow Jesus but don’t live by his standards of love. People who live this way are hypocrites, just as the Pharisees were. We must always be vigilant in making sure our actions match our beliefs.
Hypocrisy was also addressed by Jesus in Isaiah 29:13 where he said “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”
The other things that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for were “they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’”
Jesus is not condemning the place of honor at banquets, obviously someone has to sit there, but he is condemning the Pharisees for “loving” the place of honor. They expect to receive the place of honor because they believe they are better than others and should be accorded the highest seat of honor in all places. The most important seats in the synagogues were a row of seats in the font of the synagogue facing the congregation. Again, they want to be seen by everyone as being the most pious and most important person wherever they go. They essentially are making idols of themselves, and worshiping themselves – the worst kind of idolatry. And to seek that kind of recognition in the synagogue where they were supposed to be worshiping God, not themselves, is mocking God rather than honoring Him.
People desire positions of leadership, not only in business, but also in the church. Desiring leadership in itself is not a bad thing – we need Christian leaders. But it becomes a problem, however, when the love for the position grows stronger than loyalty to God. Jesus was not against all leadership – but he was against leadership that serves itself rather than others.
Rabbi means “teacher” and it was used as a respectful salutation. However, the Pharisees loved to be called by that title for the prestige and power that went with the title, not for the purpose of using the position to serve others.
All disciples need a master, or a teacher. But the way the Pharisees viewed the role was in stark contrast to the humble way in which Jesus served his disciples. They gloried in the limelight, while He came to be overlooked and rejected by the nation as a whole. He came to give His life as a ransom for many; they lived only for the praise and adulation their position gave them.
Jesus cautions the disciples to not elevate themselves above others as the Pharisees do. In verses 8-10 he warns them “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ.” He is teaching them they must be humble and that only God should be exalted above all others.
Jesus is not saying that levels of authority should not exist in this world. In 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 he says “Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.” 1 Timothy 5:17 tells us “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” And in Hebrews 13:17 we are told “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Jesus came as a servant. And one of the greatest teachings of Jesus is that we are to be servants. The greatest Christian is the person who has learned to be a servant, to have the heart of a servant, the attitude of a servant, the actions of a servant. In the foot washing on Holy Thursday, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and shocked them all with this action and his attitude of humility.
So what do we learn from Jesus, our Teacher and Messiah? Those who seek greatness, says Jesus, will find it not in leading others but in serving others, for as verse 11 in today’s passage says “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
Greatness in the kingdom of God is not measured, as the Pharisees supposed, by determining how many disciples they had under their authority. Rather it is the number whom we serve that reflects our measure of greatness in God’s sight. To Jesus greatness come from serving – giving of yourself to help God and others. Service keeps us aware of others’ needs and keeps us from focusing only on ourselves.
Indeed, as Paul points out in Philippians 2:6-8, Jesus “... being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
The good news is that the story of Jesus did not end at the cross or with his death. God raised Jesus to new life and restored to him all the rights, privileges, and titles he had willingly given up in order to serve us. And so we can claim the truth of Jesus’ promise in the last verse of today’s lesson: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for your words today that teach us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Remind us that we are to be servants, not only to you, but to others as well. As 1 Peter 4:10 tells us “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” Let us go forth today and use our gifts to serve others in your name, Lord. We humbly ask that you continue to guide us and to teach us your word. We also ask that you be with those on our prayer list, you know who they are, Lord. We lift them up to you; hold them in your loving arms, be their strength and their comfort. Your will be done, in Jesus’ name, Amen.