“Walk the talk”
Matthew 23:1-12 (November 5, 2023)
Jesus had some hard things to say about the religious leaders of his day. “Do whatever they teach you,” he told the crowds along with his disciples. “Do whatever they say, but not what they do.”
We all know words and actions are two different things. And they don’t always line up. We point to politicians who will say one thing to win votes but then, when elected, do something different. We point to sales people who make grandiose claims but later, we discover, the product fails to meet expectations. We point to people we look up to, maybe even put on a pedestal, but later they let us down.
It’s easy to point our finger at others. But there is a saying you may have heard before. I learned it from my mother. “Whenever you point your finger at someone else,” she would tell me, “there are three fingers pointing back at you.”
Ah yes. There is that awkward truth. None of us are perfect!
So it’s easy for us to jump on the bandwagon criticizing those scribes and Pharisees. But let me say one thing at the outset: Many Pharisees were sincere, well-meaning folk. Just like us.
They get a bad rap in the Gospels. Some did find themselves at odds with Jesus. But we shouldn’t paint the whole group with a single brush. Remember Nicodemus? He believed Jesus was a teacher sent from God. (John 3:1-2) In the book of Acts, we encounter a group of “believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees.” (Acts 15:5) It’s important to read scripture with care.
In our passage, Jesus speaks about two things. First, those who place heavy burdens on others without lifting a finger to help them.
Maybe you’ve encountered this. Someone was highly critical, quick to judge, with little sympathy or understanding of your situation in life. If only they’d walked the path you had to walk, or stood in your shoes. But from their privileged place in the world, they made you feel quite small.
Jesus was not interested in making people feel small. Just the opposite! When we are down, defeated, diminished, when our way is hard, Jesus lends a hand and lifts us up.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Too often our religious practice is harsh and judgemental. But Jesus is gracious and forgiving. He lifts our burdens and makes us whole.
It’s easy to rush to judgement, make grandiose pronouncements, look down on others who do not meet the standard we set. But those attitudes do not bring life – either to others, or to us! Jesus invites his disciples to practice another way.
The second thing Jesus names is the tendency of some religious people to project a certain image of themselves. They hope to gain approval by the things they wear, the places they go, the ways they are seen by others,.
“They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Phylacteries are boxes containing scripture that can be tied to the arm or the forehead when praying.
Moses said, “Keep these words that I am commanding you today. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:8-9) So that is what they did, quite literally.
Fringes likely refer to the tassels on the corners of a prayer shawl. The longer, the holier, I suppose!
When I was younger, some friends and I used to joke about the Bibles people carried into church. Big, oversize, floppy things, leather bound, with fancy gold leaf pages. They seemed to shout, “Look at me!” Of course that may not have been the intent of the user at all. See how easy it is to judge?
Jesus speaks about those eager to receive honour and recognition. Those who wish to be seated at the front of the synagogue, where everyone can see them. Those who crave honorific titles: Rabbi. “Reverend, Doctor, Pastor Paul!” Where does it end?
It’s good to show respect. But maybe not to seek it for ourselves. We are too full of ourselves. We put ourselves at the centre of everything.
In our time, it’s moved out of the religious sphere and into social media. Where so-called “influencers” are eager to grab attention. They’re ever so careful to craft a certain image. One that will attract an audience and gain them hits and “likes” and subscriptions to their YouTube channel. Do you know about this?
It can happen in any environment, religious or secular. In government, in business, in churches, in the classroom, in the Rotary Club, on the football field, in your condo association. There’s always someone who wants to be a Prima Donna, the lead singer, the grand personality of the opera.
And Jesus just says, “Stop it!” Think of others. Think of God.
“You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.”
Do you see what he’s doing here? He’s talking about the importance of community. He’s telling his disciples they’re in it together. All of us are learning. We are meant to support one another on this journey.
Remember what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians? Here was a congregation marked by bitter rivalry, divided into factions: “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas.” (1 Corinthians 1:12) Each one, no doubt, a gifted leader.
Paul writes, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. … We are God’s servants, working together.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-6,9)
We are quick to put others on a pedestal. We love our stars – in the sports world, the entertainment world, and the religious world too. We have our favourite teachers. But Jesus says we have one teacher – the Messiah. And together, we are his students.
I’ve had instructors over the years. Some were professors at university, highly educated. And I appreciate them. I have favourite authors, people whose writings I’ve learned to trust. They often have something helpful to say.
But there have been others. One, a single mom who was abused as a child, became addicted to alcohol, and struggled with issues of mental health. Later in life, she was drawn to the community of faith. Her life experience, so different from my own, gave her a unique perspective.
I’ve learned from elders and from children. From folks who’ve been around the church forever, and newcomers who’ve just arrived. That’s the beauty of being part of this community! This gathering together of a motley crew – to learn, to share, to grow together. To support one another.
And here we need to remember what the gospel really is: That Christ died for us, to redeem us and make us whole. We’re all in the same boat.
All of us sinners saved by grace. You don’t have to pretend to be something you’re not. Not here anyway.
God loves us, accepts us just as we are. And then begins to work in our lives by the power of the Spirit to make us more than ever thought we could be!
This is the gospel of God’s transforming love offered freely to everyone. And so we gather with all our flaws and embarrassing bits, hoping that others will not judge us.
Judgement is not our business. Our business is to love and support each other in all the struggles that life brings. And there are plenty of them.
That’s what sets the church apart. That’s what makes followers of Jesus different.
In our scripture, Jesus says, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
The greatest is the one who supports you. Not the one who puts him or herself above you.
I love that hymn we sing sometimes, “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav’lers on the road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” (HWB #307)
We are humble servants. Following the teaching of Jesus, whose words were embodied in the life he lived.
Remember how he took a towel and then proceeded to wash his disciples feet? They were shocked! “No, you shouldn’t be doing this!” But Jesus said he should.
“You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I … have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example ….” (John 13:13-15)
Here’s what I think: Jesus calls us into a new kind of community where hierarchies go out the window! A community of humble service. Where we help one another.
And it’s shocking to us, because the kingdom of God that comes to us in Jesus is so unlike what we see in the world around – where one group wants to raise itself to the exclusion of all others. Where power and status and wealth are so much sought after. Where some enjoy privileges while others suffer greatly. Jesus offers a different vision for the world.
The world, these days, is kind of a dangerous place. So much conflict. And threat of escalation seems to be growing! This week, as we prepare to remember those whose lives have been lost in war, I pray that we will hold on to another vision for a world that is coming to be.
We’re not here to lay heavy burdens. We’re here to model a new kind of living as we serve one another. If the world could just catch a glimpse of that … wouldn’t it be a different place? Of course, we ourselves are not there yet.
So in the week ahead I invite you to think of someone you might encourage. Someone you might lend a helping hand to. Lifting their burden, not adding to it.
It’s such a simple thing. But it means letting go of our tendency to judge. Recognizing that we are on a journey too.
And most of all, it involves the work of Christ among us. So pray that the Spirit of him who came not to be served but to serve, the One who humbled himself to be exalted, would be at work in our lives too! May it be so! Amen.