Sermon, November 5, 2017 – 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (Proper 26)
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Our Gospel passage comes from the 24th chapter of Matthew. The previous chapter in Matthew saw Jesus match wits with the Pharisees and religious leaders through parables and questions and answers. The conflict is rather more open in this chapter.
Jesus’s opening statement sounds very conciliatory. He says “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” But this is as nice as Jesus gets. After this, Jesus opens on the Pharisees in an extraordinarily blunt and direct series of attacks. In the passage we heard today, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for hypocritically placing needless burdens on the people and for craving honor and praise from culture.
Immediately following our selection, Jesus launches a series of seven complaints against the Pharisees in which he expands on his criticisms with specific examples. Near the end of the chapter, Jesus really lets loose on the Pharisees, not holding anything back. He declares “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”
There aren’t too many times in the Gospels when we see Jesus really get angry and this is one of them. Why is that? What makes Jesus so upset? Asking this question is an important key to unlocking the wider meaning of this passage for us.
Let’s parse out what Jesus says again. Jesus begins by telling the people “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” Jesus is instructing the people to respect the teaching office of the teachers of the law, as well as reminding the people that listening to and obeying Scripture is important. Although it is easy to pass over this statement of Jesus as a side point in the passage, I think it is important to take note. Often when we become angry with the corruption, false teaching, or hypocrisy of our leaders, we become so vengeful that we just want to tear it all down. This can often be very destructive, and make a bad situation worse. And so before launching his attack on the Pharisees, Jesus is reminding the people that he is criticizing the false teaching and hypocrisy, but not the underlying Jewish religion nor the Scriptures.
After this reminder, Jesus criticizes three specific things about the Pharisees – their hypocrisy, how they have turned God’s love and redemption from being a gift into a burden, and how they crave societal honor and cultural approval instead of God. Let’s turn back to the words of Jesus.
He continues “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” Jesus is calling them out for hypocrisy. The Pharisees preached one thing, but didn’t actually practice it themselves. Nobody likes a hypocrite, and one of the surest ways to undermine somebody’s credibility is to catch them employing a double standard. Think of how devastating it is to the church when its leaders are found doing things that they routinely preach against. It completely undermines the message.
Why is that? It is because we believe that if a person truly believes in what they are preaching, then they will do what they say. If you really believe that exercise makes you healthy, you will do it. If you really believe that education is important, you will go to school. But if you tell me to cycle 10 miles to work for the good of the environment while you drive half a mile to your work in your big SUV, I’m going to think that you don’t take the environment very seriously at all. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees angered Jesus because it undermined God’s message to his people. The Pharisees had the job of communicating God’s message through the Scriptures to the people. Just as a Christian’s hypocrisy today would lead people to reject the Christian message, so did the Pharisees’ hypocrisy in Jesus’s day undercut God’s message to the Jews. Remember that Jesus was concerned that the people respect the teaching role of the Pharisees and Jesus knew that the greatest threat to such respect was the hypocrisy of the Pharisees themselves.
Jesus follows up his critique of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy by saying “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.” Jesus is angry that the Pharisees present God’s redeeming love for his people as a “heavy, cumbersome load”. In the Old Testament we see repeatedly how God saves his people and usually despite the fact that his people have failed to live up to their end of the covenant. When God made his covenant with Abraham, it was God alone who walked through the midst of the slain animals, signifying that only he pledged his life to fulfill the covenant. The Pharisees told the people that only by obeying God’s commandments perfectly could they be saved, as if salvation were up to us instead of God.
This is important for us today, because Christians continue to make the very same mistake that the Pharisees made. And that mistake undermines the Gospel. If the message of salvation is that we have a lot of commands to keep and things to do for God, then the focus is on what we do, not on what God did for us. That is looking for salvation through the Law, which is impossible. Our only salvation is through grace, through what God did for us. The very heart of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ died for us on the cross, taking our sins upon himself, and paying with his life for our transgressions.
The word Gospel comes from a Greek word which means “good news” and usually referred to the good news of a military victory. When we share the Gospel, we are sharing the story of God’s victory over sin, which was accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we say that we are Gospel people, it means that we are people who live in the light of this good news.
But we humans like to always turn things back on to ourselves. We are naturally inclined to think that our actions are necessary to our salvation. Few Christians will ever openly teach this, but falling into this subtle trap is so easy, and once we go down that road, the Gospel message is undermined. We can start down this road with the very best intentions. We might think that people will tune out our words unless we are living obedient lives. The danger in this is that it leads to replacing the gospel of grace with the burden of the law. Christianity can very quickly turn into something that makes many demands of us, something that is a heavy, cumbersome load. We are not really good Christians unless we do this thing or that thing. That’s not the Gospel.
The Gospel is that we are saved because Jesus died for our sins. There is no burden, no load for us to bear. God has already taken care of it. And only then, in our joy and gratitude, and after turning our lives over to God, will we do the things Jesus calls us to do. Those things are not burdens we must bear, but things we do after we have been transformed through Scripture and the Spirit.
Jesus continues. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.” Phylacteries were little boxes with Scripture verses that devout Jews wore on their foreheads to indicate their piety. The Pharisees wanted to make sure everybody knew how pious they were, and they craved social and cultural honor for themselves. The Greek word that is translated “to see” in the phrase “for people to see” is the same word that the modern English word theater comes from. The Pharisees were like actors in a play, putting on a show of being pious and holy.
This is a danger for Christians today as well. People naturally crave approval from others. With the rise of social media such as Twitter and Facebook has come the phenomenon of virtue signaling. The Oxford dictionary defines virtue signaling as “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position.” This has become very important in the lives of younger people. Unless you publicly support the correct opinions on Facebook or Twitter, you become an outcast.
One person wrote “If the Pharisees lived today, they would doubtlessly be the most avid purveyors of social media. Just imagine the Facebook posts (“Here I am seated at the head of Caiaphas’ table”), the selfies (“Praying at the Temple in my new robes!”), the Instagrams (“The dinner at Herod’s place—amazing!”).” We are all at risk of doing this in our lives but also within the church. This is true for all Christians, of whatever stripe, political opinion or theological persuasion. Here I am, with the right opinion or doing the right thing. Thank goodness I am not like those others.
It’s always dangerous for Christians or the Church to seek approval from society or culture instead of from God. When we do this, we succumb to the world’s agenda instead of God’s. Instead of looking to win approval from our surrounding culture, or even from our church sub-culture, we need to look to God’s will as revealed through Scripture and ask ourselves what God is calling us to do.
A few years ago, during an Ash Wednesday sermon, the preacher talked about whether or not we should wipe off our ash crosses from our foreheads after church. His advice was that if retaining the ash on our foreheads would lead us to feel that others would look at us approvingly and think we were holy and pious, then we should probably wipe the ash off. But if we feared that the ash would lead others to mock us or look down at us for being Christians, then we should leave it on. I’ve come to see this as being good advice. We always need to question our motives and ask ourselves whether we are doing something for cultural or societal approval, or because this is what God is calling us to do.
As we come to the end of our passage, Jesus says ““But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, 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 instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus is not telling us that we can’t call our dad “father.” Nor does this passage prevent us from calling a priest “father so-and-so” or the teachers in our congregation “teacher’, nor should I go see my university dean and insist that I not be referred to as “instructor” anymore. That’s not the point. What is the point is that these were all particular terms of high honor and social standing in the ancient Jewish world and the Pharisees reveled in these honorific titles that puffed them up. We are to avoid this.
Jesus is calling us to exercise humility. The greatest among us will be our servant. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. The Gospel is not about elevating ourselves. Instead, the heart of the Gospel is about how God humbled himself for us. In Philippians, Paul wrote about 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!” Jesus humbled himself for us to the point of dying for us on the cross.
As faithful followers of Jesus, we are called to lives of humble service. The Gospel is not about us; it’s not about our deeds, it’s not about our obedience, it’s not about how good or important we look to others. The Gospel is all about Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for us. Jesus was upset with the Pharisees because they were trying to turn the focus away from what God had done for his people and instead on to what great people they were. This isn’t just a Pharisee problem. It’s something that we all are prone to do. It angered Jesus then, and it angers Jesus now, because it leads people away from the only thing that can save them. The focus should not be on the Pharisees or us or our deeds. They will not save anybody. The only thing that can save people is Jesus Christ. So let’s turn the focus where it needs to be – on him.
Let us pray.
God, the giver of life, whose Holy Spirit wells up within your Church: equip us to keep the focus on the gospel of Christ and make us eager to do your will that we may share with the whole world the good news of what you have done for us. Let us remember your words “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Let us share the comfort and joy that these words give us. We ask this in Christ’s name, Amen.