Sermon, November 5, 2017


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Joshua 3.7-17; Psalm 107.1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2.9-13; Matthew 23.1-12


Last Sunday we noted several events following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was the common people, the so called “little people,” the poor people looking for hope, who welcomed him. The religious leaders recognized Jesus as the threat he was, and set about to entrap him with a series of questions: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority” (Matthew 21.23; NRSV)? “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not” (Matthew 22.17; NRSV)? In the resurrection, “Whose wife of the seven will she be” (Matthew 22.27; NRSV)? “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest” (Matthew 22.36; NRSV). In each case, Jesus evaded the trap; his answers revealed the inadequacy of their understanding. This becomes even clearer when we consider Jesus’ question addressed to the Pharisees: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” When they answered, “The Son of David,” Jesus then asked, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son” (Matthew 22.42-45; NRSV)? The Pharisees were reduced to silence.

Jesus then turned to the crowds and his disciples and warned them of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus began by noting their legitimate authority: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23.2; NRSV). They could trace their authority back to Moses. The scribes wrestled with interpretation of the law while the Pharisees wrestled with application of the law to daily living (Haslam, Chris. As Jesus accepted their authority, he told the crowds and the disciples, “Do whatever they teach you and follow it” (Matthew 23.3a; NRSV). So far, so good.

But then Jesus cautions, “But do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23.3b; NRSV). Jesus is addressing a lack of integrity – the scribes and Pharisees are talking the walk when they should be walking the talk. They are hypocritical. Jesus then gives three examples. Let’s look at each of these.

First, Jesus says, “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” (Matthew 23.4; NRSV). What are these heavy burdens? Remember that the scribes and Pharisees were tasked with the interpretation and application of the law. Jesus was critical of their interpreting and applying the law in ways that were excessively burdensome, in ways that lost sight of the very foundation of the law – love and mercy. For example, in the Gospel of Mark, Mark tells of Jesus and his disciples walking through grain fields. The disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain – much to the consternation of the Pharisees. Jesus emphasized love and mercy, and reminded the Pharisees, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2.27; NRSV).

In Luke 11.46, Jesus responds to a rebuke from the lawyers, “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them” (NRSV). If you ask me, that sounds a bit like the legislature!

In Matthew 11.28-30, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that 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” (NRSV).

In short, Jesus was critical of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ use of power and authority in ways which made the lives of the common people burdensome. The receipt of God’s law was originally perceived as a reason for rejoicing – at last, God has told us how we are to live. Hear the joy of the psalmist’s exclamation: “Oh, how I love your law! It is my meditation all day long” (Psalm 119.97; NRSV).

In Acts 15.10-11, Peter is critical of Jewish Christians who expected gentile Christians to religiously follow Jewish practices: “Why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear. On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of our Lord Jesus, just as they will” (NRSV). As Jesus noted, the emphasis on the law was not for the sake of the law, but for our sake. It was to teach love and mercy, and to remind us that salvation does not come through obedience to the law but through the grace of God. (Note: Adapted from Chris Haslam, Jesus had every right to be upset.

Second, Jesus criticized their pursuit of prestige and honor: “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 honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi” (Matthew 23.5-7; NRSV).  Phylacteries are small boxes containing scripture that are worn on the arm or the forehead as stipulated in the book of Exodus. The use of fringes is stipulated in Numbers 15.38-40. God told Moses to command that fringes be placed at the corners of garments to serve as a reminder to remember and do all God’s commandments. Phylacteries and fringes were not the issue – the issue was how they wore them as a means of proclaiming their piety and drawing attention to themselves. Make those boxes broad and those fringes long!

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6.1; NRSV) and “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others . . . whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6.5-6; NRSV). We are to humbly practice our piety rather than draw attention to ourselves. We are to worship and praise God rather than use our worship and praise to elevate ourselves. One who is humble before God does not seek out the places of honor at banquets or the best seats in the synagogue; nor do they wish to be greeted in the market place because of their piety or to be called “rabbi.”

Third, Jesus cautions the crowd and the disciples, “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” (Matthew 23.8-10; NRSV). Once again, we see an emphasis on humility – we are all students in this journey, our true Father is the Father in heaven, and the Messiah is our true instructor. God is to be accorded the place of honor. The title of “Father” crept back into the church through monasticism where it was used as a title for one’s spiritual director. As servants of God, we are not to seek titles for self-aggrandizement.

Jesus closes his address to the crowd and the disciples by saying, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23.11-12; NRSV).

I think it is safe to say that most church conflicts, or for that matter, most conflicts in organizations stem from our failure to live out of love, mercy, and humility – the very things to which Jesus call us. We talk the talk, but we are unwilling, or unable, to walk the walk. As with the scribes and Pharisees, our desire for power and prestige pulls us away from living a life of love and servanthood. Jesus wants more than our talk – he wants our walk.


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