The First Presbyterian Church of Dexter
Text: Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 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. 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. 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.The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
In an uncharacteristic turn of events Jesus appears to complement or at least side momentarily with the Pharisees and the scribes in this morning’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew. We hear Jesus telling the crowd, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it…” Now I’ve said this before in other places, and I’ll share it with all of you here this morning… There is a Pharisee in each and everyone of us. This isn’t a bad thing… believe me, it isn’t. The Pharisees were a group of individuals who were trying to adhere to the teachings that had given to them, in order to live a life that was righteous before God… And this is all well and good, but the problem arises when in our striving to live lives that are righteous, we like the Pharisees, run the risk of trying to place ourselves on an unearned pedestal above those we deem to be inadequate or lacking.
You may have heard the phrase, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” which was penned by the late English Catholic historian John Dalberg-Acton. I don’t think truer words have ever been put on paper, especially when we look at the world around us today. There is a lack of humility… a shortage of people who are willing to embrace a spirit of humbleness that emphasizes the fact that there is much more to life than just themselves… While being in a place of power or possessing inherited power isn’t necessarily wrong, the issue at hand is found whenever we try to place ourselves at the center of attention. We find this morning is that Jesus isn’t concerned about whether or not we are in the spotlight. What Jesus is concerned about is whether or not we will work in a way that benefits those who are in our communities or if we will use the gifts we have been given in a way that tries to elevate ourselves in order to garner attention. Simply put, our reading for this morning reminds us of the timeless truth, “It isn’t all about me.”
While we find that Jesus takes a rare moment to acknowledge the authority and work of the Pharisees, Jesus is just as quick to turn the opposite direction and present a litany of shortcomings and failures. The criticisms that Jesus brings against the Pharisees are all held together by a common theme… The theme that our religion, our faith, can transform into something that prevents us seeing what we can do for God and our neighbors, and instead focuses our attention on our own needs and wants.
I’ll admit that it is sometimes hard for us to care for neighbors, friends, or family when they feel like a thorn in our side… I’ll admit that to focus on others is difficult when we feel that we ourselves don’t have much to offer… I’ll admit that the faith that Jesus taught us has real world implications that are life altering, and calls us into a deep relationship that goes beyond our own understanding of what it means to live a selfless life, that calls us offer whatever we have in service to the Kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t say, “Love your neighbor some, and yourself more…” No, Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We are all created in the image of God who love us all with equal measure. Our Christian faith is not about gathering wealth, nor securing stability for ourselves… Our Christian faith is about loving God and our neighbor with what we have and with the core of who we are as children of God.
From Jesus’ account the Pharisees were individuals who were willing to dole out more responsibilities than what they were willing to do themselves. If we look back at our passage for this morning Jesus tells the crowd, “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.” It doesn’t sound like the Pharisees or teachers of the law had a heart of humility or service. And to some extent each of us possess the same inner struggle. I can’t say why the Pharisees felt the need to impose such harsh standards on people, but for us it raises the question, “How can we continually grow to be a community of faith that welcomes those who come?” “How can we experience the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that it rejuvenates our hearts and minds to go out and live a life of faith that are an example to all whom we meet?”
There’s a couple of pictures that were sent to me by a friend that describe two different kinds of leadership. One shows the “leader” on top of a large pile of bricks. Looking down at the people below, the leader shouts and barks orders at the people. The second picture shows the leader on amongst the people on the ground. And instead of berating them, the leader takes charge by getting their hands dirty and leading by example. Judging by our Scripture passage this morning, I would imagine that Jesus calls us to live a life that models the second picture. Faith is messy, life is chaotic, and nothing is as neat and tidy as we would like it… But that is why we have each other. The work that Christ calls us to requires us to be vulnerable, it requires us to admit to others that there will be times when we don’t have answers they or looking for or don’t know where we are going. But isn’t that why we come to worship each Sunday, so that we can feast on the Gospel of Jesus Christ together in a community that draws strength from each other?
I’ve talked a lot this morning about humility and the importance of serving others. And this is because I am concerned about how selfishness has become a guiding principle that has permeated every aspect of our lives, including our faith. “If you pray for it God will answer…” “If you give a little bit God will bless you beyond all measure…” These are maybe a couple phrases you have probably heard from many of televangelist on TV. If you listened to their sermons you would think that God only cares about your happiness… Somehow this message of good news that is life altering only about me… And for some reason or another Jesus is very concerned about whether or not I am happy, successful, or becoming a better me…
Now, I want to clarify and say that I do think Jesus cares about the things that happen in our lives. But if we look at the life of Jesus Christ we would find that it is full of selfless acts of love and compassion… We wouldn’t find Jesus caring only about himself and neglecting the very people that he was supposed to care for. Our communities are enriched when we welcome everyone in with an attitude of grace and compassion. And while the task may seem daunting, all we have to do is look around to realize that this is a task that is not meant to be taken alone. There may be arguments, there may be blood, sweat, and tears, but at the end of the day if we are able to come together to see where Christ is leading us, our one Lord, our one instructor, our one Messiah, we may begin to understand how this timeless community, called the Church, is continually being shaped and molded by a God who claims us all.
So like many things in life we are called to walk a fine line… We are called to live the life of a Pharisee, a Pharisee who strives to live out the teachings of God, and we are called to live the life of a humble servant, a disciple of God who embraces a spirit of humility. Will we take up the challenge that is laid before us? Are we willing to become the community Christ call’s us to be at the cost emptying ourselves of pride and power? It may seem a scary when we don’t know what the future hold, but aren’t you just a little curious to know what God will do if we take such steps to follow Christ? Amen.