by Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons
Scripture: St. Matthew 23: 1-12
Chapter 23 is in the form of a sermon delivered to the "crowds" in the context of Jesus' teaching ministry in the temple during the week before his arrest and crucifixion. The sermon initially addresses the Scribes (most Scribes were Pharisaically inclined) and the Pharisees, v1-7, and then Jesus' disciples, v8-12. In showing up the faithlessness of Israel's religious leaders, Jesus reveals the reason behind God's judgement upon the nation, and at the same time warns his disciples that they too can easily fall into the same error.
v1. Jesus, presumably in the temple courts, addresses his words to both the unbelieving crowd as well as his disciples.
v2. This verse is best understood as "the teachers of the law, most of whom are Pharisees", ie., they belong to the Pharisee party. These teachers of the law possess the authority of Moses to teach the people. "Moses' seat" is a stone block in the synagogue from which the authorized teacher instructs the congregation.
v3. Jesus confirms that the teaching of the law by the Scribes is right and proper (although it can be argued that this is an ironic statement, "do what they say, ho-hum"). They do indeed proclaim a righteousness of the law which all should submit to. The problem is that they themselves don't keep the law they proclaim. What they do is rework the law to make it keepable. The members of the Qumran community called the Pharisees "the expounders of smooth things."
v4. Their greatest failure is that they see the law as an end in itself. They load people up with the law and then allow them to be crushed by it. Even worse, they fail to teach that the primary function of the law is to expose sin and thus drive the sinner to seek mercy from God. The law serves to prompt the search for forgiveness, a forgiveness now realized in Christ. The Scribes had failed to understand this function of the law and so inevitably rested on their own self-righteous legalism.
v5-7. Jesus goes on to describe these teachers of the law as applause-seekers. They liked to see their piety recognized by others. For this reason they wore large phylacteries (a box worn on the arm or forehead with four texts inside, Ex.13:9.) and they wore long tassels hanging from the corners of their outer garment, Num.15:37-41.
v8-10. Speaking directly to his disciples, Jesus denounces any applause-seeking gained through a position of authority or power. The self-exaltation and power of the "rabbi" (teacher) is denounced. Disciples must relate in brotherly love and rely on the one Teacher (better than "Master"), namely Jesus. As for the honouring of dead teachers with the title "father", giving them the same title as the "Father" in heaven, it is quite inappropriate. In v10 Jesus repeats the point made in v8, but this time he identifies the "Teacher" with himself.
v11. Leadership in Christ's new community is exercised by serving others in love rather than by ruling.
v12. Humility is the principle which should rule the ruler. Humility is not servility or humbug, but rather a recognition of the amazing grace that "saved a wretch like me." An awareness of grace makes for graciousness in the teacher.
When the message of God's grace is proclaimed from the pulpit, it is often confused with an evangelistic address. Sometimes a preacher can face criticism for their one-track gospel sermons. "He is always preaching the gospel, but we are all converted. So all he is doing is evangelizing the faithful." In a sense, grace-centered preaching is evangelistic, it is the gospel, yet it is also a message for believers. The gospel of God's sovereign grace is first and foremost a message for the faithful.
The pulpit is a powerful manipulator. A preacher can "tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders." Sunday by Sunday believers leave church bound by the obligations of Christian piety. Witnessing, giving, praying, clean minds, clean words, kindness, forgiveness, free from anger..... a piety to be displayed, but a piety compromised, for who can "practice what they preach"? Although this piety is righteous and good, such that we should "do everything they tell" us, in the end it but reminds us of who we are - our "righteousness is but filthy rags."
A Christian preacher must proclaim the experience of the cross, and this because of our own brokenness before the searching eye of God. The preacher has no other message to proclaim other than the grace of God in Christ, for it is grace that transforms us into the image of Christ. The sermon must serve to lift the load off God's broken people and replace it with Christ's burden, a load that is "light indeed." This then is the message of the "servant", of the one who under Christ does not even rightly deserve the title "teacher". For the preacher and the hearer, exultation comes through humility, it comes through submission to the gracious kindness of God freely given to all who ask Christ.
1. Given that Jesus is always critical of Israel's teachers, why does he say, with regard to their law-teaching, "you must obey them"?
2. In what sense do they fail to lift the load of the law
3. Define the ideal of humility expected of the Christian teacher.
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