Matthew 23:1-12 (Common English Bible CEB)
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’ “But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters. Don’t call anybody on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is heavenly. Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher. But the one who is greatest among you will be your servant. All who lift themselves up will be brought low. But all who make themselves low will be lifted up.
Religion has always been connected with words. If you look at the history of religion throughout the ages and collected all the words associated with them, you would find volumes upon volumes of wisdom contained within the scriptures and prayers, the hymns, and the chants of many expressions of faith. Even religions that proport to be “wordless,” such as Taoism or Zen Buddhism, tend to have their own collections of words. [i] And this, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Buddhism for example, teaches that words can be like fingers pointing to the moon; the challenge however, is not to confuse the finger with the moon. [ii] In other words, don’t let the words themselves become more important than the meaning behind them.
Now, I think, this pithy bit of wisdom unearths an issue that we face as contemporary Christians. As people of faith, and especially as pastors, we say all kinds of things that might be considered profound, perhaps even beautiful to our ear, but at the end of the day I think our religious words can come-off as elusive or even exclusive to people outside the church walls. Why? Because far too often we don’t practice what we preach. I think religious people, even well-intentioned religious people, like myself, say one thing but do another. We offer words of compassion and cry out for justice but when it comes down to it, when it comes down to “putting our money where our mouth is” we sometimes fall short.
Which brings us to Matthew. In our reading for today, Jesus sensed the urgency of the hour, and therefore, he didn’t hold back in this speech. When he spoke to the crowds, he observed that the religious leaders, the ones with so much book-learning about God, were so full of themselves and so proud of their position that they missed the main point of it all. And Jesus, as we’ve seen so many times in Matthew’s account, used this teaching moment to instruct his followers about the way they should live. He invited them to become humble servant-leaders and servant-teachers. [iii] They were not to imitate the example they had seen in the Pharisees and scribes, but instead, they were to live-into the higher ideals of their faith.
So, what were these “higher ideals”? Well, Jesus says in our text for today, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
The downfall of the religious leaders was their hypocrisy. They said one thing and did another. They didn’t practice what they preached, right? They created interpretations of the law that were so burdensome that no one could keep them. The only way for the common person to follow the law then, to be righteous, to be considered clean and therefore worthy of temple worship, was to enrich the religious leaders. The poor had to grease the palms of the wealthy.
So, Jesus was basically saying to his followers, “They say all the right things. They put together long, eloquent strings of words touting liberation and shalom; they talk a good game about caring for the widows and orphans and giving alms to the poor. And these things you should do. However, “if you want to know what a person believes, watch his feet, not his mouth.” [iv] The words coming out of the religious elites mouths didn’t match their actions. That’s why Jesus said, “do as they say, and not as they do.”
And this makes perfect sense to me. James, in his writings, held that a faith without works is a dead faith. And that was the essence of Jesus’ criticism. The Pharisees and the scribes didn’t practice a living faith. In his book by the same name, President Jimmy Carter said, “In the Christian tradition, the concept of faith has two interrelated meanings, both implying fidelity: confidence in being (God), and action based on firm belief.”[v] In both the words of the former president and the brother of Jesus, we see what’s been termed “a theology of praxis.” That is, a theological understanding that just words must be accompanied by just action. Or, as in the words of the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez: “To be followers of Jesus requires that [we] walk with and be committed to the poor; when [we] do, [we] experience an encounter with the Lord who is simultaneously revealed and hidden in the faces of the poor”[vi]
As we come to this time of prayer and sacrament, I would like to invite you to ponder a couple of questions. Do we practice what we preach? Or, to be fair, Do we at least attempt to say what we’ll do and then do what we said? Do we have fidelity to both being and action? Do we take the time and effort to search for the face of Jesus in the faces of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, or the lonely? In other words, is our faith a living faith, a faith that produces fruit, a faith that moves us, all of us, toward a more just world, and cleaner world, and kinder world?
These are the questions we must consider.
Amen & Amen.
[ii] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, on pg. 61, Knitter says, “Fingers serve to point us in the direction of that mystery, which can be as real in our experience as it is beyond our words and understanding.”
[iv] Richard Swanson Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2007) Pg. 255
[v] Jimmy Carter Living Faith (New York: Random House, 1998) pg. 4