Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 18, 2022
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The Path To Greatness

Matthew 23:1-12

 Several times over the last month, we’ve looked at the stories of conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem, during the week leading up to the crucifixion.  Over the course of three chapters of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus engages in war of words with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priests, the elders, the Herodians, and the Scribes, or Teachers of the Law.  Chapter 23 is the climax of these debates when Jesus condemns these leaders for their self-righteous attitudes.  

 Jesus is specifically addressing the Pharisees and the Scribes.  For both of these groups, knowing the Law of God is the epitome of true religion.  Even more than obeying the Law, they are all about knowing it.  And it wasn’t enough just to know the Law contained in the Old Testament.  These Scribes and Pharisees were constantly adding to the Law.  They called it “building a fence around the Law.”  The idea was that if you add more and more rules around the biblical Laws as “layers of protection,” then you couldn’t possibly break the biblical Laws.  

These were the groups behind the writing of the Talmud and the Mishnah, which were expansions on the Old Testament Law.  Put together, they equaled thousands of pages.  When I went to seminary, we had a copy of the Talmud and the Mishnah in our library, and literally they took up two full shelves.  And for them, that was the essence of religion: endless laws and rules.  

 They saw themselves as the successors to Moses and the prophets.  They believed they were the latest in the line of truly godly people.  And they acted like they were the only ones who were truly godly and everyone else was something less.

 They weighed people down, as Jesus said.  They made heavier and heavier burdens on people, and did nothing to help them.  Jesus couldn’t condemn everything they taught.  After all, at the heart of their teaching was the Word of God.  But they crushed people.  They created a system of law that was so burdensome, so onerous, so difficult to live by, that it was impossible.  They made religion a burden, not a joy.  

 That might sound strange to people today, since I think the common conception of religion is that it is a burden.  Even many Christians are afraid of the word religion.  We say things like, “I’m not religious.  I just have a faith relationship with Jesus.”  The root of the word religion means reverence.  To live by the Christian religion is to revere and honor and obey Jesus Christ.  That doesn’t sound so bad to me.  And I think that

should be a joy.  I think it should be a joy to live under the reign of our God and Maker.  It’s what we were made to do.

 But it can’t be a joy if it’s a constant burden.  We can’t be joyful if we are only reminded of our inadequacy.  And so Jesus condemns their ideas about what genuine religion is all about.  True religion is about joyful following, not burdensome rules.

 Jesus also condemns the motives behind the lifestyle that they held to.  These Scribes and Pharisees were, for the most part, practicing obedience for the sake of appearance and not for the glory of God.  They did everything for show.

 They liked to wear extra large prayer boxes.  What Jesus is talking about here were the “phylacteries” that many observant Jews wore at that time and to this day.  The phylactery was a little box worn either on the forehead or on the arm.  It was a literal interpretation of Deuteronomy 6 and Exodus 13:  “Let the Law be on your arm and between your eyes.”  Inside these boxes were several key verses of Scripture.  The tassels were also supposed to be a reminder of the Law.  But the Pharisees and Scribes took these commands, not just literally, but to an extreme.  They made their tassels longer than anyone else.  They made their phylacteries bigger than anyone else.  Why?  To be seen by people.

 And they loved to have the places of honor.  It’s still true to some extent, but in the first century, seating was a matter of great importance.  The higher your status, the better your seat.  And the lowly people, well, they either had to sit on the floor or stand.  In a banquet, the place of honor would be at the head of the table, closest to the host.  In the synagogue, the place of honor would be in the front, where everyone could see you.  In the Epistle of James, James warns Christians against doing such things, especially against honoring the rich at the expense of the poor.  

 And the Pharisees and Scribes loved to be greeted in the marketplace.  The marketplace was the center of town and the center of life in a first century Judean village.  It was the place where the most people would see you being greeted and shown respect.  According to the social rules of the day, a person of lower status was required to greet someone of higher status.  So the average person was required to greet these Scribes and Pharisees and call them “Rabbi, master.”  But the Scribe or Pharisee could just keep walking as if no one else mattered.

 It’s easy for us to make a caricature of these men.  It’s easy for us to laugh about the Pharisee trying to keep all 10,000 pages of laws in the Talmud.  It’s easy for us to laugh about him wearing a great big phylactery, maybe one so big he had trouble seeing.  It’s easy to laugh about the Scribes jostling each other in the synagogue, trying to sit in the most honored seats.  It’s easy to laugh at the thought of Pharisee smiling smugly as everyone greets him, but he just ignores them.

 The problem is that, if we’re honest, we love the same things.  We love to be recognized.  We love to be known and greeted wherever we go.  We love to be honored.  We derive some measure of self-worth out of being seen and recognized and honored.  

 We may not have phylacteries, but I’ve always thought it was interesting to think about that verse and some folks I’ve seen over the years wearing a great big cross.  I can think of a few pastors I’ve met who seem to have a contest going on to see who could wear the biggest clerical cross around their neck.  I’ve never felt comfortable wearing one.  I do wear a clerical collar sometimes when I do a wedding or funeral or if I go to the hospital because makes it easier to get information.  But I don’t like things that set me apart or elevate me as a pastor.

 But lest I try to make you think I’m extra humble, I’ll be the first to admit that my ego is stroked when someone says, “Oh, pastor, what a wonderful sermon you had today.”  You watch, now everyone will say that on the way out.  

 We’re all tempted to find our self-worth in the approval of other people.  But that’s not where we should find it.  We should find our self-worth in the approval of God.  And that should be the only approval we really need.  

 And as Christians, we should see each other as equals.  

Jesus tells us not to let anyone call us rabbi or father or teacher.  I don’t think that’s something we should take too literally.  After all, the early Church had apostles and prophets and elders and bishops.  So it wasn’t like there were no titles in the Church.  Jesus often spoke in hyperbole, and I think he was doing that here.  So I won’t get upset if you call me “teacher” or “pastor.”  You can probably refrain from calling me master though.  

I think the point of what Jesus is saying is that the Church should be a community of radical equality, a place where every person has equal value.  We have a diversity of

roles.  We have lay leaders and teachers and pastors and district superintendents and bishops, but we should see those only as roles that we have, not as indications of our sacred worth or value.  Being called “bishop” or “reverend” doesn’t make a person greater in the eyes of God.  It shouldn’t make them greater in our eyes.

Rather, the path to greatness in the Kingdom of God is the path of humility and service.  Those are the things that honor God.  We honor God when we humble ourselves before him and serve him in loving obedience.  We honor each other when we humble ourselves and count others as better than ourselves and serve them.  That’s the path to greatness in the Kingdom of God. 

If you were to ask me who were the most influential Christians of the last century, I would think of people whose lives had great political or social or intellectual influence.  I would think of the writings of C. S. Lewis.  I would think of the evangelism of Billy Graham.  I would think of the political influence of Pope John Paul II.  

But if you were to ask me, “Who were the greatest Christians of the last century?” I would think of the servants and the martyrs who laid down their lives for the sake of Christ.  I would think of Mother Teresa who humbly served among the poorest of the poor.  That’s a spirit I wish I had more of in my life.  I would think of men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jim Elliot, each of whom gave up a life of ease to go to a dangerous place and proclaim the gospel, and each of whom died for it.  

The world might never recognize those folks as great Christians, as they would for Billy Graham or John Paul II.  Nor will the world ever recognize so many humble servants of Christ all throughout the Church who serve and love others.  But God recognizes them.  And that’s the approval we should seek.  Find your greatness and your worth in the eyes of God and nowhere else.

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