What He Said

WHAT HE SAID

The focus of Christianity is what Jesus DID.  He left eternal glory to be born into the sinful squalor that human beings made of God’s world, in order to save us.  He lived out all the perfection our holy God required of us as our stand-in, because we couldn’t and we wouldn’t.  He made God knowable by who he was, what he did, and what he taught.  He suffered a gruesome death because suffering and death are the price of sin; he endured that price as our substitute under divine justice.  He rose to life again, demonstrating that death was no longer our destiny because he is the Lord of life and death.  And he ascended to govern our world in the best interest of his truth and his people, until he returns to restore the perfect forever that a loving God has always wanted for us.

But we wouldn’t get all that if it were not for what Jesus SAID.  That he had foretold his death and resurrection made sense of the events for his disciples once the risen Jesus made the connection.  That he explained why his death and resurrection were necessary gave them a stake in the story of salvation.  Everything comes together when we connect what Jesus did with what he said, in his Word.

You don’t need a lot of religious experts to interpret the Christian faith.  Listen to what HE said.  Faith isn’t just a feeling.  Faith must have content that is true and reliable.  Listen to WHAT he said.  And when you get push-back for sharing your faith, you can smile and say: “It’s what he said.”

The words of Jesus seem more weighty as he closed in on the culmination of his work on earth in the week of his passion.  Let’s explore, then, WHAT HE SAID, in that last week of ministry in Jerusalem: to the calloused, to the curious, and to the committed.

 

TO THE CALLOUSED

Study One:  IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.

 

TAKING IT IN

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.  “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.      Matthew 23: 1-12

 

GETTING AT IT

In my home church, when I was a child, some people would stand in an attitude of prayer for a minute or so when they walked to their seat.  It seemed a bit ostentatious to me, as though they wanted to be noticed.  Maybe I was being judgmental, and they were standing there as a sign of respect for God.  We are all probably too concerned with how we look to others.  And maybe we don’t always consider how our non-verbal communication is being received.  Jesus is concerned about what is in our hearts; but he makes us sensitive to how our actions may reveal what lies in our heart. 

Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 are actually addressed to the curious and the committed initially, though that changes quickly.  He’s sending a message to the self-proclaimed religious experts of that day.  That’s pretty common.  A politician talks to a reporter, knowing that the people he’s talking about will get the message.  A parent speaks to the oldest child expecting the younger ones to take the message to heart.  Sometimes it’s easier to say what people need to hear by not addressing them directly.  Jesus sent a message to the Pharisees while talking to his followers.  And he sent a message to his followers using the Pharisees as an object lesson.

The Pharisees were one of two major religious parties in first-century Israel.  They dominated the outlying towns and villages while the Sadducees were more prominent in Jerusalem.  You might think of the Pharisees as religious conservatives who emphasized religious piety through strict adherence to Old Testament law.  In fact, they observed accumulated extrapolations about how that law should be interpreted and practiced.  (For example, they had more than 400 little rules for observing the Sabbath.)  These countless little legalisms put them at odds with Jesus repeatedly.  The “scribes” or “teachers of the law” were scholarly sorts who made copies of the Old Testament and knew it thoroughly.

In these verses Jesus has three indictments for the Pharisees: 1) They don’t practice what they preach; 2) They turn religion into impossible demands; 3) They are religious show-offs.

 

DIGGING INTO IT

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

You’ve heard the expression: “Do as I say, not as I do.”  There’s often a disconnect between the morality people teach and how they live.  If you’re a parent, that disconnect has probably caused you some embarrassment a time or two. Jesus made the Pharisees the poster children for that disconnect.  He urged people to listen to what they said when they were teaching the words of Moses, but not to follow the Pharisees’ bad example.  Here, as in Matthew 5:17, Jesus affirmed the law that God had revealed to Moses.  He had come to fulfill that law, not reject it as some religious radical.

The Pharisee problem is timeless.  Pedophile priests and adulterous pastors, treasurers who have their hands in the offering basket and church elders guilty of more than one OWI citation. . . can we do as they say and not what they do?  Like Jesus, we need to call out religious leaders who turn the church’s witness to scandal with their offensive lifestyle.  But like Jesus, we need to distinguish faithful teaching of biblical truth from the life of the teacher, respecting the teaching authority Christ has invested in his church.  And we should not be too quick to conclude that fallen leaders are “the calloused,” rather pray that they be led to repent and once more treasure God’s forgiving grace.

Here’s the bigger problem of the Pharisees: legalism.  Legalism makes religion a matter of what we do (law) rather than what God has done for us (grace).  It demands what fallen human nature cannot deliver and produces either self-righteous blindness or soul-destroying guilt.  Legalists tend to make rules out of their prejudices.  Jesus exposed the heartlessness of the Pharisees, whose rules were like impossible burdens hung from a yoke placed on a sinner’s shoulders (like the wooden yoke that harnessed an ox to a load).  In fact, the Pharisees themselves used the term “the yoke of the law.”  Rather than assist sinners with grace and truth, they alienated sinners from God with judgmentalism.  Contrast this with what Jesus said in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”  Grace.

You can probably identify legalism in our day, “thou shalt nots” which God didn’t speak and guilt trips laid on you by judgmental people.  What you may miss is the legalism in yourself.  Not just how you sometimes pass self-righteous judgment on others, but human nature’s tendency to think about our relationship with God in terms of what we’ve done or not done rather than his mercy embodied in the Savior Jesus.  If we’ve been beating back temptation and doing kind stuff to others, we may think that God must be smiling on us.  And if we’ve succumbed to temptation or given vent to ugly anger, guilt and shame may lead us to conclude that God couldn’t love us; and then we hide from him.  Legalism runs Jesus out of our life.

 

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

Phylacteries are verses of Old Testament Law, sometimes in leather boxes, tied around a person’s forehead and left arm. This was an overly literal understanding of Deuteronomy 6:8. Maybe very visible religious tattoos are a contemporary parallel. Tassels on a garment were reminders of God’s commandments and how they identified God’s chosen people.  Numbers 15:38-39 is the basis for this. Think of religious T-shirts in our day.  Like other visual symbols of the faith, these can be healthy reminders or empty traditions.  You can make the sign of the cross as an expression of appreciation for what Jesus did for you, or just out of habit, or to make others notice how religious you are.  Jesus nailed the Pharisees for what was religious showing off.

Externalism is a term for wearing your religion on your sleeve, whether or not it’s in your heart.  Religious externals like stained glass and worship traditions at church or pictures of Jesus and prayer beads at home can be powerful aides to a person’s faith; but they can also become a substitute for heartfelt devotion to our God.  You can read more of what Jesus said about religious externalism in Matthew 6:1-18. Think about your own religious symbols and practices.  Are they reinforcing your faith or taking the faith for granted? 

I don’t wear a clerical collar and not simply because it won’t get me a clergy discount these days; but pastors and priests can have positive reasons for the collar, such as ready access to people in the hospital.  And I never liked being called “reverend.”  I’m not worth revering.  Still, Rev. can be a healthy term of respect.  The issue is why we do what we do. The Pharisees wanted to be noticed and revered with the title “Rabbi.”  Do you like to be described as “religious?”  (I’m not sure if that’s positive or negative today.)  The real issue is why we’d want to be known as religious.  Jesus reminds us: It’s Not About You.

 

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.     

The title “Rabbi” means “teacher” and “guide,” or more impressively “master” and even “great one.”  To claim the title put a religious leader on a higher plane than others. “Father” can be a similar term of respect for authority, as is “Instructor.”  Jesus uses exaggeration to make the point that in his Church we are alike sinners and equally righteous for the sake of his perfect life and atoning death.  None of us is better than another.  Sin and Grace are divine equalizers.  Humility and brotherly love aren’t merely ideals.  They are to be the character of the Christian community. 

When our focus shifts from our heavenly Father and perfect Teacher to religious leaders on earth, our faith is on shaky ground.  We can be too easily disillusioned or misled.  Your pastor is a shepherd, called by God to lead you closer to your Savior with Scripture.  He should be respected and appreciated, but he should not be idolized no matter how good he is; and he doesn’t want to be.

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet before the last Passover meal, he modeled real humility.  More than once he equated greatness – what “Rabbi” implied – with servanthood, because even those disciples gave in to the temptation of pride and position.  (See Mark 10:35-45.)  Meeting the needs of others rather than your own, doing the dirty job no one enjoys, honoring the work of  others that normally goes unnoticed. . . that is the counter-intuitive path to greatness.  St. Paul in Philippians two put it this way: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Jesus won last place.  Anyone can lose into last place, but the followers of Jesus win last place. Think of a grandparent subtly losing a game of checkers to a child with low self-image, winning last place and putting the child first.

Jesus echoes the proverb “pride goes before a fall.”  Self-promotion, seeking the limelight, and putting others down to make self look better have a consequence.  Sooner or later you will be humbled.  If people around you don’t do it, God will.  Most of us can relate to this leveling effect of God’s justice.  It’s a bit harder to see genuine humility rewarded with honor.  In fact, it may take until Judgment Day to recognize what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  That is worth waiting for.

 

SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT

It’s easy to use guilt as a motivator.  Make people feel guilty about what they’re doing and they’ll change their behavior, right?  That may work short-term, especially if you have the power to back your guilt trip with consequences.  But long-term, guilt produces only resentment.  And it distances people from the one who made them feel guilty.  Are you trying to manipulate anyone in your relationships by making them feel guilty?

It’s also easy to think that you can make yourself a better person with guilt.  Maybe if you beat yourself up over your pet sin, you’ll overcome the habit.  Not only does that not work effectively, but it erodes a person’s relationship with God.  It makes that relationship performance-based, as though we have to make God like us or forgive us by feeling bad about our sins.  It diminishes the nature and character of God, as though he were manipulating us to behave better.  In Titus 2:11-12 the apostle Paul teaches what has been called gospel motivation.  “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.”  Get that?  Understanding and appreciating God’s forgiving grace is the motivation to live like the children of God he has made us.  The Old Testament prophets compared God’s grace and mercy to a gentle rain that cleansed the earth and made things grow.  Think of yourself looking heavenward as God’s grace showers you with cleansing forgiveness and the power to grow in your walk with God.  Hold that thought.

 

SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT

There are countless books, especially in the business world, on the subject of “servant leadership.”  Even in the secular world, people have caught on to the power of what Jesus taught about real humility and greatness.  Servant leadership inverts the pyramid of power, putting the people who used to be at the lowest rungs of importance into the position of importance.  An effective CEO understands the needs of those who work for her, as well as the positive impact she can have in their lives.  A servant leader listens to those who report to him and seeks to develop the abilities and the lives of those for whom he is responsible.  Servant leadership empowers people to become better and happier employees, and as a side benefit better spouses, parents and neighbors.  It works. 

Can you identify servant leaders in your experience, in school or at work or among your acquaintances?  What distinguishes them as leaders worth emulating?

 

SOMETHING TO PRAY ABOUT

Ask God to forgive your self-centered thinking and your selfish actions; and ask him to help you follow Jesus’ selfless example in your relationships at home.

Ask God to change the hearts of those who lead by intimidation and manipulation in business, government and church.  Ask him for servant leaders.

 

SOMETHING TO DO ABOUT IT

Choose a family member or co-worker whose life is difficult right now and plan two or three ways in which you can make their life easier.

 

SOMETHING FOR FURTHER STUDY

Read the rest of Matthew 23 for a fuller understanding of what Jesus condemned about the Pharisees and why.


One Response to “What He Said”

  1. Ethan Luhman says:

    Great thoughts!
    Some questions for discussion:
    How hard is it for you to hear criticism? Why do you think that is?

    Do you practice what you preach? Explain.

    What demands do you think are necessary for people who follow Jesus? What are you tempted to add that is probably unnecessary? What are you tempted to leave out?

    How do you demonstrate you faith? When do you know you (or someone else) is putting on a show of it?

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