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 Preaching Matthew 23:1-12

 


What if Jesus lived in our current society and participated in social media?  Can you imagine the uproar it would cause if this text were first published on Facebook?  I am sure at the least, he would be “unfriended” by the Pharisees and the Scribes. At worst, he could be accused of cyber-harassment and perhaps get his Facebook page shut down. In comparing this presentation to the “Sermon on the Mount,” this would be considered the “Rant on the Hill.”  
As we approach this passage, it seems that Jesus has had just one too many conversations/inquisitions with the Scribes and Pharisees and that he had reached his boiling point. So he now addresses both the crowd and his disciples with the purpose of clarifying what authentic service to God looks like. As Jesus begins in Matthew 23:2-3, he acknowledges the role of the Pharisees and Scribes as instructors or teachers of the Mosaic laws. But then, cautions them with the stern instruction “Do what they say, but not what they do.”  This has to be a bit contradictory for Jesus’ followers. Why should they follow their religious leaders’ instructions, while not following their lead?  At this point, Jesus makes a great distinction between, the word of God…as the law given to Moses and what the Scribes and Pharisees were actually doing.
To completely understand Jesus’ instructions, one must first understand the historical, social, cultural, and political dynamics of the day. Consequently, as a preacher, I would preach this sermon as an expository and include this information in the introduction or first point of the sermon. A suggested transitional statement would be something like, “Before one can fully understand what Jesus intended for this passage, we must first take a brief look at what was going on during this time.”
The Pharisees were those religiously pious individuals who became experts in the Laws of Moses, but also believed that “the traditions of the fathers” were as equally relevant and important. As interpreters of the law, they leaned heavily on oral traditions and added minute details to the interpretation of the laws. Subsequently, the laws became more like shackles around the necks of the people instead of paths leading to righteous living. Since the Scribes and the Pharisees contributed greatly to the laws, they also served as chief interpreters of the law. Conveniently, when the Scribes and Pharisees themselves could not follow the laws that they so stringently imposed on others, they created loopholes. A good example is found in Mark 7:8-13.
Moses’ position was created because of his call by God to be a catalyst for God’s deliverance of the Israelites. “I have heard the cries of my people and I need you to represent my decision to help them.” It was not simply a place of honor bestowed on Moses, but a place of service. Exodus 18:13-16 gives additional insight to Moses’ seat and what it meant for the people of God. In this passage, it paints a picture of Moses sitting among the people as a judge and interpreter of God’s law. In reality, Moses’ seat of honor/judgment was because of his calling “To lead the people of God to the promise land.”  It was part of his call, by God, to serve. Jesus’ lament was that the Scribes and Pharisees wanted to sit in the high places of honor, but were not willing to do the honorable thing of serving others.
So Jesus accuses them of sitting in Moses’ seat, (that is to take the position of judge and law interpreter as Moses did in Exodus 18) but not adhering to the laws themselves. Jesus basically instructs the disciples and others to follow the laws of Moses, but not the actions of the Scribes and Pharisees.
He then instructs his hearers not to call them rabbis, master, teachers, or etc. At that point, Jesus renames them “hypocrites.”  Why? Because he accuses them of “play acting.” They literally were like street minstrels, playing public roles of piety and honor, while privately living lives of destruction and deceit. It’s an accusation we also heard from God previously in Isaiah 29:13, “You worship me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me.” This hypocrisy is then spelled out in the next verses, Matthew 23:4-7. When preaching this text, it is strongly suggested that multiple contemporary illustrations be used. For instance:
Examples of hypocrisy, then and now:
Then: 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.
Now: There are pastors who insist on members tithing and giving excessive offerings. The pastors are living in extreme wealth and comfort while some church members are living in abject poverty. (Specific examples can be found on the Internet.)
Then:  They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.
Now:  They show up when the crowds are large and the cameras are rolling. Some accessorize with large crosses and other religious paraphernalia. Some will sport religious tattoos, etc. Some will sing loud and long during praise and worship services. Others will only volunteer to work in church, or work during church functions and events only if certain others will participate.
Then:  They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the   Synagogues.
Now:  They love to have the place of honor anywhere and insist on sitting in the same place during every church service and will offend anyone who sits in “his or  her” seat.
The most controversial part of this passage is found in verses 8-10 when Jesus instructs the disciples not to call anyone “rabbi” or “father” and not to allow anyone to call them “master.”  How does one preach this concept without turning listeners “off” before turning them “on?”  The key to effectively preaching this particular passage is found in the creative usage of analogies and metaphors. This is what I would term, “painting the picture.”
Example:  “It was not about the titles in and of themselves, but about the relationship associated with the titles. For instance, it’s like calling someone other than your spouse, your ‘lover’.”  
Although many have misinterpreted this passage and concluded that it was unbiblical to call anyone by these nomenclatures, Jesus was simply reminding his disciples that they were his followers and God’s servants.

Carolyn L. Gordon PH.D.
Assoc. Professor of Communication and
Chair of Ministry Division and Preaching Department
Fuller Theological Seminary
Pasadena, CA

 

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