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November 5, 2017

“Walking our Walk & Talking our Talk”

Matthew 23:1-12


Much of Matthew chapter 23 must be interpreted with great caution, so that this section may not be used in support of modern anti-Semitism.  Modern Jewish scholars rightly complain that this chapter is unfair in its wholesale condemnation of the Pharisees. Certainly some Pharisees were pious frauds, and were roundly condemned even in early rabbinic writings-but to suggest the entirety of the Pharisees were such frauds is manifestly unjust, just as it is to suggest all of any particular group is evil, etc. In looking at this particular section, theologian Sharon H. Ringe says, As a resident of Washington, DC, I recognize political rhetoric, caricatures, and trash-talk when I hear them, and I hear them loud and clear in Matthew 23:1-12.”So is this just political rhetoric in today’s section of scripture, or is there more, and if so, how does it apply?


First, we really need to look at the historical context in today’s passage, so we can better understand Matthew’s intent. Why did Matthew throw the entire group of Pharisees under the bus?  Most Biblical scholars place the writing of Matthew in the mid 70’s AD. After the disastrous war with Rome (66-73 AD) when Jerusalem was nearly destroyed and the temple of God was left in ruins, the Pharisees needed to reconstruct their ethnic identity and consolidate their authority. At the same time, Christian missionaries who were proclaiming a resurrected Christ found strong resistance in the synagogues.  In time, families and individuals who followed Christ as Messiah were no longer permitted in synagogues and tensions were elevated. Hence Matthew, who was writing at the height of this tension was particularly harsh with the Pharisees. He too was trying to shape the Christian movement, and he wanted to distinguish their group from the synagogue- hence the harsh rhetoric.


So then, how does this political rhetoric apply to us here today? In reading between the lines, Matthew wasn’t just trying to make the Pharisees look bad. There were reasons he was bringing up their bad examples of living out their faith. It is likely that in his church, there were Christians who weren’t modeling great behavior and who needed some reproof. In looking at Matthew’s writings against the Pharisees, we can reveal some of the behaviors which may’ve also been going on in Matthew’s church in the late 70s. This section in effect is an instructional manual on how to live one’s faith out in word and in deed, and therefore applies to us today- to walk our walk and talk our talk.


There are four basic criticisms against the Pharisees.

Notice at the beginning of this section, Jesus tells those gathered around him, “The teachers of the law and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” So, some of the Pharisees were not practicing what they preached. They said one thing, but then did another. Are there modern day examples of people who do not practice what they preach?

There has been a lot of rumbling from those outside the faith about the presidential election, and in particular how a large block of Christian Evangelicals may’ve laid their faith aside at the voting booth. Evangelical Christian and Theologian Jim Wallis wrote- “Why did 81 percent of us white evangelicals support Donald Trump? The polling shows it was not mostly about abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty, as some of our leaders suggest. Especially given the Democrats’ extremism on issues like abortion, some of that would be understandable. But those “moral issues” were not the main motivators for the white evangelical vote. Instead, it was guns, taxes, how much they would make from the economy, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment, and anti-terrorist and anti-Muslim visions of national security. Fox News seems to have set the white evangelical political agenda, more so than the Bible all we evangelicals claim to believe. And for that political agenda, the Values Voter Summit decisively showed how the religious right has set aside its own alleged moral values for a political leader who clearly has none at all.” Wallis concluded in his article that as a result of the election, the White Evangelical Christian church has lost standing in America by not practicing what they preach.

Yet it isn’t just a majority of white evangelicals who aren’t practicing what they are preaching. The church in America as a whole is in decline, and a number of younger folks in particular have decided the church has nothing to offer them, because the church as a whole doesn’t practice what it preaches either.

Author David Kinnaman, who wrote the book You Lost Me talks about the lack of Christians walking their walk in faith, and how disillusioned young Christians are as a result.  Because of this, many young people are walking away from the church, but holding onto their faith- Similar to Jesus’s warning to follow what the Pharisees teach, but don’t do what they do. For example,  the author describes one group of twenty and thirty somethings who have left the church as “nomads.” One of them, named, “Kelly grew up in an evangelical protestant church. Her father, Jack, has worked for Christian organizations during Kelly’s entire life and regularly teaches Sunday school. Both her parents are committed church goers. Kelly describes struggling with an anxiety disorder and never feeling she fit in a church. She talks about 3 strikes against her church which caused her to stop attending- the youth group, in which she never thought she belonged, the college group on campus which began talking about establishing quotas on getting people saved, and the third strike, ‘the judgement my parents received from their church friends about me. They told my parents that they did a bad job raising me.’ Kelly still prays and reads her Bible and says, ‘I never lost faith in Christ, but I have lost faith in the church.’” 

So our first take away for today is to look closely at our own congregation. Do we practice what we preach and teach? Do we express our faith in thought word and deed as consistently led by Christ? Theologian William J. Thoms wrote, Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads.” We need to show God’s unconditional love to our sisters and brothers here in the pews, and then extend that love outside the doors- by no means an easy task. We do this to be a consistent witness of God’s love. God and the rest of the world are watching.

The second criticism of the Pharisees had to do with placing undue burdens on others. “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.” What burdens is Jesus talking about?  This verse may have to do with the interpretation of Sabbath- a day of rest. Perhaps some Pharisees were making others carry heavy loads on Sabbath as to avoid any hard work, which would offend God. This practice also would have therefore placed a burden placed upon the common folk, which then kept them from being able to observe Sabbath. Following laws to the letter was getting in the way of their original intention- to draw near to God and become more holy.  This criticism evokes Jesus' own ministry, where he took on requirements of such things as Sabbath observance and purity codes being more important than people. After Jesus and the disciples “worked” on the Sabbath, picking grain to eat and Jesus healing someone, some of the Pharisees complained. Jesus responded that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:7), and that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”(12:12.) Jesus emphasized people matter more than observance of laws and purity codes.

How might this apply to us? Do our lifestyles create burdens upon others? Does our consumer driven, developed world lifestyle impact the lives of the 2/3 developing world? It certainly does. We are a commodity driven society. Yet the production and consumption of those commodities requires energy and use of natural resources (wood, ore, fossil fuels, water, land, livestock, etc.). We create factories to produce these commodities, which in turn cause harm to our environment-air pollution, global warming, oil spills, etc. And those nations which are at the top of the food chain such as ours consume the most and impact the globe the most with our production factories, placing burdens upon the lives of developing nations, creating things like children working in factories. In seeing the unfair burden placed upon the poor of the world due to our consumer society, Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” Paul in Ephesians Galatians 6:2 said, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Are we willing to lift a finger to remove the burdens of others- to be aware of how our purchases impact the global community and make some changes?


The third complaint Jesus raises has to do with hypocrisy- acting out a part rather than authentically trying to serve God. Some leaders in the temple were demonstrating a piety which sought self-glorification rather than glorification of God. They had holy outfits in order to gain standing, sought the places of honor at banquets, and had the best seats in the house at banquets and in worship. When you consider Jesus’ teachings earlier in Matthew -Matthew 5:5-“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and reminding the faithful not to sound a trumpet when giving something to the poor,(Matthew 6:2) we are reminded that humility is a key component of faith. At 4th century Bishop St. Augustine reminds us, “For those who would learn God’s ways, humility is the first thing, humility is the second, humility is the third.” I would imagine he would say it is the fourth thing as well. Do we demonstrate humility in our own lives? In the life of this congregation? Do we seek to be served or to serve others?

The final complaint raised by Jesus is connected to humility and has to do with a lust for recognition and honor. Some of the Pharisees wanted to be called “Rabbi.” However, Jesus said, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher and are all students.” Jesus was asserting his authority of Rabbi, as interpreter of God’s word over those who were misconstruing it.

This section may also have been related to the next generation of Christian teachers in the 70’s AD. Perhaps titles and positions were creeping into Matthew’s church. They were following the teachings and expressing those same teachings of Jesus, their Rabbonai, and may have either wanted or been given the same titles. How would this issue apply to us today? We have titles in our church-pastor, elder, deacon, music director, lay reader, etc. We need to be careful not to seek standing over others due to a title or position in the church. Jesus reminds us we are to be an egalitarian society, that “The greatest among us will be your servant.”

This section applies to me personally. I have thought at times, about pursuing a doctorate degree in theology, taking some classes online and attending an extension of seminary once a year so I could become a Doctor of theology. That title sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? “Rev. DR. A. Daniel Fowler”…Whenever I meet another pastor who has a doctorate, I do think of them as somehow more important than me, with more standing. That is the wrong reason, however, to pursue a doctorate. Pursuing such a degree must be about gaining knowledge of God and ministry, learning more about Jesus who served all and calls us to serve others, rather than seeking recognition and honor.

Today’s passage doesn’t wag a finger at the Pharisees so much as it wags a finger at us. Let us therefore go from this place, walking our walk and talking our talk-demonstrating our faith in church and outside those doors, bearing the burdens of others, serving God humbly, and seeking the place of servant. Alleluia! Amen.

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