“Do as I say, not as I do!” You have probably heard that expression before, usually from a father to a son or daughter. When you think about it there is a certain arrogance to that expression. The person is basically saying, “Listen, I haven’t got a leg to stand on as an example but I insist on the right to tell you what is best. I can’t live up to these standards myself, but I expect them of you. I demand absolute respect, not based on my character, but on my position, my authority.
Jesus accuses the Scribes and Pharisees of the same kind of arrogance. Our text reads:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
The Scribes and the Pharisees have a position of honor and authority as stewards and teachers of the law. They are keepers of a great treasure. Jesus recognizes this and commends it to us. “Practice and observe whatever they tell you,” he says.
We too are stewards of a great treasure, the Gospel. What Jesus says about the scribes and Pharisees is very relevant for those who hold positions of leadership and authority in the church, and for those of us who feel called to such positions. With such amazing privilege also comes very serious responsibility. We are called not only to teach what is true but also to live truthfully. The Scribes and Pharisees receive Jesus’ ire because they do not practice what they preach. “Do not do what they do,” Jesus says.
The Scribes and Pharisees have taken what God intended as a means of liberation—God’s laws and statutes—and they have made them into instruments of oppression. They lay heavy burdens on others, but not themselves. They are exacting when it comes to the faults of others, but are blind to their own. This is an extension of Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount about first removing the log in one’s own eye before pointing out the speck in one’s brother’s eye.
They have things completely turned around. Instead of hating their own sin and showing grace and mercy to others, they are lovers of themselves while condemning others.
They allow the honor of their authority and the privilege of their position to turn into presumption. They have become proud and lord their power over others.
They do their deeds in order to be seen.
One of the major spiritual pitfalls of ministry is praise and recognition. Others begin to praise the minister as wise, capable, and godly, and as a result the minister becomes puffed up. This is due to our sinful nature. Deep down, we all are aware of our yawning need for forgiveness and blessing. Without an understanding of the Gospel, without the blessed assurance of our reconciliation with God, we are deeply insecure. For this reason, the human heart has an insatiable desire for praise. We make the honor that comes from people a substitute for the honor that comes from God.
The Scribes and the Pharisees seek their own glory above God’s. They exalt themselves and take great pride in receiving titles and honor from people.
This is why Jesus says, “you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.”
Jesus doesn’t say this because there is something inherently wrong with the titles themselves. Jesus was fond of hyperbole. In this way, he was very much a man of his time and culture. He doesn’t mean that we should refrain from calling the man who sired us Father, any more than he intends us to literally cut off our hand if it causes us to sin, or refrain from inviting our friends or relatives when we throw a party.
What Jesus is doing is pointing out the titanic arrogance of glorying in these terms of status—rabbi, father, master—without deference to their true source in God. These titles do not properly belong to the Pharisees and neither does the glory. They lack the rabbi’s concern for his disciples, the father’s heart for his children, and Christ’s authority over his people. The scribes and Pharisees stand under God’s authority, shoulder-to-shoulder with the sinners they condemn.
Jesus ends by saying, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus himself is the greatest among us. Indeed the only one truly great. He is the teacher of righteousness and the heart of the father’s love. It is he who is the Christ and he who holds all authority. We can trust in the truth of his teaching, but also the truthfulness of his life. If we aspire to greatness, we should be imitators of him. He humbled himself and therefore he was exalted.
Although he was in the very form of God, he did not cling insecurely to that position, but humbled himself, becoming a servant.
Therefore, as those who seek to be leaders in his church, let that mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus. AMEN.