Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. [Matthew 23:1-3]
Jesus now speaks a word of warning directly to his followers—then and now. The message is as clear and poignant today as it was then: If you want to be a disciple—an effective witness to the gospel— you must practice what you preach.
The scribes and Pharisees had failed miserably at this. Jesus charges them with teaching properly, and living badly. You’ve heard it said I’d rather see a sermon than hear a sermon. Or your life is speaking so poorly I can’t hear what you’re saying. Accusations like these continue until this day. The fact is Jesus knows it’s impossible to keep the law but the scribes and Pharisees do not. These religious leaders have deceived themselves into believing that they are actually keeping the law by observing outwardly what they do not possess inwardly.
These religious leaders are strict, holy rollers, sanctimonious hypocrites. They are like those who celebrate Halloween. They wear masks and costumes to hide their true selves. Jesus decries this practice of wearing costumes in the church rather than coming to God just as you are.
Likewise, they have trusted in their titles and positions to determine their righteousness. They wear long robes, sit at the head tables, and process in the church in their finest robes and shawls. They enjoy reserved seating and being served first at the feasts. When they walk through the neighborhood, they like to hear people reverence them by addressing them as Reverend, Bishop, Father, Dr., etc. They enjoy being regarded as somebody; even though inside they are not what they appear to be.
They enjoy people serving them but they serve no one. They will make a mess but won’t clean up the mess. Serving at the feasts is beneath them; they expect the low income and less influential members of the synagogue to do that.
And Jesus warns his disciples not imitate their behavior. He says to them, “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” Jesus warns his disciples, “Don’t be a sellout, be a servant.”
Yet, what impresses me most about all that Jesus says is what he does not say. Jesus does not say leave the synagogue because the leaders are hypocrites. And in 2014, people cite the hypocritical lives of church folk as one of the main reasons they leave the church. Of course there are other reasons.
In an article by Ron Edmondson, a noted Christian author gives seven disappointing reasons people leave the church today. Here they are: 1) Burn out; 2) injury or church hurt; 3) distractions; 4) life changes, i.e. divorce, remarriage, new employment opportunities, et al.; 5) mistakes, people messed up and the church condemned them; 6) power struggles; and 7) lack of connection, the members had no real connection with the other members outside of church activities.
Ron didn’t mention hypocrisy but his fans and Jesus did. People will leave a church because those in the church are not following Jesus. They don’t leave because church folk are imperfect, we all are. They leave when the church starts condemning others rather than engaging in acts of justice for the least of these.
In the text, Jesus did not tell his disciples to leave the synagogue; the place where the Word of God was being taught. Rather Jesus says to them in Matthew 23:3, “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”
I wonder why Jesus did not shut the synagogue down. Do you ever wonder why Jesus did not just put them out of business and take all their members out of those terrible examples of houses of worship? Think with me if you will as to why he did not tell them to leave.
First, the scribes and Pharisees were the authorized religious leaders, set apart for this task and as such they held the religious authority rightfully. Jesus said these leaders “sit in Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). They were appointed to do this task and therefore had every right to do the job of conveying the Law of Moses to the people.
But Moses not only represented God to the people. He also advocated for the people to God and civilly to Pharaoh whose corrupt government had oppressed the people. Moses was the great emancipator, a staunch civil rights leader speaking truth to power.
Second, they were teaching the Word of God. By teaching the Mosaic law, their words conveyed (at least to a degree) the truth of God. Indeed, the law was God’s gracious gift to Israel, a manifestation of God’s great love. This was certainly the understanding of Matthew, who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the law. The fault of the scribes and Pharisees was not in their teaching, but in their hypocrisy. Jesus used them as a reverse example of faithfulness.
Third, the synagogue was the place where God could be encountered in Rome by God’s people. Although the synagogue was plagued by leaders who did not practice what they preached, Jesus did not excuse his disciples from their attentiveness to the Word being preached. Jesus knew God’s people needed to know his Word and since the scribes and Pharisees were dispensing the Word he did not ask his followers to revolt and leave.
Jesus condemns religious leaders who are so heavenly minded, they are no earthly good. Teaching on the Sabbath but not advocating for the people on Monday. Hallelujah!
Why? Why didn’t Jesus tell his disciples to leave. Finally, because Jesus knew that his grace would be available to them in a few short days. Jesus pronounced judgment upon them because of the lives they were misleading and destroying by their example. Jesus pronounced judgment upon them because they didn’t want to be changed and kept others from being changed. These leaders were comfortable with the system that kept their followers oppressed. Yet, Jesus knew that at the moment, the synagogue was the best they had. Lord, have mercy!
Jesus’ final example of their hypocrisy dealt with power issues in the faith community. The scribes and Pharisees saw themselves as morally and socially superior to others. By virtue of their standing in the synagogue, they felt entitled to places and titles of honor. But Jesus said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
The abuses of power, the displays of false piety, and the lure of prestige, which ensnared the scribes and Pharisees, are just as real—and dangerous— for all Christian disciples. We have religious leaders who do not serve the people nor engage in acts of justice for the least among us. Only in servant hood and humility before God is true faithfulness expressed and our actions must be consistent with the gospel message that we confess.
Jesus gives a harsh condemnation, a stern rebuke to those leaders engaged in religious facades but denying their power to make a difference in the lives of the people.
God has always been involved in and concerned with our quality of life on Earth as well as heaven. Voting is a part of advocacy. Voting is speaking truth to power. Yet, some of our religious leaders won’t vote because they don’t believe their vote counts; others don’t vote because they believe all politicians are liars and hypocrites. Yet, in America, yes, all over the world, voting is the best God’s got for us right now and God expects us to care enough for the least of themselves–ourselves and others, to vote in order to make a difference.
I dare say each time those religious leaders made a decision that affected those whom they considered beneath them, servants, their votes determined the outcome on the lives of the masses. They knew the letter of the law, astute students, but denied the principle of the law. In other words, they were hypocrites.
Following Jesus means going all the way, just as he did, speaking truth to power and calling out the leaders who were not legislating for the poor, widow, orphan, homeless, naked, hungry, sick, for to follow Jesus is to do as Jesus did–anything less and we too like the scribes and Pharisees are hypocrites. We don’t practice what we preach. We don’t live what Jesus lived.
I dare say even today a lot of churches remain open because at the present time, the church is the best God has to dispense the gospel message. Yes, God will judge the hypocrite but you will have no excuse for leaving the church.
The Church is the best God’s got! The church is a service station dispensing God’s Word and God’s Spirit into the hearts of God’s people so they can turn the world upside for Jesus Christ. However, there are hypocrites among us.
There are hypocrites among us! There I said it. But that is not an excuse for you to leave the church and abandon the service of God.
What makes a person a hypocrite; it is not living a life with flaws and struggles. We all struggle! We all have flaws! That does not make us hypocrites. Hypocrites are those who refuse to stand on God’s word and God’s grace to change this world for the betterment of all mankind. God doesn’t want us to spend our time just in holy attire and religious assemblies. God wants us engaged in acts that produce justice.
And I stop by to tell you that God will use anybody who makes him or herself available for him to use. God uses the ordinary, the lowly, the proud, the arrogant, God uses us because God knows we are the best he’s got to get this message out.
And if you wait until you’re perfect, you may never do anything for Jesus Christ. Following Jesus means serving God now. God wants to use you just as he’s used so many other imperfect people. Let me call the roll of the imperfect people God used, some you might even call hypocrites:
• Abraham -Was old.
• Elijah – Was suicidal.
• Joseph – Was arrogant and a slave.
• Moses – Had a speech problem.
• Gideon – Was afraid.
• Samson – Was a womanizer.
• Rahab – Was a prostitute.
• Samaritan Woman – Divorced.
• Noah – Was a Drunk.
• Jeremiah – Was inexperienced and young.
• Jacob – Was a con artist.
• David – Was an adulterer and accessory to murderer.
• Jonah – Ran from God.
• Naomi – Was a widow.
• Peter – Denied Christ three times and Peter was a racist.
• Martha – Worried about everything.
• Zacchaeus – Was a tax collector.
• The Disciples – abandoned Jesus in the garden.
• Paul – was the Pharisee who persecuted Christians before becoming one.
And I stop by to tell somebody this morning, you may not be all you want to be, but God wants to use you in his kingdom. If you’re struggling, struggle with Jesus; repent and give your heart to Jesus Christ. Just decide now that you’re going to follow Jesus despite what’s going on in the church.
You’re not here just to become spiritual; you’re here to follow Jesus into the trenches. There’s a war going on in the world today and it’s a war for justice. Jesus cries out, “Follow me in the trenches.” Church let us follow Jesus without excuses. You’re a changed people called by Christ to change the world. And you’re the best God’s got! Hallelujah!
I don’t know about you but I’m going to stay with the church, because the church is the best God’s got. And God’s son has already paid the price for our shortcomings. Won’t you serve him today? He died for you so you wouldn’t have to live your life outside God’s grace and mercy! Hallelujah!