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Matthew 23: 1-12
Doas I say, not as I do

Sermon Proper 31 Matthew 23 1-12 Do as I say, not as I do!

We are getting to end of this liturgical year and as we have been reading from Matthews’s gospel this year, it means that we’re nearing the end of Matthew’s recounting of Jesus’ ministry. That of course means that he is nearer to the end of his trip to Jerusalem, so he’s nearer to the end of his life, his crucifixion.

And throughout this year, we’ve come to understand a little bit more about the community Matthew was writing for, a community on the fringes of both Roman and Jewish society and they are also alienated from the local synagogues. Recall, Matthew was writing around 70 AD, after the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the temple.  The Pharisee’s variety of Judaism has survived the revolt.  The Pharisees were the religious leaders whose job it was to be the keepers and interpreters of Moses Law. [1]     

And also throughout this year, we been getting a sense of Matthew’s particular view on his theology of Christ and how he feels believers are to live as disciples.  Here’s one commentators view:

Jesus almost surely did engage in controversy with the scribes, Pharisees, and other authorities, but this particular speech also reflects Matthew’s distinctive point of view. ... Matthew’s Jesus interprets the law under his own authority. ... Matthew’s Jesus insists that his followers observe the law faithfully: he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and his disciples had better exceed the righteousness of the experts (5:17-20). In Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples a distinctive way to fulfill the law, a teaching that invites conflict from other authorities.[2]

For Matthew, discipleship to Jesus’ teaching is paramount.  If we had to sum it up, we could say believers must “walk the talk”.

So, in our story today, at this stage in his three years of ministry, it  appears Jesus now has had just about enough with the Pharisees way of living -- or maybe -- not living out the teachings of the Law.  By now, it’s a familiar refrain.   They are teaching the laws of Moses, but certainly not living by them --there’s a huge gulf between their teaching and their practices. It’s very much a “do as I say not as I do lifestyle” and Jesus has had enough. 

And to top it off, these religious teachers are quite full of themselves it seems, lording about with conspicuously large phylacteries and fringes. 

These are ancient indicators of faithfulness or piety of Jewish faith.  Phylacteries are small leather boxes containing scripture quotes, worn on foreheads and left arms as described in Deuteronomy 6[3], written in the 7th century before Christ.  The fringes we read about are blue twisted threads at the corner of a garment, similar to a shawl, worn to be a reminder to obey the commandments described in the book of Numbers 15[4], also from the time of Moses.

Having larger phylacteries and longer fringes would definitely be a way to draw attention to oneself, kind of like wearing designer clothes, excessive jewellery or driving a conspicuous type of car of truck.  It’s like saying look at me, I’m someone important!  These religious leaders enjoyed the prestige their positions of authority brought them, sitting at the head table, the places of honour at a banquet and in synagogues. It seems they really enjoyed being called by their titles, Rabbi or Father--definitely a way of setting themselves apart from everyone else.  These are all indicators of ego, a need for status, self-importance, greatness and glory, notoriety and of course pride. 

And Jesus is sharing his concerns once again with the crowds that followed him and his disciples.   The scribes were the teachers and the Pharisees, the interpreters of the religious law, and they were putting demands on the people they were to be serving, which they themselves weren’t adhering too.  Jesus tells the people, follow their teachings but don’t follow their behaviour, they don’t practice what they preach.  It was the epitome of hypocrisy. 

The style of servant leadership that Jesus was both modelling and teaching certainly wasn’t their style.  Jesus tells his listeners:  11 The greatest among you must be a servant. 12 But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.. The last will be first, the first will be last.  It will catch up with them at the end. 

Ok, so what’s in this story for us, today?   Although Jesus was focussing on the Pharisees and scribes of his time, really people haven’t changed much in 2000 years.  People with inflated egos, and overdeveloped senses of self righteousness and self importance are still with us.  We see stories of it all the time in the media— the rich and famous, politicians of all stripes, and at all levels;  people in positions of authority and control by nature of their professions or their wealth and mis-use it for personal gain, or acclaim or even abuse of others.  And yes, we still see it in religious leaders, which seems for me to be especially egregious.  

I would think we can take this story as a warning call for all of us to watch our egos, our own sense of self importance.  It’s something that we can easily fall into, that feeling of slight superiority, that we’re better than the other--the less wealthy other, the less educated other, the less talented one, the less socially or politically connected other, the other of a different ethnicity, religious persuasion, sexual proclivity, the homeless one.   It’s maybe not as blatant within us as in our story of the Pharisees, especially in a society like ours that is hyper focussed on political correctness, but the possibility is there within many of us.  It’s a subtle evil, it sneaks up on us.  It’s in our society—it’s at the centre all of the advertising we’re bombarded with—buy this product and you’ve got one up on your neighbour. In Canada we don’t have a blatant class system, but it’s still there in a quiet understated way.  It’s a good reminder to remember our calling to be Christ-like in our dealings with everyone, humility and servant leadership.

And where’s the grace, where’s God in this story?  Well, that’s not obviously in the story.  Yet we do know that when we sin, when despite our best efforts we catch ourselves straying into ego-centric behaviours, that we can go to God, repent and ask for forgiveness. And we know we’re forgiven. Then we take the learnings from Jesus’ teachings, how to live as a disciple of Christ, and do our very best to change our behaviours and humbly go forth into the world to love and serve our Lord.  Amen. 






[1] Tim-Beach-Verhey in Theological perspective of Matt 23. 1-12 in Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 4 (WKJ Press, Louisville KY ) 2001 p 26+1

[2] Greg Carey,

[3] Oxford Study bible New Testament p. 43

[4] ibid