Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 1, 2020

Matthew 23:1-12 Commentary

Matthew 23 indicates that pastors (i.e., most of us reading this sermon commentary) need to be wary of the titles people afford us.  Although neither “Reverend” nor “Pastor” is specifically mentioned in Matthew 23, only a very wily preacher would ever suggest this indicates that those titles are exempt from Jesus’ comments.  So what are we to make of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23?

We will begin with the passage in context, which means glancing back at the end of Matthew 22.  As Matthew 23 opens, it looks like Jesus has had about as much as he can take from the religious leaders who had been engaging in a tag-team effort to trip him up.  So he cuts loose with the single-most harsh and negative speech Jesus gives anywhere in the New Testament.

Beyond the verses of this particular lection, the balance of Matthew 23 presents seven hard-hitting indictments, each of which charges the clergy with hypocrisy.  The Pharisees are all about false fronts, facades, public relations, prestige, and just generally getting ahead in society.  And in detailing all this, the otherwise soft-spoken man from Nazareth does not spare the verbal lash: he calls them sons of hell, blind guides, stinking graves, snakes, vipers.

Bracing stuff, that.

Yet all that fiery bluster begins quietly.  Jesus even tells everyone that they must obey the words of these leaders.  Probably what Jesus means is that when these ministers read from God’s Word, the content of the Scriptures must be heeded.  But that’s where the positive part ends.  “Do what they say, not what they do,” Jesus says. “They don’t practice what they preach, and so even though they want you take note of their lifestyles, ignore them!”

He doesn’t practice what he preaches.

There are few indictments of a minister more wounding than that.  From personal experience, I know how that accusation, whether or not it has any truth to it, cuts straight into a pastor’s heart like the sharpest of scalpels.  (After an unhappy staff dust-up that led to the dismissal of a staff person, I had a few people tell me how sad it was that I was good at preaching forgiveness but not living it.  That’s just shattering for a pastor.)

It is hurtful because if it were true, such a charge would undermine all credibility.  It is not something to say lightly, and there is every indication that Jesus has given this a lot of thought.  This is not how Jesus began his ministry, this was not based on a mere week’s worth of observation.  This had been a long time coming.  But after all that time had passed, Jesus felt certain that this was the verdict.  The Pharisees did not practice what they preached.  They did not listen to the words of God they themselves read from the pulpit (as it were).

Instead, they focused their energy on just looking good.  They strutted around trying to look ever-so-holy but only because it generated prestige.  They made certain always to have their flowing robes on because when they did, they got a clergy discount on fruit in the marketplace, got upgraded to First Class when they traveled, got seated up on the dais at the head table whenever VIPs came in from out-of-town to speak at a banquet.  (Alas, this still happens with certain religious leaders today too . . .)

Like altogether too-many celebrities today, the Pharisees came to believe their own press releases.  Actress Helen Hayes was always known as, introduced as, and lauded as “the first lady of American theater.”  Over time what most reporters forgot was that it was Helen Hayes herself who first cooked up that sobriquet and then spread it around!  But that’s the way it goes when image becomes a way of life.  After a while, things get so weirdly inverted that it’s difficult to tell what’s what anymore.

The entertainment industry is an ego-driven affair populated by throngs of people who are full of themselves.  As even actor Marlon Brando once observed, “The greatest love affairs I have ever witnessed took place with one actor, unassisted.”  Yet there is even so a kind of unspoken “code” among these people that says if you are too obvious with this self-infatuation, you will be shunned.  Back in 1985 when actress Sally Field won her second Oscar in the span of only a few years, she famously gushed in her acceptance speech, “You like me! You really like me!”

Well, not after that speech.  It would be 28 long years before the Academy ever even nominated her again (for her role in 2013 as Mary Todd Lincoln in the film Lincoln).

After F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for his stellar performance as Salieri in the movie Amadeus, he was tapped to be an Oscar presenter at the following year’s ceremony, and when he did this, he conducted himself quite pompously–in other words, he outwardly displayed the same pompous pride that inwardly filled the hearts of every actor there.  But because he made the mistake of letting it show, he, too, has ever since been cast out into a kind of wilderness.

So here is a curious combination: the Academy Awards depends on self-congratulatory people all getting together to celebrate themselves, yet if a person lets this pride show, it is considered bad form.  But probably what that points to is the core of hypocrisy: deception.  The hypocrite is a deceiver of other people.  What counts is not what you are really like but what other people think you are like.  What counts is not whether you are worthy of the nice things people say about you but that they say them in the first place.  What counts is doing whatever it takes to maintain your image, which often consumes so much time and energy that there is little left to nurture the genuine article in your heart.

Jesus, of course, is interested only in the inner person.  If it should be that people admire you for the kind of person you genuinely are, that is fine as far as it goes, but Jesus’ warning in Matthew 23 indicates that even so, those honors should not assume too high a profile in your own mind.  Because Jesus also knows the seductive power of such things.  If you start falling in love with your own P.R., then even if public respect for you began originally as a proper response to the kind of person you really were, eventually it may well be that your own focus will shift.

Textual Points:

Frederick Dale Bruner points out that in Matthew 23:5 when Jesus says that everything the Pharisees do “is for people to see,” the Greek verb there is theathenai, and even a quick glance at that Greek word suggests its connection to the English word “theater.”  What Jesus is saying is that for people like this, the entirety of the religious life has become less about God and more about a kind of public theater, a drama meant to unfold in front of the eyes of other people, who in turn are no longer brothers and sisters in God but passive viewers, an audience.  But one of the main things Jesus always taught is that the only “audience” we should think about is our great Creator God.  When we make other people our audience before whom we perform theatrics designed to garner us lots of attention, our desire truly to serve God in our hearts diminishes right along with the enhancement of our own theatrics before others.

Illustration Idea:

Although I am quite certain I won’t be doing so anytime soon, if I ever felt inclined to write a letter to Pope Francis in Rome, papal etiquette would suggest that I close and sign my letter as follows: “Prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness and imploring the favor of your apostolic benediction,  I have the honor to be, Very Holy Father, with the deepest veneration of Your Holiness, the most humble and most obedient servant and son, Scott.”

As someone has wryly noted, this may explain why the pope gets so few postcards!

Whether or not any given pope would ever insist on such a salutation, the fact is that over time, honorifics and titles of privilege and prestige have most assuredly accumulated for members of the clergy.  The pope is addressed as “Very Holy Father” or “Your Holiness,” cardinals and bishops are often referred to as “Your Eminence,” ordinary priests are always addressed as “Father.”  Although the Catholic Church is a fairly obvious and large example of this kind of thing, they hardly have that market cornered.  In my own Dutch tradition of the Reformed church, for a very long time every pastor was hailed as “Dominie,” which has clear connections to the Latin dominus or “lord.”  These days few people in my tradition still use “Dominie,” but “Reverend” and “Pastor” are still pretty common.


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