Most parents have at one time or another jokingly said, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But somehow, children never seem to listen. Why? Because apparently actions speak louder than words. The warning Jesus issued in Matthew 23:1-12 is the same: “Do as they say (for, after all, they sit on Moses’ seat), but not as they do.”
In many synagogues of Jesus’ time, a stone seat at the front of the building provided the first century equivalent of a pulpit. It was the place where the authorized successors of Moses would sit and teach the congregation. Jesus told His listeners that they should heed what these teachers said about the Law of Moses, but not the latter, rabbinic additions to the law. They were not to mimic the actions of these teachers.
Hearing the truth from repulsive people isn’t easy. We must listen to them because the truth is the truth, and Jesus said to heed it. If the messenger turns you off, do not let him or her turn you off from the message. To alter a popular phrase, if you don’t like the messenger, don’t shoot the message.
This passage shows the contrasting styles of leadership of the Pharisees and Christians. The Pharisees wanted to be easily seen. They clothed themselves and acted in a way to be the focal point for the community. They were visible for both the faithful and Roman rulers. In contrast, Christian leaders kept a low profile.
Jesus went on the offensive against the Pharisees, addressing a mixed crowd of His disciples and various members of the public gathered in the temple courts. Jesus spoke harshly to the Pharisees. When love speaks harshly, it does so because no other loving way has a chance of breaking through. He focused on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes. From this point on, a climatic confrontation was inevitable.
God called the Pharisees to this high position so that they might provide expert counsel on spiritual matters to people who had to work for a living, or who didn’t have an opportunity to study the law, or who were illiterate and would not have access to the scrolls even if they could read. God called the scribes and Pharisees to be servants to such people, but they treated the call as if to privilege rather than to vocation—to honour rather than to servanthood. Teachers of Scripture have a special responsibility to model the behaviours that they teach. Their personal conduct should provide a visible lesson. The lack of integrity undermines the work of the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus objected to the Pharisees’ style of leadership. They set themselves above the good of their communities. They sought power and approval. They acted and dressed for effect. The Pharisees were quick to distort Scripture and require observant Jews to carry out all kinds of onerous demands, but they were not willing to inconvenience themselves in the least to help struggling people grow spiritually. They did not practice what they preached.
The Pharisees had 613 rules that the people had to follow if they wanted to live lives that were pleasing to God. By focusing on these rules, the Pharisees neglected the important issues of love and justice. They appointed heavy rules and regulations and insisted people obey them, but they refused to help. These rules referred to ceremonies and rites appointed by Moses. The Pharisees were gratified with titles and wanted these titles to denote their superiority. Every time a title was given to them it implied their superiority to the persons who used it.
Jesus forbade His disciples from seeking titles. He was their Master, and they were equal in authority. They could neither covet nor receive a title which implied that one was above the others or which infringes on His right to be their Teacher and Master. The word “father” denotes authority, eminence and superiority. In this sense it belongs to God and not to man. Christians are equal. God has supreme authority. He is the only one with the right to give laws, declare doctrines to bind the conscience and punish disobedience. Christ taught that the source of life and truth was God, and we should not seek or accept a title which properly belongs to God.
Jesus also urged his followers to avoid the trappings of power and self-promotion. He wanted his followers to act as He did and serve others. In that way others would be attracted to join the assembly of the saved. The members of the assembly gathered to await the Lord’s return and celebrate the intimacy of God. Why would anyone want a title that promoted self when the Lord returns?
We must do good works, and some works, such as benevolence or teaching, must be seen to have any impact. To do a good thing is a good thing, but to do good to be seen is a serious offense. It is hypocrisy, and hypocrisy turns people away from God. God has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to hypocrisy.
If we live a life of hypocrisy and like the Pharisees don’t practice what we preach, we become a hindrance of the gospel of Jesus rather than a help. We must practice what we preach. The life we live and how we treat others will either support or undermine the message we are trying to communicate. We must do what we can to lighten the loads that weigh on people, and our leaders must not let the respect and honour they receive go to their heads. Pride tends to derail those whose true calling is to humble service.
Authoritative teachers live according to Christ’s rules. They love God and love people. They do not abuse other people. They don’t promote their own status. They don’t seek promotion or fame. Any title they use refers to servanthood rather than rank or superiority. It’s common in churches to see people who have been placed in leadership positions lose their attitude of servanthood. We are encouraged to shut down inappropriate responses to Jesus in favour of living and serving Him as He did and still does-in us, out through us, or not at all. In every organization there are people who are already serving at the lowest levels of the power hierarchy, those already working in overlooked roles. These people are often unseen, existing only in the shadows. Making unseen people visible within the power hierarchy can be a way to exalt and lift up the humble.
God expects us to care for one another and serve one another. Imagine for a moment how our ministry to others could be if we knew we could count on each other. Our actions matter. We are human and prone to falling short, but we should take care to act in ways that honour our faith as best we can. We must not be discouraged by how we fall short or how we fail to fully live the teachings we profess and pass on to others. Instead, with faith in that Word “at work in you who believe,” we are assured that God is not finished with us yet.
Jesus identified the Pharisees’ root problem: they arranged their world to convince onlookers they were especially holy, devout, or knowledgeable about God’s Word, all to secure control and elevate themselves. What is missing is the space, silence, and vulnerability necessary to receive the radiant love of God. When we approach the Christian life as a constant stream of virtuous activity directed as loudly as possible both at God and at our faith community— “Look at me! Look at all the wonderful things I’m doing!”—the still, small voice of the Spirit is very easily drowned out. Our self-imposed burden of a needy ego, never patient enough to learn the love of God, will sooner or later become the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus is calling us away from the self-seeking life that pulls at us like a giant magnet and toward a highly disciplined discipleship that requires more than what we want to give. This passage demands a lot from us. Not only are we to avoid seeking honours and titles, but we are also required to prevent people from using them of us. Instead of worrying that we can’t do enough, let us do what we can and believe that God will do the rest. As Mother Theresa once said, “God doesn’t call us to be successful (meaning great). God calls us only to be faithful.”
God’s Word is at work in us as believers. That’s the most important thing of all as we seek to carry our own burdens and those of our fellow disciples. No burden we shoulder is ours to carry alone. The Holy Spirit within us is always present and ready to do the heavy lifting. Jesus says it himself in the Gospel of Matthew: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The burdens of life and community may never go away, but when the love of God pervades them, they are no longer crushing weights. Our burdens become a steadying presence, anchoring and grounding us in the faithful pursuit of grace and truth. For it is when we commit to turning our burdens over to God that we are at last empowered to bear the burdens of one another. And a burden shared becomes a burden halved, as the old saying goes. Perhaps we could modify it for ourselves—a burden shared becomes a burden graced.
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible, New King James Version (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013, p. 1322-1323)
- Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. Part of Wordsearch 11 Bible software package.
- Augsberger, M.S. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 24: Matthew (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1982; p.18)
- MacArthur, J.F. Jr.: The MacArthur Study Bible, New American Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers; 2006)
- Stanley, C.F.: The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles; 2005)
- Lucado, M.: The Lucado Life Principles Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson; 2010)
- Michael Brooks, “Religion as You Like It.” Retrieved from www.forthrigh.et
- Richard Niell Donovan, “Exegesis for Matthew 23:1-12.” Retrieved from www.lectionary.org
- Jude Siciliano, OP, “First Impressions, 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A).” Retrieved from www.preacherexchange.org
- Pastor Ken Klaus, “Adiaphora.” Retrieved from firstname.lastname@example.org
- Alyce McKenzie, “Do as I Say, Not As I Do: Lectionary Reflections on Matthew 23.: Retrieved from www.patheos.com
- Greg Carey, “Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12.” Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org
- The Rev. Whitney Rice, “Do You Feel Burdened?” Retrieved from www.episcopaldigitalnetwork.com