Scripture readings: Joshua 3:7-17 and Ps. 107:1-7, 33-37 (or Micah 3:5-12 and Ps. 43) 1 Thess. 2:9-13; Matt. 23:1-12 Sermon by Linda Rex from Matthew 23:1-12
Look to Jesus, Not Moral Religion
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus admonished us to look to him to find a better way of relating to God. According to Jesus, the teachers of the law (the scribes) and the Pharisees—Jewish religious leaders in his day—had a place in “Moses’ seat”—God-given authority within the house of Israel. However, as we learn in Hebrews 3, Moses is the servant in the house, whereas the Father is its builder and Jesus is the house itself. Moses is not the ultimate authority when it comes to the things of God, nor are the scribes and Pharisees who share Moses’ authority. The supreme authority in all such matters is Jesus.
The problem with looking to humans as the ultimate authority when it comes to the things of God is that we then project human, earth-bound ideas and experiences back on God. To see God as he truly is, we must look to Jesus who, alone, reveals who God is, how he relates to us and, therefore, how we should relate to him.
In Matthew 23, Jesus affirms that the scribes and Pharisees have authority in Israel, under the law of the old covenant. However, their efforts to protect the people from that law by hedging it in with added rules and regulations is a mistake—it weighs people down with heavy burdens the scribes and Pharisees themselves are unwilling to bear (Matt. 23:3). So Jesus instructs the people, that though they should respect the position of these religious leaders and obey the law they have been charged to uphold they must not follow their example, for they are hypocrites who “do not practice what they preach.”
The problem with moral religion
The problem with the legalistic, moral religion taught by the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and by many religious leaders in our day, is that it is rules-based, a “do this, don’t do that” approach to serving God that puts the burden on us to get things right so that God can be pleased with us and thus accept us. Don’t misunderstand: the moral religion taught by the scribes and Pharisees included some good things (that’s why Jesus tells the people to obey what they teach), but the problem was that no human being could actually do all that the Law of Moses (associated with the old covenant) commanded. Only one person could do that, and his name is Jesus. He perfectly obeyed the Law of Moses (as well as the larger principles behind it) and in doing so brought it to its intended end in the new covenant—the new way of relating to God, not through rules carved on stone tablets, but through Jesus, who dwells in us by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus invites us to join with him in doing what is right and good in accordance with his word. So in Matthew 23 Jesus is encouraging the people to look beyond moral religion to choose a way of being and doing that they would understand much better after Jesus died, rose, ascended and sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within them.
Jesus does not coerce us into joining him in doing what is right. That’s how much he respects us and he knows that being coerced does not lead to transformation. Instead it leads to legalistic, often begrudging, conformity to moral religion. Jesus understood that and that’s why he addresses it here in our passage in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees love the place of honor. Now, who’s the one who got that mindset going? That would be the evil one. He decided God’s place should be his. This is the ultimate lie, and to one extent or another, one we all succumb to. We like it when people notice us and look up to us, giving us credit, assigning us value, elevating us to the place of honor. How very different that is from the way of Jesus—the eternal Son of God who, through the Incarnation, humbled himself, took the place of a servant and served us all the way into death.
There is nothing that God asks of us, that God wants us to do, that Jesus has not already done in our place, on our behalf. He’s not asking us to do this on our own. In fact, he sends the Spirit—God in us—so we can share in all he has done for us and will yet do for us and through us.
So in this passage, Jesus is teaching the crowds and his disciples (likely in the ear-shot of the scribes and Pharisees) that there is something much deeper going on than mere moral religion. He’s making the point that there is a much deeper story to your life than what the scribes and the Pharisees would have you believe.
Who is God?
In Matt. 23:8-12, Jesus develops his point further by showing it is God (not the scribes and Pharisees) who is the true “teacher,” “father” and “instructor” (translated “leader” in the NASB). Looking closely, we sense Jesus making a reference to the Holy Trinity, with the Holy Spirit being the Teacher, God the Father being the Father, and Jesus being the Instructor. Let’s look at each one:
The Spirit, our Teacher
In John 13, Jesus is called rabbi (meaning teacher), and he said, “That’s right. I am your teacher. But there really is no teacher but God.” He then prepares his disciples for his crucifixion, “I have to go, though. Because when I go, I’m going to send the Holy Spirit, and he will teach you all things.” So our Teacher today in the church is principally the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) who teaches us as we listen to him, as he speaks to us through the Scriptures that he inspired, as we follow his lead in obeying Christ.
The Spirit, we are told in Scripture, leads us to Jesus—reminds us of what Jesus taught. He gives us God’s power—far more than is found in mere moral religion, which is all about “do this and don’t do that.” If we want real transformation of our lives, what we need is the Spirit to teach us—to transform us into the likeness of Christ from the inside out.
The Spirit is God in us— activating us, bringing to life the fullness of Jesus Christ within us. What is our hope of glory? It’s a “who” not a “what”—it’s Jesus who lives in us through the Spirit sent to us by the Father and the Son. We have the Teacher, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us. Wherever the Spirit is, the Father and Jesus are as well. God is our Teacher.
Those of us called to teach within the church must rely on the Spirit and all he teaches us through the written word. As your pastor-teacher, I can talk until I’m blue in the face and it will have no effect in your life except by the Spirit’s power and direction. It’s God’s Spirit who does the work in our hearts and minds. And we trust him to do a major work in each of us and in those we teach.
The Father, our Father
Going on, Jesus says, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father.’” We tend to get our picture of God as Father from our human fathers, and that’s often a problem. We need to realize that God the Father is not defined by human fathers. It’s the other way around. We don’t define God by our human experience—we define God by God. And who is God as Father? Well, Jesus said, “Look at me, and you’ll see the Father,” because Jesus is, as it says in Hebrews, the exact replica of the Father.
From Jesus we learn that when we trust in Jesus, the Father and the Son come to live in us through the Spirit. And indwelling us, they transform us. So we have a Father who, rather than standing apart and aloof (like some human fathers) from us, dwells in us and enables us to love and obey and so fellowship with him.
All we have to offer God comes as a gift of grace from our heavenly Father. It’s hard to get our minds around that truth, particularly when our experience of God was first within moral religion with its many do’s and don’ts: I must praise God, I must serve God; but I don’t know how, or I don’t do it well, or he doesn’t want to hear from me, a sinner; or….
Well, the truth is that the whole thing of serving and praising God begins with God, not with us. God gives us the heart. He gives us Jesus the one true and perfect human worshipper and servant of God. He gives us the Holy Spirit. And God flowing into us through Jesus by the Spirit gives us the perfect response to God—our sharing in Jesus’ own response of love and devotion to the Father, which has been going on for all eternity.
So God is our one true Father. As a human, Jesus obeyed the Father and acknowledged him as the Source of all good things. The testimony down the centuries in the church is that the Father has an eternally begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. And so we understand that God the Father is the Source of all good things. He loves us so much! So, as we go through the crises in life, let’s go to our Dad—he doesn’t want us to go through any of it by ourselves. He wants to be right there with us, supporting us, delivering us, redeeming all our circumstances.
Jesus, our Leader
Next, Jesus says not to call any human your “Leader” (NASB), for as “Messiah,” Jesus is Supreme Leader—the Lord of lords to whom we are to give allegiance. Jesus reminded Peter of this in Matthew 8 where Peter thought he was pretty clever in figuring out that Jesus is the Messiah. But Jesus reminded him, “Peter, the only reason you know this is because God revealed it to you.” Then Jesus said that he must go to Jerusalem to die, to which the self-confident Peter replied, “No way is that going to happen to you Lord!” To this impetuous statement Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan! You’re thinking more about the things of man than the things of God.”
Isn’t that also our tendency? It certainly was the tendency of the scribes and Pharisees, who were more concerned about human concerns than the things of God. In contrast, Jesus’ says to us, “Deny yourself and follow me”—which means to pick up your cross, and follow him.
Jesus went on to explain that true leadership—his leadership—involves service; it involves laying down one’s life and being humble rather than self-exalting. Jesus is showing us that instead of trusting imperfect, flawed humans to lead us, we must, first and foremost, look to Jesus who always is perfect. As your pastor, called to a position of leadership, I say to you, like Paul, “follow me as I follow Christ,” which to say that we all follow Christ first.
The Father, Son and Spirit come together, teaching us about true leadership, which is servant-leadership. The three Persons of the Trinity, who from all eternity serve each other in a self-sacrificial way, have made room for us in their divine fellowship. In doing so they teach us to join them in self-sacrifice and humility for the sake of loving others.
Make no mistake about it: God, alone, is our Teacher, Father and Leader. It is to the Triune God that we need to look as the source of our life, the focus of our worship, and the direction of our obedience. Every moment of our lives is bound up with the Father, Son and Spirit.
Yes, our lives can be a struggle. But it’s to the triune God that we always turn, and God never turns us away. We are never alone. God is always with us and for us. The Father, with the Son dwells in us by the Spirit. God is ours forever. That is his promise, his commitment to us. On that you can count. Let’s close in prayer:
Thank you, God, for your great love—for being our Teacher, our Father, and our Leader—Spirit, Father, Son. Thank you that you guard and keep us, watching over us every day, providing for our needs. We give you the glory and honor. Father, remind us again of the great love you shower upon us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.