Speaking Of Life 2049 | Religious Sinners Greg Williams Matthew 23 records one of Jesus’ characteristic critiques of the Pharisees. It is as fiery as ever, taking aim at their religious pride in being seen in sacred clothing and given prominent places in society. He Begins his critique: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Matthew 23:2-4 (NRSV) He continues to rebuke for eight more verses. It’s tame compared to some other diatribes where Jesus calls them a brood of vipers or white-washed tombs—clean on the outside, deadness, and waste within. Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ strongest words were for those who claimed to be religious leaders. He hangs out with prostitutes, touches lepers, and heals the servants of the occupying Roman soldiers—all while providing words of encouragement. But then, we see his other side, where he is direct and blunt with religious leaders. Why is this? Perhaps a case of familiarity breeds contempt? These religious leaders were so familiar with theology and sacred practice that they ignored Jesus’ message. You can almost hear them: “We’re the masters of theology; we’re the arbiters of truth, who is this kid?” Jesus, in some sense, turns up the volume to get their attention. Let’s keep in mind that the Pharisees, by any measure we could come up with, were devout people. Really disciplined people. They were morally pure, ethically flawless, they tithed meticulously and helped the poor. They knew their scripture (the Old Testament) better than any of us ever will. Jesus’ message for them—and for all of us—is that we all need the re-creating Spirit in us. The Law can’t do it, even when followed to the letter, the heart needs to be replaced and reborn. Even these “good guys” had their sins – hypocrisy, pride, judgementalism. They needed healing just as bad as the non-religious that they looked down on. When we look at Jesus, we find him comforting and weeping with the obvious sinners such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and drunks. It was the refined, educated, religious sinners that made him scream. Have you ever asked, what it is that might make him scream today? I would suggest it is when we put religion over relationship. When we start to think that what we know is more important than who we know—and who knows us. When we believe we have it right and others have it wrong. When we stop thinking we need healing. When we stop being transformed. Jesus transforms lives—the stories of Nicodemus and Paul fill us with the hope that as he healed and transformed them so HE heals and transforms us! I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 • Joshua 3:7-17 • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 • Matthew 23:1-12
The theme for this week is God lifts up the humble. The Revised Common Lectionary readings always begin with a psalm as a call to worship; this week it is Psalm 107, which beautifully describes the streams and harvest that God gives to those who depend on him. Joshua 3 tells the story of Joshua beginning his leadership for the desert-weary children of Israel and how God goes before them. Matthew 23 is a word of judgment against the Pharisees who are enjoying their “box seats” in society but who should be servants. Our sermon is based on 1 Thessalonians 2, which gives us a picture of Paul doing his humble work as a tentmaker to support his ministry.
Paul at the Workbench
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 ESV
Read, or have someone read the text prior to the sermon.
Most of us remember dad’s workbench or mom’s special drawer of tools—a corner of the garage, basement, or kitchen where a cobbled together table sat under an array of hanging tools or maybe a cluttered drawer in one of the kitchen cabinets. As little kids, we were fascinated by it. As we grew up, we probably learned to ignore it. But chances are that somewhere in there you learned—by way of hammered thumbs and slivers—how to fix some things.
This is a great place for an anecdote or a conversation about dad’s workbench or equivalent. Be sensitive here that not everyone’s memories of their fathers are good.
Hammering a nail, holding a saw, mending a garment, fixing stuff around the house—chances are you learned this stuff by watching. You watched calloused hands at work, not just telling you, but showing you how the work was done.
Much of the apostle Paul’s writing was to people he knew well. These weren’t just people who had heard of him or respected him as a church administrator. They knew him. He had founded those churches in person and discipled these people firsthand.
He didn’t just tell them about the gospel, he lived it in front of them. He didn’t just describe the fruits of the Spirit, he displayed them. He gave them an example to follow—sometimes with words, always with action.
One of the ways he did this was by working with his hands. Through much of his missionary career, Paul worked as a tentmaker, a fact that is known so well that people in bi-vocational ministry today are often called “tentmakers.”
Paul grew up in Tarsus of Cicilia, a place that exported the goats-hair fabric used in tents. He grew up around the trade and probably learned when he was very young. This was the solid, sweaty work of his hometown.
Tentmakers, like everyone else in those days, worked constant hours—sunup to sundown. He preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath, but he probably did a lot of discipleship and teaching at the workbench. “Hold this rope, let me tell you about Jesus … pull this tight and I’ll tell you about the Messiah while I stitch this seam.”
Let’s sit with Paul at the workbench for a while. Let’s imagine him at work and see what we can learn from his actions as a tentmaker. Let’s look at how that profession—which he was called to do by God as part of his ministry—gave him certain freedoms. God can use anything for ministry, and anything to shape us into the image of Christ. (See Romans 8:28 about that one!) Let’s observe three ways Jesus was able to use Paul’s calloused hands and swollen knuckles as another way to bring his message to the world. Then let’s ask how these same freedoms, which God has given you, enable you to use your work and home environment to share the good news with others.
Let’s look at three freedoms Paul experienced:
- freedom from self
- freedom from status
- freedom to live in the moment
Freedom from self
For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:9-10 ESV)
These verses are nestled among metaphors of Paul’s care for them and relationship to them. In one chapter, he says he was like a father, then a mother, then a child with them—all expressing intimate relationships to share not only his message but also himself with them.
There was another aspect here too of the three-dimensional witness of Paul. Unlike Paul, an itinerant speaker and communicator with a purpose-filled message, most orators did not do manual labor like this! In that society, speakers and teachers would have been supported by their disciples, by a wealthy patron, or by the believing community. It was considered beneath someone like Paul to work with his hands.
People didn’t go to workers in the marketplace for wisdom and theology. Yet there he was, right between the fish-sellers and con-artists, stitching fabric and telling people about Jesus. His work gave him freedom from self. God used this simple trade to help shape Paul into the image of Christ. The speaking and preaching, which he was trained for, and which seemed to come naturally to him, was not his calling for making a living.
That’s an interesting irony there. Peter, who was a rough-cut professional fisher, was thrust into the role of speaker and teacher and was supported by the communities he ministered to. Paul, who was a professionally trained communicator, was called to make ends meet by doing work that was considered demeaning.
Imagine sitting in a lecture hall—walls inlaid with mahogany, chairs finished with the finest leather—just as the class is about to begin, after a rousing intro by a string quartet, the janitor walks up to the podium, clears his throat and proceeds to give the most brilliant lecture anyone’s ever heard. It’s a bit like that.
Paul’s work, which brought him down in the eyes of society, gave him a freedom from self that let him preach the gospel with joyful abandon.
What does God use in your life to give you freedom from self? Freedom from your own ego and self-focus? For some of you, it might be your actual work. It’s a difficult post when you find yourself out-skilled and out-worked by others, sometimes younger others. Can Jesus use that discomfort to give you freedom from the trappings of your ego, from the unquenchable appetite of status-seeking?
One great example of this is Henri Nouwen. He was a famous priest and professor who had spoken all around the world and written best-selling books. Yet the only place he finally found true rest and lived out the remainder of his life was in a community for special-needs people. In the humbling environment of working with those who had Down syndrome, autism, and mental illness, at the workbench with these folks who had no idea he was famous, Nouwen found the freedom that he was looking for.
Second lesson from Paul at the workbench:
Freedom from status
Let’s look again at that first verse:
For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9 ESV)
This is something Paul mentions in several places.
In a different letter, he tells the Corinthians:
If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. (1 Corinthians 9:11-12)
You hear this in Paul’s dialogue with different communities. He didn’t burden them financially and was specific about avoiding that.
In Jewish society at the time, the Rabbi was supported by his community as a matter of course. There was no question about where his check was coming from, as it was part of tithing to your local synagogue. Paul wouldn’t participate in this. He didn’t want it to become an obstacle between him and his people.
We also have to remember the other half of Paul’s audience: the Greco-Roman society. That culture had some similar practices, but the motivation was very different. Teachers, with bands of disciples following them, weren’t uncommon in that society; teachers in Athens or Rome were well-known and we still follow some of their ideas today (remember the Pythagorean theorem from geometry class?).
They were so well-known that it became a status symbol to have a thinker on the payroll. Paying your very own playwright or actor or philosopher was a bit of ornamentation to keep up with the elite. If you were wealthy, you had your own property and a large house and slaves and horses and whatever, but if you were really wealthy you had your own sage on the payroll.
Paul walked away from all of that and sat there at the workbench. He stepped out of the discussion entirely. Nobody could accuse him of preaching a new message so he could make money; no one could call him the rich man’s pet. This was his freedom from status. He wasn’t interested in that; he was driven entirely by the mission God had given him.
Has your faith ever brought you to this kind of freedom? Has it brought you to where you can stand away from the constant vying for status and center-of-attention? Social media makes this worse. Now you can make a whole tiny TV show out of your self-focus! On social media we can update, in lighting-fast real-time, all aspects of our lives and then wait anxiously for a meager harvest of approval and attention.
But Jesus tells us that we are loved, cherished, and destined no matter what. He reminds us that our worth isn’t a matter of our works or smarts or looks, but of his grace. Paul wasn’t tempted or distracted by these positions of status—the stately Rabbi or the famous pagan philosopher; he just sat down at the workbench and was free.
Final lesson from Paul at the workbench:
Freedom to be in the moment
For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 ESV)
The Thessalonian church was a flashpoint in Paul’s ministryI, as discussed in Acts 17. His preaching almost resulted in a riot. Believers were alienated from their cultures, whether Jewish or pagan, and the tension was bad enough to cause violence. Paul and Silas were hidden by the community and then released at night to the next town. Then people from Thessalonica found out they were there and chased them down (Acts 17:13).
In this kind of environment, disowned from their families and cultures, it is no surprise that the church there got fixated on the end times. They became focused and obsessed with the second coming to the point that some of them were even quitting their jobs and disengaging from life. They were simply watching the sky and letting their lives fall apart.
Paul at the workbench stood in stark contrast to this. Instead of a kind of apocalyptic obsession, he participated in one of the most consistent rhythms of human life: work. Listen to his explicit instruction to the community there:
Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Thessalonians 4:10-12)
What a shocking thing to say to a doomsday community! Here they were hiding in bunkers, waiting for their deliverance to come and Paul says, “Come to the workbench. Live a quiet life, work with your hands. Let that be your witness.” He doesn’t offer them fireworks and drama; he offers them a life well lived in the moment.
Because you know how it’s all going to end, you can live more fully in this moment. Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles didn’t offer them (or us) a wait-for-it end-times scenario, but gave them the key to living a different life, every day, even in the details of the workbench.
The gospel life calls us to the daily work of maintaining harmonious relationships. It calls us to the difficult journey of helping the poor. It calls us to the seemingly endless grace-work of Christ being formed in us (Galatians 4:19). The gospel is not an escapist doctrine that relieves us of responsibilities and tensions of life—it gives us strength to press further into life! Karl Marx derisively called religion the “opiate of the masses,” when the truth of the gospel is meant to wake us up!
Paul at the workbench gives us the great example of someone who is holding two realities in tension. On the one hand, he isn’t blinded by the world, trying to make heaven on earth through business dealings and influence and status-seeking. On the other hand, he isn’t watching the skies and obsessing over “signs” of Christ’s return. He is in the real world, living every day in light of eternity, and therefore able to fully live every day.
May you know the freedom of being a fully loved child of the God who will one day put everything to rights. May you follow Paul’s example, not necessarily to make tents, but to be free from status-obsession, end-times-fixation, and the ultimate slavery of living for yourself. For the Son has set you free, and you are free indeed!
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for Speaking of Life:
- Jesus had his strongest words for the white-collar sinners—respectable members of society who hid their sins even from themselves. Why is it hard to rout out this kind of sin (hypocrisy, gossip, envy, etc.)?
- Jesus’ behavior toward them was brash, even rude sometimes. How does that interact with the picture of him as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”? What does that tell us about him?
Questions for sermon:
- Do you have any memories of dad’s (or grandpa’s/uncle’s etc.) workbench? Maybe memories of mom’s work center in the house—workbench or laundry room or phone station. What was that place like in your mind? Mysterious? Off-limits? Sacred? What did you learn there?
- We talked about the different freedoms Paul experienced as tentmaker—freedom from self, status, and freedom to live in the moment. Which of these appeals to you the most? Why?
- Have you ever thought of your work or job as an act of worship? Part of who you are in Christ? Would that change things?
Quote to ponder: “Work becomes worship when you dedicate it to God and perform it with an awareness of His presence.” – Rick Warren, pastor and author