The Real Thing (a sermon for November 2nd on Matthew 23:1-12)

I want to begin this morning by telling you about two words.

The Greek word ‘hypocrite’ originally referred to an actor in a play. In the ancient world it was common for actors to wear masks so that the audience would know which part they were playing. But everyone knew that the mask was not a reality; the person wearing the mask was a very different person from the character they were playing. And so the word ‘hypocrite’ has come to mean a person who is pretending to be something they are not; outwardly, their words and actions seem pretty good, but the actual reality is a lot less pretty.

The second word is the English word ‘sincere’. It actually comes from two Latin words, which together mean ‘without wax’. What does that mean, ‘without wax? Well, it actually comes from the world of sculpture. A sculptor would be working hard on a statue, and everything would be going well, but then suddenly he would make a mistake: his chisel would slip, and there was a hole where no hole was meant to be! What was he going to do? Apparently it was fairly common for sculptors to hide these mistakes by filling the holes with wax and then polishing it so that it looked just like stone, but of course, it was not stone: once again, you have something or someone pretending to be something that they are not. So a ‘sincere’ person is a person who is not hiding their flaws: they are exactly what they tell you they are, ‘without wax’. A hypocrite, on the other hand, is always doing their best to hide their faults and pretend to be better than they actually are.

This is Jesus’ concern in our gospel reading for today. He’s not interested in a spirituality based on pretence. He’s interested in honesty and humility, and he criticizes the spiritual leaders of his day – the scribes and Pharisees – because their spirituality is not real: it’s all an act. So let’s think for a few minutes about what he has to say here, and let’s pray that God will help us to be real and honest in our own discipleship.

In our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus points out for us three differences between honest and sincere spirituality and the hypocritical version of it. Let’s look at those three differences now.

Firstly, Jesus tells us that honest and sincere spirituality doesn’t stop with talk – it goes on to action as well. Look at verses 2-3:

Jesus said, “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 preach”.

This of course is the charge that is levelled at Christians so often by the sceptical world around us: ‘Those Christians are all words and no actions; they don’t practice what they preach’. And of course, we have to admit that there’s often some truth in that. After all, we follow a master who told us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth; a master who told us not to take vengeance on our enemies but to love them and pray for them instead; a master who told us to love our neighbour as ourselves and to make caring for the poor and needy a priority. But when outsiders look at the size of our houses and our bank accounts, or the way we deal with personal conflicts, or the proportion of our time and money that goes toward helping the poor, what do they actually see? I know that, in my own case, I have a lot to say about the importance of caring for the poor and needy, but when I look at my actual spending and giving habits, I have to admit that I’m a lot better at talking than doing!

It’s not that words aren’t important; sometimes words can have a powerful effect, stirring us into action. I remember a few years ago at an Edmonton diocesan synod we watched a video of a speech given by Stephen Lewis about HIV/AIDS in Africa; personally, I was cut to the heart by the enormity of the situation as he described it. He spoke with clarity and passion and with total commitment to his message, and we were all moved by it.

But of course, hearing the words alone is not enough. It’s not enough for me to go home from synod and say, “Boy, you should have heard Stephen Lewis talking about HIV/AIDS in Africa’ and then not do anything about it. Those words are meant to penetrate deep into my will and produce a changed life.

I remember g a story about a young Christian convert in Malaysia who was so enthusiastic about his new faith that he decided to memorize the Sermon on the Mount. The next time he met with the person who had led him to Christ, he was able to recite for him a large portion of Matthew chapter five, and his friend immediately felt the need to caution him. “It’s not enough just to memorize it”, he said; “we have to obey it as well”. The new convert looked at him in surprise and replied “But how do you think I memorized it? As soon as I read each verse, I immediately began to try to put it into practice, and that’s how I learned to remember what it said!”

So that’s the first thing Jesus tells us here: it’s important for us to move on from talking to doing. We find the second thing in verse four, where we learn that honest and sincere spirituality doesn’t add to our burdens but to our resources. Listen to what Jesus says about the Pharisees:

“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”.

Their form of religion didn’t relieve people of their burdens; rather, it added to them.

Jesus is talking about the Pharisees’ habit of adding all kinds of clarifying rules to the Old Testament commandments. The most famous example is the Sabbath laws. The Old Testament command is very simple: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work’ (Exodus 20:8-10). That’s very plain and direct.

But over the years generations of Jewish teachers had tried to help people understand that law, and they had begun to define very carefully exactly what ‘work’ meant. Could you light a fire in your house on the Sabbath? Could you go for a walk? If so, how far away from your home could you walk, and what exactly was your home? If on the day before the Sabbath you took a pile of your possessions and dumped them on the road a few miles away, could that pile be defined as your ‘home’, and could you then walk a Sabbath day’s journey from that pile? Could you rescue an animal that had fallen into a well? You see what Jesus meant? A command that was given to help people bear their burdens by reminding them of the importance of rest and worship became one more of the burdens they had to carry.

Yes, real Christianity is challenging. But real Christianity doesn’t stop there; it also helps us bear our burdens. It assures us that when we fail, God is willing and ready to forgive us, because he is a God of grace and mercy, not a sadistic schoolmaster waiting to beat up on us every time we slip up. Real Christianity tells us that the Holy Spirit is in us, and Jesus is beside us to lead us and guide us, so we’re not just dependant on our own puny strength and wisdom when we try to follow God; God is helping us all the way. And real Christianity also encourages us to find Christian brothers and sisters to journey with us: people we can be honest with, people we can share our struggles and doubts and questions with, people we can pray with and study the Bible with in an atmosphere of love and encouragement.

So yes, Jesus does sometimes speak a challenging word to us, but he doesn’t intend his message to be one more burden for us to carry; rather, it’s meant to be a resource to help us deal with the burdens of life. That’s the second thing Jesus is teaching us here about the difference between honest and sincere spirituality and the hypocritical version of it.

So we’ve seen that honest and sincere spirituality doesn’t stop with talk: it goes on to action as well. We’ve also seen that it doesn’t add to our burdens; it adds to our resources instead. The third thing we learn in this passage is this: honest and sincere spirituality is not about showing off to each other but is about humbly serving one another. Listen again to what Jesus says in verses 5-12:

“(The scribes and the Pharisees) do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor – the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:5-12).

Phylacteries were little boxes containing scripture verses which religious Jews tied to their wrists and foreheads when they were praying – indeed, they still do this today. And the fringes referred to the special prayer shawls they wore as a part of their worship. Obviously the Pharisees were in the habit of using especially large phylacteries and prayer shawls so that everyone could see how religious they were. In other words, their religion wasn’t really about seeking after God; rather, it was about being recognized and looked up to by other people.

Jesus taught a very different way of being great. When we think of a ‘great person’ today we probably think of someone who is recognized and respected, someone who has made an obvious difference in world history, someone who everyone looks up to. In our world, great people get to tell other people what to do. But Jesus had a different view. He says, “The greatest among you will be your servant” (v.11). Notice very carefully what he is saying here. He isn’t saying that if you serve others, God will reward you by making you great. What he is saying is that if you serve others, you are already great.

The kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom; instead of trying to get to the top of the ladder, we’re called to aspire to the lower place. And of course, that brings with it some advantages. In a world where everyone is trying to be recognized and respected by others, everyone is automatically in competition with each other. In that sort of world, building real community is very difficult. But in a world where we follow Jesus’ teaching we aren’t in competition with each other; rather, we’re serving each other in love, and so we can build real community together.

So here are three ways in which Jesus challenges us to make our faith more real in our daily lives, and perhaps we need to end by looking into our hearts this morning and asking ourselves how we’re doing in putting this into practice. We need to do this, not in order to beat up on ourselves, but so that we can make some real goals and move forward in our Christian lives.

So let’s ask ourselves these questions: First, in my Christian life, how often do I stop with just talking about the Christian faith, and how often do I move on to actually living it? What sort of progress am I making in actually rebuilding my life and my daily habits on the firm foundation of the teaching of Jesus? And a word of warning with this question: usually we aren’t the best people to answer it for ourselves! I like the story of the travelling evangelist who stopped to ask a Mennonite farmer if he was saved. The farmer replied, “Well, I could answer that question any way you want to hear, but if you really want to know if I’m a Christian, I guess you’ll have to ask my neighbours!”

Secondly, is my Christianity just one more burden for me to carry, or is it a resource to help me carry my burdens? If it is just one more burden, then maybe I need to go back to that other word that Jesus spoke to those who were labouring under impossible religious burdens:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

So if all we’re feeling is the burden of being a Christian, we need to let those words of Jesus sink into our hearts. We need to come to him and ask him to take the burdens off our shoulders, and teach us a better way of following him, when we learn to walk beside him and experience his daily help as we try to put his teaching into practice.

Thirdly, what sort of progress am I making in learning the true spirit of a servant, finding my joy in loving and helping others, rather than spending all my time and energy seeking their recognition and approval? Maybe I need to stop trying to get other people to notice me or like me or look up to me, and instead ask God to show me how he wants me to serve them in the spirit of our Master, who washed his disciples’ feet.

Finally, I need to say that it’s not been my intention in this sermon to speak a word of condemnation. Jesus could see into the hearts of the Pharisees, but I’m just a pastor and I have no window into your hearts! Rather, I speak in a deep awareness of my own tendency to be satisfied with a spirituality of words only, and to duck out on the hard work of being a servant to the other people in my life. In this gospel passage, I hear the voice of Jesus challenging me not to get stuck there, but to move on to something more real. I suspect that you may be hearing that challenge as well, so we need to pray together that the Holy Spirit will help us to take the next step in our journey toward a more true and honest and sincere form of Christian discipleship. Let us pray…


One thought on “The Real Thing (a sermon for November 2nd on Matthew 23:1-12)

  1. Andrew H.

    Just as I began to read this, one of the street guys that we have helped came by. I did not want to talk with him; I am worn out after being a pollworker at yesterday’s election (and counting write-ins until almost midnight), and have a lot of work for today. But we sat and talked for a half-hour or so, and I learned some about his difficult childhood, most of it in foster homes and juvenile detention.

    This was not at all how I wanted to spend the morning. But it is, I suspect, how Jesus would want me to spend it — not working on my own agenda, but being a servant to this fellow. Your sermon, which I finished reading after talking with him, gave me that perspective on what was going on; thank you.

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