Matthew 23:1-12 (Pentecost 23A)
St. John, Galveston 11/5/2023
Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

As you know, Jesus frequently preached directly to the Scribes and Pharisees. Looking carefully at some of those portions of Scripture, we find that He didn’t just preach to or about the Scribes and Pharisees, rather He addressed specifically their sins and failings. They become sermon illustrations in Jesus’ messages.

And, everyone in the audience knows exactly who Jesus is talking about. It would seem that when He does that, the rest of us could basically take the Sunday off, because, I should think that, none of us here are card caring members of the Societies of the Scribes or Pharisees. To the contrary, we are from a long line of generations who have learned to associate bad things with the Scribes and Pharisees. And so, we’d be hard pressed to find any of us who  grew up saying, when I’m older, I want to be just like the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

It’s generally easier to hear a sermon about someone else, or some other group of people, than it is to hear a sermon about ourselves, particularly when it comes to the preaching of the Law. When we hear “woe to you,” we don’t really want to be the one that finishes out that admonition. And so, if the Law is addressed to others, then the rest of us can sit back and say, “that’s it, Pastor, you let ‘em have it.”

But the Law is never really useful in that way, is it? If it condemns someone who doesn’t hear it, what good is it? Or, if it condemns the person in the pew next to me, but it doesn’t draw me in, it doesn’t cause me any sort of spiritual unrest, what good is it?

I’d encourage you to take another look at this morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew 23. It is, indeed, about the sins of the Scribes and Pharisees. But go back to verse one of the text, and look at who the audience is, that is, look at who Jesus addresses these words to. It says, “then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples..”

The point is, the sins that were manifested in the Scribes and Pharisees are potential sins in the rest of us. More than that, they may be current sins in the some of us. And so, we would completely miss the point of Jesus’ sermon this morning if we leave here saying, ‘boy, I’m glad I’m not a Scribe or a Pharisee.’ Rather, let us leave this morning saying, ‘I too, am a sinner saved by God’s grace. And had Jesus not been humbled before He was exalted, I too would forever be humbled before the throne of God.’

In Matthew 23, Jesus described in detail the sins of the Scribes and Pharisees. What I’d like to do this morning though, is summarize their actions, as Jesus described them, into two temptations, or two pitfalls that we need to watch for in our own lives. First, the Pharisees overemphasized the Law, both in their own lives, as well as, in the lives of others. And secondly, in their roles as religious leaders, they were always jockeying for position, both in the Church and in the world.

God has given us both the Law, which tells us what to do and what not to do, as well as, the Gospel, which tells us what He has already done for us in Christ Jesus. Both are God’s Word and both must be preached to the end of the age. But the Law, without the Gospel, can only do one of two things. It can drive us to pride, if we believe that we have kept the Law as it was intended to be kept. Or, it can drive us to despair, if we continually find ourselves having fallen short of its demands. One thing the Law cannot do by itself, is save us from sin and death.

An overemphasis on the Law in our lives, whether in our personal lives, or as we relate to others, only serves to heighten our pride, or to increase our despair. This is a tough thing for us to repent of, because the Law, as it’s found in the Scriptures, spells out for us the will of God for our lives. And so, we reason, how can I put too much emphasis on God’s will for my life, or on God’s will for the lives of others? It seems reasonable to focus on that aspect of God’s word. But remember, the Law, by itself, that is, without the escape provided by the Gospel, can only lead you to pride or despair.

God gave us His Law for a very specific purpose. It was given to humble us. It was given to show us that, if we are to be saved from sin and death, there has to be another way. That way, of course, is the cross of Jesus. For, as the Apostles tells us, “God made Him who knew no sin, to be sin, that we might be the very righteousness of God in Him.” And again, we are told that “Jesus humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross.”    

So, the Law does it’s perfect work when it knocks our pride out from under us, and when it leaves us asking, “who then can be saved?” “Believe on the Lord, Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.” Jesus calls us out of the pit of despair to find hope and joy in Him, for He says to us, to you, ‘I have become your sin, and I have made you My righteousness.’ Indeed, “Jesus was made poor, that you, through His poverty might be made rich.” And so, beware of the temptation to put too much emphasis on the Law in your life. Rather, “look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith.”

In Bible Class last Sunday, there was a passage in Galatians 6, that said, “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Those of you that were able to be us last Sunday, do you remember that passage? “If anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Paul was talking about pride. He was warning the Galatians not to think too highly of themselves. He was warning them not to think of themselves as better than others, or as greater than others.  

The second sin of the Pharisees, and a temptation to all of us, is to always be jockeying for position, both in the Church and in the world. This too is a difficult temptation for us to contend with because, while excellence is a good thing for us to strive for, even in the Kingdom of God, jockeying for position is not a good thing for us to be caught up in. Those two, it would seem, must be held in tension with one another.

But if we look a little closer at Matthew 23, the Scribes and Pharisees weren’t really jockeying for true greatness in the Kingdom, rather they were always jockeying to appear to be the greatest in the Kingdom. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others (Jesus said). For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.”

When Jesus came into the world, He turned the world upside down in terms of what constitutes true greatness. “The greatest among you (He says) shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Now, while this passage is a call for us to humble ourselves before others in the Kingdom of God, it is really so much more than that.

Back in Matthew 11, in speaking of John the Baptist, Jesus said, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” He then went on to say, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

It’s not a riddle. “John is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, and yet, the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” The least in the Kingdom of Heaven is none other than Jesus Himself, and yet, in His meekness, in His humility, He is the greatest. For,“He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” In the unfathomable mystery of the Gospel, Jesus became what He was not, that you might be what you were not. It’s not about jockeying for position. It’s about being exalted by Jesus, being seated at the heavenly banquet, by the One who has prepared a place for you.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +