False Ways and True Ways for the Church
Trinity 24 Midweek (A-Proper 26)
Tonight we hear Jesus give a stinging critique of religion in His day, but He also wants His Church today to hear it and learn from it. Let’s walk through Jesus’ words again and listen to what they say for the Church today. First, though, an overall outline. We can see two main parts to our Gospel reading: the false ways and the true ways—what not to do and what to do in our life together as Christ’s Body.
And what does Jesus say on the false ways? “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat.” That’s not a false way. Actually, Jesus respects the “seat of Moses,” after all, according to Jewish tradition Moses sat on the seat to teach the Law to Joshua, and other respected teachers sat on it after him. Jesus respects, even gives, those who study, interpret, and teach His Scriptures. Then Jesus says: “so practice and observe whatever they tell you.” Again, not a false way here. Jesus teaches us to hear and learn from our teachers in the faith, even put those teachings into practice. St. Paul was one such teacher. When St. Paul taught in a place called Berea, the Jews there “received the word with all eagerness, examining it daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). They listened to their preacher-teacher St. Paul and they did so with discernment—not only critically, but also not only receptively—but checking the teaching with the Scriptures. We do the same thing today with our pastors, our teachers in God’s Scriptures. It’s what Hebrews 13:7 says: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
So, what’s the false way that Jesus warns us against? “Practice and observe whatever they tell you but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” The Bible teachers of Jesus’ day would teach God’s law—Jesus approves that—but they did not practice what they taught. Think of it as the preacher teaching, “Trust the Lord your God,” but then not trusting God himself. Think of it as the preacher saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but then not showing that love for the neighbors who hear his teaching. Yep, we preachers have a tall order!
Jesus gives another false way: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” They might teach people to pray, or fast, or give to the poor, or just to attend church and learn God’s Word—and these are all good things—but the false teachers make them burdensome tasks. They do not balance the burden with the Lord’s mercy. They do not show the mercy that God wants them to show as they teach.
Then Jesus gives a final false way: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others…and they love the place of honor at feasts.” In other words, they love the show. They love to show off their learning so that people will ooh and awe. They love the “great-ness-ism.” The phylacteries were little leather cases, or boxes, that would contain little scrolls of Scripture passages. They would be strapped to the arm, or even the forehead, as a reminder to learn those Scriptures. The fringes would be on their robes, and making them long would make people notice. Jesus teaches His teachers, in fact, His whole Church: “Don’t be ostentatious and showy; don’t look to be great and recognized.”
Those are the false ways. Jesus also gives us some true ways of life as His people, His Church. And once again, He zeroes in on the preachers and lets the same thing apply to all of His people.
For the first true way Jesus says: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers.” No, Jesus is not worried about what words we use to refer to our clergy. He is concerned about who the true Teacher is. Our Lord instructs us to beware of those teachers who promote themselves or who have followings based on their sparkling personalities or unique perspective. Jesus says, “you have one teacher.” Yes, there’s only one Teacher—Jesus Himself. And any faithful, true teacher and preacher in Jesus’ Church will teach and preach only what Teacher Jesus gives. He will defer to the one, supreme Teacher. “You have one instructor, the Christ.” And the true preachers and teachers will view one another as brothers. Even when there are levels of pastors to govern the Church, they are still equal brothers in Christ.
The second true way is very similar: “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” Again, Jesus is not worried about what words we use, whether we refer to our fathers in the faith or our biological fathers. Instead, He wants us to trust and rely on our heavenly Father. After all, all fatherhood, spiritual and biological, comes from Him. He is our Father; we are His family.
The third true way really sums everything up: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The way of life in Jesus’ Church—for both clergy and laypeople—is greatness by serving. It’s the way of Jesus for us. He did not come to be great, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many. He did not come to exalt Himself, but to humble Himself in suffering and crucifixion and burial. And when He humbled Himself, He was exalted at just the right time, the third day. His death and resurrection bring an end to our need for greatness. His dying and rising show us that we are forgiven for our “great-ness-ism,” and restored to serve Him our great Teacher, and each other as brothers and sisters.
As Jesus teaches us these words, He was indeed preparing to head to the cross, His place of being humbled for us. We are hearing these words as we get ready to hear about the last days and the end times before Christ will return. So, Jesus’ words on the false ways and the true ways of life in His Church especially apply as we look for His reappearing on the Last Day. As we wait, we rely on our true Teacher. We trust our true Father and His Father. Instead of looking for greatness, we look to serve one another. And instead of exalting ourselves, we follow His path of humbling ourselves. You see, we also have the promise that He will by grace exalt us and raise us to life with Him.