Matthew 23:1-12 | 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
You’ve probably gathered by now, as we’ve read through Matthew’s gospel over the course of the year, that Jesus wasn’t the biggest of the Jewish religious authorities of his day. But just in case there was any doubt left in anyone’s mind, today’s reading ought to put an end to it. A more scathing critique would be hard to find.
But his target – at least today – wasn’t everyone. He doesn’t mention the priests, for example, or the Sadducees. Both those groups get their share of criticism elsewhere. But today his words were reserved for the scribes and the Pharisees – those, in other words, who were responsible for teaching the people.
For of course in an era before universal schooling, education, for the vast majority of people, consisted of what you learnt from your parents, and from what you were taught in the synagogue, by the Pharisees, or, if you showed particular flair, in the Temple, by the scribes.
These were the people who had responsibility, in particular, for teaching the law of Moses to the people, to make the words of the scriptures relevant to the lives of the people living, as they, did, under Roman rule: they sat in Moses’ seat, as Jesus described it, doing Moses’ job, interpreting the law of God to the people of God.
And it’s certainly worth noting that Jesus started by giving great respect to that position, that role; they sit in Moses’ seat, so do what they teach and follow it. It’s not the content of their teaching – the Old Testament laws – that Jesus had a problem with. It wasn’t that the syllabus had become dated and in need of another national review; the problem wasn’t the law, it was the teachers.
And for them, Jesus has harsh words. Three hard criticisms for them to hear – and for us to reflect upon.
Firstly: do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.
It’s hard to imagine a more cutting thing to say about anyone, most of all about someone who sets themselves up as a teacher. And worse still; of teachers of the law of God – this is not telling a tennis coach that he has a sloppy backhand, or pointing out to a maths teacher that she can’t add up – this is telling the moral and spiritual teachers that they don’t live the way they know they ought, and tell others they ought.
Hard to imagine anything harsher, I said? Unfortunately for those on the receiving end of these words it just gets worse. For their hypocrisy is a problem for themselves; Jesus second condemnation is that they go out of their way to make things hard for others. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, and they make no effort to carry them themselves.
The contrast, of course, is with the words that Jesus spoke of himself – “come to me, you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest – for my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. The accusation is that the Pharisees and the scribes make being God’s people harder than it ought to be. That they layer law upon law, regulation upon regulation, interpretation on interpretation, building the burden of obedience until it is too hard to carry, and offering no helping hand, no shoulder to share the load.
Loving and serving and following God was never intended to be a burden. Hard, yes. But not burdensome. Hard to do, but rewarding; the sort of hard work that we all know, when you reach the end of the day ready for a glass of wine with the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done something worthwhile, not the burden of hard work wrapped in the additional burden of a sense of futility.
And having criticised the teachers for their moral failing and their making things unnecessarily hard and unrewarding for others, Jesus goes in for the kill.
“They love to have the place of honour at banquets… to be greeted with respect… to be called Rabbi… They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long”
You’re not in it for God, for your own spiritual health.
You’re not in it for others, to help them to walk in the ways that the Lord has called them to.
You’re in it for the honour; the respect; the title; the clothes.
And so Jesus comes to his conclusion; his instructions now not for the Pharisees but for his followers: do not be called Rabbi, do not be called Father, do not be called Instructor.
But notice – and I didn’t notice this, until I came to write this sermon – it doesn’t say “you are not to be a rabbi, you are not to be an instructor, you are not to be a teacher”.
This isn’t Jesus saying “don’t be a teacher”. It’s Jesus saying “don’t seek the honour, the respect, the title that goes with that role.”
For when it comes to the things of God none of us has any claim to title; for we all have one teacher, we all share the same status – that of student.
But I don’t believe for a moment that this means that none of us are to be teachers – in fact, its exactly the opposite. For if we are all students, then we are all teachers.
Just as it is true in the modern classroom – that students learn from one another, as well as from the teacher; and indeed, teachers learn from their students as much as they teach – so it is true of us. It is because we all share the same teacher that we are able to teach and learn from one another.
And so our gospel reading ends, not with a command to never dare teach one another, but with a description of the attitude that actually enables one to be a great teacher: “the greatest among you will be your servant”.
A description that is beautifully illustrated in our epistle – hear the contrast between these words and Jesus’ description of the Pharisees:
we lived lives consistent with the message
we worked day and night so we would not be a burden to you while we proclaimed the gospel
we are thankful that you received the message not from us, but from God
It’s as if this letter was written in direct response to Jesus’ words: in our faith, our Church, we will not make the same mistakes that Jesus accused the teachers of the law of.
Every one of us is a teacher; some times we teach explicitly, deliberately; we teach our children, our grandchildren, our students. And we teach each other – we share our experiences, our insights, our wisdom, sometimes realising that that is what we are doing, but probably more often without knowing that others are watching, listening, learning.
So these words challenge us, as teachers, with the same three tests that the Pharisees failed:
Do we live lives which are consistent with our message? If we speak of forgiveness, do we forgive? If we speak for care of the environment, do we switch off the lights? If we campaign for social justice, do we live in ways that set others free?
And do we place burdens on others? Do we make it easier or harder for others to be part of our community of faith? Do we expect people who would worship with us to be like us, pressure them to take on all the trappings of our faith as well as the heart of the faith?
And do we, in the end, recognise that it is God who teaches, and that it is therefore ok if others come to a different conclusion to us; that we are not seeking to make others into images of ourselves, but helping them to grow into the image of God in which they are created?
We are all teachers. Let’s be good ones.