Sermon on Matthew 23:1-12
Text: Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
President John F. Kennedy gave his inauguration speech on January 20, 1961. It called on the nation to combat “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself” and urged American citizens to participate in public service. It concluded with this memorable phrase: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” A few weeks later, he signed a executive order, establishing the Peace Corps. He envisioned the Peace Corps as a pool of trained American volunteers who would go overseas to help foreign countries meet their needs for skilled manpower. What a wonderful idea. People going out, not looking for what was in it for themselves, but what they could do for others. This morning, we are going to study our text and think about SERVING GOD AND THOSE AROUND US. In doing so, we will look at 1. The Wrong Motivations and 2. The Greatest Motivation.
Jesus had just been confronted by the religious leaders of the day. They had accused him. The had tried to trick Jesus int saying the wrong thing. Again and again, as Jesus rebuffed their attacks, he also warned them about the consequences of their lack of faith. Now, Jesus takes the opportunity to speak to his disciples and the crowd about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees.
Jesus begins by saying, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” (Verses 2&3) This might take us back a bit. Aren’t the teachers of the law and the Pharisees the enemies? Why would Jesus tell the crowds to do what these two groups of people said? Jesus said that they sat “in Moses’ seat.” This means that they were telling the people what Moses taught. When it came to that, Jesus said, “you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” This is obeying what God had commanded and believing what he has promised.
Jesus’ command is found in verse 3, “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” We would call such people “hypocrites.” What is it that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees were doing that would prompt Jesus to say this? First, we read, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Verse 4) Over the years, the religious leadership had added many rules and regulations to God’s law that had been given through Moses. In doing so, they buried the law of God and deprived the people of their freedom and peace of mind. For example, we think of the time when Jesus’ disciples picked some heads of grain from a field on a Sabbath and the religious leadership accused them of breaking the Sabbath by working. It was their manmade rule that they had added, not God’s law, that had been broken. They made these laws and used them to oppress rather than bless the people, as God had intended.
Jesus gives us the reason behind all of this: “Everything they do is done for people to see.” (Verse 5) It was all done for so. They liked to have people look at them and be impressed by how religious these people were. Jesus said that “They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long.” (Verse 5) A phylactery was a little box that was strapped to the forehead and arm. It contained four pieces of paper, on which were written various sections of Exodus and Deuteronomy. This was a literal take on the words of Deuteronomy 6:8, “Tie [these commands] as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” If you made the leather straps that secured these little boxes wide, you were making sure that everyone saw them. The same holds true about the tassels on their garments. These were special prayer shawls that they would wear. If the tassels were extra-long, everyone would notice them and think “What a religious person they are!” Jesus further shows us that recognition by others was their main goal in verses 6-7: “They love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.” Service to God and others was not their focus. Their main goal was to be recognized by others.
Does this, at times, describe you and me? We do something for others, we serve at the church, which is a wonderful thing. Yet are our feelings hurt because no one recognized or acknowledged what we did? If we are serving in some capacity, and it is an inconvenience for us, are we sure to let others know just what a sacrifice it was? Do we play the martyr card? If that is all that we are looking for, Jesus would say of us what he said of the Pharisees, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:5) It may matter to other people, but it is not a good work in God’s eyes. This type of thinking is especially dangerous if we start to think that, by what we have done, God owes us something. Maybe, we have even assisted in our salvation. To this type of thinking, Jesus says, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” (Verse 12) If we were to try to come before God with our good works, with the thought that we have assisted in our salvation, we will be greatly humbled as we realize that we could never do enough to be saved. The wrong type of motivation will never end up in pleasing service to God and for others.
What is the correct motivation, then? Jesus said in verse 12, “Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The greatest example of this is Jesus himself. Jesus was and always will be true God. As such, he is entitled to be served by all. Yet, Jesus tells us in Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As the Son of God, he would have had every right to be served. He could have come to the earth in all his glory and had all people bow down and worship him. However, that was not how he came into this world. He came to serve. He came to serve sinful mankind. He came to serve you and me. His was a lifetime of service. It started when he was born. Already then, he was fulfilling the law of God for us. Jesus showed his servant heart so many times throughout his life. When you think of all the miracles that Jesus performed, never once did he use a miracle for his own advantage. Every one of the miracles was used in service to others. Then, we have the greatest act of service, as Jesus noted that he gave his life for the ransom of many. Jesus loved you and me so much that he wanted us to spend our eternity with him in heaven. Our sins would have prevented that from ever happening. So, Jesus served us by being that perfect sacrifice on the cross. His suffering and death have paid for all our sins, including those times when we only served for what we could get out of it. Jesus served as the first fruits when he rose from the dead. His resurrection assures us that our sins have been paid for and eternal life is ours. This has been given to us because Jesus, the almighty Son of God, became the servant of all. He, who was humbled, has been exalted. Paul writes in Philippians 2:9-11, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
It is here that we find our motivation for serving God and those around us. The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:15, “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” When we see all that God has done for us, we want to thank him. We want to do those things that are pleasing to him. How do we know what those things are? God tells us clearly in his Word. For example, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39) Did you notice something about those commands? Normally, when you hear the word “command,” you think of something oppressive. What was the essence of Jesus’ answer? It was to love. Love God. Love those around you. We see all these occasions to serve as opportunities to thank God for all that he has done for us. We serve, not because of what we get out of it, but because we can give to God.
We also remember Jesus’ words, “Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” As God, he has every right to have us serve him and those around us. Yet, God notices what we do in service to him and others. He is pleased that we are doing this. How amazing is it that, at the end of it all, we will hear him say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21) What better motivation do we need to serve God and those around us?
I decided to look up what brings joy to people’s lives. I found a site entitled “50 Things that bring us joy.” Here are a couple of them. Hearing a song you associate with your childhood. Having that first sip of coffee in the morning. Finishing a good book. The smell of freshly cut grass. Trying on that piece of clothing and it fits just right. These are all wonderful things. However, did you note that all of them are temporary? What is it that brings us joy, joy that lasts? Contrary to what the world may think, it is service. It is not serving so that others notice and praise us for what we are doing. It is serving God and those around us, motived by the love that God has for us. May God open our eyes to see all of these opportunities that he will place in front of us. May God help us to find this true joy in our lives. Amen.
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