A sermon on Matthew 23:1-12 by Garry Deverell
Matthew wrote his gospel for a community of Jewish Christians who had been barred from Galilean synagogues in the mid to late 80s of the first century. The reasons for the separation are several. The two communities disagreed about the significance of Jesus for Jewish faith, and about how one ought to interpret and apply the law of Moses. But at the heart of these disagreements was a dispute about religious authority. How could one recognise the one who spoke for God? How ought leaders exercise their power? How could one tell a good leader from a bad leader? When leaders disagreed with one another, how might one decide who is worthy of trust? These are questions that faith communities continue to ask today, often urgently. Many of you, I know, are survivors of churches in which the authority of particular pastors and teachers was at issue. In the passage we are reading tonight, Matthew seeks to address precisely that experience, and precisely those questions.
We begin by noting the ways in which Matthew found fault with the leadership of the synagogues from which his community had been exiled. For him, the authority of the rabbis was no authority at all, and this because of four basic crimes. First, they failed to practice what they preached. One thing was said, and another actually done. Second, they placed heavy burdens of religious law upon people, but then did not support them in the keeping of such law in everyday life. Third, they made their religiosity a public performance, being concerned most of all that people recognise their superior holiness and do them honour for it. And finally, the rabbis apparently insisted on being addressed by honourific titles which seemed, to Matthew, completely inappropriate to their behaviour and lifestyle.
It is crucial that we understand that Matthew does not make such criticisms simply because he is angry at being thrown out of the synagogue. It would be truer to say that his anger springs from an experience of tragic contrast, a deep and disturbing sense of the difference between rabbinical leadership and the leadership of Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, a large proportion of the sayings of Jesus are directed at the authority of the rabbis, as Matthew knew them. The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is a primary source of such teaching. There, for example, Jesus tells a wonderful story about a wise builder and a foolish builder (7.24f). The wise builder is one who listens carefully to his teacher’s instructions so that his house, being built to the proper specifications, will stand firm over many years. The foolish builder, by contrast, is the one who listens to the teacher but then chooses to build the house according to his own naïve fancy, so that, when the storms arrive, the house falls over. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” says Jesus, “but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (7.21). The point is clear. A religious leader, like every disciple of Christ, is called to not only hear God’s world and preach it, but also to make such teaching real and fruitful through consistent and disciplined practise. This the rabbis failed to do.
Again, as part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ Jesus said this:
Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you shall have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets . . . But when you give, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your duty is done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (6. 1-4).
Jesus taught that good works were an expression of thanksgiving for the free gift of God’s undeserved love. “Freely you have received,” he said, “freely give.” As such, good works were certainly not to be motivated by the desire for another’s approval or love, as the deeds of Matthew’s rabbis appeared to be. A good given in secret remains a gift, a favour without possibility of return. A good given in public, by contrast, loses its gift-quality immediately because it is given in exchange for the love of the receiver and of the others who are witnesses. Again, the lesson is clear. A religious leader, insofar as it is possible, is called to do his or her good with only God as a witness, no one else. Again, the rabbis of Matthew’s acquaintance appeared to fail this test completely.
And so, there in Galilee, in the wake of the separation of church from synagogue, Matthew argues for a radical reformation of religious authority, after the model and example of Jesus. He criticises the Galilean rabbis for their hypocrisy, their lack of care for the people, and their preoccupation with public acclaim. Let me suggest to you that the words of our gospel lection can only become meaningful if we take that context seriously:
You are not to be called ‘rabbi,’ for you have one teacher and you are all students. And call no-one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
It would be a mistake to assume, as many Protestants have done, that Jesus absolutely forbids, here, the use of titles for Christian leaders, or worse, that Christian communities ought have no teachers or leaders at all. Some have argued such positions from precisely these verses, and Baptists have been prominent amongst them. No. Were that the case, then Jesus would not have sent his disciples out, in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, with an explicit authority to preach, to teach, to heal, and to exorcise. Nor would he have said, in that same passage, that a disciple is certainly not above his teacher; that a disciple should be content to imitate his teacher. Clearly, then, there can be no fantasies in the Christian community about leaderless communes or ‘anarcho-syndicalist collectives,’ as Monty Python might have called them. What Matthew wants to say, rather, is this. That authority in the Christian community derives not from worldly status or popularity contests, but from a humble willingness to imitate Christ in his devotion to God and his service of others. Let me repeat that. Authority in the Christian community derives not from worldly status or popularity contests, but from a humble willingness to imitate Christ in his devotion to God and his service of others.
Such a formulation is paradoxical in the extreme. More extreme than even the most radical of our puritan forbears could have imagined. For it contradicts not only those who would see authority as deriving from worldly status, however defined; but also any who see authority as deriving from the acclaim and confidence of the Christian community. For there is absolutely no reference, here in the gospel, to leaders being authorised as such by the collective will of their communities. None whatsoever. The gospel says that the authority of Christian teachers and leaders derives from no other place than their willingness to listen to God in the figure of Christ, and to obey Christ’s call with reverent submission. Here, then, is the deepest paradox of all. The legitimate leaders are those who—caring not what human beings may make of them, or what they may think is best—give themselves, instead, to listen only to God’s voice, and submit to his purposes absolutely. Yet in doing so, precisely in doing so, such a leader learns a compassion and a wisdom which his or her community cannot but recognise as coming from God alone. The authoritative Christian is the one who lives not to his or herself, but to the God who, in love, empties himself and becomes obedient to death, even death on a cross.
So, to my mind, titles like ‘father’ or ‘mother,’ ‘pastor’ or ‘elder’ are legitimate in the Christian community as a sign of the esteem in which we hold our leaders. But we should not be so quick to confer them as we have perhaps become. Amongst the desert communities of the 3rd and 4th centuries, a man was called “Abba” or “Father” not because a bishop had appointed him, or even because he was granted permission to preside at the Eucharist, but rather because of the holiness of his life, his humility in seeking to be rid of self and filled with Christ. A story from the fathers illustrates the point wonderfully. There was once a brother who had lived for many years in prayer and penitence, alone in the desert with God. One day Satan decided to undermine his virtue, and realising that extreme measures were called for, disguised himself as an angel of light. He burst into the hermitage in a blaze of glory and announced “I am Gabriel, sent from God with a message for you!” And the monk, glancing up from his housework, said humbly: “Oh no. Can’t be me. You must have the wrong man.” Satan could do nothing more. He vanished. In this, the word of the gospel was fulfilled: ‘All who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and all who humble themselves shall be exalted.’
A word of caution before I finish. One could easily get the impression from what I have said that the only legitimate leader is one who has already obtained perfection in Christ. If that were the case, then we could have no leaders. For, as Christ also says in Matthew, ‘There is no one good but God alone’ (19.17). Not even the desert fathers were free of the temptation to bask in another’s praise. That is why they counselled solitude and a never-ending vigilance against the wiles of the devil. So no, a leader is not one who has obtained perfection, but rather one who knows very well that he or she has certainly not done so, and therefore prays daily for the forgiveness of God and of neighbour. So let us not judge our leaders harshly. For genuinely godly leaders are already painfully aware of their many faults, and these are a great burden for them to bear. Let us instead consider our own sins. Jesus says in Matthew:
Do not judge, lest you be judged yourself. With the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, when you have a log in your own? (7.1-4).
The godly leader is not one who has obtained perfection. He or she is simply a few steps further along the way of Christ than ourselves. As such, they are worthy of both our honour and our grace.