Matthew 23:1-12 (NIV) Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus honored the teachings of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, insofar as they taught correctly. They had been given authority by God to teach the people the requirements of God’s kingdom, and Jesus knew that that was a necessity. The people would not obey God’s requirements unless they were taught to obey them, as was clearly shown in the times before the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, when the law was not taught, and God’s people cast off all restraint.
It was not their Scriptural teaching that Jesus had a problem with, but their hearts. Jesus knew what was in a person’s heart (cf. John 2:25), and these men were no different. He knew that, even when they taught orthodoxy, their motives were impure. Even when they did right things on the outside, their hearts were smudged and stained with sin.
Both groups were famous for pushing people to obey all 613 commandments in the law, plus all of the collateral regulations that had been developed around those commandments over hundreds of years. It was a crushing burden that was nearly impossible for the average person to keep track of, let alone obey. And, not being able to do all that these teachers required of them, the people of Jesus’ day lost hope of ever being good enough in God’s sight.
But the teachers of the law and the Pharisees had largely exempted themselves from these strict rules through a series of loopholes that had been developed along the way. Thus they could, for example, make false oaths that didn’t obligate themselves, and incurred no condemnation (in their opinion) if broken, because of the way that they carefully worded those oaths. (See Matthew 23:16-22.) As another example, they could walk further than the standard 2/5 of a mile on the Sabbath, because they had invented work arounds that exempted them from the heavy load that they imposed on others.
Jesus’ advice was to obey their teachings, but not to follow their example, because the way that they lived was far from righteous. Jesus also warned His disciples that they were not to strive for titles like these teachers and leaders, because that striving would lead them into sin, and its achievement into pride. He advised them to eschew titles and positions like rabbi, or father, or teacher, because they were all followers of the one true Rabbi, Father, and Teacher. Instead of striving to be someone special, their focus needed to be on serving. Instead of trying to be exalted and admired, they needed to focus on serving God, and on taking up Jesus’ agenda as their own.
Father, the lure of titles and admiration, and even fame, is very strong. But in Your economy, those who are humble are the greatest, and those who do the work of the kingdom in obscurity are those who garner the greatest praise from You. Help us to live lives that fit this mold every day, that we may keep our focus on You and on Your agenda every day. Amen.