Matthew 23.1-12

Have you ever come across one of those people whose lifestyle and teaching are so integrated that you are literally hanging on every word they say? Any time they release a new book, music or podcast you check it out straight away because their authenticity is so attractive? And have you ever come across the opposite type of person who either crushes you with demands or is laughable in their double-morale? Today’s passage is about integrity.

Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees and scribes about the way that they live and teach. He begins by saying that they do have the right to teach the people – they sit in Moses’ seat, the seat of authority on the law, and they teach it correctly, but the problem is that they don’t practice what they preach.

The passage says that they tie up heavy burdens and lay them on the shoulders of others – how very far from Jesus’ own cry a few chapters earlier: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me […] For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Matt 11.28-30)

What was it that made the burden of the Pharisees and scribes so heavy? I think a clue is to be found in the next verse – that they don’t even lift a finger to help. Have you ever had someone give you a difficult task and the prospect of doing this thing really weighed you down? But if the difficult task instead was phrased as something we would do together the burden was suddenly lifted off your shoulders. There’s a huge difference between telling someone what they ought to do, and inviting them to join you in something you do together. Let’s do this time together, church!

Jesus goes on to address the leaders’ motivation – they just do it all for show. They do everything to be seen by others, praised by others, revered by others. They thrive off the attention that religious leadership gives them. But Jesus tells them that’s not the way leadership should be – instead of honorific titles they should be called servants. The principle is that whoever exalts himself will be brought low, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

I’ve been thinking lately about my own motivation. It’s easy in times of stress and isolation to just put up a ‘holy façade’ for the people I’m trying to lead. To put on a brave face and share a ‘thought of the day I just happened to stumble upon in my daily Bible reading that everyone should be doing now that they have time’. But that wasn’t quite the truth – I forgot to read the Bible this morning again, and stole that verse of encouragement from someone else on Facebook. 

It’s all coming back to integrity, isn’t it? Like with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, our true values are going to shine through one way or another. No matter how much we say we believe one thing, perhaps even genuinely think that’s a value we hold, if we don’t embody it in our daily lives, it’s not going to make an impact. And Jesus is calling our values to be that of servants – how could you serve your friends, housemates or neighbours today? In the daily prayer this morning I prayed to see Jesus in every person that I met and that every person that met me would also see Jesus in me – maybe this could be your prayer too.

I’ve realised that this stripping down of normal routine over the last couple of days has forced me to take a step back and think about my values. The circumstances around me has allowed for a closer inspection of what things I actually prioritise, what my day looks like without distractions of busyness. 

It’s challenging, but also, so good. This is a unique opportunity to grow in intimacy with God – no one will see you reading that book or studying that scripture or praying that prayer, but you can do it anyway. And as Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, your Father who sees in secret – in the closed off homes and rooms – will reward you. How can you take steps to grow in intimacy with the Lord today?

Let’s pray.
Lord, we thank you that you are with us. We pray that in this time of change we would be able to see ourselves more clearly. Give us grace to see things that need to change and produce that change in us, Holy Spirit. Help us to grow closer to you in times of need, and bless us with your presence this day.