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Matthew 23:1-12

Generally speaking, people are decent at giving advice. Not that all advice ought to be taken, but people enjoy sharing their opinions. Even when people do not completely comprehend situations, nevertheless, they like to give advice. This is true for enough people that Parks and Rec turned it into one of their story lines. When Anne and Chris are having a baby, Chris constantly tries to fix problems and give advice. Eventually Ron, Tom, and Donna have to intercede and tell Chris, just listen and say those two magical words, “That sucks.”

Of course those fictional characters are not the only ones who have to deal with unwanted advice or help. This is something that happens all too frequently in the church. Sometimes people even treat pastors as though they are some kind of gurus. Occasionally people will come to me and ask, “Preacher, what do I do about _______?”

Instead of immediately answering their question, I invite them into a conversation. I attempt to see what piqued the question. I’m guessing that many other pastors use this technique as well. Sometimes people actually want that question addressed, but most of the time people simply want to be listened to. I have discovered that many already know what they ought to be doing, they just don’t want to do it. So through my questioning, I help people arrive to the conclusion they knew before the walked in the room.

I guess that many of the preachers who read this know who the complainers in their congregations are. We know about the family that shows up to worship once a month and always has a complaint or a suggestion.

This is because people are great at giving advice, but rarely good at following it. We would rather tell someone else how to do something than do it ourselves.

This is what is amazing about this weeks passage. Jesus comes out strong against the Pharisees. The first 12 verses of chapter 23 are simply the introduction to the Woes against the Pharisees. Though Jesus attacks them thoroughly, he begins by agreeing with their teaching. Jesus tells those hearing, listen to them because they are expounding Moses, but don’t do as they do.

This is probably something that we overlook in the church. We can get accustomed to thinking of the Pharisees as the enemy, the ones who killed Jesus. Additionally, we are familiar with the seven woes in chapter 23, and we like those woes. We love seeing Jesus point out the flaws of those other people, just so long as it doesn’t include me.

We do not readily recognize, however, that Jesus told the people to do what they teach. For the problem that Jesus has with the Pharisees is not necessarily what they teach, it is how they go about teaching it. It is their unwillingness to be burdened by another. They want respect and honor, but they don’t want to be bothered with the nitty gritty.

There is a similar temptation for us Christians. I went to divinity school in order to get a masters that would get me into a Ph D. program. I wanted to be a scholar. I met dozens of other students who had a similar plan. In my first month I had a preceptor who admitted as much. He said he was an academic so that he would not have to listen to people or be kind to people. He was not alone. We had to write pastoral context papers that took the theology and applied it to a local congregation. A satire blog made fun of these projects by noting that many of the professors “Pastoral Experience” came in the form of internships, and that is all.

Academic Christianity often has a lot to teach us about expounding scripture and the theology of the church. The forms of the academy, however, more often reflect the market more than the sanctuary, and my preceptor is not the only academic who wants to teach people information rather than formation.

In fact most of the protestant models of church rely heavily upon learning information. Many people think the focus of a worship service is the preaching. An old model of church had Sunday School, Sunday morning service, Sunday Evening service, and midweek prayer meeting or Bible study. All of these are attempts at passing along information. This is not necessarily bad, just as the teaching of the Pharisees was not necessarily bad, but it is not enough.

The life of a Christian is not merely an intellectual pursuit. Christianity is a way of being. It ought to encompass our entire lives. When hanging around Mike Breen and the 3DM team, I heard many people say, “Live a life worth imitating.” I don’t know who said it first, but that is who we are called to be.

As Christian leaders this passage should strike us deeply. We don’t merely want to be expounding truths from an ivory tower. We are called to be humble leaders, servants. To be a servant is no easy task for it requires a proper relationship with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself.”[1] Bonhoeffer takes this to mean something far greater than feeling bad about ones self. He takes it to mean that those who rightly think little of themselves also regard themselves as the worst of sinners. “Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin is there no apology whatsoever. Therefore my sin is the worst. He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way down to these depth of humility. How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own? Would I not be putting myself above him; could I have any hope for him?”[2] Perhaps this Sunday is an opportunity not to knock against those outside the church, but perhaps it is a Sunday for confession. May be it is a Sunday to look hard and see if we are putting heavy burdens on our people. Maybe our people are putting heavy burdens on those they lead. Maybe they are putting a heavy burden on their unchristian friends and acquaintances Perhaps this Sunday is a day to bring people out of their self righteous tendencies. Maybe you have the awful task of suggesting that perhaps, they too might be the worst of sinners. But do not leave them there. The good news about being humble, about regarding ourselves as the worst of sinners, is that God will exalt the humble. It is much better to be exalted by God than to be humbled by God. May we humble ourselves so that God may be exalted, so that God may be glorified. We trust that God will also exalt us in our humility. [1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1954. 95. [2] Ibid.

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