Staunton Mennonite Church
November 2nd, 2008
23Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
As we enter into the 11th month of 2008, probably the last thing on our minds is going swimming. We are far removed from those lazy summer afternoons by the swimming pool or pond when the temperature peaked in the 90’s.
But yet in spite of the chilling weather, when I read our scripture for today I am reminded of going to the old swimming hole, the place where I learned to swim. Families would travel together, packed into minivans as mothers and fathers would bring their children for their daily lessons. And for the older kids, swimming lessons meant not only learning how to swim, but learning how to jump off the diving board with grace and without fear.
It has been my observation that anytime I find young children jumping off a diving board with their parents close by, there is always something that they need to be assured of before they take that plunge. They almost always look back to where their parents are, whether that is on land or in the water, and they ask, “Are you watching me?”
When children are learning to jump into the water, they want to be reassured that someone is indeed watching them. Perhaps this is because they are a little scared of the act that they are about to take part in and they want the assurance that they are being watched over by their protector. But I believe that most of the time they simply want to impress their parents at what they can now do. “Look at me! See what I can do!” you hear implied in the question “Are you watching me?”
Do we ever grow out of this? Do we ever grow out of this desire to have others watch us when we are at our best? I don’t think we do. We always want to impress others and we seek their approval. We believe that by having others view us when we are at our best, at our prime, on our game, that they will like us more. And we want to be liked don’t we? We all have this inner desire to be respected, appreciated, and liked. And this is no less common in our Christian lives. So I would like to look at our scripture for this morning to see three ways in which we try to make ourselves look better, and then we will look at where our real source of fulfillment can be found.
Making ourselves look better by making others look worse
Our scripture for today tells us about the scribes and the Pharisees, those that interpreted the Torah, the Law, and saw that it was carried out by all Jews. But our scripture also tells us that in their interpretation of the Law these religious people were making life too difficult on the Jews. Jesus says in verse 4 that the scribes and Pharisees take the Law and they tie it up into heavy burdens that are hard to bear. Then they lay these heavy burdens upon the shoulders of the Jews and refuse to help others bear the burdens that have been laid upon them. But we know that Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light. Not because he doesn’t expect great things from his followers, but because he is always there to help us bear the burden.
It seems like the scribes and the Pharisees actually want the people to fail in their attempt to follow God. They heap up burdens and don’t help. And I can only assume this is because by having other people fail, they, the scribes and Pharisees, are making themselves look better. When those around us fail, we look better to other on-lookers.
It’s like the coming election. The current President’s approval rating is low…real low. Americans are ready for something different. That is why the candidates look so good to us now, because the current administration looks so bad.
Doing “good” in public
But Jesus doesn’t stop his critique of the scribes and Pharisees by comparing the yoke of their teachings with his. He goes on to look at how they live out their own teachings. The second way we try to make ourselves look better is by doing good in public.
Jesus says in verse 5 that the scribes and Pharisees do all of their deeds to be seen by others. They are like the children jumping off the diving board that want to make sure that their parents are watching because they want to impress them. “Are you watching me? Look at me! See how great I am!” Everything that the scribes and Pharisees do is done in a way that others will see them doing it and give them respect, honor, and praise. They do their acts of worship and service in the public so that people will see them and compare them with those around them and say, “Look at those scribes and Pharisees! Ain’t they something else!”
Jesus says that the scribes and the Pharisees made their phylacteries big and their fringes long so that everyone could see them. I just want to look at some scriptures from the Old Testament quick. The first is Deuteronomy 6:8. Moses tells the people of Israel to keep the words that he is giving to them from God. “Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” That is one of the commandments that led to the scribes and Pharisees making these phylacteries, the little leather pouches that are still worn by some Jews on their foreheads and on their arms.
Then let’s flip quickly to Numbers 15:38-39. God said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them.”
So this is exactly what the scribes and Pharisees were doing. They made phylacteries and tied them to their foreheads and arms; they made fringes and tassels on their clothes. And there is nothing wrong with doing this. It would have been wrong not to do this because they were commanded to do these things. The problem came about in why they had phylacteries and fringes. They made these things to be seen by others; big, long, and noticeable. You can almost hear them, like the little kids jumping off the diving board, “Are you watching me?”
But Jesus doesn’t stop his critique of the Pharisees and scribes there. No, there are a few more things he wishes to point out. And that includes the titles that they like to have. The scribes and Pharisees like to be called Rabbi, but Jesus says don’t call them Rabbi because you already have a teacher. The scribes and Pharisees like to be called father, but Jesus reminds us that that title is already taken. The scribes and Pharisees like to be called master or instructor, but we already have one of those as well, Christ. Again, it seems like the scribes and Pharisees want attention, they want respect, so they want to be referred to with these titles of respect.
This reminds me of a movie that came out while I was in High School, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. In this movie, the antagonist Dr. Evil is holding a nuclear weapon and threatening to use it if the United Nations doesn’t give him 100 billion dollars. Someone from the United Nations refers to Dr. Evil as Mr. Evil and Dr. Evil replies, “It’s Dr. Evil. I didn’t spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called Mr.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKKHSAE1gIs
Obviously, this movie is slightly less than serious. But it is playing on something that does exist in our society. Sonya had a professor that would not respond if you called her Miss Johnson. She would say, “My name is Dr. Johnson, and you must refer to me in such a way if you want my attention.” What’s up with that?
Titles are a way that we try to demand respect. The scribes and the Pharisees knew that. They wanted people’s attention because they wanted people to respect them. Sonya’s professor wanted people to call her doctor because she thought that was the way for her to gain respect. But is that really what our goal should be as Christians?
This Tuesday will mark the one year anniversary of a date that was important to me. I was ordained on November 4th, 2007. And since that day, I can officially be called reverend. But how many times have you ever heard me refer to myself as reverend or even pastor Kevin? If I have, it has been in jest. I am probably mocking myself. I am just Kevin. And to my sister-in-law, when you graduate from Medical School this year, don’t count on me calling you Dr. Miller, unless I need something.
Reverend means, “worthy of being revered.” To revere means to venerate, to hold in esteem. That sounds to me an awful lot like what the Pharisees and the scribes were looking for when Jesus set them straight. I am not sure why anyone would want to have the title “Rabbi,” “Father,” or “Reverend” after reading this scripture.
So what’s the point? What is the point that Jesus is trying to make with all of this criticism of the scribes and the Pharisees? Why does he point out that they are trying to make themselves look better by placing heavy burdens on the shoulders of their fellow Jews? Why does he make a big deal about the scribes and the Pharisees making their phylacteries big and their fringes long for all to see? Why does Jesus make a big deal about the titles that the scribes and the Pharisees wish to be referred to by? The point of this scripture is that following God isn’t all about me, and it isn’t all about you. The point is that it is all about God.
The moment that you begin to ask, “What can I get out of serving God” you have stopped serving God. The moment that you wonder how you can benefit financially or socially by following Jesus, you have stopped following Jesus. Christianity and Judaism before it has never been about you and it has never been about me. It has always been about serving the one true God; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God revealed to us through Jesus Christ; the God who dwells with us and within us as the Holy Spirit. Oh yes, we benefit from serving God, but if that is why we serve God, then we are missing the point.
The problem with the scribes and Pharisees is that they are like the young children on the diving board yelling to others, “Are you watching me?” as they try to follow God. But the entire time they were trying to live out the Torah their actions should have not been drawing attention to themselves, but toward God. Again, there is nothing wrong with the scribes and the Pharisees making phylacteries and fringes. These are practices that are actually laid out in the Torah and a good scribe or Pharisee should be doing these things. But when you do something of this nature, it always needs to be done so that you point others to God, not point others to yourself.
It’s not about me…it’s about God. That is something we need to remind ourselves of from time to time, maybe even daily. I know that the temptation is there, it gets the best of us all from time to time. Even the best intentions can turn wrong and we can do things to make ourselves seem important, popular, or special. Every Sunday when I stand up to preach, I want to do the best I can. But why do I want to do a good job? Is it so I can make people like me, to feel important, to receive praise from people? I will be the first to admit that if feels good to have people walk out the door on a Sunday morning and say, “Nice sermon today.” I want that. But my efforts toward preaching a good message should never be about trying to impress other people. It isn’t about me, it is about God. And if I am not preaching my best for God and trying to move people to a better understanding of who God is, then I am missing the point.
And it isn’t just pastors that like the attention and praise of others. Why do you think so many little kids and big kids want to grow up to be professional athletes? The fame, the money, the respect! Why are television shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance so popular? Because it shows average people like you and me making it big. That is a chance we all want to have. We want to be famous, we want to be well liked, we want to be respected. It is human nature.
But the thing is I believe we are not only going about finding what we are looking for the wrong way, I believe that we are looking for the wrong thing to begin with. We want to be accepted, we want to be loved, we want to be appreciated, so we try to do things for the approval of others. But even if we find the approval of others, we can lose that approval just as fast as we found it.
The thing that we really need to be looking for is approval from God. It is in serving God that we will find our significance. It is in serving God that we will truly be satisfied. We can work and work and work to gain the respect, love, and affection of another. Then we can easily lose that respect, love, and affection through the things that we say or the things that we do. But with God, there is nothing that we can do to make Him love us more or to love us less. We don’t have to be beautiful or popular by the world’s standards. We don’t need to make other’s look worse to make ourselves look better. We don’t need to make sure we do things in a big way so God sees them. We don’t need fancy titles. God loves us just the way we are.
There is nothing in our past that God doesn’t know about. There is nothing that we need to keep from Him because we are embarrassed or think that it will make Him love us less. In fact, if we are followers of Jesus Christ, then that junk in our past has already been forgiven. And if you believe that some mistake that you have made in your past is keeping you from being precious in God’s sight, then you are not trusting in the cross of Jesus Christ. If you believe that sin from your life is hindering God’s love for you, then your understanding of Christ’s atoning sacrifice is insufficient. I believe in a big cross, a cross that covers all of our sin so that God remembers it no more.
You matter to God. You matter so much that God came to this earth in the form of Jesus Christ to give us new life in Him. And because we matter so much to God, we shouldn’t have to worry about mattering to everyone else so much. We need to worry less about winning the approval of other people and focus on serving God. This life that we have been given has been given to us for a reason, to glorify God. And we glorify God by worshiping Him and following Him daily in our lives. We need to remember that it isn’t about you or me…it’s all about God.
So the next time that you are wondering if you matter, if you are important, if anyone cares about you, don’t be like the scribes and the Pharisees, trying to win the approval of other people by making others look worse than yourself, doing Christian duties to be seen by other people, or trying to get some prestigious title. Realize that you are important, you do matter, God cares about you. And unlike that little child that has to keep yelling back to mommy or daddy before they jump off the diving board, asking, “Are you watching me?”, know that God is watching you, always. God is always watching with the loving eyes of the creator, redeemer, and sustainer.