Summary of the Text
If religion is to be true, its leadership must be true.
—Frederick Dale Bruner 
Whenever Anthony Bloom, a former bishop and archbishop serving in London, would teach, he would begin with this: “As I am a beginner myself, I will assume that you are also beginners, and we will try to begin together.” The humility in this statement speaks, I would argue, to exactly the kind of leader Jesus desires for his Church. Matthew 23 at its heart is a warning against the kind of leaders Jesus saw amongst the Pharisees of his day. That is, leaders who built themselves up, rather than the god they supposedly worshipped. And while Jesus is clearly here criticizing the Pharisees, the teaching remains relevant to us today.
The shape and form of Christian leadership ought to always be one of humility, or witness — that is, pointing not to one’s self, but to God. The recent slew of controversies, of falls from grace, from major figures in the American church is a sign that we have sometimes failed to learn this lesson. Self-aggrandizing leadership is the negation of Jesus’ teaching towards the beginning of Matthew’s gospel at the Sermon on the Mount. If anyone would presume to have a relationship with God, they need to come “poor in Spirit.” That is to say, they come acknowledging their utter destitution before God. That outside of Him, they can do nothing.
Setting the Stage
Matthew 23 takes place in Jerusalem towards the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus’ triumphal entry into David’s city has already taken place as he and others prepare to celebrate the Passover feast. Most scholars place these events on Tuesday. The hostility between Jesus and the religious establishment is building towards the fever pitch that will bring about Jesus’ arrest and death.
Jesus has already entered Jerusalem, and he continues teaching both his followers and the inevitable crowds gathering around him. Who makes up these crowds? Probably a mixture of different people, some interested in Jesus’ ministry and others planted by Jesus’ opponents as they build their case against him.
The Heavy Yoke of the Pharisees
Jesus begins his teaching here with a reproach of the leadership of the Pharisees. He begins in a sense by legitimating their authority. They occupy “Moses’ seat” (A short-hand way of saying they continue the leadership Moses was given by God). But then comes the criticism, which is essentially two-fold. First, the way they interpret the law (torah) and prophets creates “heavy, cumbersome loads.” In other words, their teaching does not give life, as God intended, but rather it heaps rules upon rules on the people. Under such a load, life becomes exhausting. No longer can the people pray with the psalmist in Psalm 119:
Oh, how I love your law (torah) I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.
But this isn’t the only criticism Jesus levels against the Pharisees. Not only do they create heavy burdens for the people, but they “are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:4). In other words, they heap bad religion onto the people, offering them no reprieve. Preachers will, of course, want to contrast this with the easy yoke that Jesus offers who follow him (Matt.11:28-30).
It’s important to note that Jesus’ ministry, in contrast to the Pharisees, does not imply a form of antinomianism (a life free of expectations that God might have for our lives). He is not endorsing the attitude of Catherine the Great of Russia, who had gathered quite the reputation for her appetites and hedonistic lifestyle, and is reputed to have once said, “Dieu pardonerra; c’est son métier: God forgives you–it’s his thing.” In other words, for the antinomian, God doesn’t have any expectations for our lives once we accept his gracious gift of salvation. But that’s not quite accurate. Yes, our salvation is a free gift of God. But that free gift ought to manifest itself in a life of gratitude — a life where our hearts are re-tuned, not to our own selfish attempts for glory, but to glorify God through our faithful and humble lives.
Jesus’ issue with the Pharisees begins with this critique of the heavy burdens they laid on God’s people. The critique is further accentuated by his argument that, while they place these heavy burdens on the people: they don’t follow them in their own lives. They are hypocrites. Whether this is because they can’t live up to their own standards, or they simply enjoy the spotlight of being a religious leader and don’t really believe their own teaching, is hard to say. Whatever it is, it’s ugly, and Jesus is willing to point it out, no matter the consequence.
A Love of Status
All of this is bad enough, but Jesus has another bone to pick with the Pharisees.
Everything they do is done for people 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” (vss.23-25).
We don’t have any trouble understanding the first sentence in vs.23: doing the right things for the wrong reasons. That is, the way they worship God is not to show honor to God but to build themselves up. The second sentence is a bit stranger: what exactly are phylacteries?
According to scholars, after the return from exile in Babylon, those who remained faithful to the Jewish faith were looking for visible ways to demonstrate their righteousness among a sea of people, not all of whom were practicing Jews. In order to stand out, many would wear small leather boxes, which would be strapped to your forehead and arm during the recitation of prayers. Within the boxes would be small portions of the Torah.
By carrying the Torah in phylacteries, faithful Jews would be practicing a literal obedience of Deuteronomy 6:8: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.” Over time, as you could imagine, these boxes became larger and larger, in an attempt to demonstrate a higher level of holiness. According to Jesus, they became more about appearing holy than being holy.
Jesus goes on to criticize the status-obsessed Pharisees, who were always trying to jockey for greater status. From our vantage point, it’s easy to criticize these status-obsessed religious leaders. But how often do we too, perhaps more subtly, try to jockey for influence and status? When people ask pastors how things are going, we discuss the “three b’s” “butts” (Sunday attendance), “building size,” and “budgets.” It’s an easy trap to fall into.
Too often as pastors we fall into the trap of believing these metrics are a good indication of our faithfulness. Jesus, not merely in this text, but in much of his ministry, is calling us to a different definition of success. Lots of pastors have killed it in the “b” department, only to later leave their ministries in disgrace because those metrics for success could not insulate them from the wake of destruction that followed their destructive behavior. No matter how great your sermon was on Sunday, if everyone finds out you are sleeping with your secretary, you are (rightfully) done, at least for a season.
I think the solution here is, a perpetual repentance of my own self-centered ways, and a surrender to Jesus, everything that is placed in our paths. Do we want success in our work? Of course. But sometimes success can be the very thing that keeps us from experiencing the deeper wells of God’s grace.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Eerdmans, 2007).
- At the core of this passage is Jesus’ call to his followers to be humble. How would you define humility?
- Where do you struggle to practice humility? Where do you find it easy?
- The passage mentioned “phylacteries” used by Jews at the time to demonstrate personal piety. Do you see any unhealthy ways in which people attempt to be pious today? If so, do you struggle with this as well?
- As mentioned in the guide, we are social creatures. When we are surrounded by prideful people, it can be hard to remain humble. What might Jesus say to you to encourage you to remain humble?
- One of the biggest challenges Jesus offers us is a re-definition of success. In fact, it might be argued that worldly success can get in the way of our reliance on God. How do you understand success, both in the “outside” world (education, business, etc.) with success as a follower of Jesus? Are they the same? Different?
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought that takes success for its standards.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (1949)
Disconnected from the Vine
Christianity can be such a pretty faith. God calls us to wonderful things, to noble deeds, and to be a people of love. We are meant to be kind, joyful, brave, and good. These are attractive qualities that most people would love to be known for, Christian or not. The trouble is, we can approach the Christian life in the same way we decorate a Christmas tree, by piling on pleasing spiritual adornments.
We can dress up our lives with church commitments, community service, spiritual language, a clean-cut family, and an upbeat attitude. All of these things look so great—so Christian—while obscuring what is really going on underneath. Beneath all the spiritual glitz, we can exist cut off from our root system, without detection. We can appear to be thriving, even though we are disconnected from the vine.
One of my favorite things to do is to sit on the aft deck of a boat going across the ocean and just watch the wake. It is such a beautiful, ever-changing creation as the ship continues on its path. You can tell a lot about a ship as you look at its wake. If it is in a straight line, you get a feeling that the boat is steadily on course, and that the captain is not dozing at the wheel, or that an engine or a shaft is not somehow out of whack. But if it is wavering, you begin to wonder. Also, if it is smooth and flat, you know something about the speed of the boat, and if it is steep, you can tell something about its drag. In other words, what the wake looks like can tell you a lot about the boat itself.
With people, the same thing is true…And just as with a boat, there are always two sides to the wake that a leader or someone else leaves when moving through our lives or the life of an organization. The two sides of the wake are: The task & the relationships.
When a person travels through a few years with an organization, or with a partnership, or any other kind of working association, he leaves a “wake” behind in these two areas, task and relationship: What did he accomplish and how did he deal with people? And we can tell a lot about that person from the nature of the wake…The wake is the results we leave behind. And the wake doesn’t lie and it doesn’t care about excuses. It is what it is.
No matter what we try to do to explain why, or to justify what the wake is, it still remains…On the other side of the wake are the relationships. Just as we leave the effects of our work behind in results, we leave the effects of our interactions with people behind in their hearts, minds, and souls…So, we must look out over the transom (the flat surface forming the stern of a vessel) and ask ourselves, “What does that wake look like?”