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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 2, 2014

 Saying and Doing

Joshua 3:7-17; Matthew 23:1-12

              In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus deals repeatedly with the questions and traps aimed at Him by the religious leaders of His own Jewish people. But in today’s passage, something changes. Instead of merely reacting to them, Jesus now addresses them, and takes them on, as it were. What Jesus says to the scribes and Pharisees, the teachers of the Law, are good words for us to heed as well!

             First, Jesus says they teach the law, and we do well to heed their teaching. Jesus loved what the Pharisees taught, for He loved the Torah. In Matthew He says, “I did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.” But, Jesus says, “They do not practice what they teach.” Second, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” Their religion is a show – they seek the best seats in the synagogues and at banquets – they wear fancy religious adornments, phylacteries and long fringes, to be admired by those who see how devoted they are. And they love to be honored in the marketplace by being called “rabbi” or “father.” (Today we might say, “Reverend” or “Doctor.”)

             Jesus is saying that they were hypocrites – actors or people who wore masks – pretending to be better than they really were. So we can be appalled by the Pharisees who have not existed for over a thousand years. Or we can listen in to hear what Jesus might be saying to us.

             First, Jesus is warning us against hypocrisy. It comes from a word that means “actor.” We are all in danger of being hypocrites. Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “No one can for any considerable time wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.” To which we all would do well to remember Lincoln’s line: “If it were true, as my critics say, that I am two-faced, I wouldn’t be wearing the face you see now!”

             We don’t want to be hypocrites, of course. We want people to think highly of us. So we offer what Fred Buechner called “the highly edited version of ourselves” to the world. The real problem is not others, though. The real problem is within us! We find it hard to face honestly who we really are. T.S. Eliot said the reason hypocrisy lives is that “nothing dies harder than the desire to think highly of ourselves.” So we engage in pretense – pretending for our public to be better than we are, or something other than what we are.

             The Latin motto for Wofford College, that Methodist college founded in 1854 by The Reverend Benjamin Wofford, can be translated “to be rather than to seem.” There is freedom and peace in simply being who you are – and not trying to fool yourself and others by seeming to be someone or something else.

             Of course, when it comes to Jesus’ teaching, we all fall short, and none of us “practice what we teach.” The standard is so high! Who “loves their enemies,” especially when they are in your family?! And who is “meek,” “merciful,” “pure in heart,” “hungry for righteousness,” never covetous or lustful? The standard Jesus set – the Jesus ethic – is high – so high that all of us fall short.

             So rather than worrying about hypocrisy we might see somewhere else, we probably all would do well to attend to our own forms of hypocrisy! Or as I like to say when people say they don’t join the church because “It is filled with a bunch of hypocrites;” a very serious charge, “Oh, come on in! There is always room for one more!”

             Jesus says, “You have one teacher, and you are all students.” I love this notion, that we are all students as we stand before Jesus. Calvin said, “The sum of this teaching is that all should depend on the lips of Jesus alone.” Then Jesus says, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” I take this to be literally, and crucially, true. It is central to what it means to be the person Jesus wants us to be. The way up is always down, and the surest way down in life is by trying always to raise yourself up.

             Jesus wanted His followers to be humble, and He wanted their lives to be marked by humility. Saint Augustine, the fourth-century Bishop who lived in North Africa, got this. “For those who would learn God’s way, humility is the first thing, humility is the second, and humility is the third.” People who humble themselves are less apt to get into trouble. Jonathan Edwards said, “Nothing sets a person so much out of the devil’s reach as humility.” Or, as the Talmud, that long book of rabbinical commentary on the Torah puts it, “Be humble, that you may not be humbled.”

             There is a great moment in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, in chapter 14, when Screwtape writes to Wormwood, “Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the face? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this especially is true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit, and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble,’ and almost immediately pride – pride in his own humility – will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt – and so on, through as many stages as you please.”

             I have a dear friend and colleague named Steve McConnell who is a remarkably fine pastor in Sarasota, Florida. (If he were present, I wouldn’t say all this about him. It would tempt him to take pride in it!) His father Harry was also a Presbyterian minister, and one of the most joyful, delightful, fun human beings I have ever known. He never took himself too seriously. He asked me once, before I knew him well, if I had read his book. I said, “No, I have not. What is it?” He said, “Humility, and How I Attained It.” “I’m about to publish my second book, he said, “I’m calling it Sermons by the Master, Volume I.”

             The truth is, we all have much about ourselves to make us humble as pie. So let’s allow Jesus to have a word with us all today. Let’s stop pretending that we are better or more holy or righteous than we really are! We have one teacher, Jesus, “who though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being found in human likeness.”

             Humility can make us better husbands and wives, better parents and children, and better at whatever our vocation may be, and much better friends! Nothing marks a Christian as a true saint, on this All Saints Sunday, more than humility. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus is not only offering Gospel, He is speaking truth.


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