WE ARE WHAT WE DO, NOT ALWAYS WHAT WE SAY.
I Thessalonians 2:9-13, Psalm 107, Matthew 23:1-12
November 3, 1996 by Tad Mitsui
A comedian, Greg Malone, commenting about the debates between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, said, "If somebody says to me that he never lies, never cheats, and is never interested in money, I know he is a psychotic. Then how come we still listen when politicians make similar claims?" Jesus said that some people do not practice what they say. He said, "Do whatever they say, but do not follow their examples." This is a warning to us about a danger of hypocrisy.
The scribes and Pharisees were the experts on the Bible. In a society ruled by religious traditions, they were considered to be the experts on the Law just like our lawyers are. They were respected and feared. They also had a lot of power. They could influence public policy by being able to whisper into the ears of kings and governors. They told people what was right or wrong. People gave them great authority. They always sat at the head table. They became used to being praised in public. There were, certainly, many Pharisees who honestly pursued the truth, like Nicodemous who came to see Jesus in the dark of the night. Paul was also a sincere Pharisee. In fact, he was so serious about pursuit of the true religion that he gave up all glory and fame, once he became a Christian evangelist, and suffered the consequences. The Pharisees were, in principle,God fearing good people.
Unfortunately, many of the Pharisees got used to being praised by others, and came to believe that they deserved this exalted social standing. Arrogance and pride overtook them, and humility diminished. This is what happens when righteous people become self-righteous. We must remember that only God is absolutely righteous and just. No one can be absolutely righteous and just. But we can be closer to God, if we acknowledge God”s grace, because God forgives our shortcomings and accepts us as we are. In this sense, we must remember that all of us who are church goers are good people, not so much because we are good by nature but because we are made acceptable by the grace of God. So we must feel good about ourselves, because we are loved by God.
Church goers are lucky people, just like people who made it to the hospital in time. C.S. Lewis compared a Christian to a patient in a hospital who has checked in a little earlier than other people. Of course, there is something wrong with him. He is sick. That”s why he is in a hospital. But he knows the hospital procedures a little better than new comers, and has met some of the doctors and nurses. He knows that when one is not well, the hospital is a good place to be. He can give others some tips about how to cope with hospital life, and can assure people that they can trust doctors and nurses, and not to be afraid.
What is interesting in this Gospel passage is that Jesus affirmed the Pharisee”s profession. He said that they sat on Moses” seat. Moses was the one who brought God”s laws to people. Pharisees were heirs to the Moses” seat, so to speak. So Jesus told people to respect and follow what they taught, even though some of them were hypocrites. Many of the people who leave the church do so because of conflicts. Think of some people who left the church. Often people who leave the church are not against God or the teaching of Jesus. They are against some people who, to their opinion, behaved badly or said things they should not have. People become disillusioned by hypocrisy in the church. Jesus said, however, that despite hypocrisy of some Pharisees, what they taught was still God”s law. So he said, "Do whatever they teach you and follow it."
Of course, when you find some wrongs in the church, you should hear Jesus saying to you, "Do not do as they do, because they do not practice what they teach." In other words, he said, "Reject hypocrites, but follow their teaching of God”s words." I agree; it is very difficult to admit that someone you consider to be a hypocrite may be saying the right thing. But it can happen. In fact, all of us are not perfect but we do have grains of goodness to share with others. The important thing to remember is that whatever good we say is acceptable by the grace of God. All of us are capable of speaking the word of God, not because we are righteous and virtuous, but because God gave us the ability to do so. The church is not a gathering of sinless saints. It is a gathering of forgiven sinners. We are like beggars who know where to find food. Evangelism is beggars telling other beggars where to go to find food.
Paul had many enemies. Many of the first Christians who lived in Jerusalem did not agree with Paul”s teaching, because he did not always follow the Jewish laws. But Paul was spectacularly successful outside of Palestine. He started new churches in Turkey, Greece, and Italy. Many of Paul”s enemies in the church were envious, and consequently, they bad-mouthed him. Some of them said things with the view to make Paul suffer more in prison. But he said of those people, "Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry..[and]…proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true,; and in that I rejoice." As Jesus said, let us follow the word of God no matter how inadequate the carriers seem to be.
The problem of Pharisees and the scribes was that they had begun to believe that they by right deserved admiration and respect. They began to think that it was them whom people respected. They forgot that it was God who gave them pieces of divine knowledge and wisdom. It was this arrogance that made them hypocrites and failures as humans, even though they might have been conveying God”s messages. Arrogance in the Bible is termed as one of the biggest sins, because it makes a person self-righteous thus shuts off all channels of communication with God. It makes a person feel that he/she is complete and does not need any more help from God. It also shuts one off from further learning, because it makes one think one knows everything there is to know.
The church is a good place to be for us. But it is not a place for self-appointed saints to show how good they are. It is a place where people gather, those who know their weaknesses but feel that they are accepted, anyway. We are not afraid to admit the truth about our limitations, because the whole point of the good news of Jesus Christ is based on forgiveness and acceptance of repentant sinners. It is this humility that makes us transparent, allowing God-in-us to shine out. This is why the church is a good place for us to be. Not so much because of what we say, but more so because we can practice what we believe with joy and without fear.