Sermon Seeds: God-Revealing Life

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
(Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 26)

Lectionary citations
Joshua 3:7-17 with Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 or
Micah 3:5-12 with Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 23:1-12
Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Weekly Theme:
God-Revealing Life

You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.

by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)

Jesus has not been winning friends among his people’s religious leaders since he rode into Jerusalem, hailed by the crowds as a prophet. Right away, he set about cleaning up the temple of its moneychangers and dove-sellers. It was no longer business-as-usual for the Pharisees and scribes, and they don’t seem to know what to do about it. They’re offended by Jesus’ parables that seem to be aimed right at them for their refusal to accept the reign of God as he experiences it. Expert in the law and all things righteous, they must find it galling to listen to this dusty prophet-healer from the hinterlands who marches (or rides) onto their turf and offers a scathing critique of them, in both parable and debate. After enough of the unsettling stories and actions of this Jesus, they decide to test him with trick questions, hoping to trap him into heresy so they can have him arrested. Perhaps getting him out of sight will quiet down the situation and things can go back to normal, living out their lives under the heel of the Roman Empire.

As we know from last week’s text about the Great Commandment, Jesus handled all of their questions smoothly. Then he turned and challenged them with a question about the identity of the Messiah, a question no one was able to answer. Perhaps they would have fared better if he had asked about some obscure and ancient point of law instead of expecting them to see the big picture and what was before their eyes, right then and there. Jesus turns to the crowds and to his disciples and starts talking about those scribes and Pharisees; chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel is this long and heated speech of Jesus, outraged by the hypocrisy of the very ones who should be leading the people by example toward lives of greater faithfulness to God.

Remembering who, and whose, we are

Jesus senses the urgency of the hour, and doesn’t hold back in this speech. When he talks to the crowds, he observes that the religious leaders, the ones with so much book-learning about God, are so full of themselves and their position that they miss the main point of it all. Jesus uses this teaching moment to instruct his followers about the way they are to live, as humble servant-leaders and servant-teachers. They must not imitate the example they see before them in the Pharisees and scribes. In fact, the rest of this chapter is a long list of “woes” upon those “blind guides” as Jesus recites their offenses and then ends with a deep lament over the failure of Jerusalem to recognize and accept what God was doing in its midst.

With this setting in mind, we understand a little better Jesus’ harsh words about such respected figures of the community. Indeed, these teachers, these core members and leaders, are responsible for holding the people and their traditions together even as they suffer under one empire after another. They are charged with helping the people to remember who they are, whose they are, and how to live lives faithful to God – in a sense, they can be seen as pastoral roles, or at they’re roles shared with pastors today. That’s why Jesus starts out by affirming their authority, or at least the authority of their learning. In those days, after all, learning was a thing of great value, a rare thing when few people could read and even fewer had access to the sacred written texts.

Forgetting the heart of God

Unfortunately, the actions of the Pharisees and scribes speak louder than words. “If you want to know what a person believes, watch his feet, not his mouth”: Richard Swanson uses these words from an old friend to illustrate what Jesus is talking about here. Perhaps it’s another way to speak of “walking the talk,” of being true to who we claim to be. The Pharisees and scribes, Jesus seems to say, are fake religious leaders. Swanson also recalls the words of Molly Ivins, who described “people who want to be Texans but aren’t”: they’re “all hat and no cattle” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). The Pharisees and scribes, Jesus says, are “all hat and no cattle,” or all robes and titles, fringes and phylacteries, and seemingly having forgotten the heart of God.

We might spend a little time here, since Matthew does the same, pondering the hypocrisy and pride of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. We care, of course, about our own reputations, our place in society, and “saving face” is important to us. But in Jesus’ culture, in the Mediterranean world of the first century, honor was a thing of huge importance. However, honor transmogrifies into pride in unseemly and unhealthy ways. When even religious leaders who are sincerely trying to do the right thing succumb to this temptation, along comes a prophet, sooner or later, to put them back on track, and the critique/correction is rarely welcome. Thomas Long considers this argument to be more like a family feud, an internal affair: “When Jesus excoriates the Jewish leaders, he does so as a Jew, as a prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah, whose strong words denouncing Israel are spoken from within” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

Laying burdens on the people

Long goes on to explain the problem that provoked Jesus’ anger, the burdens that the Pharisees imposed on the people, “a myriad of rules, standards, and directives, and the whole process easily degenerated into moral bean counting” – so many, and so difficult to observe, even for these very same religious authorities (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion)! John Pilch describes it succinctly: “Sadly, Scripture is not the script by which they live.” In fact, Pilch says, the Greek word we read as “hypocrites” is actually translated literally as “actors” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). What an image for hypocrisy – acting!

After affirming the authority of the Pharisees (“do whatever they teach you”) because they “sit on Moses’ seat,” and then criticizing their lack of compassion for the people by their laying heavy burdens on them (because they apparently miss the heart of what they are teaching), Jesus also launches into a scathing critique of their motivation. They’re all about pride and place and honor, and even their observance of the tradition is one way to show off: the phylacteries they wear, black leather boxes on their upper left arm that contain parchment Scriptures, should remind them of the law instead of reminding others of the Pharisees’ own importance. Dale Allison observes that it’s not the law that Jesus critiques but “its observance for self-glorification.” In fact, Jesus himself “lived according to the law and so wore fringes,” too (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). He followed these traditions faithfully, but he did so for the right reasons.

What if this is about us, today?

The lesson here does not appear difficult to grasp. What is difficult, however, is to resist the temptation to read the story as a criticism of the ancient Jewish leaders instead of seeing ourselves in them, like religious people in every age and place. We know that the early Christians of Matthew’s community could have easily succumbed to the same temptations of pride and place. They struggled, too, with which rules they were to observe if they wanted to live lives faithful to Jesus’ own example. We read this Gospel text, then, or “overhear” it, as Matthew’s little community heard it, as we share those same struggles, questions and temptations. We struggle with how to be leaders that live up to the things we say and the things we expect from others. We struggle not to be simply “actors,” but real Christians, real followers of Jesus.

Thomas Long confirms that the text is as much about the early Christians and their “styles of leadership and interaction” as it is about the Jewish authorities who preceded them.  It’s not titles or objects that matter, Long writes, but the attitude in our hearts: “The true purpose of these phylacteries and fringes was to keep the faithful ever mindful of the laws of God, to assist the worshiper in prayer, but, according to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees had turned them into fashion statements. Like a contemporary Christian wearing a two-pound cross or sporting a bumper sticker on the car reading ‘My God Is Alive, Sorry About Yours,’ the question can be raised: Is this faith or flash, praise or pomp?” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). Suddenly this reading steps forward in time, into our own setting, and challenges contemporary Christians to examine our own consciences.

What gives a teacher authority in the eyes of those who seek?

It’s not at all comforting to read about the disaffection today of young adults with churches and religion in general (see the thought-provoking article at millennials-leave-their-churches-over-science-lesbian-gay-issues/). Perhaps we should engage in heartfelt self-examination as communities of faith, to see ourselves as young people see us, and to consider that many people of all ages see us that same way, not just the young. How do you think young adults would hear this passage from the Gospel of Matthew?

Just the other day, I posted an article from NPR (does-being-spiritual-but-not-religious-really-mean-anything?) on my son’s Facebook page because I appreciate his posts about religion and philosophy. I was delighted (as was he) by the comments that followed, actually from my own friends who also engage Beau, this person they’ve never met, in such deep conversation. And what I learned by “overhearing” this conversation as well was how important it is to stay open and humble before those who seek with open hearts and open minds. What an amazing experience it was to listen to them instead of talking at them or fretting that they weren’t believing exactly what they had been taught to believe, or by how much they’re drawn to religious settings without high-and-mighty authority. I confess, however, that it took me a long time to get to where I am today about this, and I still struggle with how best to respond.

A cautionary note about pride from feminist theologians

Just as money is a difficult thing to talk about in church, so is pride. We live in a culture that prizes self-esteem, and many of God’s children rightfully claim their place after being kept down, as individuals or communities. For example, feminist theology offers insights into the experience of women, after centuries of being excluded and minimized (especially in communities of faith), recovering their own sense of self, their own dignity. But that’s not what Jesus is criticizing in this story. In fact, we might read this text as a kind of release from our own culture, where we may feel pressured to find higher and higher positions and more and more recognition, M. Eugene Boring writes: “Matthew proposes an alternative world…seen from the perspective of the kingdom of God, an alternative family where the approval of God removes the heavy yoke of self-justification. There is more here,” he writes, “than cheap shots at religious phonies in their long robes” (Matthew, New Interpreter’s Bible).

Carter Heyward provided a beautiful reflection on humility in the October 21, 2008 issue of The Christian Century. Like many of these scholars, she acknowledges the deeply personal experience we all share in our “need for love, justice, compassion, health and dignity.” Political leaders, church leaders, family members all may be tempted to speak glowingly of the sacrifices they’ve made for others, and might expect in turn to be honored for those sacrifices. But, Heyward says, “Genuine humility is a gift from God which has nothing to do with downcast eyes, a misty voice and noble stories of sacrifice. Humility is, rather, living courageously in a spirit of radical connectedness with others, which enables us to see ourselves as God sees us: sisters and brothers, each as deeply valued and worthy of respect as every other.” Jesus was able to see each person as deeply valued and worthy of respect, because he “had a strong sense of his place in the larger scheme of things in God’s world.” Jesus, then, keenly knew who, and whose, he was. Jesus knew that all of us belong to God, and as his followers, “we know ourselves as spiritual kin to everyone” (Christian Century 10-21-08). Radical connectedness…genuine humility…deep compassion…this is the vision Jesus has shared throughout the Gospel of Matthew, and as he nears his death on a cross, he remains true to this vision, even in the face of power that has lost its way. That is “living courageously.”

Eugene Peterson’s translation of the text, as usual, brings this together simply and clearly: “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant…if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty” (The Message).

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews serves as Dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

For further reflection:

Leo Tolstoy, 19th century
“Hypocrisy in anything whatever may deceive the cleverest and most penetrating man, but the least wide-awake of children recognizes it, and is revolted by it, however ingeniously it may be disguised.”

Charles de Montesquieu, 18th century
“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.”

Ambrose Bierce, 20th century
“Hypocrisy: prejudice with a halo.”

Edwin Hubbel Chapin, 19th century clergyman
“Ostentation is the signal flag of hypocrisy.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century
“It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.”

Albert Einstein, 20th century
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“A great man is always willing to be little.”

Additional reflection on 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13:

Sometimes we need to be reminded of who we are. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we belong in community: the reminding of who we are, and of who we are called to be, and of how we are to live. Perhaps that’s the deepest call beneath much of what we “do” in church and as the church: in the teaching of both adults and children, in the preaching of the gospel, in the singing of hymns, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of cup. We need to be reminded that God’s hand has not only shaped us but guides us still and is in fact still at work in the world, through us. It goes much deeper than our friendships and community within our churches, invaluable and life-giving as they are. It goes much deeper than the esteem in which we hold our greatest teachers and the respect we give our pastors, understandable as those are. It is indeed, who we are.

It has been said that God’s church doesn’t have a mission, but God’s mission has a church. Indeed! And Paul reminds the people of the church in Thessalonica, lovingly, that just as he has been nurse and father to them, they must in turn see themselves as nurse and father to those who are in their midst. They must care tenderly for one another, share the gospel of God and also their own selves, urge and encourage and plead with one another to “lead a life worthy of God,” a life worthy of their calling. In addition to all this, they too may be called to suffer for the sake of the gospel. This is the call of the church in every generation.

How do the members of your church see your congregation as distinct from other organizations and groups and communities to which they belong? Sometimes folks say that they find God and real community, including spiritual nourishment, in other settings besides church. What does that say about God being at work in the world? Still, how is the church distinct? How does this understanding of the church and of our call influence our commitment to the church, despite personality conflicts or differences of opinion about church decisions? Douglas Meeks has named two “maladies” that may afflict us: amnesia, or forgetting who we are, and anesthesia, the numbing or distancing ourselves from the suffering of others. In what ways, then, does your church remind your members, and the community it serves, of who you are as a church, and how a suffering world stands in need of your ministry? “To live ‘upward’ in response to the noble calling of God and to conform one’s life in an appropriately ‘high’ manner is to adopt a life-style worthy of the kingdom,” Carl R. Holladay writes (Preaching through the Christian Year A). What are the signs that your church is living “upward”? How is the still-speaking God finding new ways to speak and work through you and your church, in your own setting and your own moment, this day?

Lectionary texts

Joshua 3:7-17

The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.'” Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.” Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”

When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing towards the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37

O give thanks to God, for God is good;
   for God’s steadfast love endures forever.

Let the redeemed of God say so,
   those whom God redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
   from the east and the west,
   from the north and  the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
   finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
   their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to God in their trouble,
   and God delivered them from their distress;

God led them by a straight way,
   until they reached an inhabited town.

God turns rivers into a desert,
   and springs of water into thirsty ground,

God turns a fruitful land into a salty waste,
   because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.

God turns a desert into pools of water,
   a parched land into springs of water.

And there God lets the hungry live,
   and they establish a town to live in;
they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
   and they get a fruitful yield.


Micah 3:5-12

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
   who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
   when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
   who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
   and darkness to you, without revelation.
The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
   and the day shall be black over them;
the seers shall be disgraced,
   and the diviners put to shame;
they shall all cover their lips,
   for there is no answer from God.
But as for me, I am filled with power,
   with the spirit of the Lord,
   and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
   and to Israel his sin.

Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
   and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice and pervert all equity,
   who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!
Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
   its priests teach for a price,
   its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
   “Surely the Lord is with us!
   No harm shall come upon us.”
Therefore because of you
   Zion shall be ploughed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
   and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

Psalm 43

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
   against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful and unjust
   deliver me!

For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
   why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully
   because of the oppression of the enemy?

O send out your light and your truth;
   let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
   and to your dwelling.

Then I will go to the altar of God,
   to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
   O God, my God.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise the one,
 who is my help and my God.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Matthew 23:1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.