Do as I say, not as I do. Those words don’t come out of my mouth all that often, and, when they do, I’m usually joking—like when I’m standing at the top of a tall ladder and leaning out over the edge to change a light bulb. Don’t ever do this—even if I’m doing it right now. In the gospel lesson for today (Matthew 23:1-12), when referring to the religious authorities of his day, Jesus uses this approach: do what they say, not what they do. I think there’s a fundamental truth about our religion in that sentence, and I think Jesus was talking about more than just the elites of his day.
The scribes were the religious lawyers of the day. They knew the statutes and ordinances of the Jewish faith, and they made sure that everyone else knew them, too. They were the ones who interpreted the law and let the people know what they were supposed to do. Step out of line, and the scribes would let you know. Kind of like letting your grass grow a little too long while living in a planned community. It’s not just the note you get in your mailbox or the sign that’s put in your yard. It’s also the social shunning and condescending glares you get for crossing the line that they have established.
The Pharisees were the religious zealots of their day. They were the ones who took what the scribes said and made an example of doing it and more. Required religious garments like phylacteries and fringes? Absolutely—and broad and long enough for everyone to see. Fast on the appointed days? Of course—and twice a week to demonstrate how religious they were. Say their prayers? Every day—and loudly enough to be overheard by passersby in the street. Go to synagogue? All the time—and sure to sit in the front where everyone will see them.
Read any part of the gospel and you discover that the religious authorities are often portrayed as the opponents of Jesus. Who criticizes his healings? Who questions his authority? Who plots to arrest him? Other gospel writers use different labels for that group, but Matthew calls them “the scribes and Pharisees.” Because of that, it’s easy for us to dismiss outright as hypocritical or wrong or just plain bad, but that’s not what Jesus does. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it,” he says, “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” And what does he mean? “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.”
The religious authorities are eager to lay the burdens of the faith on others but aren’t willing to shoulder those burdens themselves. And that is true in every age. It’s a lot easier to tell someone what he or she is supposed to do than to do it yourself. The woman wearing the cross necklace belittles the cashier when the transaction goes wrong. The driver of the car with the “practice random acts of kindness” bumper sticker blares his horn and shakes his fist when a driver who didn’t see him before pulling out. The priest who groans and sighs when the particularly bothersome parishioner walks in. Those of us who make a show of our faith usually find the show easier than the faith.
What does it mean for you to be a person of faith—a Christian—a disciple of Jesus? Is your faith a quiet walk through the woods a ride on a float in the homecoming parade? Is your religion more about you being shaped and formed or more about you being sure that others know what they are supposed to do? Some of us have made our faith a very public thing, and, at tonight’s ordination, we will see that happen again. Is there anything wrong with that? In theory, no. In fact, I think all of us have a call to do the same—to be bold communicators of the gospel in word and deed—but to do so as humble servants and not as self-exalted “teachers” or “fathers.” All of us need to spend less time thinking that the world would be a better place if there were more of us in it and more time wondering how we might become truer disciples of Jesus.