Matthew 23:1-12
For Servants To Be Servants

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

1.  I would like for us today to pay attention especially to the words in verses eleven and twelve.  "O greatest persons among you, please become servants.  Whoever is exalted will be made low; whoever humbles himself will be lifted up," (verses eleven and twelve).  This message seems simple, but actually, it is not so simple.  For example, you might take it as someone humbles himself or herself and serves others.  But, what if in their heart they were whispering, "When I do that, I'll be the greatest!"  Or, if someone reads this message, what if they thought, "That's right.  You shouldn't honor the arrogant.  It is the person who humbles himself or herself who is to be commended.  I want to become a person like that."  That is hardly what the Lord is saying here. So, in order to properly respond to this message, first I would like for us to carefully read the Lord's words that are written right before it.

The Pitfall Of Legalism

2.  I will begin by reading from verses one to seven.

"After that, Jesus spoke to the multitude and to his disciples.  'The lawyers and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses.  Therefore, practice and preserve all that they say.  But, do not follow the example of their deeds.  Because they only talk and do not put it to practice. They set up unbearable burdens and place them on men's shoulders, but they would not lend even one finger to move them themselves.  What they do is for the purpose of showing off to all persons.  They always make big the little boxes with the biblical verses inside [phylacteries], they make long the tassels of their clothing.  They enjoy the seats of honor at the banquets and sit at the higher seats in the synagogues, and they enjoy being greeted in the marketplaces and called as teacher, master,'" (verses one through seven).

3.  The Lord said in regard to what the lawyers taught, "Practice and preserve all that they say."  And he continued by saying, "Do not follow the example of their deeds.  Because they only talk and do not put it into practice."  The people who heard this must have been very surprised because the primary interest of the lawyers and the Pharisees was "putting it into practice."

4.  For them, practice was everything.  Theology, which does not include practicum, is nonsense.  Biblical reasoning, which does not include practical application, is equal to hogwash.  Insofar as their "practice" they undoubtedly must have been more earnest and more serious than any of us gathered here.  As an example, therefore, when it came to the law of "Hold the sabbath in your hearts and sanctify it.... Since the seventh day is your God's and the sabbath is the Lord's, you must not do any kind of work," (Exodus 20:8-10), they thought of and multiplied interpretations for how it could be put into practice.  It is precisely because they respected the practical aspect of it that they produced thirty-nine classifications of sabbatical prohibitions such as sowing seeds on the sabbath, plowing, harvesting, baking bread, lighting a fire, putting out a fire, carrying something and other prohibitions.

5.  Much rather, wasn't the Lord Jesus the one who was acting like a lawbreaker?  For instance, please open to chapter twelve of this gospel [of Matthew].  Wasn't the Lord breaking the sabbath laws?  Wasn't it the Lord Jesus who thought it okay for the hungry disciples to pick and eat stalks of wheat on the sabbath?  Wasn't it the Lord Jesus who went out of the way to heal a man with a lame hand on the sabbath?  It was the very fact that they were Pharisees who made an issue of the practice of the law that they became angry as a raging fire when the Lord broke the sabbath.  The Bible even says, "The Pharisees came and discussed how they might kill Jesus," (verse fourteen). The words "because they only talk and do not put it to practice" must have really been, for the Pharisees, words that Jesus as a lawbreaker had no business saying.

6.  However, amid this spectacular seriousness a dreadful pitfall was truly hidden.  The Lord didn't let that issue go by.  The Lord said in quoting Hosea, "If you knew the meaning of the words, 'It is mercy and not sacrifice that I seek,' you would not have found fault with persons who are not even sinners," (Matthew 12:7).  This message was one the Lord used in chapter nine and verse thirteen.  The one called "I" here is God who gave the law.  The Lord here is trying to get us to turn our attention onto God himself.

7.  In other words, their problem lied in their not properly turning their attention onto God himself; for, their concerns were only on "Which are the behaviors suited to the law?"  Consequently, they did not realize this even though Christ was right before them, even though through Christ God was revealing himself, even though he was showing what God was seeking for from them.  They did not even realize it even though God was calling out to them through Christ.  There was truly a great pitfall with them.  Even while they had made such an issue of practice, in a real sense they were not ultimately carrying out the will of God that the law had been pointing out.

8.  No matter how devout they seem, no matter how busy their religious life may seem, if their thoughts are not really directed on God himself, only their concern for human expectations will grow in inverse proportion.  If you can't see yourself in relation to God, then it is natural that you will not be able to see yourself except in relation to others.  How you are seen by others and how you are esteemed by [humans] will be on your mind.  As a result, what it says in verse five will inevitably take place that "What they do is for the purpose of showing off to all persons."

9.  What were they doing?  The Lord raises some specific examples here.  "They always make big the little boxes with the biblical verses inside [phylacteries], they make long the tassels of their clothing."  "The little box with the biblical verses inside [phylactery]" is an object that you attach to your left arm and forehead at prayer time.  They practiced it just as it was written in Exodus 13:16 and other places, "You are to make these words as a sign attached to your arms and make it as a memory attached to your brow."  I have only seen it in pictures, but they are still used in modern times.  As for the tassels on the clothing, it says in Numbers 15:38, "Please inform the Israelites of the following:  Across the generations to come, sew on tassels on the four corners of your clothes and attach blue cords to the tassels.  It will be as your tassels and when you see them, you will remember and keep all the commands of the Lord so that you do not commit lewd acts in accordance with your hearts and the lusts of your eyes."  Even if they made these big, there wouldn't be any significance in that itself, I don't think.  What they are doing by that is nothing but for the purpose of showing others clearly that they respect prayer and keep and practice the law.

10.  If "what they do is for the purpose of showing off to all persons" then we would naturally expect they are seeking for results from showing off their actions.  [The effect they seek] is the admiration of men and women.  It is to be honored in the eyes of others.  It is to be respected.  The scriptures say he said, "They enjoy the seats of honor at the banquets and sit at the higher seats in the synagogues, and they enjoy being greeted in the marketplaces and called as teacher, master," (verses six and seven).  Thus, their religious actions and pious deeds themselves deteriorated into tools to get recognized by men and women and into a means of getting respect from other humans.

11.  What is translated here as "teacher or master" is the word "rabbi."  This has the meaning of "our great [leader]."  When a person seeks in such a manner the honorary title of "our great one" from humankind, there is no longer present a seeking to be considered a great person by God.  But then, that doesn't only hold true with those lawyers.  The reason such a thing happens is because there are people who have them sit in the seats of honor and chairs of distinction and because there are people who value them as great persons.  Thus, while they are very devout persons at first glance, but in reality all of them, we know, have become persons who do not direct their attention but only to a person and his or her actions.

One Father, One Teacher

12.  Does the image of such persons not have any thing to do with the disciples of the Lord Jesus?  Yes, the Lord Jesus knew full well that this could go on among his own disciples.  Therefore, the Lord continues his speech some more.  We should take a look at the words he spoke to his disciples in verses eight on.  Of course, what is written here is directed to us as well.


 "Thus, do not be called 'master, teacher.'  Only one person is your teacher, the rest are all your brothers.  Also, do not call anyone on earth "my father."  Your father is only one heavenly Father.  You must not be called 'teachers.'  Your teacher is Christ alone.  As for the greatest one among you, please become one who serves.  Whoever exalts himself will be made low, whoever humbles himself will be lifted up," (verses eight through twelve).

14.  The Lord said, "Don't be called 'master,' that is, 'rabbi.'"  Actually, the title of "rabbi" was never used in the later church.  Even today we respond to this Japanese version just as it is and we are a church that does not ever use the name "master [sensei]" for a pastor or for anyone [in the church].  But, was the Lord just talking about the problem of names and titles?  Then, what does he say next?  Was it that we should no longer call our biological fathers "our dads?"  What about calling the Roman Catholic leader "pope?"  Originally in the early church was it a mistake that they had kept using the word "father" as a title of respect?  The word "teacher, master" in verse ten is only used here in the New Testament. This word could be translated as leader as well.  Is it better not to use this title either?

15.  Well, the focus of the the words of the Lord which are written here is definitely not about titles and names.  The important thing here is, in the end, the same as what he said before about the Pharisees, which is, about this matter of where is our attention supposed to be directed.  It is [to be on] God the heavenly Father and Christ the true guide.  For that reason he said in one swoop, "Only one person is your teacher," "Your father is only one heavenly Father," and "Your teacher is Christ alone."

16.  In actuality, even if titles are not used as they are written in this text and even if there is no institutional hierarchical system, if your concern is directed only on people it is little different from [that of] these Pharisees.  For example, it is the same if you have a church where the only topic is the right or wrong of human conduct.  Or, it is the same when you have a church where they only get into the subject of a person's greatness, virtues, size of his or her job, fervency of his or her faith, or one's purity and devotion.  You will fall into the same pitfall as those [Pharisees].  We begin to be able to discover the relationships that we ought to have amongst one another when we live turning our hearts to our father and master -- when your master is only one, your father is only one, and your teacher is only one.  Then we begin to discover relationships where "Everyone is our brother."  That is, as pastors, church members, or different types of servants we are enabled to live in relationships in which we serve one another in many different ways.

17.  Well, the words "O greatest persons among you, please become servants.  Whoever is exalted will be made low; whoever humbles himself will be lifted up," (verses eleven and twelve), come immediately afterwards.  I told you about all this at length already.  If we let these two verses by themselves stand independently from the words that precede them and we heard them putting the emphasis on just the words "great person," "servant," "exalted person," as I mentioned at the very beginning, without realizing it serving itself would become a means for being considered great and humbling oneself would end up becoming a way for a person to be exalted.  Unconsciously, people become servants in order to show off to others and humble themselves in order to let others see them.  It is barely different from the way the Pharisees are as told in verse five.

18.  We are made true servants in a righteous relationship with God the Father.  We are made humbled persons in a real sense when the work of Christ is respected, who descended even unto death on the cross, and he is truly our master.  Therefore, what becomes the basis for how we live in response to the words of "O greatest persons among you, please become servants.  Whoever is exalted will be made low; whoever humbles himself will be lifted up," is not [when we recall] our own works, but the time of our worship when we recall the work of salvation, the work of God as revealed in Christ.  In the very time we praise together the greatness of God's love and mercy, we are set free from the pitfall of legalism into which we fall unconsciously.

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