— The adulterous pastor who campaigns for “family values.”
— The drug-taking sports star portraying a spotless image to sponsors.
— The socialist MP who sends her children to exclusive prep-schools.
The world despises leaders who don’t practise what they preach. And so does Jesus. In fact Jesus leads the way in the condemnation:
“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.” (Matthew 23:1-7)
These words from Christ would have fallen like asteroids onto the cultural and religious scene of His day. Jesus is opening fire on the holiest people these Jews had ever seen! The scribes and Pharisees were the best of the best. The greatest Bible scholars, the strictest moral leaders. It was the scribes and Pharisees who chastised the culture from the vantage point of the religious right. But somehow Jesus outflanks them. Not so much from the right, but from above. The assembled crowd would have been astounded. And the scribes and Pharisees would be choking with righteous indignation.
But in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus delivers the sharpest volley of criticism seen anywhere in the Gospels. And who is on the receiving end? The publicans? The Samaritans? The Romans? The sinners? No. The religious!
Here is the Prophet par excellence doing what prophets do best: uncovering the pretensions of religious leaders. It is public. It is sharp-tongued. It is brutal. And it is unrelenting.
How does Jesus come by such a clear vision of His target? How is He able to see through the religious window-dressing? Is it simply because He is the Son of God and therefore “knows what is in a man?” (John 2:25). Well there is that. But if we let Him, Jesus will train us in how to see our leaders.
These verses tell us three things:
1. Jesus was not fooled by what they say.
In modern translations it says “they do not practice what they preach.” This is the mark of an authentic teacher – their life is open to scrutiny and free from hypocrisy. The Pharisees failed the test.
2. Jesus was not fooled by what they did “to be seen by men.”
The evolutionary psychologists will tell us of a thousand motivations towards “goodness” all of which are ultimately selfish. There is a “goodness” that springs only from pride and it is odious in Christ’s sight.
3. Jesus recognised their selfishness in giving burdens but refusing to take them.
There is such poetic imagery here: “they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” They ‘lay down the law’ but never bear one another up! This is a clear sign that they are not authentic ministers of God’s word. And Jesus blasts them with a truly righteous indignation.
But what about Jesus Himself? When He preaches “practice what you preach” does He practice this preaching?
Well let’s consider number 1. Here is a Preacher who commands “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) And as He is killed by His enemies, He prays “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
What about number 2? Think of the Mount of Olives the night before He died. It was an ancient escape route from Jerusalem in times of trouble (2 Samuel 15). There is Jesus on top of the mountain, the mob has not yet come to arrest Him and His disciples are asleep. If ever there was a time to run, this was it. Yet, when the eyes of all men were shut, Jesus remained and prayed and accepted the cup of suffering from His Father’s hand.
What about number 3? Christ came not to weigh us down but to lift us up. He is the true Preacher of God’s Word because ultimately He does not burden His people but carry them.
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)