In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 23, Jesus follows a series of attacking questions from religious leaders with a scorching critique of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.” (Matthew 23:1-7)
There are three main claims that Jesus makes against these religious leaders. First of all, they are inconsistent (23:3), saying one thing and doing another. Second of all, they burden people (23:4). Their teaching is like burdensome loads on people’s shoulders and they don’t lift a finger to help. This is in dramatic contrast with Jesus’ own words: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). Third, these teachers of the Law and Pharisees are concerned with appearances and reputation (23:5-6). They focus on what they wear as a sign of religiosity and seek out places of honor in the synagogue and other religious gatherings.
Unfortunately, these figures have lost the point of what relationship with God is all about. The Pharisees were known to give minute attention to the Law of God to a point of detail that they had become legalistic and over-scrupulous in Jesus’ day. In a sense, they seem full of life, but their life is more truly marked by missing the point, a sort of spiritual death.
Jesus offers a stark contrast between these ways of the Pharisees and the way of Jesus’ disciples.
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:8-12)
Jesus disciples take a different way. They are called to shun titles and the praise of people (23:8-10). While Jesus singles out the titles “Rabbi,” “Father,” and “Instructor,” these are not the only forms such pride could take. Any title can become a source of pride: Pastor, Elder, Teacher, Council member, Usher, Bible Study or small group leader…you name it, and the human heart can turn it into something to be prideful about. As John Calvin said, “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory.” On the positive, Jesus’ disciples are to follow Jesus’ humble path (23:11-12). Jesus was a humble servant, as most powerfully described in Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus did not grasp ahold of glory for His own use and advantage, but emptied Himself in order to take on human life. As a human, He lived humbly in the form of a servant even to death on a Cross. He became a servant to bring us to God.
Jesus’ way of life – what we call discipleship or Christian formation – is marked by a lively humility that is quite unlike the deathly way of the religious leaders.