N. T. Wright tells a story of preparing to go on vacation. The proprietor of the camping store had set him up with the best gear for his 100-mile trek through the mountains—tent, socks, water-proof clothing, maps, cookware, food. The only problem was, Wright found the pack to be quite heavy. As he struggled to put it on and prepared to leave the store, he asked the salesman, “What sort of vacations do you have then?” to which the salesman replied, “Oh, I just go to the seaside. Bad back. I can’t carry stuff like that.” [i]
Wright tells the story leading into his discussion of Jesus’s condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees. In many ways they were acting in a similar fashion, loading people down with burdens that they never intended to bear themselves. It’s easy to fall into a judgmental approach toward groups like the scribes and the Pharisees, groups who never seem to the see the truth when it’s staring them in the face. However, I find that a much more productive approach is to allow myself to take the place of the scribes and the Pharisees. Could it be that some of the criticism Jesus levels at them could be just as easily leveled at me?
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt 23:1-12 ESV)
Lifting the Load
Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees for placing a bunch of regulations on the people, “but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.” As ministers, preachers, and pastors, maybe we forget that our job is not only to tell people how to live in accordance with the gospel, but also to help them to do so.
An athlete in the gym gets stronger by putting weight on the bar, and then lifting it. Sometimes they lift a small amount many times, sometimes they lift a great deal of weight just a few times. Regardless, at some point they will reach a point where they simply cannot do any more. It is then a spotter does two things. First, they prevent the weight from falling on them. Second, they render enough assistance so that the person working out can lift the weight themselves to complete the exercise. By giving just a little bit of help, the spotter is transforming what could have been a dangerous situation into one where strength is built.
It isn’t enough for us as leaders to tell people how much weight to put on the bar. We must also be there to ensure the weight doesn’t crush them, to aid them as they struggle with the burden, to encourage them as their faith is strengthened—even in the moments when it seems the weakest!
Secret over Showy
Social media has created a world where the emphasis is not just on what we do, but on being seen doing it. I myself don’t post on Instagram or Facebook too often, but my most recent posts were of my wife and me at the symphony. I really enjoy classical music but only get to hear a live performance a few times a year, so we snapped a few selfies at the concert, and I posted them online. But what would you think if you found out that we got dressed up, bought tickets, and sat through one and a half hours of Beethoven and Bach just to snap that selfie and post it for the world to see? What if we were so consumed with the world seeing us at the symphony, that we forgot to focus on enjoying the music itself?
Jesus says that the scribes and Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others.” For them, it has become more about the size of the box holding the Scripture than the Scripture itself in the box. It has become more about the length of the tassels on their prayer shawls than about having a conversation with God. In effect, rather than their religion pointing them—and others—to God, it has become about others seeing them serve and worship God.
Before we dismiss the charge as not being relevant to us here in the 21st century—after all, are any of us walking around with prayer shawls or phylacteries?—let me ask you this. How much is your church’s identity tied up in its attendance figures? Are you ever tempted to define success by how many compliments your sermon receives, or how many likes that Facebook post got? In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us against just such behavior.
Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them. (Matt 6:1)
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. (Matt 6:5)
And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. (Matt 6:16)
It’s hard to preach a sermon in secret, and it’s pointless to write a book or article and never publish it. But equally pointless is preaching, publishing, ministering, and serving if we are doing it to be seen by others, rather than to give glory to the God who sees it being done. After all, is our ministry about wanting others to think well of us, or wanting others to glorify God? That leads me to my final point.
The Means, Not the End
As Christian leaders, our mission is to lead people to Christ. We are not the teacher; we teach people about the teacher. We are not the instructor; we instruct people on how to seek the one who is their instructor. We are the means, not the end. People’s journey does not end with our sermon in their ears or our book in their hand. Our words, whether spoken or written, serve the purpose of aiding people on their journey into a deeper relationship with the God who is their Father. We humble ourselves by lifting loads, and not worrying about whether we are seen doing it by others, all so that people might be directed to the one who humbled himself by becoming obedient, even to the point of death on a cross.
[i] Wright, N. T. Matthew Part 2 Chapters 16-28: For Everyone. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Justin Simmons has served as minister for the Glenmora Church of Christ in central Louisiana since 2011. Previously he studied at the University of South Carolina (BA, MA), and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University (MDiv). He is blessed to call Melissa his wife, and has three wonderful step-children. He enjoys reading about history and practical theology, listening to Gregorian chants, and passionately following Braves baseball and Gamecock sports.