Practice What You Preach

Jesus had some harsh words for the Pharisees in today's reading from Matthew 23:1-12. How do you change the pharisaical story in your life? "Practice what you preach." Believe the gospel message of life and salvation found in Jesus and live in that hope. November 5, 2017.

           Do you know any good Pharisee stories? How about the time when Jesus decided to go to the tax collector, Matthew’s home for dinner and the Pharisees got worked up that Jesus was eating with sinners? Or maybe you’ve heard the one about the time Jesus went to dinner at a Pharisee’s house, his name was Simon. At this dinner a woman who had lived a sinful life came up to Jesus and with tears pouring from her eyes, wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair and poured expensive perfume on them. Simon was absolutely disgusted that Jesus would allow this sinful woman to do such a thing. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the story of one of the greatest Pharisees, named Saul, who committed his life to strictly adhering to God’s law even to the point of persecuting those who said that Jesus fulfilled the law for all people. As you might conclude, the Pharisees were some of Jesus’ biggest critics.

          But perhaps it would help if you understood who the Pharisees were. Shortly after the Jewish captivity in Babylon, when the Jewish people returned to the promised land, a sect was formed – the Pharisees. They focused on the first five books of the Bible, often referred to as the Torah, and were all about strictly adhering to God’s law and even adding many more rules for people to live by. To put it simply, the Pharisees were all about ethics and morals and how close you were to God depended on how well you kept the rules. They found righteousness in themselves. 

          So now maybe you get why the Pharisees were always on Jesus’ case about hanging out with “sinful” people. The kind of people who had crummy morals, the scum of the earth kind of people. But the Pharisees had a problem. They were hypocrites. They didn’t practice what they preached. Good thing that doesn’t still happen today, among us who are in a Christian church! Or does it? Do you know any good Pharisee stories?

          Jesus had some harsh words for the Pharisees in today’s reading. He used these words to warn the people gathered around him. “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.”Perhaps one of the most striking things that Jesus says is that the people should be careful to listen to and actually do what the Pharisees told them. Jesus told them to listen to the legalistic, self-righteous Pharisees and do what they said. But note the stipulation – don’t do as they do.

          It’s not that the Pharisees were wrong in their preaching. They were actually right in what they said. They did sit in Moses’ seat – in other words, they did have authority to be teachers of God’s Word. However, the actions and their motives were all wrong. The Pharisees burdened their students with the heavy weight of keeping all of God’s law as the way to life with God. The Pharisees weren’t willing to help them. Each person was on their own to carry around the impossible burden of perfection.

          Meanwhile, the Pharisees would make it look like they had it all together. And they’d do all these things so that people would notice how good they were. They’d make their phylacteries big and noticeable, those are these special leather boxes that good Jews wear on their heads and arms with Bible verses inside them to remind them to be devoted to the Lord. They loved to be seen out in public and have the most important and prominent seats. They loved the official titles. They lived for this stuff.

          But it was all an outward show. It’s like the times you go to empty your dishwasher of clean dishes, well, at least they look clean from the top. But when you tip the cup or the bowl over, inside you see the food still crusted to it. It may look clean on the outside, but it’s not clean on the inside. The Pharisees looked good on the outside, but the inside was stained with self-righteousness, arrogance, and sinful pride. They were hypocrites who didn’t practice what they preached. They taught that they had to obey God’s law to be right with him, but they missed the perfect part and the fact that they weren’t. Their hope for a right relationship with God was dependent on themselves. They didn’t trust in the Lord.

          Have you heard any good Pharisee stories? Maybe you’ve heard the one about the family that goes to church on Sunday mornings decked out in their Sunday best just to be seen by lots of people or the guy who comes just enough to worship to keep the pastor and elders off his back. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the person who expects perfection in everything that they do, that includes in their relationship with God. This person lives a life of constant stress and uncertainty. Or maybe you’ve heard this one, the story of the person who proclaims love and acceptance, but will go out his way to avoid talking to a person living on the street or the friend who lives a scandalous life. The bible-believing neighbor who preaches forgiveness, but loves to hold grudges and seek revenge against those that have wronged her.

           I’m guessing that you’ve heard these stories, because they are the stories of your life and there are so many more Pharisee stories that could be told. These are the things that even followers of Jesus wrestle with – a hypocritical attitude. It’s not that you’re not right to point out sin. It’s not that you don’t have a right to be disgusted with loose morals and unethical people. It’s not that you shouldn’t strive each and every day to live a god-pleasing life and encourage others to do so too. But when you start thinking you are better than others, or you’re in it only to get recognition and praise from people, or when you think that this is why God loves you, this is when the Pharisee comes alive in you and me. We need to practice what we preach.

          What heavy burdens are you carrying around or are you putting on others? What guilt, what high and unachievable expectations sit in the seat of your heart? You have a Savior who came to carry the burden of sin for you. And that Savior Jesus invites you in Matthew chapter 11, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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 11:28-30). Jesus wants you to leave all of your baggage with him, the guilt and sin, the struggles with perfection, and he carries it for you. Do not let anyone, your own mind, another Christian, even a church, tell burden you with guilt that Jesus has borne for you.

          Where is your pride? Do you proudly stand before God and others and say, “Look how good I am?” Is your confidence and pride found in yourself and what you’ve accomplished? Are you addicted to earthly praise, worldliness, or accumulating titles? “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31). And, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). You have nothing on your own to boast about before God. But you everything to proud of when you look to Jesus who loved you and gave himself for you so that you can live.

          How do you change the pharisaical story in your life? Practice what you preach. Believe the gospel message of life and salvation found in Jesus and live in that hope.

          Jesus was obviously addressing the problem that plagued the religious leaders and teachers of his time. And this still speaks clearly to pastors and spiritual leaders today. Practice what you preach. I had to take this to heart. But this is for you too. You don’t preach from the front of a church and maybe you don’t even preach or share your faith with words. But you do preach the Christian faith by the way you interact on Facebook, or the type of effort you put in at the workplace, or the way you conduct yourself when you’re hanging out with friends. You proclaim the love of Jesus in your actions and words. Your goal is not to bring attention to yourself, but to the Lord. You practice what you preach with humble heart and attitude. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

          The apostle Paul in the second reading from 1 Thessalonians described this attitude in the way that he and the other pastors had served that church with the gospel. He reminded them that they “were not trying to please people but God” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). That was such a different attitude than the Pharisees and a different attitude than what comes naturally to us. That humble attitude allowed Paul to be real and authentic when it came to proclaiming the truth of God’s word. Paul cared for the Thessalonian people like a nursing mother cares for her children, which is a humble, selfless job. He loved, he delighted to share, toiled and went through hardship, worked night and day, preached the gospel, lived as godly examples, encouraged, comforted, and urged others to live godly lives. This is practicing what you preach! He did it all for the sake of Jesus and the people the Lord put before him.

          As you go out these doors to today, remember that you have the gospel, so share it! Share the news that there is something else than this life, there is life with God through Jesus. Share it in your words and actions with humble hearts focusing on the Lord, your one Teacher, one Father, one Instructor. When Jesus is the focus you will get rid of the Pharisee inside of you - the burdens are lifted and the selfish pride disappears. Your story and your life become one of Jesus and the eternal life that he makes yours. Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on November 5, 2017

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