Hierarchy and Matthew 23

It has been a while since I followed up with my previous hierarchy post, but these issues have remained on my mind. I just have been too busy to write anything lately. Strangely enough, a couple of weeks ago, our pastor preached a sermon about Matthew 23 where he discussed this exact topic. It has been mentioned frequently lately in our church, which means God is probably preparing us for something. I find when God repeats himself that he usually really wants me to pay attention, and this is a message that God keeps sending me. In fact, I encountered the exact same passage two other times later in the week.

In Matthew 23, Jesus addresses the crowd by remarking, "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not practice what they do, for they do not practice what they preach" (2-3). This is a provocative way to start a sermon, and Jesus continues for the rest of the chapter by condemning the Pharisees' self-interest and hypocrisy. I was struck by this first statement for a few reasons. First, I am interested in where the Pharisees have obtained their authority. Jesus claims they "sit in Moses' seat," which seems to me somewhat vague. Moses was not a king and did not have a throne, but Jesus has created an image of the Pharisees occupying a non-existent throne. Moses had authority, but there is no clear direct line of authority from Moses to the Pharisees. Instead it seems the Pharisees have in essence claimed Moses' authority as their own on the basis of their adherence to Mosaic law (and their fondness for adding to it). In this sense, Jesus seems to be mocking their authority by pointing out that they merely "sit" in Moses' seat. After all, it is still his seat.

Jesus then follows this statement with the conclusion that the people must, therefore, obey their religious leaders. However, I can't help but feel he is merely mocking the Pharisees by echoing their faulty claims: "Follow us because we sit in Moses' seat." Jesus then comes right to the heart of where Christian authority should come from by urging the people not to follow the example of the Pharisees who "do not practice what they preach." It seems then that true authority comes from action rather than rhetoric. I am reminded how many contemporary preachers have a gift for gab without really living out the Gospel. Jesus leads through example rather than fancy claims. He has no seminary degree, no formal training in the Jewish law, no political connections, no money, no influential friends, perhaps not even a home. While his true credentials dwarf any other human being, it is amazing to me how little he claims them in the Gospels. In fact, he spend much of the Gospel of Mark telling people to keep quiet about who he really is.

Jesus then hits the point home later in the chapter:
"But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers and sisters. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (8-13)
Although he began by telling the people to obey the teachers of the law, this statement makes his previous remarks seem quite flippant. Now he has basically taken all the power out of the titles the religious leaders typically used. I am amazed at how much we have missed this point in the modern church. We have taken his command literally, so in most Protestant denominations, we refuse to call pastors by the title "Father." However, we treat them with the kind of authority that title denotes, which seems to me to be the real issue Jesus addresses here. Ultimately who cares what titles we use or what we call each other. The real issue is about whom we see as our leader, a human or Jesus. We have one Father, rabbi, and teacher, yet we cannot help but substitute humans into those positions rather than going to the true source of authority.

My favorite verse in this passage is 13; it spells out a sentiment that Jesus echoes throughout the Gospels, that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first." Why do we so consistently underestimate the importance of this statement. If it was worth repeating multiple times in the Gospels, it must be a crucial point. I think one of the reasons we so often ignore it is because it is so at odds with Western culture that encourages competition and winning. How can we Christians really win if the last are first? I think in order to make us feel better about ourselves, we cast ourselves as persecuted underdogs and pretend that we have it so difficult. We act as though we are martyrs and treated as outcasts by the secular world. Then we will be exalted. We don't have to pay attention to our ridiculous wealth and prodigality. We can ignore the influence we wield in American politics and culture. We can pretend that we are just poor servants of Christ who are embattled and persecuted and deserving of God's blessings. We have no idea what it means to be last, what it means to suffer and face persecution. The older I get, the more convinced I am that my lifestyle could not be more different than Jesus'. I am just kidding myself if I think otherwise. I think I could say the same about most Christians in the Western world. We are like the "rich young ruler," holding on to our privilege, wealth, comfort, and reputations, refusing to give it up.

I think this is part of the reason we exalt pastors too highly. We set them up as exemplars, role models, saints. We praise them for what they accomplish, for their eloquence, for their knowledge. We have it so backwards. We should be praising them for their shortcomings because it is in these flaws that we see God's grace most clearly. A good pastor should be humble enough to let us see the work of grace in his or her life, and I am talking present tense. Too often we Christians talk about how we "used to be" sinners and "used to be" last, without admitting our current faults and our daily need for God's mercy.

I have been struck by some of these issues recently because our church is going through an interesting period of growth right now. We are the only church in our circuit that has any young people. We are looking for ways to reach out more in the community because of our unique position, and for a while, the church just hoped a pastor would come along and light the needed spark. This posed a problem because when our new pastor came on board last year, he did not feel a particularly strong calling to build up such an outreach ministry. This led to frustration for some people, but a few weeks ago, we had a conversation about who is ultimately responsible for the ministry of the church, and we felt convicted that we were so dependent on someone else to do the work God had called us to do.

Our pastor was quick to encourage and provide support despite this not being an area he felt passionate about leading. He very clearly pointed out to us that his job was to shepherd and to guide, and that in the Methodist church, laypeople were tasked with the majority of the responsibility for outreach and ministry. This is one of the things I have loved most about the Methodist Church in England. It is empowering and depends on the active involvement of laypeople to function properly. The pastors rotate throughout the circuit, so on a practical level, they just cannot meet all the needs of each church they oversee. It reminds me of Acts, but I will speak more about that later.

Our pastor was extremely supportive in our efforts to make changes to the church services and to make a more serious attempt at outreach. He has reminded us throughout that God works through all of us, not just him, and that we should seek God's leadership in this endeavor. Thank God for such a humble leader who is willing to set his ego and his agenda aside to see God's will done. I have been truly humbled and amazed by how gracefully he has handled the church's decisions when most pastors I have known would have been upset that the Church was not going in the exact direction they wanted or was not depending on them enough. Given some of my very negative experiences with ego-driven pastors and church leaders, I have been blessed to see such a Christ-like example of leadership. Our pastor truly exemplifies putting himself and his desires last, and I cannot wait to see how God uses this to fulfill his plans for our community.

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