“Not to Deceive”

Matthew 23:1-12


            Deception … to some, it’s a game, to others … well, whether they mean it to be or not … it’s a way of life.  Either way … it is something which every single one of us is good at.

            During the Prohibition Era a California product was being sold called a “grape brick.”  A “grape brick” was a solid chunk of dehydrated grape juice and pulp costing only a couple of bucks.  By mixing the brick with water, the brick became grape juice.  Innocent enough right?  The thing is, on the package were these words: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.”  Deceptive?  Obviously.  It was an easy way to get around the law to tell buyers how to make wine.[1]

            As creative and subtle as these “instructions” were … Jesus in our gospel reading is anything but subtle.  With time winding down in his earthly life before he would be handed over to the sinful men he is addressing, Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush.  Jesus just point blank lays it out there.  As he is warning the disciples and the crowds about the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, he does so with the teachers of the law, the scribes and Pharisees are standing right there in front of him.  Jesus is looking at them and is point blank, to their faces calling them hypocrites.  “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for men to see” (Matt. 23:3-5)

            These men portray themselves as innocent bricks of grapes juice with their wide phylacteries, which are boxes which contain four different scripture passages on them and are usually tied to one’s forehead or arm.  They portray themselves to be innocent with their phylacteries and the long tassels on their robes … but under the packaging … they are nothing but sour wine.  They may look sweet, they may look good sitting in the places of honor at banquets and in synagogues, but the taste they leave behind in the hearts of those who follow and obey them is one of bitterness.

            Looking at this, looking at what Jesus is saying about the scribes and Pharisees, it’s easy to conclude that Jesus has something against the scribes and Pharisees.  It’s easy to conclude that Jesus doesn’t want the disciples or crowds to listen to them.  But nothing could actually be farther from the truth.

            Yes, Jesus is calling the scribes and the Pharisees out … but it is only in regard to their teaching and their doing.  Jesus at different times challenges the teachings of the Pharisees.  In Matthew 12, Jesus challenges the Pharisees, who have put so many restrictions on the people that the Sabbath day, a day of rest, has become a day of burden.  In Matthew 15, the Pharisee’s teaching regarding what defiles a person is strongly rejected by Jesus.  Where the Pharisees say that what goes into the person defiles them, Jesus says that it is what is in the heart which defiles a person.  Beside, Jesus also rejects other parts of their teaching that end up nullifying the word of God itself.  In Matthew 16, Jesus has already explicitly warned his disciples about the “leaven” of both the Pharisees and the Sadducees and how the disciples need to be aware of their teachings.

            So if Jesus is calling them out on their teachings, why does Jesus say that the disciples and the crowds “must obey them and do everything they tell you” (Matt. 23:2)?  Sounds a bit contradictory right?  Sounds like maybe Jesus just has a beef with them and knows that his time is short so he’s going to take advantage of the time he has left and try to turn the people against them?  Well … no, not really.  Actually that isn’t what Jesus is trying to teach the people at all.

            As the popular phrase heard on the news around some controversial issues says, let’s verify this.  Let’s look a little more closely at what Jesus says because Jesus isn’t trying to be deceptive at all.

            Jesus starts out by saying, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you.” (23:2-3a).  Let’s ask the good ole Lutheran question … what does this mean?  Well, when Jesus tells the crowds and the disciples to “do and indeed hold fast” to everything that these religious leaders say from their position on the seat of Moses, Jesus is likely declaring nothing other than this: “You hear from these men the words of Moses, the words of the Bible.  Do and keep all of that at all times.”[2]  So in other words … listen and do the things which the Bible, which the Word of God says.

            “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (23:3b).  The words they speak from the Word of God are accurate and need to be followed, but the “works”, the deeds, the actions of these religious leaders should not be mimicked.  The religious leaders know what the Word of God says … but they don’t live it out.  Their works do not conform to Moses, and their works fail to bear witness to the One who is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

            This teaching is echoed in the book of James.  “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (1:22).  The religious leaders of Jesus day are listening to the Word of God that they speak to the people, but they are not doing what it says.  They are talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

            An English surgeon was talking to a French colleague about a new type of operation.  The Englishman said he had never performed it, whereas the other boasted that he had performed it many times. Astounded, the English surgeon asked about the results.  The Frenchman said, “Oh, they all died. But it was a beautiful operation!”  The surgeon was more concerned about appearances than about results.[3]

            In a world of self-gratification and popular opinion polls, everyone wants to look good.  Everyone wants a good approval rating.  Everyone wants to be liked.  But at what cost?  Everyone, whether we are willing to admit it or not, everyone has skeletons in their closet.  The apostle John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).  Paul writes to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked” (6:7). 

            When you and I look in the mirror … we see someone who may know what God’s word says … but do we live it out?  We all sin.  No one in this room is any better than anyone else out in the world.  Some people believe that pastors have it all together and so pastors get placed on this pedestal.  Go talk with my wife and she can tell you how imperfect and how sinful I am.  We are all in need of a Savior.  A Savior who doesn’t care what others think of him, a Savior who doesn’t care what he looks like.  We need a Savior who cleanses, who forgives, and who loves us.

            And that is exactly what we have in Jesus.  As Jesus hung there on that cross, first the people, but then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself!  He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him” (Matt. 27:41-42).  Isaiah says “just as there were many who were appalled at him – his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man” (52:14).

            Jesus, a few days after this teaching, would suffer the wrath of God so that you and I would be forgiven and free.  Jesus, the living, breathing Word of God tells us and shows us how we should be living our lives.  May God grants us the strength to live our lives in such a way which brings glory and honor to him alone … and so that others may not be deceived.  Amen.

            The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever.  Amen.

[1] Hobbs, H. H. (1990). My favorite illustrations (p. 145). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

[2] Gibbs, Matthew Commentary 21:1 – 28:20, page 1190.

[3] Hobbs, H. H. (1990). My favorite illustrations (pp. 146–147). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.


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