The Difference between Looking Good and Doing Good


Matthew 23:1-12

A Warning Against Hypocrisy

23 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.

“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. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Dear Friends in Christ,


I wonder if there anyone here this morning who doesn’t enjoy looking good when they go out in public?  I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we would all have to admit that we do like to look good because when we look good, we feel good about ourselves, don’t we?  If that weren’t the case, then why would a woman spend an hour or so each morning in front of the mirror getting herself ready for work?  Or why would we spend time shopping, looking for that perfect outfit or shirt or tie?  Certainly there are better things to do in life than that, especially from a man’s perspective, but we do those things because we like to look good.

Sometime ago there was a study done by researchers at Yale University on what are often called “bad hair days.”  You ever had one of those?  This study found that on those days when our hair just won’t cooperate, we feel less smart, less capable, less sociable, and more embarrassed.  What was surprising to the researchers though was that it was men, not women, who were more likely to be affected by bad hair days.  Of course, some of us men like myself have met that problem head on and never have to worry again about having a bad hair day.

Well, few people throughout history have placed a higher priority on looking good than the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.  These religious leaders of the Jews were experts in the Law of Moses.  Following those laws was the focus of their lives.  Certainly nothing wrong with that.  But somewhere along the way, the Pharisees got sidetracked and they began to add more and more of their own man-made laws to God’s laws until finally they had compiled a whole multitude of do’s and don’ts, rules and regulations that a Jew had to follow to be considered righteous, or to put it another way, to look good in the eyes of others and especially the eyes of God.

So this morning I want to use the faults of the Pharisees as a springboard to help us better understand the difference between looking good and being good and doing good.  And the first fault of theirs that I want to point out is that the Pharisees valued rules over relationships.  That’s one reason why they had such problems with Jesus – because Jesus did just the opposite.  He valued relationships over rules.  So when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath Day who had been an invalid for 38 years and told him to take up his mat and walk, the Pharisees did not like that because their man-made laws stated that a person could carry no more than 2 sticks on the Sabbath Day.  That’s just one of many times that Jesus butted heads with them because they valued rules over relationships.  They believed that by strictly adhering to their own man-made laws God would smile upon them and regard them as being good and righteous.

And it’s sad to say, but throughout history there have been many others who have followed in the footsteps of those self-righteous Pharisees.  I think of one fellow I read about while working on this sermon.  His name was Simeon the Stylite.  He was a monk who separated himself from sinful society by choosing to live at the top of a narrow pillar many stories high.  He spent 37 years living at the top of various pillars as a sign of his devotion to God.  Eventually other monks took note of his religious fervor and began doing the same thing.  Now honestly, my friends, do you really think that was pleasing to God?  I mean, did God call us to pillar-sit our lives away?  Or did he call us to get involved in other peoples’ lives, to have relationships with them, so that they might have a relationship with the One we call Savior?

Then a 2nd fault of the Pharisees was that they valued appearances over authenticity.  In other words, looking good was more important to them than doing good.  In our text for today Jesus says: “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long.”

Now I know what some of you are thinking.  What in the world is a phylactery?  Well, in Deut. 6 Moses tells the Israelites:  “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts…Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.”  The Jews took those words literally and tied the commandments of God on their hands and foreheads in the form of little leather boxes, which contained written verses from the Law of Moses.  These boxes were called phylacteries.  The Pharisees then got the idea that the larger they made their phylacteries, the more religious they would at least appear to be.  They did the same thing with the tassels that hung from the corners of their robes.  According to Num. 15, those tassels were to remind them of the commandments of God.  But they used those tassels to show off once again.  The longer the tassels, the more religious they felt they were.  If we were to update this way of thinking to fit our day and age, we might say that whoever wore the biggest cross or had the largest fish symbol on their car would be considered a better Christian than everyone else.

Sounds pretty ridiculous, doesn’t it?  And the reason it does is because it is ridiculous!  Yet we see this all the time in our day and age, especially in the secular world.  From early childhood on, we are bombarded with advertisements and commercials that say you have to wear this style of clothes to be cool; you have to smoke this type of cigarette or drink this brand of beer or listen to this type of music or drive this type of car or truck.  And people fall for this stuff hook, line, and sinker.  If you don’t believe that, just pay a visit to the mall at Fairview Heights or in the St. Louis area and do some people watching.  Especially watch the young people, the teenagers.  Notice what they wear.  See how they act.  See how they walk.  Listen to how they talk.  And you’ll discover that they are in most cases anyway more concerned about their outward appearance than they are about being authentic human beings who are willing to place other people and their needs ahead of themselves.

Compare that with Jesus though who, Paul says in Phil. 2, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!”  Elsewhere Jesus said of himself, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

So understand, my friends, that when you find yourself standing before the judgment seat of God, he’s not going to ask if you wore Nike or Under Armor tennis shoes.  He’s not going to care whether you drove a Lexus or a BMW.  He’s not going to inquire what your highest score was on your Sony Playstation.  But he is going to be looking for a genuine, sincere, authentic faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that manifested itself in a Christ-like life lived to his glory.

Which takes us to the last fault of the Pharisees, and that is that they valued fake religiosity over real righteousness.  In vv. 6-7 of our text Jesus says:  “they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them `Rabbi.’”  In other words, some of the Pharisees were using their religious position and authority as a status symbol.  They coveted the oo’s and ah’s of the people when they prayed in the temple or marketplace.  They lived for the admiring glances of those who watched them walk by in their long flowing robes.  Never mind that they themselves were like white-washed tombs which looked beautiful on the outside, but on the inside were full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean, as Jesus says of them later on in the chapter from which our text for today is taken.

So what makes the difference between a “religious” Christian and a real one?  Jesus answers that question for us in vv. 11-12 of our text when he says:  “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  Jesus never wore the fancy robes of the Pharisees.  He wasn’t concerned about tassels and phylacteries.  He never hung out with the movers and shakers of society but preferred the down and outers.  Instead of expecting the place of honor at banquets, Jesus assumed the place of the lowest slave at the final banquet he attended the night before he was put to death when he washed his disciples’ feet.  And he called his followers to do the same, which is precisely what many of them did.

Back in the 2nd century A.D., a man whose name we don’t know wrote a letter to a friend in which he described this group known as Christians, who were hated and harassed by their neighbors.  This is what he said of them:  “They marry and have children just like everyone else, but they do not kill unwanted babies.  They offer a shared table but not a shared bed.  They are passing their days on earth, but are citizens of heaven.  They obey the appointed laws and go beyond those laws in their own lives.  They love everyone, but are persecuted by all.  They are put to death and gain life…They are dishonored and yet gain glory through dishonor…They are mocked and bless in return.  They are treated outrageously and behave respectfully to others.  When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if being given new life.”

That, my friends, is what it means to be a real Christian instead of just a religious one.  And that is the difference between just looking good and actually doing good.

Let me close then with a true story about 2 brothers who had very different goals for their lives.  Their names were David and John Livingstone.  John dreamed of being rich and famous.  David dreamed from early on of doing something significant for Christ.  Both boys achieved their goals.  John Livingstone became rich and famous.  David Livingstone became a medical missionary to Africa.  He was never rich, although he did become famous as one of the best-known missionaries of the 19th century.

In his later years, David was offered the chance to leave the mission field and return to England as a hero and live out his remaining days in comfort.  Here was his chance to bask in the admiration of the people!  To reap the rewards of many years of service!  But he turned it down.  He chose instead to remain in Africa where he lived in poverty until he died of a tropical disease.

Both brothers lived out their dreams.  And yet interestingly, on the tombstone of John, the rich and famous brother, you will find these words:  “Here lies the brother of David Livingstone.”  A powerful reminder of Jesus’ words in our text that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  And also a powerful reminder to us that looking good is not nearly as important as being good and doing good, all for the glory of God.  Amen.