1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 Matthew 23:1-12
These last few weeks, we have been exploring several events in the life of Jesus in which he was dealing with Scribes and Pharisees—the “religious experts” of Israel. These were men who had tremendous social standing: a cushy life, and a show of respect from the common people.
But they felt threatened by the teachings of Jesus—threatened because, if the people responded to Jesus and to his message, their position of power and respect would crumble! I get the sense that Jesus was doubly saddened by these religious leaders: 1. They were leading the people astray, and 2. They themselves were missing out on the life-giving relationship with God that Jesus was teaching about! As a result, Jesus said some very pointed things to these Scribes and Pharisees—an attempt to shake them up and get them to think about what they were doing—to help them question their assumptions.
He once told a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector. (Now, remember that tax collectors were especially hated in Israel because they were Jews who were cooperating with the Roman oppressors! Not only did they work hand-in-glove with the Romans, they also made themselves rich in the process.) Here’s how it reads in Luke 18:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like all other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Our scripture readings for today continue this theme. The Gospel lesson is a direct jab at the Scribes and Pharisees, saying that they do not practice what they teach. And Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians highlights the consistency between his life and his message—and urges them to live a life that is worthy of God. How does this speak to our generation, our life situation, our faith? Let’s take a look.
Says One Thing, Does Another
One of the definitions of INTEGRITY is that a person’s inner values are evident in that person’s outer behaviors. You know how it feels to be with a person who says one thing but does another—and it happens all-too-frequently! When I was a kid, I heard a parent say to their child, “Do as I SAY, not as I do.” I can’t remember the context, but that phrase has jangled my moral center ever since!
I hope they were trying to say something like, “Don’t imitate my behavior—I’m telling you to make a better choice than I did.”
We all know Christians who profess that they are following Christ but we see some pretty obvious behaviors that call this into question! I am hoping that I will be able to say, with Paul, “Look at my behavior and see how pure, upright, and blameless my conduct has been.” Just as I affirmed last week, Paul proclaimed the Gospel to these people with his life as well as with his words. And he reminds them that he treated them the way a good parent treats their children. He urged them, he encouraged them, he pleaded with them to lead a life worthy of God. What might that mean?
One of the clues we have is something that Kate Freeman explored with you a few weeks ago: a passage from Philippians 4 where Paul urges us to focus on those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, excellent or praiseworthy, and to keep on doing the things that we have learned and received and heard and seen in Paul’s life! Leading a life worthy of God means listening to the upward call of Christ and ignoring the siren call of the world. It means discerning the truth, and practicing it. It means holding yourself up in comparison to Christ (instead of other sinners)!
Compared to That Person!
One of the most powerful parts of the parable that Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector is that the Pharisee thanks God that he was NOT like other people—“robbers, evildoers, adulterers.” Friends, don’t you and I do the same thing, to a certain extent? We see folks in the news who have done some despicable thing, and we can’t stop ourselves from thinking, “WOW! I’m way better than THAT person!” Actually, that’s the essence of being judgmental—saying “I must be okay because I am not like them!”
Leading a life worthy of God means 1. Doing the right thing, 2. Loving that which is just and pure, and, 3. Treasuring excellence—and these things are their own reward! What exactly is it that Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of? “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. They love to have the place of honor, the best seats in worship, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplace.” He is saying that these folks signed up for huge privilege; while those who follow Christ sign up for huge service. “The greatest among you will be your servant.” “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Now, I asked earlier, “How do these texts speak to our generation, to our life situation, to our faith?”
Well, as far as our generation is concerned, I don’t believe that there is a great deal of difference between then and now, between there and here. Yes, we live in a world that has changed politically, socially, and technologically—but it seems that every generation faces the same struggle, the same question: How will I live my life? How will I measure success? Will my life be a natural outpouring that flows from the values these Scriptures encourage us to embrace?
No matter what our life situation is, regardless of the circumstances of our lives—friends, you and I are given a choice in every moment of every day:
- A life worthy of God or a life wasted;
- A life marked by humble service to others or one devoted to our own pleasure;
- A life moved and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, or an existence dictated by the spirit of the moment.
The Choice Is Ours.
I’d like to finish today by going back to something Paul said to the Thessalonians: “We dealt with each one of you like a father with his children…” This is an image he used on several occasions, including Colossians 3:1, “Parents, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.” And Ephesians 6:4, “Parents, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
One of the most important and crucial tasks we are engaged in (as parents, grandparents, educators, neighbors) is that of raising young people in the training and instruction of the Lord—showing them how to live a life that is worthy of God. The Biblical model says, “Teach these precepts to your children as you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down, and when you rise up.” The Family of Faith reaches out to others who might not have parents who are following the Biblical model. At this church, we have reached out with Vacation Bible School, with Sunday School, and with our smiles and love for any youngsters who come near us! And you, yourselves, have opportunities to be a blessing to kids and youth in your neighborhood, in your extended family, at your schools, in the organizations in which you volunteer.
God gives us all kinds of opportunities to teach (with our words and with our lives) opportunities to teach what it means to live a life that is worthy of God.