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"Humble Teachers"

Instead, the first thing Jesus does is compliment the Pharisees and religious scholars as “competent teachers of God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses.”[1]

Two chairs with the word 'Render' above it

Matthew 23:1-12

November 5, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright

As I’ve mentioned earlier in the series, Jesus is holding court at the Temple following his entry into Jerusalem for the last time. He has had to respond to verbal traps sprung by the chief priests and the Sadducees, as well as the Pharisees and their disciples. You can imagine that each of these confrontations has drawn more and more people.

Today Jesus turns to the crowds (and his disciples) and says …

Well, what would you expect him to say?

In today’s political climate, a politician might claim he was the victim of a witch hunt!

Or complain that folks were spreading fake news about him!

Or send his team to dig up dirt on his opponents that could blunt their attacks!

Or maybe even encourage his followers to defend him by roughing up his detractors!

Instead, the first thing Jesus does is compliment the Pharisees and religious scholars as “competent teachers of God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses.”[1]

That’s right – he calls them good teachers!


Those don’t sound like fighting words, but let’s run with that for a moment:

Who do you think of when you remember your best teachers?

I think of my sixth-grade teacher who said I wrote well and encouraged me to focus on it;

and the coach who demanded a little bit more, even when I was tired and water-logged.

The seminary professor who promised to teach me all I needed about Reformed theology;

and the mission trip guide who exposed me to a more complicated side to US politics.

The Sunday school teacher who always asked the best questions;

and the instructor who challenged us to be a little more creative when we taught.

As I reflect on what made them good teachers, it was not just their knowledge, it was their passion, their charisma, their insight, their approachability, their ability to relate to their students, their high expectations and yet their humility! It wasn’t just their words; it was their actions!

And that’s where Jesus begins his critique. He says the Pharisees who have tried to trip him know God’s rules for holy living; the scribes who have colluded with them know the Law backwards and forwards; they are good teachers and are worth learning from … but “they don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior.”[2] They set a negative example.

You’ve known people like that – people who taught you how not to act. I remember an AP history teacher who was an entertaining lecturer … but he was also pompous and verbally abusive! I wanted his knowledge. I never wanted to treat people the way he did.

And then there was the guy who led the small group Bible study I was in during college. He was funny and earnest, but when his car broke down threatening to make him late for an appointment … he was patient and disarmingly full of good cheer. He taught me a lot that day, and he didn’t even realize it. His actions matched his teaching!


Matthew consistently shows Jesus to be a good teacher. He teaches as one with authority – everyone notices that – his audience, his opponents, even the demons are awed by his authority. But there is more:

He is a living reflection of what he teaches and he never seeks personal glory.

When he says God is merciful, he shows mercy. When he says things like love your enemy, forgive, look for the best in people – he lives it. When he says believe, trust, pray – he does it.

So when he points out that these scribes and Pharisees don’t practice what they preach, it stings.

They teach the rule of law – a heavy burden on everyone – but make no allowances for the poor who are not able to make pilgrimages, or keep that Sabbath, or follow the purity codes. In contrast, Jesus heals people, even on the Sabbath; he touches lepers and deals with a centurion; always seeking to lighten people’s loads.

They seek places of honor and dress to impress and pray as if paid by the word. He (we know) has left behind the power and privilege of heaven to rely on the hospitality of others. He is humble. He acts more like a servant than a master of all he surveys!

His critique stings – it stings those religious leaders … and it stings us too!

We don’t always practice what we preach either.

We know a lot. Our congregation is full of educated folks, professionals, people full of a lifetime of experience. We could be good teachers. But sometimes we forget to show grace, to offer welcome, to fully forgive, to bend, to stoop to help, to give our precious time.

And sometimes we wax nostalgic for the days when we had more power, when Presbyterians were offered the best seats at the table, when what we said made national headlines, when we could solve community problems alone. We liked that status … maybe even more than actually doing good. It stings to recognize that … and that the world is humbling us.

But maybe this is a good news scene. Maybe Jesus speaks up because he believes the Pharisees and the scribes and everyone listening can be better. Maybe he speaks the hard truth to teach them something.


Think a moment on the two members we will remember as part of this All Saints service:

Ray Boggs, who gave his life to teaching and gave out of his own pocket so others might learn;

and Betty Skaggs who was part of a groundbreaking generation, but modeled humility.

They were not perfect people. They would have laughed if anyone had tried to paint them as such. But they had learned something about how to live a life like Jesus – valuing the things he valued, investing themselves in the things he cared about, teaching by their actions, not just their words.

This passage is humbling. But if you are humbled by Jesus’ teaching, and moved to be transformed, that’s good news!

From the right angle, it is also inspiring! It indicates Jesus believes we can be better!

May we be formed by this teaching! Amen.

[1] From Eugene Peterson’s translation of verse 2 in The Message
[2] Ibid, verse 3
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