October 30, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. . . . Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.’”
Once again, we hear Jesus speak with authority in the Temple: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.’” Jesus’ words speak judgment against the scribes and Pharisees, those who were the spiritual leaders of the ancient Israelites. Being on the receiving end of such judgment is not where one wants to be. Yet, the judgment is rightly spoken against them. Why does Jesus say these words? The scribes and Pharisees had led the Lord’s people astray by their actions. The way of life that they showed by their deeds contradicted the way of life that the Lord revealed through His Covenant with His people.
What was the Pharisees’ way of life? Jesus describes their actions: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” Shows of holiness that brought honor to themselves: that was the piety of the Pharisees. They missed the heart of the Lord’s Covenant disclosed in the Scriptures. They would read what the Lord said, even authoritatively reading it to ordinary people, but not put it into action. So Jesus says: “For they preach, but do not practice.”
Jesus’ words are similar to what the Prophet Micah spoke against the spiritual leaders of the Israelites seven centuries earlier. The problem was the same: those put in charge of the spiritual welfare of the Lord’s people were misleading them. Micah’s words make it clear: “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead My people astray, who cry ‘Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths. . . . [Israel’s] heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.’” Selling blessings, mercenary preaching, future telling for a price: those were the everyday practices of those false prophets, the practices that distorted the Lord’s Covenant and corrupted the faith of the people.
In both cases, the Lord sends someone to speak against what the errors of the spiritual leaders, those who were going beyond their authority and were setting up a religious system other than what the Lord instituted. At the heart of the Lord’s Covenant was what He Himself was doing for His people. It revealed how He would give forgiveness, life, and salvation to those who are tied to Him and His gracious promises. Belief in His steadfast love and trust in the remedy that He offers for sin: that was the heart of the Covenant.
This is what Jesus points out in His teaching to the crowds and His disciples. After laying out the problem of the Pharisees’ ways, He gives instructions for His followers: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant.” Jesus prescribes actions opposite of what the Pharisees were doing to achieve honor for themselves. Instead of striving to acquire their own glory, Jesus’ followers are directed to the glory that the Lord gives to His people who find nothing good in themselves. This central point is found in how Jesus concludes His statement: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
The focus is removed from what the individual attempts to do and directed towards what the Lord will do for them. Pride in oneself must be removed; humility must be the attitude shown—and this stands true for the common person and the spiritual leader alike. Exaltation is given, not achieved. The Lord lifts up the sinful individual from his guilt and imperfection and restores them to life. This exaltation is done for those who receive the merits of Him who humbled Himself by becoming a servant, living for the benefit of others, and being crucified bearing the sins of all mankind. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus preached and practiced. What Jesus set out for His people is what He Himself did. Humbled in crucifixion, Jesus was exalted in resurrection. By doing so, He becomes the source of exaltation for those who humble themselves, removing all thoughts of goodness and worthiness in them, and seek out what must be received from the Lord.
This central thought of humility and exaltation is found in the teaching documents of the Lutheran Church. As this Sunday also commemorates the Lutheran Reformation, it is good to direct our attention to them. At the heart of our teaching is what is said about Jesus and salvation in the Augsburg Confession, Article 4: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 & 4).”
Concerning our good works, Augsburg Confession, Article 6 states: “Our churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith. The voice of Christ testifies, ‘So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty”’ (Luke 17:10). The Fathers teach the same thing. Ambrose says, ‘It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving forgiveness of sins, without works, through faith alone.”
Luther’s statements in the Small Catechism explaining the Apostles’ Creed continue these thoughts. Noting that God the Father provides what we need for our daily lives, Luther writes: “He does all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” Speaking about God the Son’s actions of redemption for us, Luther writes about our state: “He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.” Describing how we became a believer, Luther writes about our need for God the Holy Spirit’s work: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
These chief samples from our Church’s teaching documents echo Jesus’ statement about humility and exaltation: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” We are directed away from placing any trust in ourselves. No reliance is to be set on our actions. There is no talk of seeking one’s own honor. Instead, the statements are made that we are given favor, freely receiving forgiveness, having our sins atoned for by Jesus. But that exaltation is not given to those who do not recognize their sins, who do not believe anything to be wrong with them, who do not know that their attempts to gain favor from the Lord will be in vain. At the end, those people who exalt themselves will be brought low.
It is also important, then, to show humility when speaking about the Lutheran Reformation itself. We can honor Luther and the other Reformers who were like Micah—“filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might”—in order to show the errors of the spiritual leaders of the time, those who were distorting the Lord’s Covenant and corrupting the faith of the people as the false prophets and Pharisees of old did. We honor Luther and the other Reformers, recognizing that the Lord’s work was done through them, so that people could be shown His favor by receiving the merits of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we have that truth, we should be glad. But as we proclaim that truth, we should also show humility, not arrogance. Only by the Lord’s favor has this been given to us. Without His aid, we would be just as lost as those who know nothing of Him or His actions.
Additionally, we must consider the statements of Micah and Jesus that were spoken against the spiritual leaders of Israel. Their words are not just meant for the Lord’s people in ancient times. They must be applied to our churchbody, our congregation, and to us as individuals. Have we fallen into any similar errors? Do we treat people differently or give different teachings based on their donations? Do we place burdens on others, but not on ourselves? Have our acts of piety and worship become ways to please ourselves, show off our abilities, or feed our pride? If so, then we must repent and change. The hard words of judgment are spoken, so that we can be corrected, aligned by Jesus to His statement: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
The Lord has granted us a great gift by causing His Word to be spoken in its totality and purity to us. Through that, we have been made His people and brought the benefits that He has worked to achieve for us. We are given what Jesus earned by His dying and rising again for us. Recognizing our situation, that we are dependent upon His aid for all that is good, we should pray for that truth to be given constantly to us. The Psalmist’s words are quite appropriate: “Send out Your light and Your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling!” That divine light and truth brings us salvation, delivering the message of what the Lord has done for us, the object of our faith that our souls cling onto: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.”
Knowing your sin and imperfections, look to the Lord for your exaltation. Look to Him for deliverance and salvation in the beneficial actions that He has revealed in His Word. Ask for what today’s collect prayed for: “Merciful and gracious Lord, You cause Your Word to be proclaimed in every generation. Stir up our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that we may receive this proclamation with humility and finally be exalted at the coming of Your Son.” Have your hearts turned, so that you seek no exaltation in yourselves, but only in what Jesus has done for you by His death and resurrection. The Humbled and Exalted One declares to you: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” So He has promised, and so He will do for you.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.