This is the first part of a series Pastor Chad Bowen will submit.
“Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.’ (Matthew 23:1-4 NRSV)”
If you’re making a list of “neglected teachings of Jesus,” this passage would need to be at or near the top of the list. Jesus affirms the scribes and the Pharisees: what they teach should be followed, because they have the authority to teach it as the rightful heirs of Moses. Just make sure you listen to what they preach and don’t do what they do. Because what they do is reprehensible.
They tie up heavy burdens, and they place them on the shoulders of others. And then, they watch, as those under their authority and care falter under the burden. They’re not invested in the success of the ones they teach. They just want to be right.
It’s helpful to remember that Jesus has already provided a different example in his own teaching, as he has told them earlier, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:18 NRSV)” The scribes and Pharisees will heap heavy burdens on you and not help you carry them. But I’ll trade burdens with you. You can have mine it’s light and easy.
It’s not just Jesus’ earlier teaching, but also what’s about to happen that gives Jesus’ words their power. Jesus says these things in the last week of his life. He speaks of the religious leaders’ willingness to lay oppressive weights on people just days before they’re going to put a cross on his shoulders that’s too heavy to carry. It’s a burden that shouldn’t be his; it should be ours. And he takes it anyway.
If the church wants to follow Jesus, we can’t water down his teaching. The bar is high: be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect. And yet, just telling people what they must do and what they must not do isn’t going to get them further down the road with the heavy loads they’re carrying. We’ve got to get sweaty and dirty making the journey together. If we do that, we’ll find ourselves looking a lot like Jesus.