February 25, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 5:19-20
So then, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever practices and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
What’s Jesus’ issue with the religious teachers of his day? What went wrong for them and what might we learn as leaders today?
So, what’s Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees and scribes?
On the surface, the Pharisees and the scribes were natural allies for Jesus. They would have strongly agreed with Jesus’ words in the first part of today’s text. Deeply committed to even “the least of these commandments,” they were known to be scrupulous in their observance of the Mosaic Law. And yet Jesus says of them, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” That must have shocked Jesus’ listeners into silence.
So, what went wrong for the Pharisees and scribes?
Jesus doesn’t answer that question directly in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. But we do get a clearer picture later in the Gospel of Matthew, in what is Jesus’ most pointed challenge to them. “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’” (Matthew 23:1-3 NIV, my italics).
I could imagine there was a Pharisee in the crowd listening to Jesus, thinking, “What do you mean, Jesus?! Of course we practice what we preach! Don’t you see the great care we give to studying the Law down to its minutest detail? Why, we even give a tenth of our spices – mint, dill and cumin!” Jesus anticipates that very kind of response: “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” And with laser-sharp wit he adds, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24 NIV).
Frankly, I identify with the scribes and Pharisees. I have more in common with them than I’d like to admit. I care deeply about what the Scriptures teach. I try to study them carefully. And I seek to apply what I have learned in my life and share it with others around me (such as by writing this devotional). So, when Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of not practicing what they preach, I become very uncomfortable.
So, what did they miss? In what ways did they neglect “the more important matters of the law?”
Jesus’ focus on “justice, mercy and faithfulness” underscores the importance of how we relate with other people. Claiming to love God while treating others badly is not only hypocrisy but a contradiction. As the Apostle John would write later, “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20 NIV).
In that vein, Jesus’ critiques in Matthew 23 of the teachers in his day are instructive for us as marketplace leaders today. I highlight three:
- “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4a NIV). As leaders, we should relieve the burden on our people, not add to them. We can do this in many ways: providing clarity and focus on what is truly important, reducing anxiety by communicating clearly, making sure there are adequate resources for people to do their work, holding everyone accountable so that everyone carries their fair share of the load – the list goes on and on.
- “But they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4b NIV). We should share the load our people carry. As I have argued elsewhere, leadership is not only directive but it is participative. It’s easy to demand more of others and less of ourselves. Finding ways to constructively engage and help the people we lead is an endlessly creative challenge.
- “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11 NIV). In other words: don’t be a leader; be the lead servant. Perhaps the most revolutionary and unexpected aspect of Jesus’ teaching is that our view of leadership is upside down. To lead means to serve. And to serve means to lead. Without question, leadership involves power. Holding that power in service of others and not for our own sake is the greatest challenge of leadership.
In what ways is your leadership a service to and a relationship with others?
Find one way this coming week to relieve the burden or share the load of those you lead.
We are grateful, Lord Jesus Christ, that you came not to be served but to serve. Help us reimagine our various roles of leadership as service to others and to the world in which we live.
And help us this coming week to relieve the burdens of those we lead, to share their load, and to be their lead servants.
We ask in your name.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: What Is Righteousness? (Matthew 5:17-48).
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During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
Click here to view Uli’s profile.