“But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, ‘Rabbi'” (Matthew 23:5-7).
It is one of the most natural desires of mankind: to be valued and appreciated. Most would rather people have a favorable opinion of them than an unfavorable one. Few are those who revel in being unloved, unappreciated, and completely rejected by others!
This impulse is natural for a reason– we were never meant to be alone. Just as God maintains relational unity– One God in Three Persons, one in will, purpose, essence, substance, and mind– we, having been made in His image, seek after relational unity with God and with others (cf. John 17:20-23, Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:27). It is nearly impossible to develop healthy relationships when we show complete disinterest in the ways others look at us. Not a few social customs emerged as ways of living so as to be acceptable to one’s fellow man.
Yet, as with all impulses, the desire to be valued and appreciated can be tragically misdirected. This is Jesus’ concern with the Pharisees as expressed in Matthew 23:5-7. They certainly wanted to be valued and appreciated– and made it their goal and obsession. They received what they wanted. But it did not please God.
It was likely that there were a few Pharisees who were sincere in their approach– they really wanted to serve God through their phylacteries, garments, and wanted to be humble. Sadly, such were hardly the majority. We can be confident that the reason that these charges burned was because they rang true in the hearing of the people. Sure, the Pharisees acted religiously. But far too many did so in order to keep up appearances and to gain favor with the people. We can safely reason that if the Pharisees were offered a chance to receive salvation and eternal benefits but would be despised by their fellow Jews on earth, or to be condemned yet receive the glory and accolades of their fellow Jews on earth, most would take the latter route– because most did, according to Matthew 23, Acts 7, and the testimonies throughout Acts. Jesus’ summons to humility and suffering were too much for them to endure.
When confronted with such a passage, it is quite easy to point fingers at the Pharisees. It is also extremely easy to find opponents, religious or otherwise, and point fingers at them. Yet we must remember that Jesus is speaking to fellow members of God’s covenant people to wake them up and exhort them to repentance. As painful as it might be, it is always best to first point the finger at ourselves before we try to point it at others (cf. Matthew 7:1-4)!
How many works do we do in order to be seen of men? It is less an issue of the types of things that we do and more of an issue of the motivations behind what we do. It was not inherently wrong to have broad phylacteries or long bordered garments. For that matter it is not inherently wrong to be honored by one’s fellow man. It is all about why we do what we do– are we doing it to please others? Are we doing it because we are afraid of what others will think about us if we do not?
There are some obvious applications of this. Not a few give themselves titles or “earn” titles and insist on their use. Jesus condemns this attitude (Matthew 23:8-12). It is one thing to be given the seat of honor; it is quite another to constantly seek it out and love it and cherish it. The world does not lack people who have too high of an estimation of themselves, and who are quite sure that others should also. The world is full of monuments of ambition and glory-seeking; some are physical, some are not; some are magnificent in their glory, and far too many others are tragic in their failure. These all will pass away (1 Peter 1:24-26). These glory-seekers may get their reward on earth, but they are headed for quite the disappointment on the final day!
Nevertheless, this conversation can get personal and painful very quickly. It is one thing to talk about glory-seeking actions like we have; it is quite another to start talking about the appearances we keep up among one another. While no one lives an entirely transparent life, most of us could use a little more transparency and authenticity in the way we present ourselves. We feel like we must “keep it all together” on the outside even though things may be falling apart inside. Yet how willing are we to find some fellow Christians with whom we can discuss our difficulties and confess our sins (James 5:16)? What stops us from “going forward” regarding our difficulties? How many soldiers of Christ have fallen, having rarely or never cried out for help for fear of rejection, finding it easier to say nothing and to keep up the appearance of righteousness?
In Jesus we have the example of the authentic life. He served others, always mindful of His connection with the Father (cf. Matthew 20:28). He humbled Himself greatly (Philippians 2:5-8). He received honor at times but was not acting in order to receive the honor. Yet He also honestly grappled with the sufferings He experienced; He did not hide away from them or act like they were not there, but poured out His anguish before God and His disciples (Matthew 26:37-39). There was nothing to hide.
While propriety does demand that some things ought to remain private among people, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that anything is hidden before God. We must live transparently before Him and authentically toward others, as Jesus did. We must not live seeking self-glory and honor; we may get it, but we do so at the expense of our relationship with God. We must never do anything just to be seen by our fellow man. That certainly includes any number of public religious acts and “rituals,” but let us not fool ourselves– it includes the very manner of our lives as well. We want to be accepted and appreciated, and yet, in Christ, God is willing to accept and appreciate us more deeply than we can ever imagine, but only if we allow ourselves to be satisfied in Him and Him alone (Romans 8:1-39). Let us not be as the Pharisees; let us be willing to endure the shame and dishonor of humility and discipleship, and serve God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry