Picture Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (John 13:1–17). What is it about this scene that attracts you to Christ?
A warning against hypocrisy
23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 ‘Everything they do is done for people to see: they make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the market-places and to be called “Rabbi” by others.
8 ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi”, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth “father”, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of politicians in the UK were forced to apologise – even resign – when it emerged that they had breached the restrictions they had imposed to limit the spread of the virus. The charge levelled at them by the media was that of hypocrisy – national leaders demonstrating by their behaviour that they were unwilling to live by the rules they had enforced on the general public.
That’s precisely how Jesus describes the conduct of the Pharisees here, as he warns his hearers against following their example (v 3). Their hypocrisy is rooted in a desire for prestige and status that governs their appearance, social life, and preferred salutations (vs 5–7). It is love for self, rather than whole-life love for God and neighbour, that serves as their primary motivation.
In stark contrast, Jesus requires that humility be the defining characteristic of the Christian community. Recognising God as Father, Jesus as Messiah, and fellow believers as sisters and brothers, the church must resist self-promoting status structures from wider society (vs 8–10). The kingdom of heaven ushers in a whole new world order, not merely a spiritual rebranding of the status quo. We must demonstrate to our celebrity-obsessed world that we take Christ at his word – that service is the way of greatness (v 11).
How might Jesus’ teaching in these verses inform guidelines for the use of social media by Christians and churches?
Deeper Bible study
Praise the one ‘who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing’.1
This passage addresses the perennial problems of hypocrisy and seeking honour. Jesus tears apart any notion that Christians should fall prey to either problem. Their first issue is that the Jewish leaders do not practise what they preach: they are hypocrites. This is a terrible problem for the clergy and all Christians (so we must listen closely!). Jesus does not criticise the content of the leaders’ teaching. Their problem is that they fail to distinguish what really matters in the Law; instead, they burden people with its minutiae.
Their second problem is their love of honour. Ancient cultures were honour-shame cultures. What mattered was status, rank and reputation. These leaders are not working to please God, but to gain honour. Hence, they do their good deeds publicly, rather than on the quiet. They wear large prayer boxes on their foreheads (phylacteries, tefillin) and have long flowing tassels (tsitzit) to demonstrate their piety. At banquets and in synagogues, they sit in the seats of prominence. They delight in being honoured in public and called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘teacher’ (Reverend? Doctor? Professor?).
It should not be so for us. We recognise human instructors and parental figures, but we know that Jesus is our ultimate teacher and that God is our Father, so we are wary of self-importance. Our posture is that of a servant. We dwell deeply in the story of Jesus. He is God. He came as the Servant, washed feet and died a criminal’s death. He shows us how we are to live in every situation, no matter how lofty our position. The greatest leaders are humble servants.
Dig deep into your heart. What motivates you? Renounce all claims to earthly honour. Resolve to honour God. Let us wash the feet of others – and do so joyfully.
Bible in a year
Read the Bible in a year: Genesis 39,40; Matthew 14
Pray for Scripture Union
Give thanks to God for the opportunities for partnership between Polzeath Family Mission and Tubestation, the local church. Pray that God will bless and strengthen that relationship. (This week's prayers relate to this article.)