Things seem to be in a mess around the world and perhaps we should blame leadership. Political leaders make decisions that hurt people. Are regular Russians living their daily grind to be blamed for a war waged against the people of Ukraine? Spiritual leaders also can make decisions that hurt people. In fact there is growing talk of the need for recovering from religion. While I myself am religious, depending on how you define “religious,” I do understand that some people need to move out from what can be called spiritual abuse. We who are spiritual leaders, even if we think our hearts are in the right place, can and do inflict harm on people when our heads are not in the right place. While the experience of religion provides great hope and comfort for many, including myself, it brings trauma to many also. That does not happen without leaders.
Political and spiritual leaders can mess with people’s lives each in their own way but perhaps worst of all are those times political leaders and spiritual leaders work their mess making wonders together. Think Taliban. Think the war on Ukraine where the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church has been publicly supportive of the war. When political leadership works hand in hand with spiritual leadership, truth and well being can take a hit. Normal people suffer.
This is not far removed from the world Jesus was born into. As we begin reading the Gospel of Matthew we might miss what is happening in the background. So what was happening in the background? Matthew lets us in on it.
The political leadership was awful.
We are barely into Matthew’s account of Jesus when we are introduced to Herod. History records that Herod the Great was not really that great. He was great at building things, like the temple, but he was also quite accomplished at ruining people’s lives. Matthew tells us about all the infants of Bethlehem being killed. What kind of leader does that? Matthew also reports that Herod’s son was not much better. Near the end of Matthew we are introduced to another political leader, Pilate. What Herod was incapable of doing, namely killing Jesus, Pilate carried out. Whether Romans, or one of their own, the political leadership standing over the people of God in that day was dreadful. At least being Jewish the people could depend on good spiritual leadership, right? Well,…
The spiritual leadership also left much to be desired.
Let us consider a few examples.
In Matthew’s Christmas story, in contrast to the magi who were foreigners, and in contrast to Herod, the spiritual leaders took no initiative to find the one who could potentially be the Messiah. They were not even curious.
Matthew also tells us about how the spiritual leaders received harsh words from John the Baptist:
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.Matthew 3:7-10 (NLT)
Hardly a commendation of good leadership!
Matthew also tells us about how Jesus did not call rabbis, scribes, priests, or Pharisees to follow him closely, but fisherman. If Jesus had been born in our day it would be akin to Jesus bypassing Baptist pastors like myself and calling truck drivers like my brother instead.
We are not far into Matthew when we also get into Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in chapters 5-7. Here we read:
But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!Matthew 5:20 (NLT)
Some point out the very high standards of the teachers and Pharisees and so call upon Christians today to have super high standards in keeping the rules of our religion. However it is better to understand Jesus here to be taking a dig at the spiritual leaders of the day. Yes, they have high standards in following rules but they are missing the point. They are not becoming good people, nor are they helping others become good people. Jesus teaches us to reach for a better righteousness than what the spiritual leaders exemplify. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount could be summarised as teaching us how to catch the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law, of how to have a good character that flows from a good heart than mere obedience to rules.
The Sermon on the Mount finishes with this:
“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.”Matthew 7:24-29 (NLT)
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.
Reading between the lines; “listen to my teaching, not that of your spiritual leaders.” People were eager to do so as they recognised that he taught “with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.”
We are not very far into the Gospel of Matthew when we realize that both the political and spiritual leadership were lacking.
Matthew introduces the one who leads well.
There are hints and allusions, perhaps hard for us to see today, but which would have stood out to the readers in Matthew’s day, that Jesus is to be compared to a great leader of the past, Moses. Matthew alone records for us the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to, and return from, Egypt. According to Bible scholars some of the language used in one particular sentence, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20 NRSV) is identical to the language used in a then popular Greek translation of Moses’ flight from, and return to, Egypt: “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19). Jesus is like Moses, a leader who brought about God’s purpose of leading the people to freedom.
Also, at the baptism of Jesus Matthew records a voice from heaven saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 NRSV). This is a reminder of a thought that shows up a few times in Exodus:
Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’”Exodus 4:22-23 NRSV
What was said of Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” is something that ought to have been said of God’s people as a whole but their history was spotty, thanks in large part to their leadership. That Jesus identifies strongly with God’s people is further enhanced with the temptation of Jesus in the desert for forty days which is a bit like God’s people wandering in the wilderness for forty years, only Jesus does it better.
Then there is the first mention of the teaching of Jesus according to Matthew: “From then on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near'” (Matthew 4:17 NLT). The Kingdom of heaven was near because the true king is here!
Matthew then goes on to write about the healings and miracles of Jesus. Where political and spiritual leadership could often be described as life taking, Jesus was always life giving.
To sum up the opening chapters of Matthew, the political and spiritual leaders could not hold a candle next to Jesus. The end of the Matthew reflects this:
Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)
Much of the mess the world is in today is a result of poor political and spiritual leadership. Jesus is Lord, the leader who is leading us to a much better tomorrow. Jesus is Lord, who leads us to being better people today.
2 thoughts on “A Better Leader for a Messy World (Thinking Through the Early Chapters of Matthew)”
Clarke, thank you so much! I have followed you for some time.
You speak truth.
I appreciate and look forward to each post.
Debra from Tennessee.
Thank you for the encouragement Debra!