If the pastor is young, drives a nice car, dresses well …

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to reflect on Matthew 23:1-12. In this passage, Matthew reports what Jesus – in the Jerusalem Temple – said about religious leaders and applies it to church leaders.

Jesus spoke about “the scribes and the Pharisees.” The scribes were people who did various kinds of work which required the ability to read and write. They also taught people to read and write. Many scribes were “Pharisees,” people who tried to “fully obey” the laws of God.

Jesus says the scribes and the Pharisees “sit on Moses’ seat.” By this he means that they explain the teachings of Moses – and so we should pay attention to them and obey them, because Moses spoke for God.

But Jesus also criticized them because they interpreted the law such that it became difficult to obey. He says their interpretations are “heavy burdens” – like bulky packs placed on donkeys – while they themselves found ways to live lives of comfort.

For example, the Pharisees of his day taught that even acts of healing were “work” and shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath, the day God had set apart for rest. Jesus said “NOT SO!” and he brazenly healed on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14). This “work” of Jesus set the Pharisees on a path to destroy him.

Jesus also pointed out that the scribes and the Pharisees of his day flaunted their religiosity. They drew attention to themselves by using attention-grabbing phylacteries – boxes with scripture-texts tied to their foreheads – and by tying extra-long tassels on their clothing.

Jesus hammered the point home by pointing out that they also pressed to sit at the VIP seats during gatherings and expected to be greeted “Rabbi” every time, everywhere. Perhaps they introduced themselves as “Rabbi,” like some today introduce themselves as “Reverend.”

“Rabbi” means “teacher.” Does this mean Christians should not call anyone “teacher,” and should not allow themselves to be called “teacher” or “instructor”? No! Jesus was speaking to his disciples, his inner circle. He was teaching them plurality of leadership: shared, equal responsibility for discerning and obeying God’s will in the community of believers.

Jesus also said his disciples should call no one “father.” This was not only because all are children of the same father. It was also because at that time, there were some teachers who expected their disciples to honour them as fathers, more than their own biological fathers.

What’s the message of the passage? Jesus is saying that through the scriptures (“Moses”), we must seek and obey God’s will. Jesus is saying that interpreters are necessary, but they should be people who avoid hypocrisy and display humility. Jesus is saying that we should honour pastors and teachers and know that they have a heavy burden to bear.

Have you ever wondered why so few are pastors? Why so many stop being pastors? Is it possible that we’re part of the reason why? Do we pack heavy loads for them to bear?

Last week, I was deeply touched by a poem an Indonesian pastor shared. It powerfully shows how hard a pastor’s life can be.

Here’s my translation from the original Malay (Bahasa Indonesia):


If you’re young, some will say you’re inexperienced;

     if your hair’s grey, some will say you’re too old.

If your body’s large, some will say you’re a pastor who’s sleep-addicted and food-obsessed;

     if your body’s thin, some will say you’re a pastor who doesn’t know how to care for your body.

If you have a large family, your congregation may consider it a burden;

     if you don’t have children, some will say you’re not fit to be an example.

If you read your sermon, some will say you’re boring;

     if you give your sermon without referring to notes, some will say you didn’t prepare well.

If your sermon’s long, some will say you make people sleepy;

     if your sermon’s short and simple, some will say you’re a lazy pastor.

If you use illustrations in your sermon, some will say you’re not scriptural enough;

     if you don’t use illustrations, some will say your sermon’s too technical or intellectual.

If you do something new, some will say you’re arbitrary;

     if you continue with the status quo, some will say you’re a puppet.

If you fail to comfort, some will say you hurt the congregation;

     if you comfort the congregation, some will say you’re a flatterer.

If you’re direct and truthful, some will say you’re purposefully offensive;

     if you’re indirect in stating the truth, some will say you’re a coward.

If you drive a nice car, some will say you’re a vain, worldly pastor;

     if you walk, some will say you’re a pastor who lacks faith and prays too little.

If your dress is neat and tidy, some will say you’re a showy pastor;

     if you dress isn’t neat and tidy, some will say you’re a village bumpkin who doesn’t know how to dress.


You must be as wise as the owl, as brave as the eagle, but as humble as the pigeon, and ready to eat anything, like the canary.


You must have the ability of the economist, the politician, the fundraiser; as well as marriage counsellor; as exemplary a father as a palace official; as friendly as a flight attendant.

You must be an excellent orator in the pulpit, as well as an upright and wise shepherd of the congregation.


You must treat every sick member of your flock,

Shepherd and advise all who want to get married,

Strengthen the faith of all who want to quit,

Pray for all who want to leave,

Give thanks for all the blessings in the congregation.


You must engage in conversation with all,

With children in the playgrounds,

With youth,

Right up to aged, bowed grandmothers.


You must weep with those who weep,

Laugh with those who laugh,

You must excel in speaking, writing, serving with humility, leading with authority.

You must expend all your time, energy and thoughts on all in your congregation as well as on your children, wife and family!


You’re a most rare person, unlike any who’s gone before. Is there anyone like you in the universe?

John 3:30

He must increase, but I must decrease.

Let us value, honour and pray for our pastors. Let us not expect too much from them. They’re as human as the rest of us.

[1] In Indonesia, most pastors wear black robes.

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