Matthew 23:1-12. Jesus and the Pharisees

Our readings for this Sunday, October 30, continue an enormous nine-week cycle of readings that span five chapters (21 to 25) in Matthew’s Gospel.  At the same time, these readings represent a single incident in the life of Jesus: his preaching in and around the Temple in Jerusalem. This incident is known as the Sermon in the Temple. Matthew 23:1-12 can be accessed in the Catholic Lectionary here, and here for the RCL.

"The Pharisees Debate with John the Baptist." Esteban Murillo, 1665. Cambridge, UK

In chapters 21 and 22 of Matthew, Jesus debated the Pharisees and chief priests in the Temple.  Now in chapter 23, Jesus turns his attention to the crowd in the Courtyard of the Temple.  As the ministry of Jesus is concluding, and he is about to be arrested two days later (a fact that he is well aware of), he publicly rebukes the Pharisees in the presence of the crowd.  Here is Matthew 23:1-5,

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’

We need to break this down a bit.  To sit in the chair of Moses, according to some, is to judge the people as Moses did in Exodus 18:13-27.  More practically, for a Pharisee to sit in the Chair of Moses is to assume some authority to resolve disputes according to the law of the Torah.  Yet Jesus does not suggest that the Pharisees are unworthy of this privilege. What he objects to is their unwillingness to live according to the law that they dispense to others.

When Jesus suggests that the Pharisees tie up heavy burdens, he is rather dryly referring to the Yoke of the Law.  Rather than make the law of the Torah bearable, Jesus suggests that Pharisees turn the Law into a burden for the people.  Note that Jesus and the Pharisees have already argued, and even agreed, that the two most important laws of the Torah are to love God and to treat one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated.  This was the Gospel reading I discussed last week, from Matthew 22:34-40.

In fact, Jesus is in a very back-handed way complimentary of the Pharisees.  He supports their technical interpretation of the law, but finds their lack of charity disagreeable.  They are, in addition, so lost in the detail of the Law that they fail to recognize Jesus as the Son of God.  Jesus distaste with the image-consciousness of the Pharisees is specifically mentioned, as he states that they widen their phylacteries, love places of honor, and appreciate the salutation of Rabbi.  Parenthetically, the phylactery is a small scroll that the Pharisee wore, on his head and over his heart, to remind him of the Law.

Jesus then tells the crowd not to lord it over others.  Here is Matthew 23:6-10,

As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus tells the crowd in the Temple courtyard that they should neither call themselves rabbi, nor father, nor master.  But this injunction does not refer to the conventional use of the terms teacher, father or master.  Christians use these terms all the time, and they have for the past two thousand years. What Jesus rejects is the idea that a person could replace Christ as the moral pole or north star upon which people pattern their lives. Jesus calls us to imitate Him, not the Pharisees, nor any other spiritual leader.  While we all have teachers and fathers in our own life, we have no better teacher, father or master than Jesus, when it comes to Christian discipleship.  Jesus is the model disciple, the obedient Son of the Father, par excellence.  Just as Jesus was obedient to God, we are called to be obedient to Him.

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