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Matthew 23:1-12

October 27, 2014

This passage begins a long series of criticisms of the scribes and Pharisees. Since modern-day Judaism is a direct outgrowth of the scribes and Pharisees (the destruction of the temple in AD 70 ended the religious leadership of the priests), Jews today often take offense at the polemics of this chapter. And rightly so. This chapter paints too broadly, giving the impression that all scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites. In reality, many of the scribes and Pharisees were remarkable for their devotion to God and living out that devotion in faithful and consistent ways. I don’t doubt that Jesus criticized some of the practices of his contemporaries, but this passage has been influenced by Matthew’s later experience: growing disputes and hostility between the Jews in the synagogue who reject following Jesus, and the Jews and Gentiles in Matthew’s community who are committed to following Jesus.

“Scribes” refers to professional religious scholars who were experts in interpreting the Mosaic law. It might be better to translate this term as “lawyers” or “lawyers of God’s law.” “Pharisees” refers to a group of laypeople, sometimes with little training, who took the lead in trying to keep the ancient faith of Israel vibrant and relevant. They advocated rigorous following of Mosaic law and developed a body of additional teachings (tradition of the elders) to fill in any gaps or questions about how best to follow it. The scribes and Pharisees were popular with most Jews and respected.

So it is not surprising that Jesus would begin by affirming their status (verses 2-3a). The scribes and Pharisees were indeed seen as the “official” interpreters of the law. They were, in a sense, the proper representatives of Moses. (This was especially true in Matthew’s day when the priesthood no longer functioned.) As these verses imply, Jesus was actually in agreement with the scribes and Pharisees most of the time. He himself taught many of the same doctrines the Pharisees taught and would have been considered a Pharisee himself except that he took an audacious prophetic approach of pronouncing God’s will and word for today (rather than sticking with interpreting the old word).

Despite his general agreement with the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus does have some criticisms, and they fall into three areas: 1) they don’t always practice what they teach; 2) they advocate an approach to carrying out the law that makes it a burden; and 3) they desire attention and status over others.

Not practicing what one preaches is a common problem for everyone in every religion and political party. But it is particularly disappointing when we see hypocrisy among the very people we look to for modeling faithful living. For better or worse, religious leaders must be an example for others. This can make religious leadership emotionally difficult–many pastors feel like they can’t be their true selves because they always have to put on a pleasant and pious face. But this is the original definition of hypocrisy–wearing a mask. Pastors should be honest about their feelings and flaws, allow themselves to be tired, and express their unique personalities and preferences; that is also a valuable example!

The second criticism can be seen in Jesus’ debates over Sabbath observance and purity rituals. Whereas the Pharisees took a literal approach to what it means not to work on the Sabbath, Jesus took a liberationist approach. Jesus saw the point of Sabbath as liberation from drudgery and all that oppresses life. Thus, healing people on the Sabbath, or plucking some grain to eat so as not to go hungry, were not acts of work but of liberation. For Jesus, the Pharisees’ interpretation of Sabbath observance was a misdirected burden, missing the underlying purpose of Sabbath. Similarly, Jesus took a less burdensome approach to purity laws. He prioritized inner purity over outer/literal/physical purity. If inner purity was in place, then outer rituals of purity–particularly the ones invented by the “tradition of the elders”–could be ignored.

Desiring attention and status over others was something Jesus frequently warned his disciples about. For Jesus, the dawning kingdom of God is egalitarian. Yes, there are designated leaders (the twelve disciples are themselves leaders), but the leaders are not to be put on a pedestal of privilege. Rather, all are to share the same life together and receive equal respect. Leaders lead by serving rather than being served.

In Matthew’s day, as the scribes and Pharisees were increasing their leadership power, Matthew saw a trend among them–and probably within his own church as well–which he did not like and which was contrary to the way of Jesus: the use of exalted titles for leaders. As an organization increases in size and power, there is a natural tendency for the leadership to become more stratified and removed (especially if the leadership is made up of paid professionals). One way this stratification and formal distance is emotionally maintained is through requiring the use of titles for the leaders. In Matthew’s day these titles were “rabbi” (which means “great one” or “master”), “father” and “teacher.” Matthew opposes the use of these titles–or any titles. Only God can be given a title because only God is above us. We in the community of faith are “brothers.” In other words, we are like siblings in a family. Just as we would never address one of our brothers or sisters as “master” or “father” or “teacher,” so it is inappropriate to use these titles in the family of faith. These titles cannot help but create special status and authority and an over-under relationship. Church leaders often seek these titles–both for their egos as well as for the practical authority it tends to add to their role. But Jesus advocates a different kind of authority–the authority we receive by serving with self-giving love.

I find it interesting that commentaries usually find a way around this teaching of Jesus. I find their arguments unconvincing, but that is because I was brought up in a religious tradition that avoided the use of titles. Yes, it would be difficult for all churches to stop using “Doctor” or “Reverend” or “Father” or “Bishop” or “Pastor” as a way of properly addressing the congregational leader, but I think it would be transformative. I use the designation “pastor” to describe my role in my congregation, but I do not use it as a title by which people are supposed to address me. Some do address me as “Pastor,” especially children, and I appreciate the intended respect behind it; but I do not encourage it among adults. Perhaps the bigger problem, though, is not the use of titles for clergy, but the fact that in most denominations the clergy have become a professional class. When being a church leader becomes a fulltime paid position, I think that tends to create as much stratification in the congregation as the use of titles. I say this as one of those fulltime paid clergy!

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