Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12
As a resident of Washington, DC, I recognize political rhetoric, caricatures, and trash-talk when I hear them, and I hear them loud and clear in Matthew 23:1-12.
Allegedly the context is Jesus’ confrontation with the religious leaders in Jerusalem. In the previous two chapters we have encountered the vehemence of that confrontation, but here Jesus’ opponents are not the temple officials (“chief priests and elders” — 21:23), but the Pharisees and, presumably, the scribes who worked with and for them (23:1).
While the Pharisees, a group of lay leaders whose authority lay in their ability to interpret Torah, certainly had a voice in Jesus’ day, it was after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE that they emerged as the primary representatives of the Jewish leadership. The confrontation represented here seems, then, to be the increasingly bitter conflict between the Jewish “congregation” (synagogue) of Matthew’s city and the small group of those “called out” (ekklesia) as Matthew’s church. Theirs was a family fight, and the name-calling and harsh rhetoric flourished.
There were a number of issues dividing the two groups. The Greek terms used to identify them, synagogue and ekklesia, have led many Christian interpreters to frame this as the opening salvo in the Christian polemic against Judaism that has characterized far too much of our shared history. It is important to note, however, that Matthew has Jesus begin by acknowledging the powerful political and social position of the Pharisees, and the unassailable ground of their authority: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (23:2).
What they “say” when they cite the Scriptures is good, but as we have seen through this Gospel, Jesus and his followers do not accept their interpretation (see, for example, 12:3, 5; 19:4, 8-9); 21:16; 22:29, 44-45). The official occupants of “Moses’ seat” (verse 2) can neither interpret them nor follow them, so Jesus’ (and the church’s) instruction is to follow the Scripture that they read, but not to copy what the Pharisees do or follow what they preach (23:3).
Verses 4-10 detail points at which the Pharisees do or counsel things that are inappropriate in the eyes of Jesus’ followers. Clearly they are not telling people that Torah permits theft, murder, covetousness, or other such obviously immoral activities. Rather, the list here turns on issues of justice or status.
The first of the things criticized, heavy burdens imposed on others (verse 4), evokes Jesus’ own ministry, where the requirements of such things as Sabbath observance and purity codes are identified as impossible for poor peasants or the urban poor to follow (8:1-9:8; 12:1-12, for example). The detailed emphasis on following these laws was central to the teaching of the Pharisees, and not taking care to mitigate such things for people marginalized by their society, added the burden of religious approbation to the burdens of poverty–disdain on top of suffering.
The Pharisees’ desire for prestige and honor comes under fire next, with the accusation that they act solely in order to win praise from others. They wear showy prayer shawls with long fringes that will draw attention to themselves, and they always want to be in the most conspicuous places so that folks will see them, treat them with deference, and reward them with titles of honor (verses 5-7).
“Rabbi,” “father,” and “instructor” are specific titles to be shunned (verses 8-10) by Matthew’s community. These are all titles that carry both status and authority in the value system of the Empire. “Father” in particular was the term for the head of a household, whose total life-or-death authority mirrored the role of the emperor. To seek such roles and titles would be seen as desirable and in conformity to the hierarchical values of the Roman Empire, but those values should not prevail for Jesus’ followers.
For them the vision and practice of an egalitarian community, with God and the Messiah as the only authorities to be accorded honor and obeisance, are hallmarks they share with the divine reign whose coming Jesus proclaimed.
The reversals portrayed in verses 11-12 repeat earlier statements in the Gospel about servant hood and humility that are to characterize life in Matthew’s community (see 11:24; 1:1-6; 19: 13-15; 20:20-28). The tenses of the verbs in verses 11-12 make the author’s point clear, namely that one’s present action and attitudes relative to status and dominance will have consequences in God’s eschatological judgment.
It is likely that such differences in the core values of the communities, and not any cultic or doctrinal positions, were the real points of tension that threatened to divide Matthew’s group from the surrounding “synagogue”/congregation. Both groups were trying to negotiate life under Roman rule, and they drew the line allowing no further compromise at different points.
To what extent their positions were shaped by the social and economic status of their members, and to what extent those positions stem from particular readings of Torah, we can never know for certain. Suffice it to say that we heirs of Matthew’s community soon adopted the culturally more comfortable view that this text is opposing. We have become the targets of what began as our own community’s rhetoric and trash-talk about those we consider “other.”