Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12
For additional lectionary resources on the assigned texts for All Saints, please see the Craft of Preaching articles.
This passage introduces a chapter in Matthew filled with Jesus’ warnings to the scribes and Pharisees.
Yet it is important to note from the onset that the narrative audience of the chapter is the Jewish crowds and Jesus’ disciples (23:1), with no indication that the Pharisees or scribes are listening in. The chapter functions as a negative example for those who follow Jesus, as well as a partial rationale for the judgment on current Jerusalem leadership and the temple which will be the focus of Matthew 24.
To gain a better sense of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, we would do well to remind ourselves of their primary motivations and distinctives. According to Josephus, the Pharisees surpassed other Jews in their knowledge of the Torah (Life, 38). They were particularly concerned to bring the practices of purification necessary for temple participation into their everyday experience. The Pharisees were not attempting to earn a place in God’s covenant through their Torah observance. Instead, as part of God’s covenant people, they attempted to live out faithfulness to the Law, with a strong focus on avoiding ritual defilement whenever possible.
Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees and scribes is not with their intentions in relation to God per se. We see from this passage that the two significant critiques Jesus provides have to do with (1) their lack of obedience to the Torah as they teach it to the people (23:2-4); and (2) the motivation in doing the Law as a way to gain human favor and honor (23:5-7). Regarding the first, Jesus’ followers are told to listen to and obey what the Pharisees and scribes teach from the Torah, since they “sit on Moses’ seat.” Yet Jesus will immediately qualify the authority of the Pharisees: they themselves do not practice what they preach. This may sound odd, since the Pharisees were known for their devotion to the Law. Yet, as Matthew has shown earlier in his gospel, Jesus indicts the Pharisees for their interpretation of the Torah along with oral tradition when the latter provides a way out of obeying the former. In Matthew 15, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and scribes for putting their oral tradition above the command to honor parents, thereby breaking God’s command in their attempts to keep it (15:3-6)! In addition, the Pharisees are described as putting heavy burdens on those they teach (23:4; the yoke image would have brought to mind the teaching of Torah). By this Jesus places the Pharisees in direct contrast to himself as Torah teacher, since his yoke–his teaching of Torah–is easy and light, not heavy and burdensome (11:28-30), in part because his interpretation of the Torah places centrality on love, mercy, and justice.
Just as Jesus has called his disciples to a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20), in Matthew 23:1-4 he calls his disciples into faithful obedience in contrast to these leaders. Matthew also alludes back to earlier teaching, reminding them that Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah brings life and rest (11:28-30). Both of these reminders can be contextualized in our preaching. Faithful obedience–loyalty to God and God’s word–is to be central to Christian living (cf. 23:23). In a cultural context that worships freedom from tradition and constraints–in which religious regulations or laws are often viewed, de facto, as heavy and burdensome–Jesus calls his followers to faithfulness and obedience with the assurance that his teachings are easy loads to bear (11:28-30). Matt 23:1-4 also reminds Christian leaders to reflect upon their own teaching: Are we placing heavy burdens upon those entrusted to us without lifting a finger in aid? Or do we share the teachings of Jesus that bring promised rest?
Jesus’ second critique of the scribes and Pharisees is that they do the religious practices for the wrong audience (23:5-7; see parallel ideas in 6:1-18). They wear the required religious garment with fringes (per Numbers 15:37-40), but they accentuate the length “to be seen by others” (23:5). They seek honor from people rather than praise from God alone for their religious observance. Nowhere do we hear Jesus faulting their religious practice per se. Instead, he is highly critical of their misplaced focus upon human accolades.
In contrast, Jesus’ followers are prohibited from elevating anyone among them over the others. This is quite a counter-cultural call! Seeking places of honor and the best seats in public gatherings as the Pharisees are described as doing (23:6-7) would have been the acceptable and expected behavior in the first century context. Jesus’ renunciation of status concerns and practices in his community would have been difficult to fully envision in that context. In fact, earlier in Matthew the disciples struggle to understand Jesus’ teaching on status reversal (cf. 18:1-5; 19:30-20:16; 20:20-28).
This particular message from Matthew continues to speak with relevance to the contemporary church. For, even if we believe ourselves to be more democratic than our ancient brothers and sisters, it is often the case that “[t]he Christian community resembles a Wall Street exchange of works wherein the elite are honored and the ordinary ignored.”(Manning 1990) When we walk into our ministry settings, who is it most important to acknowledge first? Who is “expendable” among those we are called to lead? The answers to these kinds of questions will help us to see the ranking within the church we and our congregations have envisioned and often supported. All of us are prone to desire prestige and status. In order to preach this Matthean text, we will need to address implicit and explicit ways that our structures might function in ways contrary to Jesus’ teachings, keeping the humble (in status) humble and maintaining the status advantages of the ‘elite.’ The hope offered us as we address these difficult issues is a gracious heavenly Father and Jesus our Messiah who will continue to instruct us and lead us as communities of faith (23:10).