Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12
Most of us do not expect to hear Jesus say this: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it!” (Matthew 23:2-3)
Can that be right? It’s tempting for many to skip over this part of Jesus’ teaching. The criticism of the scribes and Pharisees that follows is more familiar and comfortable: “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” However, we will misunderstand Matthew’s Gospel if we ignore the first part of the instructions: the scribes and Pharisees teach others to follow God’s law, and they are right to do so!
Modern interpreters of Matthew somehow manage to convince ourselves that Jesus opposed the law. In doing so, we are conditioned by many centuries of Protestant interpretation and by our own experiences of Judaism as a religion that is wholly separate from Christianity. Yet from the very beginning Matthew has been clear to point in the other direction. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-19). He goes on to teach what it means to keep God’s commandments, like “you shall not murder” (Matthew 5:21) and “you shall not commit adultery” (Matthew 5:27).
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is critical of the Pharisees. However, he is not critical because they keep the law. For example, in one case, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for preferring their traditions over God’s command to honor father and mother (Matthew 15:3-5). Similarly, in this passage Jesus is critical of the Pharisees’ actions, but only because they do not practice what they teach. The Pharisees’ teachings are not a problem. But in their practice, the observance of the law becomes a burden that falls on the shoulders of others while the Pharisees reap public acclaim.
Matthew characterizes Jesus as an excellent teacher because he interprets the law with an eye to God’s larger vision for and love for humanity. The Pharisees serve as a literary foil, against which Jesus’ interpretation of the law stands out. In particular, Jesus teaches others to keep the law in a way that also meets the demands of God’s justice and God’s mercy.
Jesus’ actions are consistent with his teachings. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, readers have seen Jesus practicing the law in light of God’s justice and mercy. He keeps the Sabbath while bringing God’s wholeness to people (Matthew 12:9-14). He honors the Sabbath and feeds the hungry (Matthew 12:1-8). He cures the leper and sends him to the priest (Matthew 8:1-4).
Jesus’ message is similar to the prophets who went before him. We like to credit Jesus for offering a new teaching, but the message he speaks here runs deep throughout Judaism. One example is Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” which Jesus quotes twice in Matthew’s gospel. One of these references is Jesus’ response to criticism that he eats with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus answers, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). Later, Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 when he is criticized because his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:7). His responses do not mean that tax collecting and sinning are good. Nor does he argue that keeping the Sabbath is bad. However, Jesus suggests that keeping the law without exercising mercy does not fulfill God’s expectations.
The idea that God’s law should be practiced with mercy was not unique to Jesus, though many Christian interpreters have suggested that it was. Interpretations of this passage often suggest, intentionally or not, that Jewish norms of the time upheld legalistic observance of the law over the practice of mercy. This is a mischaracterization of first century Judaism. It is better to see Matthew as portraying Jesus with ideals that are deeply Jewish. God’s law is a gift to help humans live in relationship with God and one another. Humans need guidance in understanding how to interpret and apply God’s word to their lives.
That is why Matthew characterizes the Messiah as a teacher. “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (Matthew 23:10). Jesus is a teacher par excellence because he interprets God’s law in a way takes seriously the demands of God’s justice and mercy.
Living according to God’s word means living as a servant. “The greatest among you will be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees suggests that the problem is that they use the law as a pretense to receive honor from others. “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi” (Matthew 23:6-7). This description rings too true for many of us. We love the trappings of living according to God’s word. We set ourselves up for applause. But it is easier to appear pious or to instruct others regarding their faults than to implement God’s commands in our own lives.
Jesus’ interpretation of the law underscores that humans are on a level playing field. God extends mercy to all, including the tax collector and the sinner. The one who seeks attention and status through God’s law misinterprets it. The attitude of a servant is more appropriate, for the servant shapes their actions according to the master’s will. Jesus shows us a master whose expectations are high, but they are guided first and foremost by mercy.