Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12
In Matthew 23 we encounter a sustained condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees, placed upon the very lips of Jesus.
This lectionary excerpt constitutes the first twelve of thirty-six or thirty-nine verses, depending on one’s analysis. Among other things, the passage presents us with a perennial question: What makes for authentic teaching? Jesus praises the content of his opponents’ teaching, but their conduct does not comport with their words.
Jesus almost surely did engage in controversy with the scribes, Pharisees, and other authorities, but this particular speech also reflects Matthew’s distinctive point of view. Matthew 23 apparently elaborates material we find in Q (Luke 11:39-52) and in Mark (12:37b-40). Discerning preachers will take note of Matthew’s situation and agenda before plunging too quickly into their own sermons.
Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus the unauthorized Jewish teacher. Chris Keith points out that Matthew portrays Jesus as a teacher of the law who lacks the literacy and scribal skills of other authorized teachers yet impresses audiences with compelling authority (Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict). After his unsuccessful appearance in the Nazareth synagogue (Matt 13:53-58), Matthew’s Jesus performs his teaching in public spaces outside the synagogues.
Yet Matthew’s Jesus interprets the law under his own authority. While Moses records God’s words on a mountain, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus ascends a mountain to pronounce his own interpretation of that law. Furthermore, Matthew’s Jesus insists that his followers observe the law faithfully: he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and his disciples had better exceed the righteousness of the experts (5:17-20). In Matthew Jesus teaches his disciples a distinctive way to fulfill the law, a teaching that invites conflict from other authorities.
One way to avoid anti-Judaism in our preaching is to find the deeper challenges that lie beneath Matthew’s specific language. Almost all interpreters believe Matthew’s Gospel emerged during a formative and conflicted moment in the emergence of rabbinic Judaism. With Jerusalem and its temple decimated, Jews began the process of imagining what it would mean to follow God without a central temple for pilgrimage and sacrifice.
During this period authoritative teachers of the Torah emerged. Matthew’s Gospel reflects conflicts between Jesus’ followers and their fellow Jews. One such conflict peeks through in Matthew 28:11-15, which reports a rumor that “has been spread among the Jews to this day” to the effect that, having stolen Jesus’ body, the disciples proclaimed a fraudulent resurrection. Matthew’s Gospel, then, involves a conflict regarding who has the authority to interpret Judaism in this new era — and Matthew promotes Jesus’ authority over other options.
The problem, of course, is that too many preachers contribute to anti-Jewish sentiment by condemning the scribes and Pharisees. Many who hear our sermons will assume that Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ opponents speaks for actual Jewish attitudes — both in the ancient world and in our own. Responsible preachers will not waste time condemning ancient Jewish movements that did in fact capture the loyalties of many people, and probably for good reasons. Instead, we will identify that deeper set of issues that underlies the conflict: What makes for authentic teaching? That question transcends ancient polemics. It presses beyond modern ones as well.
With its harsh and sustained polemic, Matthew 23 may strike congregations as a bit of a shock. But Matthew has prepared its audience for this speech by escalating the conflict between Jesus and various authorities. We have already seen that Jesus calls his followers to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (5:17-20), and we know that he has engaged in other controversies throughout the Gospel. Things really intensify when Jesus enters Jerusalem and creates a disturbance in the temple.
At that point the chief priests and the scribes express consternation (21:14-15). On the next day the chief priests and elders challenge Jesus’ authority directly (21:23). (Notice how Matthew identifies several different groups as Jesus’ opponents.) Jesus then tells two parables, the Two Sons (21:28-32) and the Tenants (21:33-41), which the chief priests and the Pharisees take as an attack upon themselves (21:45).
Generations ago commentators routinely dismissed Matthew’s “clumsy” style of narration. Matthew links one controversy story to another with phrases like “And again” (22:1), “Then” (22:15), and “On that day” (22:23), along with participial phrases that indicate proximity between one story and another (21:45; 22:1, 15, 29, 34, 41).
Matthew is not clumsy but intentional. This series of controversies pits Jesus against the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Pharisees, the Pharisees’ disciples, the Herodians, and the Sadducees, sometimes in teams. Matthew introduces Jesus’ invective at 23:1 with another transitional marker: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples.” Jesus’ criticisms throughout chapter 23 constitute a final response to the pressure he’s been receiving throughout his stay in Jerusalem.
Looking beyond Jesus’ opponents in Matthew 23, we see something else. The criterion for authentic teaching amounts to a fit between content and conduct. True teaching, Jesus says, manifests itself at two levels.
First, authentic teachers live according to their own precepts. We might underestimate the remaining verses in Matthew 23 by limiting them to a critique of hypocrisy. After all, Jesus employs the term “hypocrite,” which connotes a stage actor in Greek, six times in chapter 23 and on several other occasions in Matthew.
Surely play acting lies in view. But there’s more. Jesus’ speech sends us back to Augustine’s classic criterion for faithful interpretation: Scripture’s purpose is that we should love God and love our neighbor. How often do we encounter teachers who espouse “correct” doctrine in hateful, demeaning ways? True teaching does not abuse other people.
Second, authentic teachers do not promote their own status. It’s not particularly common for professional teachers, whether pastors, professors, or others, to accept moves “down” the professional ladder. We all enjoy a prominent seat or desk from which to pontificate. We all like our name in the credits, on the cover, or on the sign. But Matthew identifies authentic teachers as servants who seek neither promotion nor acclaim. Few of us fit that bill.