Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.' But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father, for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
- Matthew 23:1-12
In our current readings, Jesus is in Jerusalem, and it is Holy Week. He has made His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and engaged in confrontation, questioning, and testing by the leadership, with His own challenging responses. (See the readings from Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.) On Saturday we read that the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him and asked Him, saying: "Teacher, Moses said that if a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were with us seven brothers. The first died after he had married, and having no offspring, left his wife to his brother. Likewise the second also, and the third, even to the seventh. Last of all the woman died also. Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had her." Jesus answered and said to them, "You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven. But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living." And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching. But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.'" This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." The lectionary skips over the end of chapter 22, in which Jesus confronts the leadership over the divine identity of the Messiah (22:41-46).
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers." This begins Jesus' final public sermon, which is a grand critique of the ways of the scribes and Pharisees. There are several themes here, which will continue in the following readings as we read through the sermon. In these verses above, Jesus teaches that the leaders have God-given authority and that they teach God's law. But they are personally "ungodly and cold-hearted," as my study bible puts it. Their teaching, which comes from the word of God through the Scripture, is to be honored, but they should not be personally imitated. As the sermon continues, we will read an eight-fold indictment -- charging them with inverting the values of God, mean-spiritedness, greed, ambition, caring only for the external appearances, and blindly self-righteous. My study bible says that while these charges were directed by Jesus against the Jewish leaders of His day, every single word applies equally today to those in Church who behave in this way. Here, to sit in Moses' seat means to hold the succession of office down from Moses himself. In the synagogue, the custom was for the teacher to speak while seated as a sign of this authority. St. Chrysostom is cited by my study bible, who commented that the scribes were depraved in thought and heart, but Jesus still upholds the dignity of their office. They speak not their own words, but God's. So it is within the Church. The clergy are shown respect as they hold apostolic office, even though they are sinners. Moreover, the sins of the clergy do not relieve the people of their own responsibility before God. This reflects another important theme of Jesus' sermon: that there is one Teacher and one Father above all. Any worldly father or teacher must lead people to God; Jesus' indictment here is of those who fail to do so, and instead place themselves in God's position.
"But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, 'Rabbi, Rabbi.'" Phylacteries are small leather pouches which contain passage of Scripture. They are worn on the arm or forehead. The practice emphasizes the understanding that God's Law must always be kept in mind (Exodus 13:9). What Jesus is criticizing here is a false piety, done for show -- making them entirely conspicuous, with all emphasis entirely for appearance's sake. The real intention is linked to what John's Gospel calls the praise of men.
"But you, do not be called 'Rabbi'; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father, for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." My study bible says that Christ's warning against calling hypocrites father and teacher is not an absolute prohibition against using these terms. The terms are used many times in the New Testament. (For Father, see Luke 16:24; 1 Corinthians 4:15; Colossians 3:21. For Teacher, see John 3:10; Acts 13:1; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11; 2 Timothy 1:11.) This is not a literal prohibition. From the earliest times of the Church, bishops and presbyters were called "father." This is not because they take the place of God, but rather they lead people to God in fatherly care, which is in itself a fatherly authority within community. Jesus is rather teaching here about humility, and the essential need for humility among His servants who will be the bishops and founding pillars of His Church. The lesson is for all of us. To fail to humble oneself is to fail in the gravest and grandest sense.
Jesus' words teach us a great deal about hypocrisy. What can it lead to? What is it about? Here, in these men, hypocrisy plays the role of facilitating downfall and reckoning. It enables the practice, in the "name of God," of what is detrimental to those who are to be led to God. Jesus speaks of the emphasis on appearance, which is crucial to understanding where He is coming from, and is all-important and essential to these men as hypocrites. The broad phylacteries, and enlarged borders of their garments shout out a testimony to faith and piety, but they also hide what is contradictory to faith in their hearts. To be a teacher and a father is a great thing, but when the teachers fail to lead their students to God, when fathers fail to do the same, it is the students -- the flock -- and thereby the whole community, which suffers. In keeping with this understanding and outcome, Jesus first decries their hardheartedness: "They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers." A father and a teacher must have the humility to teach and to lead, because he's not supposed to be working for himself. In fact, that is one definition of a cult. A true religious teacher is supposed to be working as a servant -- serving not only God but also the community, and especially the "little ones," the least powerful and most vulnerable. Hypocrisy, with a focus on living for show, disables true service. It is a violation of the mission to care for the community, and in particular the littlest ones, the least of these. It is the way, in fact, that those whose "angels always behold the face of My Father in heaven" (18:10) may be exploited, abused, and led astray. This is central to the traditional teaching in the Church of modesty and self-control, awareness of one's own desires and habits, with the primary focus on serving God. It is consistent with the following of the two great commandments, as named by Christ in our previous reading: loving God and loving neighbor. These teachings apply to all of us, and particularly to those who would lead. To exalt oneself, in this understanding, is to be in a position where one is certain to be humbled by judgment and failure; and to humble oneself is an act that will be exalted by God. It is precisely in the midst of this seeming paradox that we find our faith and direction. We, that is, who know who is the true Father and the real Teacher of us all.