Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 5, 2023

Matthew 23:1-12 Commentary

We might be tempted to view this text primarily as a stinging indictment of religious leadership. Though it is as much, it is also contrasting pictures of discipling communities. One builds up brothers and sisters (or students), whereas the other leaves them weighed down and stuck. One surrounds its members with a community of support, while the other would rather see members separated from one another. One’s trajectory is towards God, the other’s towards personal recognition.

Scribes and Pharisees were a mix of ordained and lay leadership, and on the whole, were intent on helping normal people understand how to keep the law. For instance, they were the ones who came up with the list of the sort of actions one was allowed to do on the Sabbath. Jesus is not condemning their practice of thinking carefully about how to keep the law or their commitment to the traditional teachings of the faith. In fact, he supports the work of teaching and sharing that is captured in the symbolism of the Moses seat. (The Moses seat represented the tradition of the law all the way from Sinai when it was given to Moses and passed down through the elders and the prophets to the present-day teaching leadership.)

So learning and contemplating how to keep the law in one’s context is not the problem. One of the issues is that the Scribes and Pharisees don’t practice what they preach. The message coming out of their mouths is right, but they have not allowed the message to impact their inner selves. The leadership’s code of conduct runs on a different set of demands—one straight out of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It results in being noticed, envied, and held in high regard simply for the sake of being a “who’s who” or someone that people know.

But it is not just the hypocrisy of their actions that makes the leadership style of the Pharisees wrong, it’s the way it hinders the lives of those they lead. Authoritarian leadership that demands a strict observance of the law on others is the problem. It’s especially blatant because the strictness only runs one-way, downward. Jesus does not like that these leaders have interpreted the law for everyday practice in a heavy-handed way (verse 4). Their standards are a ridiculous burden on others and they do not seem to care—they will not “lift a finger” for the sake of any one else’s struggles. It’s almost as though they are glad to have the problems of others to point to… it underscores their value as law-givers if the problems persist!

But this lack of sympathy and compassion goes against the very purpose of the laws in the first place. God intends them for our good, as individuals and as a community; they are not arbitrary or superfluous but are meant to build up the community and its people by safeguarding health and wholeness for everyone.

So as the Pharisees and scribes laid down the law, they viewed that their job was done; the rest was somebody else’s problem. Their brand of teaching the tradition was about authority, not accountability.

Accountability is where Jesus begins his description of what should be (verse 8). Having already established that teaching is not the problem (verse 1), Rabbi Jesus reminds his disciples that they are all in this together as his students, as brothers and sisters. It is an inherent togetherness that contrasts the Pharisaical hierarchy that refuses to lift a finger in service to their fellow believer.

And whereas the Scribes and Pharisees were looking for their own ego to be boosted, the way we learn in the community of faith is meant to boost our sense of awe and praise of our heavenly Father. Further to the point, Jesus says, even though they teach you the tradition of the law, there is a greater instructor on how to fulfill the law, the Messiah Christ. Jesus makes this self-proclamation slant, but remember that at this point of Jesus’s time on earth, the disciples have already called him the Christ! Jesus ultimately says, look at me and you will not only hear the law of God, you will see how to live it in a way that is easy and light. (Matthew 11.28-30)

Those who understand and learn this truly do become great like God is great, which is to be truthful, loving, kind, and a servant to others along the way. People like this see someone who is weighed down by the law, and they walk beside them and help to unburden them from the lies that have tied them to seeing the will of God as unattainable demands. They don’t turn their backs after naming what’s wrong, but instead help others journey towards wholeness and truly living as image bearers. They walk in humility together and God finds them beautiful. Amen.

Textual Points

This is one of those passages where Matthew’s community adds a layer of context and understanding to our reading. Matthew composed his gospel after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, when only Pharisaic leadership remained. And here Jesus is, calling them out for teaching the tradition well but failing to live it with any integrity. What do you do when Jesus tells you that the whole leadership is sour? Thankfully, Jesus also provides the hope and focus: our one true teacher, one true Father, and one true Messiah.

In verses 5-7, Jesus describes the Pharisees as attention seekers, though some of the references to their flashiness might be unfamiliar to us: they have extra big phylacteries and fringes. Phylacteries were the leather boxes worn on foreheads or arms; they held portions of Scripture. A big box implied more Scripture… The fringes referenced the tassels on prayer shawls. In other words, the Scribes and Pharisees wanted other people to visually notice that they were piously “better.” The same goes for the reference to the best seats in the synagogue—those were up front, facing the congregation.

Illustration Ideas

Full of relevant points about the hypocrisy of leadership in the church, one scene from the 2008 movie Doubt particularly stands out as an image of contrasts: dinnertime among priests versus the nuns. The priests, who are in charge and who are expected to be more revered than the nuns, have a rich meal of food and wine and crass conversation while the nuns eat a simple meal in silence. Neither way of being is bad in-and-of-itself, but the corruption of the priests, their power and control at the institution, and the way they act like they deserve it, might give us a more modern picture of how Jesus is describing the Pharisees.

Riders are sometimes added by celebrities to their performance contracts, spelling out the details and conditions of the contract, outlining their expectations and extra demands. These range from reasonable to sensational—like only certain kinds of cola products, or M&Ms with a specific colour removed from the bowl. The longer you’re in the business, the easier it seems it becomes to expect that having your extreme demands be met as your right. I wonder if the Pharisees viewed their status-building displays and demands to receive honour as their right as teachers of God’s law.


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