(for the Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost, November 2, 2014)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12. NRSV).
Jesus considers it necessary to spell out the values of the religious leaders who ‘sit on Moses’ seat’. I wonder why?
The crowds and disciples, or at the very least Matthew’s readers, already know Jesus’ thoughts regarding the ‘scribes and Pharisees’. He named them ‘hypocrites’ on more than one occasion. Our passage follows the same line: ‘…do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach’.
Jesus does not oppose what is being taught, however. In fact, he opens with an urge to follow the teaching these religious people offer. After all, it springs from the very seat of Moses. Good stock indeed.
This will take some discernment on the part of Jesus’ listeners. Dividing between word and action is not nearly as easy as we may initially think. Action gives content to word. Where the two are at a loggerhead, sometimes – perhaps often – the action sounds out the loudest.
So Jesus, after extensive parabolic criticism of these leaders, is willing to make explicit what has so far been implicit. And why not? They have already left to plot his downfall.
Jesus seems to have two main concerns. First, they assign heavy religious burdens and are unwilling to assist in carrying them. It is a formula that assigns them to never truly knowing what it is they ask of others. Second, the ‘deeds’ they do perform, the clothes they wear, and the titles they enjoy, are mere display. They are performed in order to be seen by people.
It is a show.
Jesus offers a radical remedy. The titles enjoyed by these religious leaders will have no place among his followers: no rabbis, no teachers, no fathers, no instructors. If any of these terms are used that are to be directed solely to God and God’s Messiah. Terms and titles appropriate among the Jesus-community: student and servant.
His is a radical approach that the church still struggles to implement.
But what is the cost if we do not? Surely the temptation faced by the ancient Pharisees is not simply an old issue.