Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12
We begin today chapter 23 of Matthew which consists of a severe indictment of the Pharisees and Scribes by Jesus. This is not to be taken as a blanket condemnation of every individual Pharisee and Scribe, because we know that many of them were good people. One outstanding example is Gamaliel who appears in the Acts of the Apostles as a man of justice and integrity. Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night and was involved in Jesus’ burial, was also a Pharisee.
The passage certainly reflects some of the conflicts which arose between the early Christians (especially those who were Jews themselves) and those Jews who were opposed to the Christian Way, who saw it as a heresy and who often subjected the Christians to verbal and even physical attacks and harassment.
What Jesus is attacking is not so much a particular people as certain attitudes of mind. And these attitudes can be found just as easily within the Christian community of that time and every period since then. We should listen to Jesus’ words, then, directed not so much to abstract “Pharisees and Scribes” but to ourselves. It is for our benefit and reflection that they have been included in the Gospel. The Gospel is written for us and to us; it is not a historical diatribe against certain people in the past.
Jesus first of all emphasises that as people in authority and experts on the subject, the Scribes and Pharisees should be listened to with respect and they should be obeyed when they teach. But Jesus says that in their behaviour their example should not be followed. “Their words are bold but their deeds are few.”
They have no hesitation in drawing up rules which are difficult for people to carry out but they do absolutely nothing to help in their implementation. The Church has not always been without guilt in this kind of thing, even in our own day. Nor have civil legislators or other people in authority, including parents of families or teachers in schools, been without fault.
This is the double standard, where people set the rules which they themselves do not keep: “Do as I say, not as I do” or “You will do it because I tell you to do it.”
Secondly, the Pharisees are attacked because everything they do is to attract attention to themselves. But it is all on the outside. What we call today ‘image’. Their phylacteries were bigger than others’ and their tassels huge. The phylactery was a small box containing some of the central words of the Law. It was worn on the arm or the forehead, a literal interpretation of the exhortation in Exodus (13:9), “[the Law] shall be as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead”. There were four tassels, sewn at each corner of one’s cloak.
The message is clear: “We are better, we are holier.” But it is a sham because it is all on the outside. But when it comes to ‘image’ our contemporary world has nothing to learn from the past.
They also expect special attention to be given to them: the first row in the synagogue, places of honour at banquets, special honorific titles. Sad to say, we have seen this not infrequently among church clerics in our own lifetime. We see it daily among our politicians, business leaders, our media personalities. They are not only given these things; they soon expect them as a right. It is the VIP syndrome and often it is pathetic: the private jet, the executive lounge in the airport, the special table in the restaurant, the limousine from the hotel…
Even ordinary people become slaves of the image: the brand label on the clothes they wear, the places where they live, the cars they drive, and all the other consumer baubles with which they surround themselves. None of these things, says Jesus, makes a person great.
The greatest is the one who serves, that is, the person who uses his or her gifts for the benefit of others, whose whole life is dedicated to making this world a better place for others to live in. A person to whom such trappings are totally irrelevant.