Tuesday of week 2 of Lent – Gospel


Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12

It looks like an attack on the Pharisees but we should really see it directed towards members of the Christian community, especially its leaders. Jesus levels two criticisms against the Pharisees:

– they don’t practise what they preach, and

– they do what they do to attract the admiration of others.

In fact, the words of Jesus are warning to all people in authority. Jesus was attacking the Pharisees but his words can be applied to many positions in our own society. Executives, managers, doctors, lawyers, bishops, priests, civil servants, parents can all be included here.

In so far as they have genuine authority, they should be listened to – the doctor about things medical, the lawyer about things legal, the priest about things spiritual, the parent about family matters…

The Pharisees tried to impress by wearing wider phylacteries and longer tassels. The phylacteries were small boxes containing verses of scripture which were worn on the left forearm and the forehead. The tassels, worn on the corners of one’s garment, were prescribed by Mosaic law as a reminder to keep the commandments. By making each of these items larger one drew attention to one’s superior piety and observance. It is not difficult to see parallels in our time.

Unfortunately, it would be wrong to follow the behaviour of such people especially when they become arrogant and domineering, when they use their authority to draw attention to themselves, to assert their supposedly superior status. When they impose burdens on those ‘below’ them which they themselves do nothing to alleviate. One is reminded of Miss Brodie in the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie telling her students who questioned something she had done: “Girls, don’t do as I do; do as I say.”

Authority is not for power but for empowering and enabling. Real authority is a form of service, not a way of control or domination or a claim to special privileges. So Jesus has no time for people who insist on being addressed by their formal titles. Matthew’s attack on the Pharisees again points to similar weaknesses on the part of church leaders in his time. It is something that again we are all too familiar with in our own time.

“Hi, Jack!” “Mr Smith to you, if you don’t mind.”

“Hi, Father Jack!” “Monsignor Jones to you.”

As Jesus says, ultimately we are all brothers and sisters. And elsewhere he tells us that the greatest among us is the one who best serves the needs of those around him rather than the one who has the most impressive titles, or the biggest desk, or eats in the executive dining room, or has his/her picture on the cover of Time or Hello.

Unfortunately, we contribute a lot to this nonsense because some of us dream of being there ourselves some day.

“Anyone who lifts himself up will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be lifted up.” The perfect model is Jesus himself, who “though in the form of God emptied himself… walked the path of obedience all the way to death… For this reason God raised him to the highest place” (Phil 2:7-9).

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