Tuesday of Week 2 of Lent – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12

Today’s Gospel looks like an attack on the scribes and Pharisees, but we should really see it as 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 a warning to all people in authority. Jesus was attacking the scribes and 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.

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 scribes and Pharisees again points to similar weaknesses on the part of church leaders in his time. It is something that again we may be 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 a magazine. Unfortunately, we contribute a lot to this nonsense because some of us dream of being there ourselves someday.

All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

The perfect model is Jesus himself, who:

…though he existed in the form of God…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name… (Phil 2:6-9)

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