Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Lectionary Reflections on Matthew 23
October 30, 2011
Most parents have, at one time or another, jokingly said, "Do as I say, not as I do." But somehow, children never seem to listen. Why? Because apparently, actions speak louder than words.
The warning Matthew's Jesus (23:1-12) is issuing to those under the influence of the Pharisees of the time is "Do as they say (for, after all, they sit on Moses' seat), but not as they do."
This warning embodies the tension that runs all through Matthew's gospel: respect for the Pharisees' making a priority of the law and criticism of their way of living out that priority. Scholars have puzzled over Matthew's ambivalent relationship to Jewish tradition. On the one hand, Matthew is loyal to the Torah, but on the other hand he is sharply critical of its main teachers, the scribes and Pharisees. His gospel combines penetrating criticisms of their behavior (as here in chapter 23) alongside instructions to abide by the Torah, to obey the law even the last jot and tittle (5:17-19). There is the call to obey the instruction of the scribes and Pharisees, but also the caution to reject their lifestyle (23:2-3). Disciples are expected to keep the Sabbath, to fast, to bring their offerings in accordance with Jewish tradition (6:16ff; 24:20; 5:23f) and to pay the Temple tax (17:24f), but at the same time, Jesus is presented as the one who challenges traditional interpretations of Sabbath, ritual purity, and food laws.
So while Matthew is loyal to the Torah and to the spirit of Judaism's worship and devotional practices (Mt. 5:17-20), he is, at the same time, critical of its tendency, in some circles in his day, to focus on who is excluded rather than who is included and to be willing to settle for outward observances rather than inward devotion. For Matthew, as for Mark, discipleship involves a purity of heart and not just of hands washed clean before eating (Mk. 7:14-23; Mt. 15:10-20). Jesus emphasizes that the heart is the wellspring of good and evil actions alike. He criticizes acts of piety done with public pomp motivated by a desire for others' approval, rather than by devotion to God and neighbor (Mt. 6:1-18, 23:5-7).
Many scholars assert that the prolonged attack against "the scribes and Pharisees" in Matthew 23 may reflect more a conflict between Matthew and the rabbis of his own time close to the end of the first century than an actual contest between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his day some 40-50 years earlier (Perrin, 71). On this theory, Matthew 23 reflects the tension between the Jewish synagogue and the new Christian community.
Apparently, Matthew thought that some, not all, of the Pharisees started out with good intentions but became corrupted by self-interest. The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism that existed, alongside many others, in Palestinian Jewish society from about 200 B.C.E. to 100 C.E. They were probably educated bureaucrats who served the ruling class. They sought to preserve Israel's identity by strict adherence to purity and Sabbath laws. They were influential in Jewish society and were looked upon favorably by at least some of the population. This is why the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector would have had such a shock value for original listeners. The listeners of Jesus' day would have expected the Pharisee to be a careful observer of the Law. They would not have expected the tax collector to go to the temple at all. The parable serves up two behaviors that are out of character: that the Pharisee prays in a self righteous manner and that the tax collector prays at all! (McKenzie, Parables for Today 58)
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.