Our reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
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Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all siblings. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”. (Matthew 23:1-12)
The first portion of this passage only appears in Matthew and may be simply how this version of the Jesus story introduces the condemnations that follow. Jesus’ critique was about how the Torah (“Moses”) was being interpreted and practiced. He was not critiquing fidelity to Torah itself.
Something else to note in this reading is the phrase sitting in “Moses’ seat” indicating sole or supreme authority. At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were competing with other groups and among many players and competitors for authority and power in the Temple state system in Jerusalem. But once the temple was destroyed and Jerusalem razed in 70 C.E., there was no longer a Sanhedrin and no longer a temple with a high priesthood aristocracy. The sole and supreme authority after 70 C.E., the “seat of Moses,” was held only by the surviving Pharisees. This phrase suggests that the gospel of Matthew was written down much closer to 70 C.E. than to the lifetime of Jesus or the events the gospel stories are about.
For early Jewish Jesus followers in Galilee, Torah observance (“Moses”) was still of moral, economic and even political significance, and their Jesus still upholds the importance of Torah fidelity. As I’ve often said, Matthew’s Jesus was not starting a new religion. He was leading a Jewish renewal movement, calling his listeners back to the economic justice themes from the Torah and Hebrew prophets that were relevant to the poor and others who were being marginalized and excluded.
Jesus’ critiques should not be interpreted as being against the Torah. They are much more against how those still in whatever positions of power remained after 70 C.E. paid lip service to the Torah but did not lift the burdens of those the Torah socially and economically prioritized. These leaders “honored the Torah with their words,” but their actions were still out of harmony with the Torah’s economic teachings: “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
This is a reoccurring theme in Matthew. In Matthew 5:20 we read, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” It is also found in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus says, “‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them’” (Luke 11:46).
We’ll begin to unpack how this might apply in our context today, next.
(Read Part 2)