This statement reflects much more the Pharisees after 70 C.E. than the Pharisees active during Jesus’ life. The Pharisees’ popularity with the masses at the time of Jesus was rooted in their liberal interpretations of the Torah that lifted the masses’ burdens while the Sadducees, who were the wealthy class, had much more restrictive definitions of Torah fidelity to protect their own positions of power and privilege. (See Solidarity with the Crucified Community.)
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
As we progress through these initial critiques, we do pick up on a theme that are repeated in other gospels:
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:43)
“As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.’” (Mark 12:38-39)
The last half our reading this week builds on this theme with a critique of titles. It’s important to remember the context for that section. Jesus was critiquing those seeking political power and privilege over the people rather than doing the work required to bring about changes that make our present world a safer, more compassionate, just home for all.
So Matthew’s gospel is introducing a powerful theme that I believe was intended to foster a more egalitarian environment in the Jesus followers community in Galilee. By 70 C.E. “Rabbi” had come to be used as an honorific title for great teachers, but with that title came a hierarchy of power and authority. Matthew’s gospel therefore responds with “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all siblings.”
The same egalitarian principle can be seen in the critique of the titles of “father” and “instructor” (see 2 Kings 2:12; 6:21). Again the theme here is opposing a growing trend toward systems of hierarchy within the early Jesus movement. We know that ultimately egalitarianism lost out in Christianity, and systems of hierarchy and harmful abuses resulted. Matthew’s gospel seems to be an early intervention.
Lastly, Matthew’s gospel picks up the theme from Mark that if there is a hierarchy, Jesus followers should be seeking positions of service over positions of rule. It must be noted that Christians in positions of social privilege have used some of these passages against those in more subjugated social locations, encouraging them to accept their social location passively.
Is there anything life-giving we could take from this section of our reading? There is. We’ll consider it in our final installment.
(Read Part 3)