“Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But don’t do what they do, because they don’t practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them. They do everything to be seen by others: They enlarge their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love the place of honor at banquets, the front seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people’” (Matthew 23:1-7 CSB).
The scribes and Pharisees often received criticism by Jesus – and rightly so, as we can see in the opening of this chapter. These two groups were some of the most respected Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. The scribes were considered experts in the Jewish scriptures, largely because they copied God’s word and, as a result, they knew it very well. The Pharisees were considered the most religious of the Jews, by the people as well as by themselves, because they went to great lengths to impress people in how well they kept even the most minute of commands. But Jesus exposed them for their hypocrisy.
Because of their knowledge of God’s word, these two groups were the teachers of the Jews. As Jesus put it, they were “seated in the chair of Moses.” They knew God’s word and they could accurately teach God’s word. Jesus said, “Do whatever they tell you.” The problem wasn’t in their teaching, but in their application to themselves – Jesus said, “they don’t practice what they teach.”
They were quick to tell others what they needed to do – Jesus described this as “they tie up heavy loads that are hard to carry and put them on people’s shoulders.” The problem was that they refused to do it themselves.
The real problem was pinpointed by Jesus: “They do everything to be seen by others.” It was all a big show to impress others. They wore phylacteries (these were boxes that contained scriptures) – but they had to make sure theirs were the largest. They had tassels on their garments – theirs were the longest. They wanted the best, most important seats at banquets, the front seats at synagogues (so people would see them), to be properly greeted when people saw them, and to be given titles to distinguish them from others. They wanted to be recognized as being important.
It is quite easy to see the problems of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus went on in this chapter to call them “hypocrites” – not once or twice but six times, and adding in “Snakes! Brood of vipers!” (Matthew 23:33). And they were guilty. They were playing the part of being someone who was religious but, in reality, it was all a show. They were playing a part.
The real question, though, is not what the scribes and Pharisees were doing but what are we doing? Are we quick to tell others what they need to be doing but slow to start doing it ourselves? Do we crave a title and acknowledgment in order to become involved with our local group of Christians? Do we say or do things so that others can see how religious we are? If we are doing any of these, then the Pharisees and scribes are still alive today.
We aren’t to seek titles of acknowledgment and leadership (Matthew 23:8-10). Instead, we are to serve. Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12). True greatness isn’t found in exalting ourselves and seeking recognition. It is found simply in serving as a Christian.
Readings for next week:
28 January – Matthew 19
29 January – Matthew 20
30 January – Matthew 21
31 January – Matthew 22
1 February – Matthew 23