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Matthew 23:1-12

Lesson Focus:  Teachers and religious leaders are to be humble servants of the people.  

Catch up on the story:  Matthew has just finished telling us a series of controversy stories that took place between Jesus and Israel’s religious leadership.  The religious leadership sought to entrap Jesus so that they either might discredit him with the people or entice him to say something that would bring him into conflict with the political establishment.  At each turn, Jesus has met the religious leader’s attempts to trap him with indictments against them.  

This first part of chapter 23 acts as both a conclusion to the previous section with its controversy stories and an introduction to Jesus’ final sermon in chapters 23-25. Jesus’ words here in chapter 23 takes place in the Temple area. Jesus has been speaking here for the last few chapters. At the beginning of chapter 24 he will finally make his way from the Temple. The audience, however, has changed slightly. Rather than addressing Israel’s religious leaders directly, Jesus now addresses the crowds and his disciples.

Critical Questions:

  1. How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?

  2. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?  

  3. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become? 

The Text: Jesus begins to address the crowds and his disciples to warn them about the scribes and the Pharisees.  The scribes (see Important Terms), are the officially ordained keepers of the law, while the Pharisees were laymen who were very serious about being obedient to the law (Bruner, 432).  Some scribes would have been Pharisees.  Pharisees, later after the fall of the Temple, became the dominant theological force in Israel.  This was certainly the case by the time of Matthew’s writing.  As we have said often before, Jesus is chastising Israel’s religious leaders because they have failed to be and teach, as they should have.  At this point in the narrative, Jesus becomes more specific in his critique of Israel’s religious establishment.  

Jesus begins by describing how the scribes and Pharisees sit on “Moses’ seat.” It was a tradition in Israel to believe that God built a chair on Mt. Sinai for Moses to sit in while he received the law. Moses then handed down the law to Joshua and from there to the elders and the prophets until the current day. There is some evidence that a Moses seat would have been present in contemporary Synagogues, but teachers would not have sat in it. It would have been reserved for holding the scrolls that contained the books of the law. It is likely that the phrase had been used as a metaphor for those who occupied respected positions of teaching within Israel (Nolland, 924-25). So, the scribes, Israel’s ordained teachers, and the Pharisees, who helped flesh out what faithfulness looked like for Israel, rightfully occupied places of leadership in Israel. Jesus says, because these men are authoritative, listen to what they have to say. They are after all, walking copies of the law; they know it by heart. Contrary to our current day, not everyone would have had access to the Scriptures in book form or on their personal electronic devices! Everyday people had to rely on learned individuals to tell them what God’s word said. Jesus admonishes the crowds and his disciples to listen to what they have to say, to hear the words of God, but in the next breath he tells them not to do what they do.

In one way, Jesus is legitimating the scribes and the Pharisees as repositories for the law, while at the same time, condemning their interpretation and (lack of!) application of the law. They do not practice what they preach. Instead, Jesus tells us, they place the burden of the law on the people’s backs and then do not help the people figure out how to carry it.

The image here is probably meant to remind Matthew’s readers of Jesus’ words in 11:30, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Nolland suggests that, “The imagery is probably not of helping to carry the load…but of moving the load around to produce a better weight distribution and center of gravity” (Nolland, 924-25). In other words, the scribes and Pharisees have imposed this weight (namely, an extremely detailed list of laws), but have not offered effective or practical ways for the people to live their daily lives under it. What good is the law if it only oppresses and never allows one to live life fully as surely God’s law intended?

Then, in verse 5-7, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. The scribes and Pharisees love the attention and respect they get from their position as teachers. All of their deeds they do so that they can be seen by others. Now, Jesus makes reference to “phylacteries” and “fringes” in verse 5. “Phylacteries,” used only here in the New Testament, literally means “a safeguard, a means of protection.” In the larger Greek-speaking world the word was used to refer to an amulet or charm that was worn. Most scholarship, however, believe that “phylactery” was used to translate the Hebrew word tepillin, or small leather box which contained selected passages of Old Testament scripture in them. Exodus 13:9 and Deuteronomy 6:8 both called faithful Israelites to bind God’s command to their hand and to their forehead. These boxes would have been worn during times of prayer. The charge of making these boxes broad may have been reference to the boxes being large so as to contain larger script, or it may have meant that these religious leaders would wear the boxes at times other than prayer Either way, it would have been a way of showing off one’s religious devotion. The fringes, to which Jesus refers, were blue and white tassels that served to remind the wearer of God’s commands. Longer tassels would have served similar purposes as the broad prayer boxes.

In addition to drawing attention to their religious rigorousness, the scribes and Pharisees delighted in being given the best seats at dinner parties, at religious services and in public. These religious leaders go so far as to instruct people to address them with terms of respect. Rabbi comes from a Hebrew word that means “great” or “greatest,” but in later times came to be used as a term of respect for those who taught the law. The scribes and Pharisees expected to be greeted with the respect that was due their position as religious leaders.

Jesus turns, in verse 8, from detailing the infractions of these religious leaders to explaining why it is that people should not act like them. In three statements, that all sound rather similar, Jesus makes a case against over using terms of respect for teachers. Jesus instructs those listening, the crowds and specifically the disciples, that they are not to be called rabbi because they have only one teacher and that is God in Christ. They are not to call anyone father because they have only one father in heaven. At this point I don’t believe that Jesus is making a case against calling your earthly father, father. Finally, Jesus says that you are not to be called instructor, because they have only one instructor and that is the Messiah.

Jesus is expressing equality here among those who would follow him. Those who would follow him are all in need to the teaching and guidance that only God can provide. Those, like the scribes and Pharisees, while they know the law, are failing to represent it in a way that does not take honor and glory from God. Certainly, Jesus is not forbidding titles and established forms of instruction and education within the church. After all, at the end of this gospel (28:16-20) he will commission the disciples to go out into the world to make more disciples and to teach. The commission, however, states that the disciples are to teach people to “obey everything that I have commanded.” In other words, the disciples as teachers commissioned by Jesus are to point directly and unceasingly to Christ and what he has commanded us to do. The scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, have failed to do this with the Jewish law.

Jesus ends this introduction to his final sermon with a phrase with which we are probably familiar, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (23:11-12) In its immediate context this passage speaks directly to those who are in religious leadership within Israel. It also carries with it a future tense. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Those who humble themselves will be exalted. Jesus is here speaking about the final judgment in the kingdom of heaven. The scribes and Pharisees, who have exalted themselves, will find that their overly zealous commitment to the law will leave them as one of the least in God’s kingdom.

Important Terms:

Scribe:  The scribes were recognized experts in Jewish law (canonical and traditional laws and regulations).  Only those who had qualified for ordination and mediated by succession would be considered to become legitimate members of the guild of scribes.  These scribes maintained a high reputation among people because of their expert knowledge of the Law and oral tradition (Louw and Nida, 741).

So What? This passage speaks to us directly today as teachers and leaders in Christ’s church.  Indeed it speaks to anyone who might serve the church in some capacity.  The passages warnings are twofold.  First, as teachers and leaders in the church, is what we teach and preach overly burdensome?  Do our interpretations of scripture pass the test of Jesus’ double command to love God and our neighbor?  Rather, do our interpretations of scripture result in long lists of rules that are difficult for people to live out??  Secondly, it warns us against letting ourselves get in the way of Jesus’ commands.  Those who teach, preach and even serve in other types of leadership are called to examine ourselves regularly. Are we using our place within the church to exalt ourselves?  Those whom God has called, both as clergy and laity, do well to seek to humble themselves as they attempt to serve so that Christ’s way might be followed.     

Critical Questions:

  1. How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?

  2. The emphasis falls again on the humble nature of the kingdom of heaven. Our King, who is Jesus, humbled himself so that all might find reconciliation, therefore we should humble ourselves as we seek to point the way to Christ.

  3. What does holiness look like in this text?

  4. Holiness looks like serving in humility, not letting ourselves get in the way of our service, teaching and preaching.

  5. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

  6. The church is not an appropriate place to seek personal exaltation or advancement. Our attitudes towards our own service within the church need to be examined in the light of the nature of the God of the Universe who humbled himself, becoming like one of us, so that we might be saved.

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. What is the “Moses’ seat” to which Jesus refers? What might it mean that the scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’ seat?

  2. Why does Jesus instruct his hearers to listen to the scribes and Pharisees but not to do what they do?

  3. Phylacteries (little leather boxes with specific scripture written inside) and fringes were part of devout Jewish garb. Why would the scribes and Pharisees wish to have broad Phylacteries and long fringes? What are some things that we sometimes do to display our religious devotion before others?

  4. In verses 8-10 Jesus warns against using specific titles such as “Rabbi,” “father” and “instructor.” Why do you think Jesus gives this warning?

  5. Jesus says that those who exalt themselves will be made humble and those who humble themselves will be exalted. How might we be tempted to exalt ourselves as we seek to serve and lead the church? How might exalting ourselves get in the way of the purpose and mission of the church?

Works Cited Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004).

Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 544; Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–).

John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Bletchley: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).