7 December 2011

Matthew 23:1-12

"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulder of others, but they are themselves unwilling to lift a finger to move them." (vv. 2-4)


Matthew spends a whole chapter here on a topic which takes just three verses in Mark (Mark 12:38-40). It is not so much a direct attack on the scribes and Pharisees - after all Jesus is speaking to the crowds and his disciples, rather than to them - but a clear statement of the non-workability of their approach to religion.

The Pharisees were meticulous in religious practice, in terms of their determination to abide by every detail of the law of Moses, and various traditions they believed to be derived from it. The scribes among them were the professors of the day who reckoned to understand the subtlest nuances of interpretation. But despite their determination to achieve right practice of their religion, Jesus has already challenged his disciples to embrace a different kind of righteousness (Matthew 5:20).

Verse 3 gives rise to the familiar proverb, "Practise what you preach". Since Jesus often challenged the attitude of the Pharisees to particular issues such as hand-washing, sabbath-keeping and divorce (Matthew 15:1-2012:1-1419:3-9), the whole verse is ironic - the Pharisees themselves demonstrate that it is actually impossible for anyone to do as they say! Despite this, they still insist that it is necessary (verse 4).

The rest of the passage criticises the ostentation and pride in which the Pharisees delight. Phylacteries were small leather boxes worn on the forehead, containing texts from Exodus and Deuteronomy, so that the Mosaic Law was literally at the forefront of their mind. The length of their cloak fringes was a sign of how morally conservative a religious teacher was; in some Christian traditions the amount of clerical collar on display seems to function in a similar way today!

Jesus expects his disciples to shun the culture of honorific titles, and in doing so he asserts his own unique authority as their one true teacher. The statements about self-humbling in verses 11 and 12 have already occurred separately in Jesus' teaching (Matthew 20:26-2718:4).

To Ponder

What do you think might be the equivalents today of the ostentatious phylacteries and fringes? Not just for religious leaders, but for ordinary followers of Christ?

What burdens too heavy to bear do you think today's Church places upon its members?

In the light of this passage, what are we to make of the use of titles for Church leaders such as 'Most Reverend', 'Your Grace', 'Father', or indeed plain 'Reverend'?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

Stephen Mosedale is a recently retired Methodist minister now living in Devon. He is enjoying the freedom that gives, whenever mood and weather dictsate, to walk on Dartmoor, photograph varied and ever-changing seascapes, or grow vegetables in the garden.