Pharisees in the hot seat (Matt 23:1-4)

Today, we begin a short series in Matthew chapter 23. It’s the start of Jesus’ fifth and final block of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. (Is that significant? Probably. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as “Moses 2.0” – you might remember his first block of teaching was up on a mountain, just like Moses – and Moses was traditionally held to be the author of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.) And in this chapter, the whole “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” stereotype gets blown up, as Jesus straps on an ammo belt full of home truths and trains his guns on the Pharisees, as he becomes… The Sermonator.

OK, so that’s overselling it a bit, but he does come across quite cranky in this chapter. I mean, most of the time the Gospels portray him as compassionate and gentle, bearing with the demands of the crowds and the cluelessness of his disciples with great patience. But here, he launches a no-holds-barred attack on the Pharisees, full of accusations of hypocrisy and warnings of judgment, capped off with Bill Shorten-style zingers* (“you blind guides… you whitewashed tombs… you strain out a gnat but swallow a camel,” that sort of thing). Why? Why the change in tone?

The answer is probably in the second verse of the chapter:

Matthew 23:1-2 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.

Jesus is taking aim at those who “sit in Moses’ seat.” This might refer to the stone chairs in synagogues designed to hold the scrolls of Scripture (i.e. they’re walking repositories of Scripture”) or, more likely, they occupy Moses’ role as the teachers of God’s people. Their privileged position means they’re the ones who should have known better, which is why they come in for such harsh words. And their leadership position means that their failings had an impact on everyone else – with power comes responsibility, and they weren’t living up to it.

So what were they doing wrong?

Matthew 23:3 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 are teaching God’s word, so you need to obey them. But they aren’t living it out, so don’t copy them! (Even more so in the ancient world, teachers were expected to be models of conduct that was consistent with their teaching, if they were to be taken seriously.)

Matthew 23:4 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, by the way, is a nice contrast with Matt 11:28-29 – Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden light.)

As you probably know, the Pharisees were scrupulous about the law. Or at least, the letter of it. They even invented a whole array of extra rules as a “hedge” around the law, to keep them far away from breaking one of God’s laws. You can see how this might have started out with good intentions, but their own extra rules and regulations quickly became the focus (rather than the intention behind them). What’s more, they’d begun to judge themselves and everyone else on the basis of whether they kept these extra laws (without lifting a finger to help them), and wore their observance as “merit badges” on their metaphorical scouting sleeves. And of course, this gave the Pharisees great status as the judges and arbiters of this system, with everyone else dependent on them for approval and adjudication. As Ben Witherington puts it:

“Ironically, however, this expansion of rules and regulations, which were solemnized as if they too were the very word of God and so were often strictly enforced, not only made the observance of the Law more burdensome, it often took the focus off of the main thrusts of the Law in regard to love and justice and other crucial matters… Lastly, having a rule for every occasion took away from a person the individual ability to develop the moral reasoning necessary to be able to make their own mature decisions in ambiguous situations or situations where they could not consult a scribe or a Pharisee. The net effect of the Pharisaic approach was to make the people dependent on them for understanding and living out God’s word.” (Witherington, Matthew, p.424)

How often have we seen this played out in our own churches today? Leaders who slowly become the sole interpreters of Scripture and the arbiters of what behaviour is appropriate or inappropriate for a Christian. It leads to a focus on externals (if people want to be “seen” to be doing what’s right) and to a dependence on authority figures (rather than developing one’s own ability to discern what’s right).

Good leaders don’t always give “the answer” for what to do in every individual circumstance, but build in their flock the skills to figure it out with the help of Scripture and the Holy Spirit – mostly guiding, rarely directing.** They resist being pushed into Moses’ seat as the definitive arbiter of right behaviour, but guide their people in how to seek the one Teacher (verse 8).

Sadly, I’ve seen good people get a little carried away with the status that comes from being seen a leader to whom people can go for guidance. Although well-meaning, they can end up trying to control (as opposed to guide). In the short-term, that leads to dependence. In the longer term – when people get sick of being controlled – it can lead to a breakdown in relationship with the leader.

To think about

If you’re a Christian leader, how are you ensuring you don’t (inadvertently) become like the Pharisees – adding extra requirements for people to be considered “good Christians,” or making people dependent on you for guidance (rather than the Word and the Spirit).

For everyone: are you investing too much power in your leader(s) as they speak into your life? Receiving guidance is good, but becoming dependent prevents you from developing discernment yourself.


But back to the Pharisees. How was it that they don’t “practise what they preach” (verse 3)? It probably doesn’t mean they didn’t observe the extra rules and regulations themselves; but rather, they observed them for the wrong reasons (public approval) while neglecting the intent behind the laws (focusing on outward, observable behaviours rather than the state of their heart). We’ll look at both of those over the coming days.

* For non-Australian readers, Bill Shorten is currently the leader of our opposition party. He’s known for his awkward delivery of  witty insults that sound like they’ve been overly-workshopped by a group of earnest young interns. Kind of like when Marco Rubio tried to match Trump and go nasty for a week, and discovered it didn’t suit him.

** We’re talking here about wisdom issues: what’s right/best in this situation in which Scripture seems unclear or silent? Not about calling out sin when we see it.

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