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Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Sermon / Homily on St. Matthew 23: 1-12

First Thoughts on Matthew 23:1-12

by William Loader, Murdoch University, Australia

Scripture: St. Matthew 23: 1-12

This is the chapter of woes. It represents a massive expansion of what Mark brings in 12:37-40. Mark 12 then ends with the account of the widow and her generous meager offering to the temple. She stands in contrast to the scribes and Pharisees against whom the woes have been spoken and who rip off widows and the vulnerable. Matthew omits the story of the widow. The result is that the woes against the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23 lead directly to the prediction of God's judgement on the temple and Jerusalem in chapter 24. In the chapter of woes Matthew has expanded Mark with a large block of material drawn from Q (found also in Luke 11:39-52). Matthew's rule of exposition is that there is no room for smugness. Each of these charges may be just as applicable to the Christian community at some stage and history supports him.

It begins with an extraordinary statement about the scribes and Pharisees. They 'sit on Moses' seat' (23:2). That means they exercise authority for the administration of the Law in the broader social context where Matthew and his communities live, somewhere probably in the area of Galilee or southern Syria. There were not many places where this would have been the case, but it was so here in the late first century and the dominant group in Judaism by that time were the Pharisees. Galilee became their power base not long after the destruction of the temple and from there their influence spread. So Matthew's own situation is being reflected in this opening verse. A few other things are worth noting. The authority of Moses is not doubted; the Law, enshrined in Scripture, abides. Matthew and his community believe that, really, they should be the ones sitting there, but, until that is the case, the Law and its interpreters is to be respected.

A distinction then emerges in relation to the authority of those sitting on Moses' seat. Do what they say, not what they do (23:3) . People may need to say this of us at times, but here more blatant hypocrisy is envisaged. There is then another distinction which emerges. These interpreters of scripture also impose unrealistic burdens on people and offer no help to them to fulfil them (23:4). This appears to contradict the exhortation that one should do whatever they say, but the distinction being made is probably in relation to finer points. It is the difference between: here is the Law and this is what it should mean for you in detail. Matthew disputes the latter.

Matthew's whole approach to scripture is to interpret it on the basis of the love commands. Compassion and love dictate the way Scripture should apply, not a kind of legalistic bureaucracy which assumes God is a control freak. When God is our big ego writ large, then people will be abused in the name of purity or holiness or obedience. In every generation we can find examples of destructiveness done in the name of Scripture or even by means of Scripture. The challenges of chapter 23 have a way of coming home to roost.

Verses 5-7 take up the charges found in Mark 12:37-39. People bent on power surround themselves with the trappings of power, which are often designed to reinforce their claim. What we wear, where we sit, how we are greeted - these are elements of the persona we want people to see and respect. Behind it is often a frail yearning for love which has been met by such compensatory strategies. Abuse of others is frequently the result of exploiting others to meet our own stifled needs. The abuse may be as apparently harmless as captivating congregations with our preaching, framing our communities so that we are constantly affirmed, developing dependency on us among other needy people. Sometimes our garments (and what we do and where we sit) may serve the opposite: to remind ourselves and others that we are here to fulfill a task and are not pretending that we are doing it because we have arrived. If so, we will need to be straight about that. We are beggars telling other beggars where to find bread and occasionally it will help other beggars find the way if we wear a red cross, so to speak.

Matthew follows his principle of no elitism by directing similar warnings in 8-12 to the disciples. There is no place for either sitting back in smug judgement of others nor for imagining that being a follower of Jesus automatically protects us from falling into the very patterns we abhor in them. Matthew is very grounded. He hears the word of Jesus for his generation and it has abiding worth. So we, too, are to avoid playing games with titles. It appears that 'rabbi' first became a title of honour in the period when Matthew was writing, so the mention of 'rabbi' is particularly apt. 'Father' and 'teacher' are some of the options; we have plenty more.

If you are in ministry primarily to compensate for a low sense of your own importance, think again. Don't dive into depression and use the thought to put yourself down even further. Believe the importance God affirms in you. Consume it in the eucharist so it becomes part of your being. The more you do so and remain conscious of what you are doing and not doing, the less you will be fussed by the titles and all they symbolise and the less you will stand in succession to the kind of behaviour attacked here. The badges you might have to wear and titles you might have to carry will, like the vestments, be able to serve their true purpose: aids, if needed, to recognising roles and functions.

It is simply not so that Matthew is kidding the disciples that there is no self interest involved in leadership and so fostering the big lie that goes for piety according to which there is no self interest in what we do - a lie which often has disastrous consequences, especially when we are left with our real self interest ignored which is therefore likely to make itself felt subversively. Matthew's Jesus invites the disciples to think about greatness and what it mean to be lifted up. That is the clear motivation in 23:11-12. We want to be great; we want to do well. We want to be what God made us to be. We want to do what God wants us to do. We want to be so connected with God that what we want and what God wants become one. God wants us to be great. God wants us to rise up.

When we move towards seeing God's interests and our best interests and the best interests of others, when we get in touch with God's being as love, when we see that this is not a distraction from life but being truly in touch with life and the life giver, then we will take a big breath and dive. Let us be great in love. The magic is that here true self interest, God's interests, the world's best interests come together as one. It also means that we can stop playing games to conjure up alternative systems of worth where others are made to serve our distorted notion of self interest and where God and spirituality become a powerful weapon in our arsenal. Perhaps seeing all this first in a setting of ministry - the way Matthew leads us - will help us see that the same kinds of issues confront our hearers as much as ourselves as preachers.

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