Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

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

Exegetical Notes on Matthew 23:1-12

by Brian P. Stoffregen, Yuma, AZ

Scripture: St. Matthew 23: 1-12

The first time I remember hearing about Matthew 23 was at a high school church camp. A speaker suggested that Matthew 23 should be shouted rather than just quietly read. Such a shouted reading could bring some life back into the scriptures.


Chapter 23 is a discourse from Jesus. Should it stand alone or be included with chs. 24-25? There is a difference of opinions about this among scholars, which can be noted in the way Matthew is outlined in different commentaries. There is a shift in location and audiences in 24:1-3; but there is such a shift in the parable discourse (13:36). Chapter 23 does not end with the concluding formula: "And when Jesus had finished...." (see 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). I'm inclined to agree with Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) that the three chapters constitute the fifth and final discourse of Jesus, centered around the theme of judgment (p. 263).


Our text begins with: "Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples."

The only other time that I find in Matthew that Jesus addresses both crowds and disciples is the Sermon on the Mount (see 5:1 and 7:28).

Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) writes: "The crowds represent potential disciples who are still positive toward Jesus (21:8-9, 11, 26, 46; 22:33)" [p. 430].

Whereas the Sermon on the Mount contains blessings, this speech of Jesus contains woes (23:13-31) -- the opposite of blessings (compare Luke 6:20-26).

Both the Sermon and chapter 23 stress the importance of inward attitudes in contrast to outward actions.

As this chapter is read, we need to remind ourselves that it is not addressed to the "scribes and Pharisees" who are "woed" in the later verses, but these are words addressed to the "crowds and disciples." It would seem that rather than attacking the Jewish religious leaders directly, Matthew uses these words of Jesus as a warning for "crowds and disciples" -- or the leaders of Matthew's community.

Although, as Hare suggests, in the original context, Jesus may have used these or similar words against his opponents, and later, they could have referred to the Jewish opponents who tried to thwart the Christian missionaries' message of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah (p. 264). There were conflicts between the Jews and the Christians from the time of Christ. However, I think that it is better, and more within Matthew's understanding, to apply these words to ourselves. Have we become like those whom we despise? I remember, some years ago, Johnny Carson quoting someone whom he didn't name: "Choose your enemies carefully, for you become like them."


Mark Allan Powell (God With Us: A Pastoral Theology of Matthew's Gospel) has an excursus on 23:2-7. He takes some issue with the traditional interpretation of this section, since the picture of the scribes and Pharisees in ch. 23 doesn't square with the picture of these religious leaders in the rest of Matthew's. He gives the following as the traditional understanding (which I found in some other commentaries as their interpretation of the phrase).

First, by saying that the scribes and the Pharisees "sit on Moses' seat," Jesus grants that they have authority to interpret the scriptures for God's people. They have authority to "bind and loose," to determine on the basis of the scriptures what is the will of God for present circumstances. Second, by telling his disciples to do and keep whatever the scribes and the Pharisees say, Jesus commends adherence to the teaching of these religious leaders. Jesus' followers ought to respect the authority of these teachers and live in accordance with their interpretation of scripture. Third, by telling his disciples not to do "according to their works," Jesus indicates that the real flaw these religious leaders exhibit is that they do not live in accord with their own teaching. Thus, by following the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus' disciples will fulfill the will of God to a degree that the scribes and the Pharisees themselves do not. [p. 75]

Unfortunately, this interpretation doesn't square with the picture of the Pharisees in the rest of the gospel, e.g., that they don't practice with they preach. For example, they preached washing their hands properly before eating, and they did so and criticized those who didn't. When Paul writes about his life as a Pharisee, he says that he was blameless as to righteousness under the law (Phil. 3:5-6). He practiced what he preached.

Starting with a slightly different understanding of legousin in v. 3 -- often translated "preaching" or "teaching". Powell suggests an alternative interpretation.

My suggestion hinges on the possibility that when Jesus says the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat he means that they are the keepers of the Torah, the ones who know and are able to tell others what Moses said. Cecil Roth and Kenneth Newport present arguments for regarding the 'seat of Moses" as a literal piece of synagogue furniture, possibly the stand on which the law scroll itself rested. But even if this is not the case and we are to take the phrase metaphorically, we need not assume that it is a metaphor for teaching authority. The most natural application would be to regard those who (metaphorically) sit on Moses' seat as those who speak Moses' words either by reading them from the scrolls themselves or by citing them from memory. Thus, those who occupy the seat of Moses (literally or metaphorically) may be regarded as those who control accessibility to Torah even if they are not regarded as persons who have the insight or authority to interpret Torah.

In saying that the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, Jesus may be simply acknowledging the powerful social and religious position they occupy in Matthew's story world, a world in which most people are illiterate and copies of the Torah are not plentiful. Since Jesus' disciples do not themselves have copies of the Torah, they will be dependent on the scribes and the Pharisees to know what Moses said on any given subject. In light of such dependence, Jesus advises his disciples to heed the words that the scribes and the Pharisees speak when they sit on the seat of Moses, that is, when they pass on the words of the Torah itself. The first activity of the scribes and the Pharisees, the one that Jesus commends, refers not to teaching or interpretation of Moses but simply to citation of Moses. [pp.78-9]

With this approach, what the religious leaders do correctly is to quote scriptures. We are "to do" and, literally, "to keep" (the same word in the Great Commission) whatever they say. What they "say" would refer to "what they read" (or recite the Torah from memory) from Moses' Seat. That is, we are to listen to them and pay attention when they read/recite scriptures, but when they start interpreting the scriptures with their words and life, we are not to follow their example. Their words and their actions indicate that they have interpreted it wrongly.


Although I agree with Powell's interpretation, I would also be inclined to preach the idea that there were two sources of authoritative biblical interpretation in Matthew's day: the interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees (and Rabbinic Judaism that was growing out of the Pharisaic movement at that time) and the interpretation of Christians and their budding community. Who would be the proper interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures?

As I understand the Reformation, this was also a major in those days. Both Roman Catholics and the Reformers read the same scriptures, but who would offer the authoritative interpretation of them? The Roman Church and its pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests? Or the Lutheran scholars? Or each individual believer as Luther put scriptures into the language of the people?

Luther's actions were seen as a threat to the authority of the Pope (and the Church) to be the only interpreter of scriptures.

I also think that this is an issue in our day. What are valid approaches to the interpretation of scriptures: literally, historically, socially, critically, narratively, "Jesus-Seminar-ily," etc.? Whom do we trust to offer us authoritative interpretation of scriptures? Often what divides the conservatives, fundamentalists, liberals, main-liners, etc., is their approach to scriptures and the interpretations that come out of their individual approaches (as well as the biases they bring into the interpretive process).


Boring (Matthew, the New Interpreters Bible) lists Matthew's three critiques, to which I've added my own comments:

(1) They say but do not do (23:3a). Here as elsewhere, Matthew juxtaposes mere talking with actual conduct (6:1-18; 7:21-23; 21:28-32). [p. 431]

What "practices" or "deeds" or "works" (erga) are expected of the scribes and Pharisees? What was wrong about what they were doing? (One answer may be seen in v. 5 where both verses have de ta erga auton = "their works" and a form of the verb poieo = "to do". There it is not the doing of deeds per se that are at fault, but the motivation to be seen by others.

How do we motivate people to act in accord with the Gospel? How do we do that without falling into the other critiques of this section?

When people are not practicing what they preach, When is the problem their "practices"? When is it their "preaching"? E.g., those who "preach" perfection will never be able to fully practice what they preach.

(2) They burden others while failing to act themselves (23:4). The Pharisees encouraged the people as a whole to live out their vocation as a priestly nation (Exod 19:6), especially after the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the functions of the actual priests. In other words, they applied the Priestly purity laws to the people as a whole. Matthew understood their efforts as replacing God's law with human tradition, an intolerable and misdirected burden for ordinary people (15:1-20). The alternative to the "burden" placed on people's shoulders by the Pharisees is Jesus' own "yoke" (11:28-30), which is "easy" not because it is less stringent (5:17-48), but because it was oriented in another direction. [p. 431]

As the quote notes, in contrast to the heavy burdens (phortia, plural form) of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus offers a light burden (phortion, singular form) in Mt 11:30. What makes the difference? What makes a "practice" a "heavy burden"? How do we move (or remove) heavy burdens from others?

I think that congregations need to look at the ways they "use" people. Do we heap burdens upon them? asking them to give more and more of their time -- while taking away time from their families or their private devotional life? A friend came to the realization that every time she was saying "Yes" to the church, she was also saying, "No" to her family. Time at church was time away from family. Time spent preparing for church meetings was time she was not available to her family.

How often do clergy fall into this trap of burdening themselves (or allowing the congregation to heap their burdens upon us)? How much do we burden ourselves? How is assuming burdens for ourselves different from laying them on others?

If we aren't practice and proclaiming the Word in ways that lifts the burdens of others, do we then fall under Jesus/Matthew's critique?

When we (in Lutheran terms) preach Law are we heaping burdens on people -- either by giving them more rules to remember in running their lives, or knocking them down further and further as they are convicted of more and more sins? How do we encourage them to practice what is preached as a joyful (i.e., light burden) response? I have often quoted Robert Capon and I do so again.

The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C.S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days' worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness.

What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business -- and that, of course, is the church's real job. She is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can't turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what's right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense.

The church becomes, not Ms. Forgiven Sinner, but Ms. Right. Christianity becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. Which, of course, is pure tripe. The church is nothing but the world under the sign of baptism. [Hunting the Divine Fox, pp. 132-133]

I have often said that the primary purpose of preaching is absolution. If we aren't absolving sin(s) somewhere in the sermon, we are not preaching the Good News. If we aren't proclaiming the Word that lifts the burden of sin from the hearers, do we then fall under Jesus/Matthew's critique?

(3) They act for the wrong reason: to make an impression on others (23:5-7). After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the emerging rabbinic leadership emphasized external signs of piety, not because they were hypocrites interested in externals, but as distinctive markers of the holy people of God in a pluralistic society. They were concerned that Judaism not become homogenized into the surrounding world after the destruction of their national shrine. Matthew's church was tempted to conform to these practices and was under pressure from the leadership of the synagogues to do so. [Boring, p. 431]

What might these verses say to people who have Christian bumper stickers or a fish symbol on their cars? or wear a cross or fish or an angel around their neck or pinned to their clothing? or clergy who wear collars? When are such "externals" part of our calling to be separate from the world, to be witnesses to the world, to be "holy" that is, different from what is common? When are such "externals" just a pious show? Does it make a difference if it is $20,000 or a $200,000 car? a $300 or $3000 outfit?

Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion) writes about this critique:

The true purpose of these phylacteries and fringes was to keep the faithful ever mindful of the laws of God, to assist the worshiper in prayer, but, according to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees had turned them into fashion statements. Like a contemporary Christian wearing a two-pound cross or sporting a bumper sticker on the car reading "My God Is Alive, Sorry About Yours," the question can be raised: Is this faith or flash, praise or pomp? [p. 259]

One of the issues of the Reformation was artwork. Were they aids in worshiping God or "graven images" that were taking the place of God? Note that other Protestants have "graven images" numbered as one of the Ten Commandments. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians do not, but include it under "having no other gods". Does this numbering create a different understanding of religious artwork?

I would include Jesus' condemnation of "titles" as partially falling under this critique, too -- an external action/naming, which may or may not have the appropriate internal attitude. There are those who are called "Rabbi" and "Father" and "Teacher" who may be more humble and servant-like and Christ-centered than those who eschew those titles. Whereas there are those who only use titles like "sister" or "brother" who exalt themselves over others.


The issue of titles raises the question of how do we maintain a sense of equality among all who belong to the Christian community? The "priesthood of all believers" was certainly a Reformation theme. Certainly individuals have been gifted by God in different ways. Certainly individuals serve in different roles for the good of the whole -- some more public than others. Is it appropriate to use titles (and special clothing) for the ordained -- who have been set aside by the Church for special function? There is a sense that I, by my ordination, have been differentiated from the "ordinary" member by the Church. Being "different," however, doesn't make me better or worse, just different. I have been called to be a "pastor" of a group of people in a way that the other members have not been called. I think that we need to take that differentiation seriously.

At the same time, I dislike being elevated on a pedestal. I am a sinner like everyone else inside and outside the church. I am in need of forgiveness from God through Jesus like every other sinner. (The fact that I can read and study the Greek New Testament doesn't get me any closer to God than an illiterate child.)

At the same time, should "the pastor" always be the one to pray at council meetings or church potluck suppers? Is it appropriate for us to say "no" when asked to pray in situations where lay people can do it just as well or better?

Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) writes:

It is not a mortal sin for clergy to be addressed as "Reverend," "Father," "Doctor," or "Pastor." The eagerness of lay people to exalt ordained persons by the use of honorific titles, however, intensifies the minister's responsibility to work diligently at breaking down the barrier between clergy and laity. [p. 267]

Note that he writes "breaking down the barrier" not "breaking down the clergy" or "breaking down the laity" or "suffering a break down." <g> However, clergy breakdowns frequently occur when they are trying to live up to the impossible demands and expectations placed on them by (some) laity or by themselves to be the perfect pastor. In such cases, the problem is really with the "preaching," not the "practice". We don't have to do it all. Yet, we are often seen as being responsible for the "success" of a congregation inspiring worship services, enlightening education classes, effective evangelism events, profittic stewardship campaigns, etc.

How many congregations have annual evaluations of the pastor (and other paid staff)? How many evaluate the council and committees for their effectiveness and doing what they have said they would do?

I wonder if the Mormons, who have no paid clergy, and their strong emphasis on missionary service for two years, have a better sense of equality among the faithful than Christians.


I've heard the suggestion of asking church members to indicate who of their fellow members is the most Christ-like. Often the people they designate as such are not those serving in leadership positions!

Besides the two instances of the verb for "exalt" (hypsoo) in v. 12, it also occurs in 11:23 where Jesus criticizes Capernaum, "Will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades." The opposite of such exaltation seems to be the willingness to repent. Could that be the practice that was missing in the lives of scribes and Pharisees? It seems to me that repentant people do not exalt themselves. (Of course, some could express pride at how repentant they are. It might be better to state that truly repentant people do not exalt themselves.)

Besides the two instances of the verb for "humble" (tapeinoo) in v. 12, it also occurs in 18:4 where Jesus says, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." The opposite of being humble seems to be adultness. When I think of exalted Pharisees (either in the first or the twenty-first centuries,) it does not convey a picture of someone being like a child.


Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion) summaries ch. 23 with these words:

Whatever else Christians take away from this text, we should be reminded of the tragic history of religious persecution. Sometimes Christians have been its victims, and Jesus' wrathful words should give us hope. On other occasions, however, Christians have been in positions of strength and tempted to use their power against others. In such cases Jesus' words serve as a warning. [p. 264]

The preacher will have to decide whether these words of Jesus should be used to use to comfort the congregation or to warn them.

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