Historical Cultural Context
Too much of a good thing is never beneficial.
Here, Jesus shows himself to be a master of insult, a skill deliberately honed and widely admired in his culture (Mt 23:13). But the intensity and quantity of insults heaped up highlights serious disagreement between Jesus and his adversaries, the scribes and the Pharisees.
The introduction of these adversaries to replace the “chief priests and elders” with whom Jesus had been jousting until now suggests to some scholars that this episode reflects conditions in Matthew’s community some fifty years after Jesus died. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., chief priests and elders lost status as authorities in the community.
Matthew’s Jesus has three objections: the Pharisaic scribes do not practice what they preach, they adopt a very narrow and burdensome interpretation of the Torah, and they seek public acknowledgment.
Practice What You Preach
Jesus’ exhortation to do what the Pharisaic scribes teach is a compliment to their expertise. They know the Scripture and interpret it well.
Sadly, Scripture is not the script by which they live. This is why Jesus calls them “actors” (the literal translation of the Greek word usually rendered “hypocrites,” a word Matthew’s Jesus uses repeatedly when talking about the Pharisees). Jesus discourages imitating these actors.
Recall that some Pharisaic scribes distinguished “heavy” or serious commandments and “light” or less serious commandments among the 613 they identified in the Torah, while others did not. In Jesus’ day, each approach was represented by a famous teacher and expert in the Torah.
Hillel typically favored a broad interpretation, while Shammai typically favored a strict or narrow interpretation. Strict interpreters laid heavy burdens on others and refused to lighten the burdens by means of a broader interpretation of obligation.
Excessive Status Seeking
Everyone in this culture needs to be seen and affirmed publicly in order to have status or honor.
Jesus’ complaint therefore concerns excess in the search for recognition and acclaim. Imagine the excess that must have characterized the Pharisees’ phylacteries and cloak fringes if Jesus’ charge is to make sense to his listeners.
In discouraging grasping after titles, Jesus mentions “rabbi,” “father,” and “teacher” or director, moral guide, guru. “Rabbi,” which means “my Lord” was simply a title of honor in the first century.
In verse 8, “rabbi” seems to mean teacher. The modern meaning and role of rabbi did not begin to emerge and develop until the third century CE, and only in contemporary America did rabbis come to be considered clergy.
In the first century, the term “father” was applied to elders (see Sayings of the Fathers, 2.10-12) and certain respected — deceased persons. Matthew uses the title only of God. Jesus taught his followers to address God as Father (Mt 6:9). The point quite simply is that Jesus’ disciples ought not to engage in an all-consuming search for honor by selecting titles, like “father” that they may not deserve. This passage has no relationship at all to the modern practice of addressing ordained male priests with the title “father.”
We know that leaders in Matthew’s community considered themselves to be the counterparts to the Pharisaic scribes who were leaders in Judean communities.
What is implied in each of Jesus’ statements is that Christian leaders are exactly the opposite: they practice what they preach, follow Jesus in lightening the yoke of the Torah (see Mt 11:28-30), seek to forego claims to honor from other human beings (see Mt 6:1, 3, 6, 18), and prefer lower status and service to lording it over others.
How do American believers practice what they preach, apply restrictive laws benignly, and strive for humility?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University