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Today’s gospel (Mt 23:1-12) is the beginning of the chapter that contains Jesus’ strongest words against the scribes and Pharisees (vv13-36, the seven woes), bringing to a close Jesus’ dealings with them and their teachings, (which started from 21:23). Addressing the crowds and his disciples, Jesus warns them to beware of the ways of these religious leaders.
The first objection against them is their failure to teach by example (v3). The scribes and Pharisees sat on ‘Moses’ chair’ and had virtually taken over the priestly function of instructing the people regarding covenant law. Jesus thus instructs his listeners ‘to do…and follow’ (Dt 4:6; 7:12; Isa 56:1) everything they say, i.e., what refers to the basic covenant stipulations but ‘not to do as they do’, i.e., for example, how they interpreted the laws in their oral tradition (cf. 12:1-14; 15:1-20; 16:5-12; 19:3-9). The second is their imposition of a burdensome and very narrow interpretation of the Torah (v4). Their concern for the minutiae of the Law, and for regulating precisely all human conduct under the Law, had made the Law increasingly burdensome. Furthermore, they imposed heavy tithes and sanctions on the people without offering relief or solace stands in strong contrast with the type of “yoke” that Jesus offers (11:28f). The third is their ostentation and excess desire for acclaim, recognition, and honor, shown in their phylacteries, tassels, the seat of honor, and in the appropriation of titles like rabbi, father, and master (vv5ff).
Basically, Jesus shows that the scribes and Pharisees seek to be “exalted” (v12). The verb “ὑψὸω” ( hypsóō ) can mean both in the positive, in the sense of “being exalted, lifted” (to heaven: Mt 11:23; Luke 10:15), or “recognized or honored”; and in the negative, in the sense of an arrogant act of “exalting oneself” and grasping for entitlements (23:12). Seeking privilege and honors, they were far more interested in recognition than service.
Jesus reminds us all that in the reign of God there is only one teacher and Father, and all are equal; no one can claim positions of authority. Rather, leadership seen in terms of minority and service, avoiding pomp, ostentation, and even titles, is strongly emphasized as a hallmark of the Christian community. May we continue to forego claims to honor from other human beings and prefer lower status and service to lording it over others, ‘that we may be exalted’ by our Father. Amen!