Meditation of the week

Practise what you preach

Matthew 23,1-12.

The audience Jesus addresses in Matthew Ch 23, “ the people and the disciples,”  represents the ordinary folk for whom Pharisaic legalism was an unbearable burden, and the disciples of Jesus who were  following in his footsteps. They preach his liberating, other-centred message,  in contrast with the Pharisaic obsession with externalism,  prestige and power.

Jesus challenges the scribes and Pharisees, the teaching authority of Judaism in the first Christian century.  They were the experts in the written and oral law, come down from Moses.   At the time of Jesus the 10 Commandments, given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, had grown into 613 rules and regulations, and were subjected to endless debate, commentary and interpretation. Occupying the chair of Moses is a synonym for their teaching authority.

In today’s gospel Jesus acknowledges the Pharisees’ authority to teach and the duty of people to listen to their teaching.  But he acknowledges, too, that their credibility as teachers is totally undermined by their failure to live up to what they teach.

Jesus own teaching presents the law as “a yoke that is easy to bear and a burden that is light,” (11,28-30). The teaching of the scribes and Pharisees is a burden too heavy to bear for the people’s weary shoulders, weighing them down rather than lifting them up. The very burdens the Pharisees impose on the people they refuse to carry themselves.

Their lack of integrity is shown not only in their failure to live up to their teaching but also in their performing their religious duties as an outward show of piety, to be noticed by people.  Phylacteries were small leather purses containing texts from the Torah (law), worn on the arm and head, during morning and evening prayer. Broadening the phylacteries may be referring to the their being worn all day long , for show, instead of merely during  prayer time.  The long fringes may refer to larger, flamboyant, eye-catching outer garments, contrasting with the simpler attire of the ordinary folk.

They love the guest-of -honour seats next to the host at banquets, and  expect seats on the raised podium in the synagogue facing the people, and just in front of the ark, where the scrolls of the law were kept.

With these outward trappings of honour went a love for honorific titles in the market squares – the length of the title indicating the importance of the person. Three titles are to be avoided:  Rabbi- because Jesus is their/our only true teacher. They are to avoid the title “Abba, since that sacred name belongs to God alone. The title “Master” denoted spiritual guide, teacher.

The rejection of such titles may reflect, too, a critique of the tendency in the Matthean church/community towards hierarchy at the expense of brotherhood/sisterhood.

After criticising the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus finishes by talking about humility. Humility comes from the word for earth (humus).   Humble acknowledgement of our own earthiness, weakness,  faults and failures,  and recognising the richness of God’s mercy towards us,  are a sound basis for relating with others and God.

By the time Matthew was writing his gospel (c 85 AD) relations between 1st century Christians and  Jews were at a low ebb. Christians had already been expelled from the Jewish synagogue and the disciples had endured persecutions for their following of Jesus Christ.

Do you know your own weaknesses and faults? Are you clear about the differences between the essentials of religion and the external trappings?

Father Geoff O’Grady