Gospel for the Thirty First Sunday (5 November 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12 – NRSV)
One scholar sets the context:
“The attack on the Pharisees and scribes takes place in the area of the Temple, the central institution of Judaism. It is preceded by a series of disputes in chapters 21–22, which lead to increased hostility (‘Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entrap him in his talk ...’ [22:15]) and to an end to the disputes (‘From that day no one dared to ask him any more questions’ [22:46]). It is followed by the prediction that the Temple will be destroyed (24:2) and warnings concerning the end of the world. Thus chapter 23 summarizes the previous conflict between Jesus and his opponents, and prepares for the arrest and death of Jesus which follow in chapter 26.
“Matthew has taken a brief Markan denunciation of the scribes (Mark 12:38–40) and expanded it into a major polemic against the scribes and Pharisees, using Q material preserved also in Luke 11:37–52. His arrangement of these earlier sources, introduction of new material, and virulent tone bespeak lively clashes between his community and the leadership of the Jewish community in his city. Mark ended Jesus’ ‘Jerusalem ministry’ with a warning against the scribes who desired prestige and honor and yet devoured widows’ houses and with the contrasting story of the widow giving to the Temple out of her poverty (12:38–44). Q, as reflected in Luke, had three woes addressed to the Pharisees and three addressed to the scribes. Q and Luke took care to separate the Pharisees’ interest in tithes and synagogues from the scribes’ (and lawyers’) roles concerning public decision making, leadership, and instruction. Luke locates the denunciation of the Pharisees and scribes during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and associates it with the continuing hostility of Jesus’ opponents (11:53–54) and instruction to the disciples concerning hypocrisy and confessing Jesus. The object of Jesus’ criticisms in chapter 23 is ‘the scribes and the Pharisees’ (23:2; see also 23:13, 15, 23, 27, 29).” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 321-322.)
Another scholar notes:
“This chapter brings us to understand that the Pharisaic system, like any system that puts its emphasis on rules and regulations, all too easily degenerated into the observance of requirements that were doubtless intended to help people along the road to godliness but that could become ends in themselves. When this happened, there was the appearance of godliness, but not the reality; the correct performance of outward rites and the firm hold on orthodox teaching became ends in themselves, and genuine piety suffered. There is a danger in the whole Pharisaic method. Stendahl remarks that Jesus ‘taught with prophetic consciousness in a nation where he found the strongest resistance among those who were its spiritual leaders’.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 570.)
There is considerable debate amongst scholars as to whether Matthew is here reflecting more the situation in his community than the historical reality of Jesus’ encounter with the religious authorities of his time. Either way it seems fair to say that Jesus’ focus is the authentic life. In other words, let your behaviour be a manifestation of the truth of who and what you are.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: In Chapter 22, Jesus is speaking directly with the religious authorities. He confounds them and the Chapter ends with the words: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (22:46). He now turns and talks directly to the crowds and his disciples.
The scribes and the Pharisees: “The term ‘scribe’ applied originally and primarily to one who exercised the occupation of copying documents and contracts for government officials and others with authority. Those who knew how to read and write at this professional level had also to be familiar with the content about which they wrote. By the time of the book of Sirach (about 200 B.C.) the scribes involved themselves in affairs of government and functioned as intellectuals. In Matthew and other NT writings, however, scribes appear both as a learned class and as part of the Jewish leadership arrayed against Jesus and the other early Christians. The scribes probably contributed certain elements to the early rabbinic movement: stress on study, knowledge of the Torah, and learned argument.
“The Pharisees formed a religious movement, mainly in Palestine, from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D. They were distinguished from the Sadducees by their beliefs in free will, the survival of the soul after death, and rewards and punishments after death. Besides the Torah they relied upon the other books of Scripture and on an oral tradition to supplement and adapt the Torah. The Pharisees (probably based on the Hebrew pěrûšîm for “separated ones”) had elements of both a political movement (as seen in their political influence at various points in Jewish history) and a philosophical-religious school analogous to various Greco-Roman schools. Before A.D. 70 their special concerns included ritual purity, tithing, and Sabbath observance. In Matthew’s Gospel they appear as the chief rivals of Jesus and his disciples. Their impact on the early rabbinic movement is suggested by the vehemence with which Matthew opposed them, the agenda that emerged among the rabbis, and the rabbinic efforts to affirm a continuity with the Pharisees and their most prominent teachers. Josephus’ generally positive portrait of them may reflect not only his own positive experience among them but also his desire to encourage the Romans to look favorably on the Pharisees in the late first century as the most appropriate vehicle for restoring and renewing the Jewish people.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 322-323.)
They tie up heavy burdens: We have already heard Jesus say his burden is light – see 11:30. Matthew hear might be reflecting a tendency – influenced by the Pharisees and their inclination to be strict in the application of law and ritual – that has emerged in his community.
to be seen by others: Jesus has already warned his disciples about this – see 6:1-6.
phylacteries: “The phylactery was a little box containing verses from Scripture (Exod. 13:1–10, 11–16; Deut. 6:4–9; 11:13–21; phylacteries discovered at Qumran show that there was some variation in the texts used). It is generally identified with the tefillah and was worn by adult males at daily morning prayers (at home or in the synagogue) in literal fulfilment of passages in the law (Exod. 13:9, 16; Deut. 6:8; 11:18); it seems that some Jews wore them also outside the hours of prayer. Discoveries of tefillin at Qumran and Murabba‛at indicate that the one on the forehead tended to be rectangular, and that there was considerable variation in size. The making of the phylactery broad will thus refer to using a phylactery that spread further across the forehead and accordingly was more prominent than those normally used, rather than one with a bigger box. The tassel (see on 9:20, where we find that Jesus himself wore this) was sometimes used of the edge of something, but it was also used of tassels attached to the outer garment to remind people to follow God’s commandments (Num. 15:37–38). The tassel was not necessarily ostentatious, but to make the tassel big was to make sure that everyone one met would know that one took God’s commandments with full seriousness. Jesus mentions two outward actions that the Pharisees could and did perform to give their piety public display.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 574-574.)
you are not to be called rabbi: The following instructions about being called “rabbi” or “father” or “instructor” must be interpreted in the light of the foregoing hypocrisy of those who claim those titles for their own self-aggrandizement. Jesus has already taught the disciples that they must be like little children – see 18:4. Here, again in the context of self-aggrandizement, Jesus emphasizes the role of service in his disciples. Of course the greatest servant of all is Jesus himself – no self-aggrandizement there!
Albert Camus (1913-1960) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. In 1942 – when he was working with the French Resistance – he published his novel, L’Etranger (The Stranger). In an interview in November 15, 1945, he said of that novel: “(My purpose was) to describe a man with no apparent awareness of his existence. By generalizing this particular technique, we would end up with a universe of automatons and instincts”. (Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays, edited Philip Thody, translated Ellen Conroy Kennedy, A Vintage Book, 1968, 348.) Camus’ “stranger” reminds us of T S Eliot’s “hollow men” of The Wasteland, published twenty years earlier.
Jesus description of the Pharisees in today’s Gospel puts me in mind of Camus’ “stranger” and Eliot’s “hollow men”: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues ....” Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel we hear Jesus say: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (16:26).
I am worth more – infinitely more – than the opinions and approval of others might tell me. It is the difference between seeming and being. Success in life cannot be measured by possessions or accolades or status or influence. Success in life is becoming who and what I am – this particular expression of God’s infinite love, to be God’s word become flesh here and now in this situation.
In the Liturgy of the Hours (Prayer of the Church), the Office of Readings for Christmas Day has a sermon from Pope St Leo the Great (400-461). In that sermon, Pope St Leo encourages and challenges us: “Christian, remember your dignity!” He reminds us that “we share in God’s own nature”.
How sad it is when we feel compelled to try and be something else – especially if our efforts are successful. And if we live with “strangers” and “hollow men” they will no doubt confirm us in our fiction. If the truth be told, most of us reach our adult years with a fair number of forces at work within us, potentially driving us away from who and what we are. So perhaps the primary task for us as adults is waking up! Sometimes it takes a crisis for this awakening to occur. But that is not always so. Persistent honesty, opening oneself to the grace of the present moment, spending regular time in prayer and listening to the Word of God, participating with the community in the Eucharistic Liturgy, all help us to remember that we are God’s loving creation and that “we share in God’s own nature”. Remembering our own dignity in this way will help us also remember the dignity of others.