1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3so practice and observe whatever they tell you— but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, foryou have one Father, who is in heaven. 10Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ.11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
In the chapter 23 of Matthew Jesus uses a very harsh language against the Scribes and Pharisees. Thus it is necessary to keep in mind to whom he is talking too. The very first verse of this passage says that Jesus was talking to the crowds and to his disciples. Therefore the Scribes and the Pharisees represent a certain kind of attitude that is to be avoided by the disciples. How do we know if we are Pharisees or not? The whole chapter 23 through the five “Woe to you” sayings is an excellent material that can guide us in our self-evaluation.
Pharisee is the one who occupies a seat that does not belong to him. The Book of Deuteronomy says that the successors of Moses – who should sit on his chair – in charge of transmitting the Word of God to the people are the prophets (Dt 18:15.18). What do the Scribes and Pharisees do? They occupy a place that does not belong to them. They replace the prophetic message with their own norms, rules and rigorous interpretation. They present as will and word of God the things that are merely human prescriptions.
If until today we find those who occupy a place that does not belong to them, if we find those who replace prophecy with their own norms, then we stand before the first proof that the Pharisees are immortals.
Next, verse 3 is to be interpreted in the ironic sense. The truth is that Jesus never recommended anyone to follow the teaching of the Pharisees, and we have an abundance of passages that show this (Mt 15:1-20; 16:16…). It pops up also in this verse the second characteristic of the Pharisees: incoherence. A Pharisee is a person who says but does not do. In fact he presents himself as a religious person capable of delivering nice speeches about love, peace and respect to others, but when nobody is around… (no comment!).
If there are in our communities people who always occupy the first seats, who proclaim the Word, sing in the choirs, give advices, but at home, neglect the children, offend the spouse, enslave the house helpers and ignore the poor, then we stand before the second proof that the Pharisees are immortals.
The third characteristic of the Pharisees is that of placing unbearable burdens on others (v. 14). They invent a religion full of laws and rules. Those who observe all the precepts of the law should feel at peace with God. But in reality all those precepts just provoke anxiety, make life more difficult, steal our freedom and the joy of living. Somewhere else in the Gospel, Jesus invites his followers to be liberated from these rules that hinder our living free and happy as true children of God (Mt 11:28-30). Also St. Paul would say “Owe no one anything, except love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom 13:8). Is there today anyone who imposes burdens on others which Jesus never talked about?
The fourth characteristic of the Pharisees is exhibitionism. (vv. 5-7). They want people to know that they are different. To reach such a goal they use many tricks: they wear their own particular attires, distinctive objects, when they pray they announce it to all, if they do something good they sound the trumpet and seek to be in the spotlight of the media. Have you ever met anyone who attracts attention to himself or herself while doing good. If yes, we have another proof that Pharisees are indeed immortals!
The last part of today’s Gospel alerts us about the danger of allowing inequality to infiltrate our Christian communities. It is quite natural that in civil society there are ranks that distinguish some from others. But definitely that is not the model to be reproduced in our communities. The Gospel also drives our attention to three titles that were used to people who were particularly honored and respected: Rabbi, Father and Master. The first means “My great,” the second “My model of life” and the last “My spiritual guide.” Jesus strictly forbade all of them because in the community no one should dominate or command over others. In the community of Jesus there is no position of honor, but position of service.
Some may argue that if Jesus would be living in our times he would tolerate all the titles that are familiar to us and are so rooted in our traditions that goes from the least reverend up to the most reverend. But I seriously doubt it.