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Thirty-first Sunday In Ordinary Time

By Father Donald Dilger

In Matthew 23, the author of this gospel has reached the peak of his wrath against the leadership of Judaism about the year 85 A.D. Some of the opinions voiced by the author in this chapter, and attributed to Jesus himself, are a considerable hindrance to ecumenical understanding between Christians and Jews even to this day. Why? Because the chapter is taken out of the context of the time of Matthew and interpreted of the leadership of the religion of the Jews of all times. Chapter 23 is nevertheless an integral part of the Gospel of Matthew and we must find at least some Good News in it. Fortunately, the assemblers of the Lectionary after Vatican II omitted Matthew’s seven curses against “the scribes and Pharisees” from this Sunday’s gospel selection. The curses begin at verse 13. Our gospel reading ends at verse 12. God must have been watching!


Matthew begins, “Then Jesus said to the crowd and to his disciples,” which means that the author addresses his whole Christian Community, but especially its leaders. “The scribes and Pharisees sit on the chair of Moses, so do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example, for they preach but do not practice.” The scribes were the learned interpreters and teachers of Scripture, some of them known to us from their writings as great, holy men. Examples: Hillel and Shammai – two older contemporaries of Jesus, also Gamaliel, defender of the young Christian movement in Acts 5:34-39. Most scribes belonged to the philosophy of life practiced by the Pharisees. The people of their time revered them. Matthew did not. As to “sitting on the chair of Moses,” the scribes held an opinion similar to our doctrine of “apostolic succession.” It went like this: Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. He committed it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the Great Synagogue, etc.”


Now to specifics: “They preach but do not practice.” Matthew gives us no evidence for this accusation of hypocrisy but does refer to these opponents of his as hypocrites six times in this discourse alone plus five more times elsewhere. Much of the scribal teaching was sound. They had great zeal for the observance of the Torah laws and followed ascetical (penitential practices) that made their way into Christianity – fasting, prayer, almsgiving, care of widows and orphans. Matthew continues, “They place heavy burdens on people’s shoulder but do not lift a finger to move them.” On the other hand, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells us that the people admired the Pharisees and listened to them gladly.  Matthew may be referring to the minute regulations of kosher food laws, the burdensome rules for the observance of clean and unclean, rules on tithing, oaths. Matthew’s condemnations voiced later in detail among the seven following curses, make us wonder what he would have thought of the manuals of Moral Theology we elders studies in the seminary.


“They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Whatever evidence Matthew had for another accusation of hypocrisy, we do not have it. There are however two terms that need explanation. What are phylacteries? They were small, cubical leather boxes worn in pairs, one on the forehead, held there with a band around the head, the other on the left arm close to the heart. The contents of the phylacteries: Quotes from the Torah, written on papyrus or parchment, Exodus 13:1-10, 11:16; Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21.What are the fringes?  Based on Numbers 15:38-40, male Jews wore tassels at the corners of their shawls to remind them of the commandments of the Torah and to remind them to avoid what we call occasions of sin. We do not know if Jesus wore phylacteries. As a pious Jew he probably did, but he did wear the fringes or tassels according to Matthew 9:20 and 14:36.


“They love places of honor at banquets, and the first seats in the synagogues, greetings in market places and to be called ‘Rabbi.’” The “first seat” in a synagogue was a bench in front of the ark or box containing the sacred scrolls. It was considered a place of honor, since those who sat there faced the people. This position could be used to display “broad phylacteries” and “long tassels.”

Long public greetings listing various honorable titles were addressed to V.I.P.s publicly. The title Rabbi by which some of the scribes were addressed was just coming into use at the time of composition of Matthew’s gospel. The author shows his contempt for those who bore this title by putting it only in the mouth of Judas at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Matthew also forbids the title “Abba” (Father) for Christian leaders along with the title “Master.”

His reason: Christians have only one Father, the one in heaven, and only Christ as their Master.

His unstated reason, however, is that the great scribes were so addressed by their disciples. 


Coming to the end of this quaint choice for a Sunday gospel reading, one breathes a sigh of relief. But is there a haunting suspicion that Matthew might have been criticizing leaders of his own Christian congregation under the name “scribes and Pharisees?” Do we still experience unwarranted personal display in our churches? Do we elders sit on the chair of Jesus to teach the doctrines of Jesus but lack the integrity to live those teachings? This gospel reading can lead us to a piercing examination of conscience. Where is the Good News in this whole tirade? At the end, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” These passive expressions are called “the divine passive,” meaning that God will do the humbling and the exalting.