Matthew 23:1-12 (NRSV)
Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 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. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
It occurred to me that referencing the Compton-born rapper Kendrick Lamar's lyrics while discussing a passage of Scripture may not be entirely appropriate. In the interest of maintaining the integrity of this article, I decided against using the rest of the verse in my title. However, Kung-fu Kenny does sum up Jesus’ words in this passage pretty well with one line. Here we see Jesus of Nazareth once again resuming the mantle of prophet, seeking to bring balance to a broken system.
Christ certainly knew exactly where to hit the Pharisees and the Sadducees right in the pressure points. After having silenced the religious zealots permanently with his teaching, he moves in for the kill. He saw a system dominated by hypocritical, toxic individuals who had lost sight of what God was all about and decided to rock the boat in such a way where it couldn’t be un-rocked. He calls their very characters into question, a shocking move to make in a time where these men were revered as “Masters of the Law”. Addressing the “crowds” and “his disciples” he denounces these men. By placing themselves above those they taught, they had turned their back on the Spirit of the Law in favour of its letter. Having previously showed the people in Matthew 22 that he too had a comprehensive knowledge of the Law, Jesus breaks this virulent idolatry of the Pharisees clean open. A man frequently called ‘rabbi’ in a similar manner to the Pharisees, the Nazarene walks among the people, cleaning their feet and speaking to the 'worst' of them; tax collectors, social outcasts, prostitutes and political pariahs. Walking in God’s light has not given room for bragging rights or honour. Jesus tells us that upholding the Law does not give us the right to be exalted above it. Instead, we remember we uphold it because of who is asking us to do so. When we find ourselves living within the Spirit of the Law and not seeking to uphold every syllable of it, we end up doing it right anyway whilst no longer patting ourselves on the back for being so great.
Christ looks at these men, sees the obsession that has taken over their hearts and moves us quickly away from them like a father pulling his child away from an older bully in a playground. There he can remind us that these individuals are not to be imitated merely because of their assumed seniority and belligerent obedience. We are not called to live in a warped response to the Law where upholding its letter comes between us and its spirit. Instead we are to live on God’s terms. As the Pharisees placed themselves above the masses using the Law, they left behind the core principle of what the Spirit is trying to teach through it: a lesson of love and remembering that God’s grace is more important than the laws which we will inevitably break. By using the Law to elevate ourselves above others, we essentially take over the courtroom ourselves and seek to become judge and jury … By being humble we allow God, in his mercy and goodness, to come back to the stand and have the final word.
This passage is a tough one to fit ourselves into, mainly because it’s too easy to slot ourselves in neatly as the crowd or one of the disciples. As believers, who likes to see themselves as a Pharisee – especially in this context? Yet, as Jesus speaks, it’s important to ask yourself which side you fall on in this lesson, and to answer honestly. Are you a member of the crowd, someone who needs to ignore the words of the self-righteous above you and place your eyes on God? Or have you been self-righteous, hypocritical and ignorant of the Spirit yourself? What spoke to me the most here is that, by examining my own life, I found myself in the position of the zealot. While it is true I may not be guilty of their pitfalls to the same degree, there are many times in my life where I’ve lost sight of the Spirit in favour of the law. In fact, it’s probably this default state of wanly adhering to the commandments that I sit in most often. I catch myself thinking “Oh if I just uphold the law, if I love others and go to church and…”, I can tell everyone that I have done so. I can keep face, make sure everyone knows I’m ‘staying holy’ and I can still give advice to my fellow disciples. In this state, I find myself in the position of the Pharisee, playing a role without the substance to back it up. I'm just drifting with the wind while, in my heart, I am no longer focused on why I follow this precedent or who has set it for me, ultimately defeating its purpose. This is not a position of growth but one of stagnation and even decline. By seeking to live above the law, you have no more room for failure and no mercy when you inevitably fail. By seeking to live with the Spirit, you end up under the law, a position of humility and mercy, but without being afraid of it or a slave to it. Here you can admit to your shortcomings, your iniquities - here they are already paid for in full.
So sit down, be humble.
Alex McElwee is a Dublin born student just entering into college as a fresh-faced and bushy-tailed nineteen year old. He hopes to enroll in the UCD arts block in September to study English and Classical Civilisations. Alex has loved writing from a young age, a passion that he likes to use in conjunction with his faith. When you’re not catching him waxing poetically in his notebook you might find Alex reading the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, drinking coffee by the litre or working out in a suspect warehouse gym.