Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
Understanding And Applying the Text
Jesus was about to condemn the Scribes and Pharisees. It was important the crowd understood they were not to despise the Law because of them. Christ condemned the Jewish leadership for their hypocrisy. The crowd could have used that as justification to overthrow them. Or at the very least, ignore them. But Christ told the crowd to obey them. They were to obey but not imitate.
This is a hard teaching to accept. To obey evil and wicked leadership is hard to swallow.
They were to obey because God’s word has authority. Those who were teaching God’s Law were hypocrites. But their hypocrisy was no excuse to ignore the Law. We all have a natural dislike of the Law. This is particularly true when the pastor’s actions do not conform to His preaching. Often the clergy behaves as if they have a special dispensation to sin.
Is this a general principle? Are we to obey our leaders no matter what? This is not what is being taught here. What Christ is teaching is conformity to God’s word. The Pharisees taught God’s word. God’s word did not lose its authority because the teachers were hypocrites.
You may ask about the reformation. The reformers split from the church. Christ taught the supremacy of God’s word. That was the cry of the reformation. Luther and Calvin never taught the overthrow of the church. Rather they called the church back to Christ. That is why it was a reformation, not a revolution. It was restoring the church. It was not over an overthrow of the church.
Word and sacrament remained central to the reformation. The reformers called the Pope and Bishops to repentance. The church of Rome was corrupt. The reformers did not walk away from the Law and the Gospel because of that corruption. There is a hierarchy of authority and God’s word sits at the top. All other authority is subject to it. That is a truth Rome denied and continues to deny. The reformers were acknowledging that fact.
The lesson still applies today. Rome does not have a monopoly on hypocrisy. There are many protestant hypocrites. It is tempting to point out all the failures and hypocrisy within the church. Then use that as an excuse to ignore God’s Law. But hypocrisy does not justify a rejection of God’s Law.
Christ said the scribes did not live what they taught. He goes further. Anything that appeared good is hypocritical and worthless. Their only purpose was to impress others and elevate themselves. There was what appeared to be zeal for a holy life. But there was no pursuit of holiness.
Christ contrasts holy living with a mask of works that serve no purpose. They are ostentatious. We are never to parade our works before others.
Didn’t God command the Jews to wear phylacteries? (Exodus 13: 9,16; Deuteronomy 6:8; 11:18). Phylacteries were small leather cases containing Old Testament scripture verses. The Jews wore them on their arms and forehead while praying.
Why did Jesus condemn them? They were only doing what God commanded. No. Their goal was to have others recognize how holy they were. They wore large phylacteries so others could see them. But how did they justify it? My guess is they used the same reasoning we do today. They claimed it was to be a witness to others. Others could see their fringes and phylacteries. That would encourage them to wear them as commanded in the Law.
How many times have we done the same thing? We justify it as witnessing. When in reality it is a vain attempt to put ourselves at the center. Let’s look at an example. God commands us to pray. We are even given an example prayer by our Lord. (Matthew 6:5-15) But how many times have you heard a flowery impressive prayer? And you think to yourself, “Wow that guy can pray. I wish I could pray like that.” It has all the needed thee’s and thou’s sprinkled in all the right places. It uses the right amount of Elizabethan English. And you think that person must be holy. They are close to God.
The Scribe and Pharisees did the same thing. They wore phylacteries and extra-long fringes. They did not want anyone to miss out on their holiness.
The Scribes and Pharisees loved places of honor. They wanted the best seats. They wanted recognition from others. The more things change the more they stay the same. Men want honor from everyone. They want to sit on the platform. They don’t want to see better. I can tell you from experience the platform is some of the worse seats in the house. They want to be seen. This can also take the form of false humility. False humility allows the person recognition while appearing to follow Christ’s commands.
Note, Christ did not condemn the wearing of phylacteries or fringes. He condemned the purpose the Pharisees wore them. They wore them to receive honor from men. But the pretense was to honor God. The hypocritical flowery pray is not an excuse to not pray. That would be an exercise in missing the point. Christ condemned their hypocrisy, not their clothing.
We are to be humble. And our humility is to be sincere. Christ emphasizes this even further when He told the crowd to call no man father. We have one Father. And He is in heaven.
Like not condemning clothing but hypocrisy Christ is not condemning language. The issue Christ addresses is the desire for recognition and elevation by others. This is clear in the reference to rabbis. The Scribes and Pharisees craved recognition as leaders, teachers, and their knowledge. The Talmud even spelled out the proper greeting to a Rabbi or superior.
The emphasis is the elevation of ourselves over others. (you are all brothers v 8b)
Christ is not condemning calling a biological father, a father. Christ was not even condemning calling someone father who has been a leader and example to you. Paul, more than once, called himself a spiritual father. (1 Corinthians 4:15) The context makes it clear Christ was referring to seeking honor from men. Likewise, he condemned giving God’s honor to men. We are to never give the honor belonging to God to men.
There is an inherent desire for the recognition of others. If others recognize us as holy we must be doing it right. That was the mistake the Pharisees made. They went from desiring praise from men to demanding it. Christ tells us using others to let us know if we are on the path to holiness is the wrong measuring stick. We need to look to scripture. We need to look to Christ. Using recognition from men is the wrong measuring stick.