The Chair of Moses

Ordinary 31A

Matthew 23: 1 12


In this series, the reading prior to this Gospel text was about the great Commandment. A careful observation of our Lord would demonstrate his great efforts to uphold the ancient Torah, the Law, in all its dignity, without adding anything to it. All the major as well as the minute parts of the Law pointed towards the need to love God with the whole of every part of our being and to apply the same standard to our neighbour. We may be tempted to ask, "How realistic is this?" Meditation on his words and teaching will reveal that it can be real if we let him show the way, and then dare to follow in it. He is the Word of God made flesh. He is the Love of God made flesh. He will never give up on his mission to us as well as to anyone who will listen; he therefore remains the perfect model of outreach for his disciples down through the ages to follow.

We now see our Lord continue to uncover the simplicity of the Jewish Faith, and denounce the way the leading Pharisees have hijacked religious practice. It is straight talking. He is desperately trying to break through their bias and self-righteousness.

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 1

After addressing different groups of mainly professional Pharisees (mostly, but not entirely apposed to him) Jesus now returns to the ordinary listeners gathered around him.

Verses 2 4

He made a statement about the teachers of the Law (the Scribes) and the Pharisees, explaining that they are the authorised interpreters of the Law of Moses. Consequently their instructions in terms of the Law of God must be obeyed. However, Jesus insisted his listeners did not look on them as role models and conduct themselves in a similar way. As far as he was concerned, they did not practice what they preached. They also had no hesitation demanding all sorts of minor religious practices be faithfully carried out which overwhelmed sincere ordinary Jews, yet wouldn't lift a finger to help those who were struggling. Daringly, Jesus shows himself as the new Moses, who will lead God's people from a land of bondage into a place of loving nurture.

Verses 5 7

The second major criticism Jesus had of the conduct of the Scribes and Pharisees was that they did everything ostentatiously, so that they were observed and would accordingly be thought of more highly. There were three examples Jesus outlined which he indicated were offensive.

  • They made their phylacteries extra wide and the tassels on their prayer shawls extra long.
  • They sought the places of honour at banquets, and the most important seats in the synagogues during services.
  • They also sought to have people bow to them in the market places and to be addressed as "Rabbi".

Verses 8 10

Jesus then enlarged on the obsession some had developed, of seeking to be revered in public and given titles which in their mind, denoted superiority.

  • "But you are not to be called "Rabbi" for you have only one master, and you are all brothers."
  • "And do not call anyone on earth 'father', for you (all) have one Father, and he is in heaven."
  • "Nor are you to be called 'teacher', for you have one Teacher, the Christ (the anointed One, the Messiah).

Verses 11 and 12

Jesus rounds of this short discourse with a familiar (and favourite) question:

"Whoever wants to be the greatest among you must be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

A Comment

In this account, Jesus concentrated on three main points, two being criticisms of inappropriate behaviour for people of God, and the third being a warning to his disciples. All three have had a significant effect over the millennia as the Church has, at times, slipped into the same errors as the Scribes and Pharisees, and needed to return to these standards put in place by our Lord.

First, looking again at verses 2 4, we must understand this text in light if the circumstances prevailing then. The Scribes and Pharisees were the lawful authorities of Judaism, and what they taught had to be obeyed, provided it reflected the revelation by God, of what he wanted his people to do. Where their teaching and actions were not in harmony with the true meaning of the Torah, Jesus required that his disciples did not follow them. This is a difficult matter to apply in our times, and much error creeps into the life of the Church when Christians think they must obey all authority over them on the assumption God put it there!

Our Lord's instruction here refers only to legal authority which can authentically trace its origins to God's appointment and never in cases of human usurpation.

First, in this first key point of our Lord's instruction, there is an implied warning to those who place spiritual and ritual demands on others, yet do not bother to try and meet those standards themselves.

Secondly, moving on to verses 5 7, Jesus will not tolerate in his Church, any form of ostentatious behaviour designed to draw attention to one's own superior religious virtue. This will apply to anything from walking around with an extra large Bible in one's hand, to letting it drop in conversation that one fasts or receives Communion everyday, or whatever.

Thirdly, Jesus insists that titles in his Church must genuinely reflect a calling from God, and the person's acceptance of the sacrifices, trials and hardships which may accompany sincere performance of the role. Jesus does not proscribe the use of the titles, but, consistent with his lesson in this text, he warns his followers never to accept the titles, then take advantage of the benefits they bring the holder, but fail to perform the service the titles imply. In his kingdom, spiritual leaders and those in authority will strive to pass on that which they have received.

Appendix 1, Additional Notes Matthew 23: 8 - 10

Appendix 2, Notes from Commentary on the Holy Bible, Ed. J. Dummelow


This is a beautiful passage in which Jesus exposes the tyranny of the authority-holders in his culture. Pride and self-centredness were, and remain, the reason people hijack religion for their own purposes. 
The common misapplication of this text to put other Christians down is really just another form of a power-seeking struggle in the Church today. Let's have no part of it.

Instead, let's rejoice that Jesus has cleansed the institutions he refers to, that his followers may avoid the dangers they can present.

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