Say and Do: context

1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. 5 All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. 6 They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, 7 greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’ 8 As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. 10 Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

On the 29th Sunday, we moved into a section of Matthew’s gospel that comprises a series of controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities of Jerusalem.

  • Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (asked by Pharisees and Herodians: 22:17);
  • In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?” (asked by Sadducees; v. 27);
  • “which commandment in the law is the greatest” (asked by a lawyer; v.34; the core of the Gospel for the 30th Sunday, Year A)

It is the third controversy which is the context of our gospel this week. Where the lectionary draws the boundaries of a reading and where scholars mark the boundaries can be different. For purposes of studying Scripture, the boundaries of our gospel narrative is usually taken to continue and includes vv.41-46, where at the end of the questioning by the leaders of Jerusalem, Jesus asks them a question:

41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus questioned them, 42 saying, “What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They replied, “David’s.” 43 He said to them, “How, then, does David, inspired by the Spirit, call him ‘lord,’ saying: 44 ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your feet”’? 45 If David calls him ‘lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41–46)

For our gospel reading, the setting is still in the temple courtyard (see 24:1 – “Jesus left the temple area and was going away, when his disciples approached him to point out the temple buildings.”). Thus, here at the beginning of Mt 23, it is the same group of folks surrounding Jesus. Among them are Jesus’ disciples, and so Matthew mentions both groups as the audience. The content of this section suggests that it begins with the crowd as the primary audience, warning them against those they have been taught to regard as their teachers and leaders; but from v. 8 onward, and unmistakably in v. 10, the disciples are more directly in view, with the last two verses returning to what have already been familiar themes in Jesus’ teaching of his disciples (see 18:1–5; 20:25–28). Those earlier instructions and their synoptic parallels (and cf. also John 13:13–16) indicate that already among the pre-Easter disciple group the issue of status and ambition was a real one, but the wording of vv. 8–10, especially the unparalleled (in Matthew) reference by Jesus to “the Messiah” in the third person with apparent reference to himself, suggests that the teaching has been adapted to address an inappropriate concern for status and respect in the church of Matthew’s own day.

The immediate target, however, is the scribes and the Pharisees, two groups who belong naturally together and probably in fact overlapped to a large extent, most scribes being Pharisaically inclined (see on 5:20). They enjoyed popular respect and authority as the recognized experts in understanding and applying the OT law and its subsequent elaborations, and Jesus’ opening words note the authority of their office, though in the light of what follows there is surely an element of irony in his endorsement. His criticism focuses, however, not on the role they purport to fulfill but on the way they fulfill it. The charge of inconsistency in their behavior (v. 3b) is not developed at this point, but much of what follows in vv. 13–36 will fill it out. But two more specific charges are developed, their lack of consideration for the problems their teaching generates for ordinary people (v. 4), and their concern for appearances and reputation (vv. 5–7). It is the latter which triggers Jesus’ return to his disciples’ preoccupation with status, which takes up the rest of the paragraph.

In the larger context of the story of Jesus, this pericope is taking place on the Tuesday of Holy Week. In other words, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on “Palm Sunday” but before the events of Holy Thursday and beyond.

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