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.
By saying and not doing (v. 3) they imposed rules on other people but gave them no help in coping with them. So in contrast with the “kind yoke” and “light burden” of following Jesus (11:30), those who follow the scribes and Pharisees find themselves toiling and heavily loaded (11:28) struggling under the weight of a hugely expanded legal code which enslaves rather than liberates those who follow it.
The imagery of the scribes tying up these loads before placing them on people’s shoulders is perhaps intended to allude to the extensive study and debate which have gone into formulating the scribal rules (e.g., 12:1–14 concerning the sabbath regulations). Yet they are not willing to help those whose troubles they have themselves caused; far from reaching out to the people, the Pharisees kept them at a distance (see 9:10–11). Contrast Jesus himself, who offers rest to the burdened (11:28–30).
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.’
A second charge against the scribes and Pharisees is that their religious practices were designed to win the approval of other people rather than that of God. These verses strongly recall 6:1–6, 16–18, where Jesus has already spoken of the preoccupation of “the hypocrites” with gaining human applause for piety rather than pleasing God. To the examples given there, he now adds others which focus on clothing and on social status.
Phylacteries were the small leather boxes (tefillîn) containing key texts from the law which were (and are) worn on the forehead and arm in literal fulfillment of Deut 6:8; 11:18. They were presumably intended as a spiritual aid for the wearer, but they provided an opportunity for religious ostentation: either the boxes themselves or the straps by which they were fastened could be made more conspicuous by making them wide. The “fringes” are the tassels (ṣîṣît) on the corners of Jewish cloaks which were required by Num 15:38–39; Deut 22:12. In biblical times they were worn on the ordinary outer garment, as Jesus himself did (9:20; 14:36); it is only in subsequent Judaism that the ṭallît, the fringed shawl worn especially for prayer, has developed. The fringes too were intended as spiritual visual aids (Num 15:39), but to increase their length was an obvious way to draw people’s attention to one’s piety. Their length was discussed in Jesus’ day, the school of Shammai favoring longer tassels than that of Hillel (Sipre on Num 15:37–41).
The social opportunities for enjoying people’s adulation are found both in secular life (dinners and market-places) and also in worship. Recall the narrative of the best couch at dinner cf. Luke 14:7–11. Remains of early Jewish synagogue buildings include some individual stone seats which presumably stood in front of the benches where other worshipers sat and were for the leading members, among whom the scribes and Pharisees would expect to be.