In Matthew 23:1-12 we come to the end of Jesus’ public teaching sections in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus’ focus shifts to helping the disciples understand what it means to be a leader and a servant in following his example. Add to this, Matthew was writing his Gospel round 70 CE, encouraging a local growing faith community. So, the message can be for all disciples, including us today.
Chapter 23 begins with the extraordinary statement about the Scribes and Pharisees who were the dominant group in Judaism at the time. They “sit on Moses’ seat”, meaning they exercise authority for the administration of the Law in their jurisdiction. In this case, probably around Galilee or southern Syria where Matthew and his communities lived. The authority of Moses and the Jewish Law was not doubted. The Pharisees insisted the community live as God’s holy people, as distinct from the surrounding Roman influence. This account of Jesus teaching speaks to how Matthew’s community experienced the Scribes and the Pharisees.
Jesus wanted everyone to understand what he was teaching. In Matthew’s account, Jesus is teaching about what it is to be a leader. He looks to the leaders of society – to the Scribes and Pharisees. While Jesus does not question their adherence to God’s Law, he notes that the teachings and the practice of certain Scribes and Pharisee don’t match their actions. The clothes they wore, how they promoted themselves to high places, and how their interpretation of the Law placed heavy burdens on others, was not how leaders should act. We cannot promote ourselves as being more important than others and say that God loves everyone equally. Jesus teaches us to humbly serve others.
Jesus said that words and actions should match. Leaders have authority when their teaching is reflected in their love towards God and neighbour. Disciples are authentic witnesses when their loving action mirror their words.