Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not. Yea, they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:1-4).
The Evangelists consistently speak of mutual antagonism between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. From their presentation alone one might imagine that Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are miles apart in their understanding of God and Judaism. And yet, of all the various sects of Second Temple Judaism, Jesus has the most in common with the Pharisees. The Sadducees accepted only the Torah as legitimate ground of authority and denied the existence of angels, the soul, and the resurrection (Matthew 22:23, Acts 23:8). The Herodians, by virtue of supporting Herod and his government, would have no love for a rival King of the Jews (Matthew 22:16). One might think that Jesus and the Essenes would have much in common; while they shared an apocalyptic worldview and some “ascetic” practices, the Essenes rejected the present Temple and its authorities as illegitimate and looked forward to the day when the Sons of Light would restore the Temple and its proper service and who withdrew from life in the greater Jewish community. Jesus did not look forward to establishment of a restored Temple in Jerusalem, nor did He withdraw from life among the people of God (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, Jesus and the Pharisees agreed about the inspiration and authority of the prophets and the writings, angels, the soul, the resurrection, and the hope of Israel in the Messiah. This leaves us with a major challenge: if Jesus and the Pharisees share so many similarities in outlook, why are the Pharisees and the scribes singled out for such strong condemnation by the Evangelists? If Jesus and the Pharisees agree on so much, why are the Pharisees portrayed in such consistently negative ways in the Gospels?
Few places express Jesus’ difficulties with the scribes and Pharisees with as much rhetorical force and denunciation as in the series of woes Jesus sets forth in Matthew 23:1-35. Jesus begins His litany of invective against the scribes and Pharisees by denouncing a form of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:1-4.
Jesus begins with the recognition that the scribes and Pharisees maintain a pride of place in Second Temple Judaism: they “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:2). No actual chair is envisioned; Jesus gives recognition to their claims of serving as the interpreters of the Law of Moses on behalf of the people. For this reason Jesus tells the people to do what the scribes and Pharisees bid them to do (Matthew 23:3a). Some interpreters of this passage suggest that Jesus is being sarcastic and does not actually expect His audience to live according to what the Pharisees teach; such an interpretation is possible but not necessarily warranted. We do well to remember that even though Jewish people put great emphasis on literacy and would have maintained higher literacy rates than seen among the Gentiles, plenty of Jewish people could still not read or write, and even then, scrolls of the Law, Prophets, and Writings were copied by hand on expensive papyrus and parchment and would have been reserved for use in the synagogues and those like the scribes and Pharisees who were trained in the Law (Luke 4:17-20). Previously Ezra and his associates had read the Law and gave an understanding of its meaning (Nehemiah 8:1-8); many Jewish people in the first century looked to the scribes and Pharisees for the same reason, and for the time being, Jesus recognizes their role.
In Matthew 23:1-4 the problem is less with the specific interpretations and explanations given by the scribes and Pharisees and much more their unwillingness to do them (Matthew 23:3b-4)! They say the things faithful Jewish people should do, but they themselves do not do them. They expect Jewish people to adhere to all sorts of laws according to what is written and the traditions of the fathers, denounce as sinners those unwilling to bear them (John 9:16, 24), but provide no assistance to others, show no mercy, and themselves frequently (and flagrantly) violate them. In short, it may be good to do what they say, but do not do as they do.
To say one thing but do another is the essence of hypocrisy. The scribes and Pharisees were respected for their knowledge; no doubt many “average” Israelites looked up to them as holy people because of it. Yet, in practice, they were not very holy. They were just as guilty of violating the Law as other Israelites (Acts 13:39, Romans 3:13-21). Yet such totality begs the question: were not all the Israelites, save the Lord Jesus, hypocrites to some degree? Why are the scribes and Pharisees being singled out for this condemnation?
It is one thing to try and fall short; it is quite another to not even try. It is one thing to teach a given path, try to live it, and stumble at times; we humans are imperfect. It is quite another to act as if one is all holy and righteous, presume to be holier and more righteous than others, and yet substantively are little better than those whom they denounce. Such were the scribes and Pharisees: they acted as if knowing and teaching the Law brought forth its own special kind of holiness. Jesus makes it clear that it does not.
We do well to remember that the scribes and Pharisees were part of the people of God, and of all the people of God at the time, were considered to be the most holy and righteous. Their denunciation by all the Evangelists is, in its own way, a warning for believers: do not be like the Pharisees. The way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisees are quite divergent, yet throughout time Christians, however well-meaning, have fallen prey to the ways of the Pharisees!
The Apostle Paul declares that knowledge puffs up while love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1); it is very easy to obtain knowledge of God and His ways and thus presume one’s holiness based upon one’s superior knowledge. That is the way of the Pharisee and the Gnostic; it is not the way of Jesus or those who truly follow Him (1 Timothy 6:20-21)! We are not made holy by our knowledge; we are not better than others simply because we have come to a better understanding of the will of God than they have. Such is why the first and foremost aspect of the Gospel is our own sinfulness and our inability to solve our sin problem through our own efforts (Ephesians 2:1-3, Titus 3:3). We are entirely dependent upon God in Christ for the hope of salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9); our obedient response in faith, while necessary, does not earn us or merit our salvation!
Every Christian, to some degree or another, is a hypocrite; we proclaim the way of God in Christ but fall short at times (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:8). But we must walk the walk of Christ; we must do the commandments (1 John 2:3-6). In seeking to do them we will learn humility, faith, and obedience. We would never imagine to lay heavy burdens on others and let ourselves go free; quite the contrary (Galatians 6:2)!
In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus begins to set forth the contrast between the condemned ways of the scribes and Pharisees and the righteous way of God in Christ. The way of the Pharisees is always tempting for the people of God; we must resist it, remaining humble and dependent upon God in Christ, seeking to do the will of the Lord in all respects, bearing one another’s burdens and not attempting to make them heavier! Let us serve the Lord Jesus in humble faith!
Ethan R. Longhenry