Read­ing Time: 11 minutes

(Ref. Texts: Mal 1:14–2:2.8–10; 1Thess 2:7–9.13; Matt 23:1–12)

In Juda­ism, the temple was the most holy site in the world. But if you extend that argu­ment as a meta­phor, and you say the world is a holy place, and you’re treat­ing this holy place like a money-lend­ing psy­cho, then Jesus says, ‘This is hypo­crisy!’ and he’d point it out and flip it over.” 


Hav­ing silenced the Phar­isees on the issue of the greatest com­mand­ment, Jesus now con­fron­ted them on one issue. With the con­clu­sion that the entire Jew­ish com­mand­ments hangs on the love of God and of neigh­bour, Jesus asked the Phar­isees “what do you think of the Mes­si­ah? Whose son is he? They said to him, the son of Dav­id” (Matt 22:42). But if the Mes­si­ah is the son of Dav­id, how come Dav­id, through the empower­ing of the Holy Spir­it called him Lord? And if Dav­id called him Lord, how can he be his son? (Matt 22:43–45). After this extraordin­ary inter­ven­tion, Mat­thew notes that “no one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did any­one dare to ask him any more ques­tions” (Matt 22:46). To the ques­tions of the Phar­isees, the Hero­di­ans and the Sad­ducees con­cern­ing the pay­ing of tax (Matt 22:15–22), the resur­rec­tion (Matt 22:23–33) and the most import­ant com­mand­ment (Matt 22:34–40), Jesus provided con­crete and con­vin­cing answers. But when Jesus asked them one ques­tion, they could not provide an adequate answer. With his obser­va­tion on their reply to the iden­tity of the mes­si­ah, Jesus silenced the Jew­ish author­ity that they could not ask him fur­ther ques­tions. Hence, Jesus turned to his disciples.

If to their hear­ing, Jesus reminded the reli­gious lead­ers (priests and eld­ers) that those they regard as sin­ners (tax col­lect­ors, pros­ti­tutes, and oth­ers) make it to the king­dom of God, while they them­selves do not (Matt 21:28–32); that due to their unfaith­ful­ness, the king­dom of God will be taken away from them and entrus­ted to those who know its value, and who will take prop­er care of it (Matt 21:33–43); that they were not qual­i­fied for the mar­riage ban­quet (Matt 22:1–14); that they should render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God (Matt 22:15–22); that God is not God of the dead but of the leav­ing (Matt 22:23–33); and that the greatest com­mand­ment is the love of God and of neigh­bour (Matt 22:34–40), Jesus now addresses the crowds and the dis­ciples, admon­ish­ing them on what they should do and what they should not do, to avoid being like the Phar­isees, the Hero­di­ans, the Sad­ducees, the chief priests, the eld­ers and the scribes. Both the crowd and the dis­ciples should avoid the hypo­crisy and false lead­er­ship of the Phar­isees. This is the mes­sage of this Sunday Gos­pel (Matt 23:1–12).

Beware of their hypocrisy

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his dis­ciples, the scribes and the Phar­isees sit on Moses’ seat; there­fore, do whatever they teach you and fol­low it; but do not do as they do, for they do not prac­tice what they teach” (Matt 23:1–3). While the scribes were the offi­cial and pro­fes­sion­al inter­pret­ers of the Torah, the Phar­isees were experts in theo­lo­gic­al mat­ters. By Moses’ seat is meant the author­ity of Moses in terms of the law. That is, the pul­pit where the scribes taught and inter­preted the Torah. Jesus was very care­ful with his audi­ence. His audi­ence determ­ined his teach­ings and state­ments. Because they could eas­ily be con­tam­in­ated, Jesus warned the crowds and his dis­ciples to beware of the hypo­crisy of the scribes and the Phar­isees. Such hypo­crisy con­sists in the diver­gence between what they teach and what they do. Once they sit on Moses’ seat, the crowds and the dis­ciples must listen to the scribes and the Phar­isees, and they must believe and put into prac­tice what they teach them. At the same time, they should be care­ful not to imit­ate what they do. In oth­er words, while seated on Moses’ seat, they teach exactly what the law says. But once they step down from the seat, they con­tra­dict what they have just taught the people. There is no agree­ment between what they teach while on Moses’ seat and what they do while out of Moses’ seat. Hypo­crisy is the state of pre­tend­ing to have beliefs, opin­ions, vir­tues, feel­ings, qual­it­ies, or stand­ards that a per­son does not actu­ally have. Hypo­crisy involves decep­tion of oth­ers and is thus, a lie.

In the rite of ordin­a­tion to the priest­hood in Cath­ol­ic Church, dur­ing the present­a­tion of Bread and Wine to the newly ordained priest, the ordain­ing pre­l­ate in hand­ing over the bread and wine pro­nounces these words “receive from the Holy People of God the gifts to be offered to God. Know what you do, imit­ate what you cel­eb­rate, and con­form your life to the mys­tery of the Lord’s cross.” This ges­ture ties the rite of ordin­a­tion dir­ectly to the Euchar­ist­ic con­text and to the priest’s ser­vice on behalf of the people of God. In oth­er words, the priest must align his life with the Euchar­ist. He should mind what he does, imit­ate what he cel­eb­rates and more import­antly, con­form his life to the mys­tery of the Lord’s cross. Any­thing oth­er than this, is a con­tra­dic­tion and amounts to hypo­crisy. By ask­ing the crowds and the dis­ciples to fol­low the teach­ings of the Phar­isees and the scribes, Jesus recog­nized their func­tion as offi­cial teach­ers and inter­pret­ers of the Torah. So long as they adequately inter­preted the law, they must be obeyed. Whatever they teach is lim­ited only to the Law of Moses, and does not include fur­ther addi­tions made by the Phar­isees in the name of tra­di­tion and cul­ture. What they do must not be fol­lowed because their reli­gious prac­tices and extra-bib­lic­al tra­di­tions are meant to over­ride the main pro­vi­sions of the Law (cf. Matt 23:23). Moreover, they do not prac­tice what they teach. There­fore, the crowds and the dis­ciples should obey God’s word not human laws and tra­di­tions. Same instruc­tion goes to the con­tem­por­ary Christians.

They tie heavy burdens, but….

They tie up heavy bur­dens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of oth­ers; but they them­selves are unwill­ing to lift a fin­ger to move them” (Matt 23:4). The reas­on people should not fol­low what the scribes and the Phar­isees do is because they do not prac­tice what they teach. They do not prac­tice what they teach because they know they are heavy bur­dens. By say­ing that the scribes and the Phar­isees tie heavy bur­dens hard to bear on the people, while they them­selves are not will­ing to prac­tice any, Jesus under­lines their hypo­crisy. These ‘heavy bur­dens’ refer to the extra-bib­lic­al beliefs and tra­di­tions which formed the found­a­tion of the Phar­isa­ic belief. Although they were inten­ded to adapt the Jew­ish Test­a­ment laws to the present and actu­al situ­ation, but it later sub­sti­tuted the law itself. Moreover, its unpro­por­tioned and exag­ger­ated oblig­a­tions became so bur­den­some and oppress­ive to the people. To these unpro­por­tioned and exag­ger­ated oblig­a­tions, the scribes and the Phar­isees exemp­ted them­selves. As Jesus denounced the hypo­crisy of the Jew­ish author­ity (cf. Luke 11:37–44), one of the law­yers present said to him “teach­er, when you say these things, you insult us too” (Luke 11:45). Imme­di­ately, Jesus replied “woe also to you law­yers! For you load people with bur­dens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a fin­ger to ease them” (Luke 11:46). Instances of such heavy bur­dens include the wash­ing of hands before eat­ing (cf. Matt 15:2; Mark 7:1–3); the pro­hib­i­tion to pluck corn on a Sab­bath (cf. Luke 6:1–2); and the pro­hib­i­tion to heal on the Sab­bath day (cf. Luke 13:14).

Over­bur­den­ing the people with massive laws and oblig­a­tions was a com­mon defect and prac­tice of the Jew­ish author­it­ies. Unfor­tu­nately, the same ugly incid­ent has con­tin­ued even today and among Chris­ti­ans. The gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues to make life miser­able for the people with series and ant­ag­on­ist­ic laws. Sim­il­arly, even Chris­ti­ans tend to sub­sti­tute the guidelines of the Gos­pel with their inhu­man and uto­pi­an rules and pro­hib­i­tions. This is why there are many hypo­crites and fun­da­ment­al­ists among Christians.

Instead of prac­ti­cing what they teach, they prefer to parade them­selves along the roads, in the mar­ket places and in the Syn­agogues. For instance, “they do all their deeds to be seen by oth­ers; they make their phylac­ter­ies broad and their fringes long” (Matt 23:5). The phylac­tery (Greek: phu­lak­tēri­on – a recept­acle for safekeeping/guard), is a small square box, made either of parch­ment or black calf-skin, in which are enclosed slips of parch­ment or vel­lum with the texts of Exodus 13:9; 13:16; Deu­ter­o­nomy 6:4–9; 6:11–18, writ­ten on them, and which are worn on the head and left arm by every con­ser­vat­ive Jew on week-day morn­ings dur­ing pray­ers. On the oth­er hand, the fringes (Greek: kraspe­don – twis­ted thread, tas­sel) refer to the orna­ment worn by the Israel­ites upon the edges, and espe­cially at the corners of their robes, as an affect­a­tion of piety. In oth­er words, the fringes are the tas­sels with blue cord that were attached to the four angles of the gar­ment (cf. Num 15:37–41; Deut 22:12). Its func­tion was to remind the Jews of their oblig­a­tion to obey the com­mand­ments of God and to be holy (Num 15:40). Now, the prob­lem is not that the Phar­isees and the scribes wore these things. That is, Jesus did not cri­ti­cize and con­demn them for wear­ing the things pre­scribed by law. Instead, he was against their mak­ing the fringes broad and wear­ing the phylac­tery osten­ta­tiously on the head and left arm. They made them so long and broad that they can­not pass without being noticed by all. And the reas­on is that they do all their deeds to be seen, admired and applauded by the people. They trans­formed a reli­gious instruc­tion to some­thing used for mak­ing impres­sion on the people. By so doing, they emp­tied it of its spir­itu­al value, redu­cing it to mere eye-service.

It is this hypo­crit­ic­al and reli­gious form­al­ism that led the scribes and the Phar­isees to lov­ing to occupy the place of hon­our at ban­quets; to have the best seats in the syn­agogues; to love being greeted with respect in the mar­ket­places; and to have people call them rabbi (cf. Matt 23:6–7). With­in the Jew­ish setup (and even in the con­tem­por­ary soci­ety), guests were assigned seats at ban­quets and pub­lic gath­er­ings accord­ing to their social status. Occupy­ing these places of hon­our and the best seats made the scribes and the Phar­isees point of attrac­tion. Is the con­tem­por­ary Chris­tian­ity devoid of this prob­lem? Next page.…

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