Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (5 November)

Chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel is an extended condemnation of the Pharisees’ and scribes’ religious leadership. After repeated confrontations with them, Jesus has finally had enough. Passages such as this require careful interpretation to ensure we don’t accidentally give false grounds for anti-Semitism. Matthew, including in this passage, shows great respect for the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures and the riches of the Jewish tradition. Without Judaism, there could be no Christianity. Matthew also recognises that the vanity, hypocrisy, and arrogance that trouble Jesus are a universal human characteristic, not something specific to the Jewish leaders. The point of this passage concerns the true nature of discipleship, rather than a condemnation of a particular people or religion. Jesus first of all honours the scribes and Pharisees who were themselves careful teachers of the Law, though in the same sentence challenges the wholeness and practical integrity of these lay teachers of Israel. Jesus advises his own followers to put into practice and observe the teaching themes of these scribes in the Pharisee sect who are seeking to be interpreters of the Law of Moses. The problem is that they misuse their authority. They behave in ways that are counter to the truth they know and teach. We don’t know the theological perspectives of these Pharisees in Matthew 23, but what Jesus says of them could be said of any of us. Jesus makes three challenges to all who hear his words. Firstly, they do not themselves practise in daily lives what they preach. Secondly, they present another problem that is even more dangerous to others. As Christians, we place the wrong kind of burdens upon the shoulders of those whom we share the Gospel with. Lastly, our Lord challenges our ego with simply a statement in v. 6. The good news, however, is that we are invited to know the God who knows us and loves us as a parent knows children in the family. We are set free from the bondage of self-power and self-preoccupation by this Jesus who continues to call us to him, despite our failings. Can you feel your soul relax into the freedom of that embrace?