Summary: In training his disciples to be leaders, Jesus pointed to the religious leaders of his day as examples to avoid.
How Not to be a Religious Leader
There’s an old story about three boys who are bragging about rich their dads are. The first boy said, "My dad is so rich. He writes a few paragraphs on a piece of paper. Calls it a poem. And he gets $50 for it."
The second boy said, "That’s nothing. My dad is so rich. He makes a few dots on a piece of paper. Calls it a song. And he gets $100 for it."
The third boy said, "That’s nothing. My dad writes a few paragraphs. Calls it a sermon. And it takes four men to carry the money down the aisle!" [hat tip: Marc Axelrod]
If I had a son, he couldn’t tell that story, could he?! I do write some paragraphs and call it a sermon (or, a homily), but never in all my days of filling a pulpit, did it ever take more than a wee toddler to carry the money down the aisle!
Now we laugh at a story like this, because of the childish presentation of vices which are very adult indeed. And, these are what Jesus is pointing to here when he warns his disciples about the ruinous vices of the religious leadership of Israel. You see, Jesus has prepared his disciples to become leaders in the Church, the Church’s first leaders. And, Jesus knows that while he is training his disciples, the most visible, most widely recognized examples of religious leadership are the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It is exactly these kinds of people that our Lord does NOT want his disciples to mimic when they become leaders of his church on the other side of his resurrection from the dead.
In the previous chapters of Matthew’s gospel, Matthew has recounted many of the final encounters between Jesus on one hand, and the Pharisees and the Sadducees on the other hand. In the encounter we saw last Sunday, these religious leaders finally gave up, and Matthew tells us that they never asked him any more questions.
It is at this point that Jesus turns to the crowds who have been watching this religious sparring and particularly to his disciples and warns them against following the examples of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. As far as the multitudes are concerned, Jesus is concerned to warn them against following leaders like the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
What, then, are these errors. they seem to be three.
First of all, the Pharisees and the Sadducees love authority, but not service. Jesus says they sit in Moses’ seat. This is a way of saying that they occupy the teaching authority originally conferred to Moses by God. That is why Jesus tells the people to follow what the Pharisees tell the people to observe. This is a striking endorsement, but it is qualified by this: do not do as they do, for they say and do not do.
Jesus doesn’t fault the Pharisees and Sadducees for teaching false doctrine. He DOES fault them for failing to observe the doctrine they teach. Moreover, they are zealous to lay all sorts of onerous and difficult obligations on the people, which they themselves do not follow.
To give you an example, at the time of Jesus, the Pharisees taught that it was a violation of the Sabbath to travel more than a certain number of paces from one’s home. But, of course, there was a loop hole to this. If one were walk the maximum number of paces from one’s home and beyond that distance was some item that belonged to you, you could walk as far as that item in order to retrieve it. Now, if you’re a Pharisee, and on the Sabbath you wish to visit your Pharisee brother who lives a few hundred yards beyond the limits of your Sabbath boundaries, this is what you do – a day or so before you make the Sabbath trip, you are careful to lay various items of your own property along the route, and on the Sabbath you simply move from one item to another to retrieve them. And, here’s the fun part – what you are allowed to pick up does not have to be more than a single thread from a garment or cloak that you own.
What made them hypocrites is this: they laid on other men huge burdens, great difficulties that one must overcome if one were to be considered spiritual and righteous and holy. But, none of these burdens fell on themselves, for they had all sorts of loopholes which they had devised, to make life bearable for themselves, but they would never consider lifting such religious burdens from others. Meanwhile, they kept for themselves the reputations of being holier than thou – in the most literal sense of that phrase.