Summary: The exaggerated sense of self interferes with serving God and each other
Matt 23 : 1 – 12
There are many stories from someone named Aesop. No one knows if he/she actually lived but is said to have been a story teller who told stories and solved problems. The stories are still, to this day, used as lessons in morality. Some said that he/she was a slave who loved to tell stories and through such wisdom and story-telling, gained his/her freedom and became an adviser to rulers. Whoever he/she was, the stories are collected and today are referred to as Aesop Fables. One of such stories is the story about the Wolf and the Lion. The story goes like this. One evening, as the sun was setting, the wolf walking on a hill saw his shadow down in the plain. The image it observed was large and exaggerated as evening shadows always do. This impressed the wolf and he stopped and took a look at his exaggerated image. Impressed with such a large image of himself, he wondered why he always thought about himself poorly and so decided that he will no longer be afraid of the lion who was not as big. While he was harboring this great image of himself, he failed to run away from the approaching lion and so was caught by the lion. The story goes that as he struggled for his life in the fangs of the lion, he realized that it was his exaggerated sense of self that caused his demise. By then, it was too late.
Our passage today is about a lesson in humility and St Mathew recorded our Lord speaking against the exaggerated sense of self and about humility. Turn with me to the Gospel of St Mathew 23 : 1 – 12.
The use of the Scribes and Pharisees as an illustration was necessary here. The listeners were familiar with these two groups who made themselves the new law givers. They “have seated themselves in the chair of Moses: (v.2). The Pharisees hated anything new and foreign and insisted in the purity of religion and culture. Anyone who embraced change and new ideas was not authentic enough and so the Pharisees hated the Hellenistic culture that was spreading in the ancient Near East. They made up rules such that their personal preferences became divine laws. The law was interpreted literally such that they instructed people to give even a tenth of their enema to the temple. The Scribes were not an organized group as the Pharisees were, but they were in the time of Christ, learned men in Judaism. They were those who copied the scripture in the days before the printing press and so were very familiar with the laws. They were called upon to help in the interpretation of the law and so they had great authority in the temple and official bureaucracy. They enjoyed tremendous support and magnanimity of the chief priest and the rulers and also the admiration of the people as “learned individuals”. Some were Rabbi and some were ordinary folks and so they demanded to be respected because of who they were. Mathew, Mark and Luke portray them as enemies of what they saw as the dilution of the authentic religion. They hated Christ because they saw in him the destruction of their religion and livelihood. They had reason to worry because often, those who enjoy and benefit from dysfunction always hate reformers. Those who benefit from oppression and the status quo hate reformers and messages of freedom and so both the Pharisees who saw themselves as the custodians of purity, and the Scribes who benefited from the status quo, saw the messages of Christ as a danger that will affect their means of livelihood. They wanted purity; they presented themselves as the mouthpiece of God, yet they themselves did not obey the oppressive laws that they claimed was from God. And so our Lord warns in v. 3, “Therefore all they tell you, do not observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say things, and do not do them.” Our Lord compared their interpretation of the law as being akin to tying a load on the backs of others while they themselves are not willing “to move them with as much as their fingers” (v.4).
The whole idea of their religiosity was to be noticed so that they could be accorded the respect of their membership in the group. Clothing styles and prayer parchments (phylaecteries) worn in the forehead and the arms were made to be prominent so you could not mistake their identity at gatherings, at prayer times and in the temple (v.5). They loved to be honored at banquets and religious gatherings. Special places were reserved for them as those representing the religious community. They loved to be addressed with titles and salutatory names that show their learning.