This Sunday’s Gospel passage and the following verses enables us to mine some of the understanding that recent scripture scholarship has brought to us as enrichment..
In penetrating the meaning of the Gospel passage of this Sunday and the verses that follow it, we must be aware of the three stages of Gospel formation that were explained in the 1964 Instruction on the Historical Truth of the Gospels by the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission. Raymond Brown in his Introduction to the New Testament summarizes the three stages in this way: 1) The public ministry or activity of Jesus of Nazareth, 2) The (Apostolic) preaching about Jesus, and 3) The Written Gospels.
John Donahue, S.J. tells us: “Today’s Gospel launches a bitter polemic against the Pharisees that is almost a caricature of the historical Pharisees. Its purpose is less to pillory them than to warn Matthew’s community leaders about certain ‘pharisaical” attitudes.” Pharisee has come to mean in ordinary language, hypocrite.
We must also listen attentively to the caution of Donald Senior in his commentary on this passage: “…the potential of these Matthean passages to be read and interpreted as an unqualified attack on Jews and Judaism remains, and Christian teachers bear the responsibility for preventing such a toxic reading of the gospel.”
Chapter 23:1-36 is a serious list of insults, and although insult was a fine and frequent art in antiquity, piling them up as Matthew does here suggests very serious conflict between Jesus and his opponents (or between Jesus’ followers in Matthew’s community and the opponents of that day). The challenge begins with a set of accusations as follows: 1) Pharisaic scribes do not practice what they preach. 2) They refuse to interpret the law in a way favorable to a wider range of options. 3) They act so as to be seen by others: in what they wear, where they sit, how they are greeted, the titles they wish.
While verses 1-36 of chapter 23 are obviously intended as a critique of the scribes and Pharisees, it is primarily intended as instruction for the followers of Jesus. Matthew makes it the final expression of judgment on the leaders that has been building throughout the Gospel and stoked to white-hot intensity in the temple section we have been considering.
The leaders authority as legitimate teachers is duly noted (23:1-3). This unusual text is in tension with the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. It is one of the most difficult to understand in the context of Matthew’s own theology. It has been speculated that Matthew kept these verses from the early, stringently Jewish-Christian stage of Matthew’s church, perhaps when the church was still struggling to maintain its ties to the synagogue. George Montague offers us this explanation: “Matthew incorporates an early saying of Jesus that legitimates those Jewish converts who wish to continue whatever in the Pharisaic tradition does not conflict with their new faith.”
But the Jewish leaders are condemned for the kind of failings the Matthean Jesus has denounced throughout the gospel: failure to act justly; a lack of compassion in laying heavy burdens on others; false piety and arrogant pride. Raymond Brown summarizes this section: “The scribes and Pharisee opponents are criticized for talk or pretense not accompanied by action and also for acting from base motives.” We must apply this criticism not only to the scribes and Pharisees but examine ourselves on the same basis.
Matthew’s great concern with three titles indicates that the problem has already arisen in his own church. Leaders are arrogating titles to themselves, thus turning the servants of the brotherhood of Christ into a hierarchy. John Meier in his commentary on this passage issues the following challenge: “.The Catholic Church in particular must reflect on whether these inspired words call it to forsake the ecclesiastical titles which have proliferated in its midst, especially since one of its most common titles, ‘Father”, is specifically forbidden to religious leaders.”
Donald Senior offers this reflection from a different perspective: “This extraordinary portrayal of an egalitarian community is an important ingredient in Matthew’s ecclesiology, one that echoes the spirit of the community discourse in chapter 18 where authority resided in the entire community and where leadership was to be characterized by humility, respect for others, attention to the weaker members, compassion for the stray and active forgiveness.” We must ask how do these truths express themselves in our hierarchical Church. Each of us is called to examine our own actions against the criteria for leadership which Matthew offers us.
Paul provides a counter vision to that of domination and distant leadership. His care is that of a “nursing mother” for his children, who among them shared not only the “Gospel of God, but his very own self, so dearly beloved had you become to us.” Earlier Paul wrote, “We treated each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you.” A nursing woman’s love and a father’s encouragement are wed in Paul’s pastoral consciousness. There is a deep lesson here for a church so characterized by patters of exclusive male control.
Matthew closes his consideration of false and true leadership by pointing to the final judgment: God’s judgment will reverse earthly positions: the humble servant will be rewarded while the self-seeking ruler will be condemned. Does my way of acting characterize me as a humble servant or a self seeking person?