The Chair of Moses
Ordinary 31 Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 23: 1 — 12
In this series, the reading prior to this Gospel text was about the great Commandment. A careful observation of our Lord would demonstrate His great efforts to uphold the ancient Torah, the Law, in all its dignity, without adding anything to it or taking anything from it. All the major as well as the minute parts of the Law pointed towards the need to love God with the whole of every part of our being and to apply the same standard to our neighbour as taught by our Beloved Messiah. We may be tempted to ask, “How realistic is this?” Meditation on His words and teaching will reveal that it can be real if we let Him show the way, and then dare to follow in it. He is the Word of God made flesh. He is the Love of God made flesh. He will never give up on His mission to us as well as to anyone who will listen; He therefore remains the perfect model of outreach for His disciples down through the ages to follow.
We now see our Lord continue to uncover the simplicity of the Jewish Faith, and denounce the way some of the leading Pharisees have hijacked holy and sincere religious practice. It is straight talking. He is desperately trying to break through their bias and self-righteousness, always with a view to helping them see their error and change.
For some readers, the amount of detail in our Reflection may be a little daunting at first sight. We encourage you to progress through it in small segments. Many Christians have said they never really understood the matters Jesus talks about. Without being given the correct information it would be easy to misinterpret our Lord’s key points. Unfortunate misunderstandings have been passed down and this has led to even further distancing of Christianity from its Hebrew heritage. The effect has been to blunt our perception of what discipleship of Christ must entail. This is critical for effective evangelisation.
Some Reflections on our Text
After addressing different groups of mainly professional Pharisees (mostly, but not entirely opposed to him) Jesus now returns to the ordinary listeners gathered around him.
Part I Our Lord’s Introductory Overview
Verses 1 — 4
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples,
saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat
on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do
They tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on
people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.
Jesus made a statement about the teachers of the Law (the Scribes) and the Pharisees, explaining that they are the legitimate authorised interpreters of the Law of Moses. We should note that again our Lord is not black-listing all scholars (Scribes) or devout Pharisees (who were strict observers but not necessarily scholars in the Law). He keeps referring to those leaders in senior roles of authority and power (note) who had become corrupt and unworthy of their positions. Consequently their instructions in terms of the Law of God must be obeyed. However, He insisted His listeners did not look on them as role models and conduct themselves in a similar way. As far as He was concerned, they did not practise what they preached. They also had no hesitation demanding an ever increasing number of minor religious practices be faithfully carried out which overwhelmed sincere ordinary Jews. They wouldn’t lift a finger to help those who were struggling. Daringly, Jesus shows himself as the new Moses, who will lead God’s people from a land of bondage into a place of loving nurture. After all, the Torah, i.e. Godꞌs Law was to reflect Godꞌs loving care for each person; it was to be known as the very path — the Way — laid down by God for their physical and spiritual wellbeing.
Part II Seeking Prestige by Sham Religion
Verses 5 — 7
All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their
phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
The second major criticism Jesus had of the conduct of certain Scribes and Pharisees was that they did everything ostentatiously, so that they were observed and would accordingly be thought of more highly. There were three examples Jesus outlined which he indicated were offensive. Let’s take each of these in turn and focus on exactly what our Lord was objecting to, and why. This is where we get a little detailed, but we do this because it is so easy to misconstrue what Jesus is actually talking about.
The normal Hebrew word for these is “tephillin”. The Greek word “phylacterion” contains the meaning of a preservative or protection. L. F. Miller’s comment, slightly modified, helps us:
Phylacteries — strips of parchment for prayer, on which the text Exodus
13: 1 — 10, and 11 — 16, and Deuteronomy 6: 4 — 9 and 11: 13 — 21 was written.
The phylacteries were enclosed in small cases and fastened with a leather
band to the forehead and to the left arm over the heart by pious Israelites.
They were worn either constantly or at least at the hours of prayer, so
that the wearer might be solemnly reminded of his duty to keep God’s
commandments in his mind and heart.
We see immediately that those “tephillin” signalled to the wearer that they are called to be obedient at all times to the Divine Will. The wearing of these indicated a personal acceptance of the Living Word in the person’s life.
Thus we know devout Orthodox Jews wore these parchments to help “preserve” the presence of God’s spoken word in the mind and heart — not only while worn during prayer times, but throughout the day and night as well.
In common practice at the time, the Hebrew term “tephillin” referred also to prayers associated with the wearing of the leather containers of the Word. This is important as we try to understand what Jesus was saying.
Some Pharisees may have worn the largest phylacteries they could find, and for longer than was customarily required, to draw attention to their “very meritorious devotion.”
However, it is more likely they achieved their intention to be seen, by reciting much longer and extended prayers. Phylacteries were cubic, and therefore one side could not be lengthened without the others being likewise expanded. Anyone familiar with wearing this item would be very aware that it could not be enlarged much beyond the traditional size or it would be impossible to hold firmly on the forehead. Frankly, you wouldn’t be able to hold your head up!
Back to what our Lord was criticising. The artifice of presenting oneself as praying “more than others” or “longer than others” is “one of the oldest tricks in the book” for people who want to impress, or present themselves as more devout, closer to God, or superior in some way. It was alive and well in our Lord’s day, and despite His strong statements about such pretence, He saw that it could surface as a temptation for Christians.
It is that self-centred focus which Jesus warns against among His disciples, knowing as He does, that it will harm His outreach through them to ordinary folk.
Second: Tassels / fringes / tzitzit
L. F. Miller explains:
Fringes — Small tassels on the lower corners of the mantle.
They consisted of three strands of white wool twisted together and
held by a blue band. The use of these tassels is commanded by
Numbers 15: 38 to remind Israel of God’s commandments.
In Hebrew these are referred to as “tzitzit” They are attached to the corner of the prayer shawl, the “talith” #, in an arrangement which symbolises the totality and loving, warm embrace of God’s Law. The “talith” is referred to in English as “the fringed garment”. The devout Jew is obliged to wear this during the day, to clothe the wearer literally in God’s Living Word, or “Torah”, i.e. Teaching. The wearer is thus never to depart from this Divine Presence, to remain on the path God has ordained for man. (see our article “A Very Great Number”) If wearing of it as an outer garment is impractical, it is worn under the shirt. The tassels, tzitzit, may hang inside or outside the clothing.
# “talith” is pronounced either as TAR-lit or ta-LEET with the emphasis on the block lertters.
We are using the term, “talith,” in a generic way for the outer garment commonly worn in those times. It was more like what we would call a “poncho” — a square garment (or at least, four-cornered), — with the fringes attached to each corner. The talith as we know it today was a later adaptation of the “poncho-like” garment to form an oblong garment over the shoulders for prayer which provided four corners for the fringes. As clothing fashions changed, use of the talith as we know it slowly became common practice.
Anyone who has seen (let alone who wears) the talith / prayer shawl, would be well aware that the fringes / tassels / tzitzit cannot be greatly lengthened without becoming “life threateningly dangerous”!
The reference here, by our Lord is to the whole garment frequently called the tzitzit, meaning the talith which holds the tzitzit corner fringes. In other words He is talking about people who want to draw attention to themselves by wearing an extra-long or prayer shawl. But the extra-long garment was the prerogative of the esteemed and reputable scholars!
Thus “dressing up” in a scholar’s talith to gain respect was as phoney as buying a mail order “university degree” and writing academic letters after your name! People do it, but that doesn’t make them scholars!
Well now, having said all that, let’s remember that our Lord wore the phylacteries for morning and evening prayer, and wore His fringed garment, His prayer shawl, with the long corner tzitzit — fringes. He loved the Torah, the Law — and did everything He could to encourage others to love God’s Holy Word — and, literally, to stay close to it. This is why He reacted so negatively to anyone who abused this sacred ritual which meant so much to Him.
Third: “Places of honour” and acts of respect.
We are not going to comment at length on this point. It is nice, and rightly so, to be given a seat of honour at some special function — and just as much when visiting a friend’s modest home. Our Lord is obviously warning against His followers wanting to look very important in their gatherings, when humility should be the order of the day! Enough said!
Is our Lord criticising the ordained religious clergy in verse 7?
This reference here has a very specific meaning which is slightly different from that in verse 8. The term “Rabbi”, in our Lord’s time was only just becoming a title of honour given to a Teacher of the Torah / Law. In this verse it is actually equivalent to being addressed, in our culture — at least for male teachers or shop customers — as “Sir”, not as a title, but as a form of respect. It would have been said in honour of a person being a Teacher of Torah — but it was also given to other people for other reasons. Jesus is being quite clear: don’t go about looking for people to bow and scrape to you and be especially courteous to you just so you can feel a cut above everyone else. If they do so — accept it. But don’t create situations to engineer your own elevation in front of others!
Phylacteries and tassles / fringes / tzitzit
Part III Titles: Rabbi, Father, Master
Jesus then enlarged on the obsession some had developed, for seeking to be revered in public and given titles which in their mind, denoted not ‘godly seniority’, but what they considered to reflect ‘religious superiority’.
Verses 8 — 10
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’. You have but one
teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father; you have but one
Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master'; you have but one master,
As previously noted, in our Lord’s time, and until after the destruction of the Temple, the term “rabbi” was also often used as a polite form of address rather than as a title. The term was sometimes used as a religious title when Jesus or any other rabbi was addressed.
So, in verse 8, what is Jesus really saying? Is it that teachers who want to pass on all He taught should not be given some title of respect? The answer is actually, in the Hebrew context, quite simple.
a) when teaching others, the followers of Jesus Messiah should not seek honour, for God alone is the sole source of true wisdom. They can receive titles but they should never seek them for ostentation, or bask in the glory which goes with them.
b) Those who are taught by Christ’s disciples should not attach themselves as personal followers to their teacher. They are to see themselves as disciples of the One their teacher talks about, and should therefore give themselves to God’s service. This was a new element in religious formation at that time.
This title was used, if not frequently, certainly in important, specific cases.
• “Father” was the title of respect; which the servant gave to his master,
and the scholar to his teacher, for example when:
— St. Stephen addressed the Sanhedrin: in Acts 2: 2
— St. Paul addressed his countrymen: Acts 22: 1
• St. Paul refers to himself as the “Father” of the Corinthians, to whom
he had brought the Faith: 1 Corinthians 4: 15.
Thus, what our Lord forbids is self-assumed authority. That would be another form of ostentation.
We notice that Jesus, all the time, is directing His disciples away from what is actually the unreal, towards the real. They should reflect to the world, the real as it exists in the spiritual world, and have nothing to do with the false, the pretentious, the “would be”, and everything that denies God’s status as source of all. Thus there is no place for bolstering one’s imagined or desired superiority.
Jesus seems to be repeating Himself. But, in fact, He is bringing His listeners to one of the most important understandings they must have.
“You are not to go about making yourself out to be a “master” — a
leader — a controller.
Here Jesus is forbidding:
a) an affection for such titles, and a pre-occupation with engineering
things to help you collect them;
b) the exercise of an absolute mastership, of some absolute power
authorising you to require people to believe things because you said
them, or to do things because you order it so, without them seeing
all these as first established as God’s expressed Will — i.e. in the
Sacred Scriptures, God’s Word. (After: Poole).
Then comes the moment of truth:
“You have but one Master: the Messiah.”
This is a major climax: the Messiah is your Rabbi, and your Teacher.
“God in Heaven is your Father”. (Later He will send the Holy Spirit to be our Teacher).
Conclusion to Part III
Jesus has already made the point (verse 8), “You are all brothers”. His words have often been used to enforce simplistic rules about titles of respect. People who make such claims are missing His point.
In the very early Church — i.e. in the Apostolic Age, “brother” and “sister” were the only titles used among Christians, including the Apostles themselves. The expression, “the brethren” was synonymous with “the Christians”. (Hartman and Kennedy)
Thus the early Church had no trouble addressing people with appropriate titles — since this was not in itself opposed to the teaching of Jesus. However, within their own ranks, they chose to reflect very strongly the family image in that God was Father of all and that they were members of His Household and that was honour enough!
Part IV Christian Model of Service
Jesus rounds off this short discourse with a familiar (and favourite) issue:
Verses 11 — 12
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles
himself will be exalted.
• Jesus had already taught in Matt. 20: 26 — 27:
“….. whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.”
• So now He repeats in verse 11 above:
The greatest among you must be your servant.
• And adds a call for supreme humility.
• Remember: our Lord in verse 9 made the great declaration that all of His followers are children of the One Father: and thus of the one Household. From there it is natural to set up a spiritual understanding of service, dignity, authority and roles among members of this unique Household.
• Here is a rabbinic story if you would like to see a Jewish application of the principles Jesus set in place for His followers. Rabbi Zadok “got it”. His two companions failed to understand the Messiah-like humility of Rabban Gamaliel.
Notes: The capital R. with full stop is short for Rabbi. Rabban is a senior
Rabban Gamaliel was also known as Gamaliel the Elder. He was a
senior member of the Sanhedrin and was son of Simeon ben Hillel
a grandson of the esteemed teacher Hillel the Elder. He died about
CE 70. He was a great and devout Pharisee who spoke in favour of
the Apostles who were under arrest (Acts 5: 34) — and similarly in
support of St. Paul (Acts 22: 3).
One of his sons became a very loyal member of the infant Church.
Once R. Eliezer and R. Joshua and R. Zadoq were reclining at
table at the wedding of the son of Rabban Gamaliel.
Rabban Gamaliel filled (lit. mixed) R. Eliezer’s cup and he refused
to accept it from him. R. Joshua, however accepted it.
R. Eliezer said to R. Joshua: “What is this Joshua? We are reclining
at table and R. Gamaliel is standing and serving (us)?”
R. Joshua said: “Let him serve. Abraham, the greatest in the world,
served the Ministering Angels, thinking they were idolatrous Arabs,
as it is written, And he raised his eyes and saw (Genesis 18: 2).
Now it is logical—Abraham, who was the greatest in the world,
served the Ministering Angels, thinking that they were idolatrous Arabs,
should not R. Gamaliel serve us (who are scholars)?”
R. Zadok said to them: “You have left the honor of God and are
occupied with the honor of mortals! If He who spoke and the world
came into being causes the wind to blow, brings up mist and clouds,
and causes the rains to fall and causes the vegetation to grow, and
sets a table for everyone, should not Rabban Gamaliel serve us?”
(Sifre Deut. 38; Mek. Exod. 18.12, B. Qid. 32b; M. Avot 6.5; B. Ber. 7b, 47b; B.Ket. 96a; DEZ 8.)
Quoted by Professor Samuel Tobias Lachs in his “Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament”.
A Comment and Final Summary
In the text we have been studying, Jesus concentrated on three main points, two being criticisms of inappropriate behaviour for people of God, and the third being a warning to His disciples. All three have had a significant effect over the millennia as Christians have, at times, slipped into the same errors as the Scribes and Pharisees, and thus needed to return to these standards put in place by our Lord. Looking again at verses 2 — 4, we must understand this text in light if the circumstances prevailing then. The Scribes and Pharisees were the lawful authorities of Judaism, and what they taught had to be obeyed, provided it reflected the revelation by God, of what He wanted His people to do. Where their teaching and actions were not in harmony with the true meaning of the Torah, Jesus required that his disciples did not follow them.
Our Lord’s instruction here refers only to legal authority which can authentically trace its origins to God’s appointment and never in cases of human or self-appointed roles and titles.
To Sum Up
Part I: In this key point of our Lord’s instruction, there is an implied warning to those who place spiritual and ritual demands on others, yet do not bother to try and meet those standards themselves.
Part II: Moving on to verses 5 — 7, Jesus will not tolerate in His Church, any form of ostentatious behaviour designed to draw attention to one’s own imagined superior religious virtue. This will apply to anything from walking around with an extra large Bible in one’s hand, to letting it drop in conversation that one fasts or receives Communion everyday, or whatever.
Part III: Jesus insists that titles in His Church must genuinely reflect a calling from God, and the person’s acceptance of the sacrifices, trials and hardships which may accompany sincere performance of the role. Jesus does not proscribe the use of the titles. However He does warn His followers never to accept the titles just to take advantage of the benefits they bring the holder, but fail to perform the service the titles imply. In His kingdom, spiritual leaders and those in authority will strive to pass on that which they have received. That is the true service of true leaders; and will remain so until He returns at the end of time.
This is a beautiful passage in which Jesus exposes the tyranny of the authority-holders in His culture. Pride, self-centredness and greed were, and remain, the reason people hijack religion for their own purposes. Let us be very honest and recognise that such a state of affairs is just as common in our times as it was in our Lord’s day.
The common misapplication of this text to put other Christians or their cultural practice down is really just another form of a power-seeking struggle in the Church today. Let’s have no part of it. Instead, let’s rejoice that Jesus has cleansed the institutions He refers to, that His followers may, with the help of the Holy Spirit, avoid the dangers these can present.
We recommend a beautiful article for your reflection: “A Memorial Before The Eyes“.
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Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in doing so,
The Chair of Moses
Ordinary 31 Year A St. Matthew 23: 1 to 12
There are Christians who could not explain the spiritual teaching of Jesus in
1. “Practise what you preach!” Jesus was angry with religious authorities
2. “Don’t put on a pious act to appear holy!” Jesus was very particular
3. Titles have their place in the Church, but, “donꞌt go looking for
Let us pray for one another that we will not put on “religious airs,” but rather
Matthew 23: 1 — 12
Ordinary 31 Year A
1 1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples,
2 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat
3 Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
4 They tie up heavy burdens 3 (hard to carry) and lay them on
5 4 All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their
6 5 They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in
7 greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
8 6 As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher,
9 Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in
10 Do not be called ‘Master'; you have but one master, the Messiah.
12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles
1 [1-39] The final section of the narrative part of the fifth book of the gospel is a denunciation by Jesus of the scribes and the Pharisees (see the note on ⇒ Matthew 3:7). It depends in part on Mark and Q (cf ⇒ Mark 12:38-39; ⇒ Luke 11:37-52; ⇒ 13:34-35), but in the main it is peculiar to Matthew. (For the reasons against considering this extensive body of sayings-material either as one of the structural discourses of this gospel or as part of the one that follows in Matthew 24-25, see the note on ⇒ Matthew 19:1-⇒ 23:39.) While the tradition of a deep opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees is well founded, this speech reflects an opposition that goes beyond that of Jesus’ ministry and must be seen as expressing the bitter conflict between Pharisaic Judaism and the church of Matthew at the time when the gospel was composed. The complaint often made that the speech ignores the positive qualities of Pharisaism and of its better representatives is true, but the complaint overlooks the circumstances that gave rise to the invective. Nor is the speech purely anti-Pharisaic. The evangelist discerns in his church many of the same faults that he finds in its opponents and warns his fellow Christians to look to their own conduct and attitudes.
2 [2-3] Have taken their seat . . . Moses: it is uncertain whether this is simply a metaphor for Mosaic teaching authority or refers to an actual chair on which the teacher sat. It has been proved that there was a seat so designated in synagogues of a later period than that of this gospel. Do and observe . . . they tell you: since the Matthean Jesus abrogates Mosaic law (⇒ Matthew 5:31-42), warns his disciples against the teaching of the Pharisees (⇒ Matthew 14:1-12), and, in this speech, denounces the Pharisees as blind guides in respect to their teaching on oaths (Matthew 16-22), this commandment to observe all things whatsoever they (the scribes and Pharisees) tell you cannot be taken as the evangelist’s understanding of the proper standard of conduct for his church. The saying may reflect a period when the Matthean community was largely Jewish Christian and was still seeking to avoid a complete break with the synagogue. Matthew has incorporated this traditional material into the speech in accordance with his view of the course of salvation history, in which he portrays the time of Jesus’ ministry as marked by the fidelity to the law, although with significant pointers to the new situation that would exist after his death and resurrection (see the note on ⇒ Matthew 5:17-20). The crowds and the disciples (⇒ Matthew 23:1) are exhorted not to follow the example of the Jewish leaders, whose deeds do not conform to their teaching (⇒ Matthew 23:3).
3  Tie up heavy burdens: see the note on ⇒ Matthew 11:28.
4  To the charge of preaching but not practicing (⇒ Matthew 23:3), Jesus adds that of acting in order to earn praise. The disciples have already been warned against this same fault (see the note on ⇒ Matthew 6:1-18). Phylacteries: the Mosaic law required that during prayer small boxes containing parchments on which verses of scripture were written be worn on the left forearm and the forehead (see ⇒ Exodus 13:9, ⇒ 16; ⇒ Deut 6:8; ⇒ 11:18). Tassels: see the note on ⇒ Matthew 9:20. The widening of phylacteries and the lengthening of tassels were for the purpose of making these evidences of piety more noticeable.
5  Cf ⇒ Mark 12:38-39. “Rabbi': literally, “my great one,” a title of respect for teachers and leaders.
6 [8-12] These verses, warning against the use of various titles, are addressed to the disciples alone. While only the title “Rabbi’ has been said to be used in addressing the scribes and Pharisees (⇒ Matthew 23:7), the implication is that Father and “Master’ also were. The prohibition of these titles to the disciples suggests that their use was present in Matthew’s church. The Matthean Jesus forbids not only the titles but the spirit of superiority and pride that is shown by their acceptance. Whoever exalts . . . will be exalted: cf ⇒ Luke 14:11.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised