Great Courage to Speak so Candidly
Text: Matthew 23 : 1 - 39
Some might reason that Jesus could have chosen a different approach to deal with the problem of the scribes and the Pharisees. Generally, people are just not comfortable when things are spoken with such candour. Let us try and understand Jesus as we study what He spoke about the scribes and Pharisees openly, to the multitudes and His disciples. Jesus was not bad-mouthing His enemies behind their backs! He was stating things that were more or less public knowledge.
“Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying:
‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore,
whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do,
but do not do according to their works; for they say,
and do not do.”
NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH
What Jesus did was simply to speak the truth! He was not even giving His own personal opinion about the scribes and the Pharisees. Their ways were well known to all in Jerusalem.
1. “Sitting in Moses’ Seat”
The phrase “Moses’ seat” was a reference to the authority that a person has when he teaches the laws of Moses. As Moses had spoken with great authority in the giving of the law, so the scribes and Pharisees because of their knowledge of the law were said to sit “in Moses’ seat”.
If there were controversies concerning matters of interpretation of the laws of Moses, the scribes would be called upon to settle the disputes. The scribes stood head and shoulders above every other sectarian groups in Israel.
Jesus did not entirely discredit the scribes. He commended that they be heard and even obeyed, insofar as they correctly explained the laws of Moses.
“…whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do.”
2. “But do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do”
Jesus’ complaint against them was that they do not practise what they teach. They were mere “professors”. They did not practise what they professed and taught others. The scribes did not pay a whole lot of attention about setting an example for others to follow. What others thought of them did not seem to matter a whole lot to them at all.
GRAVER WORDS OF REBUKE
These words of rebuke were not the gravest remarks Jesus spoke against the scribes and the Pharisees.
“For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them
on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them
with one of their fingers.”
Where the scribes and Pharisees correctly interpreted the law of Moses, they were to be obeyed. However, this does not mean that every time they spoke, they correctly expounded the Lord’s Word.
The scribes were sometimes guilty of binding “heavy burdens, hard to bear” and laying them on “men’s shoulders”. What could this mean?
1. This could well be a reference to the traditions of the elders
The traditions of the elders were far more voluminous than the teachings of Moses. These were man-made traditions that were imposed as laws to be kept. They were sometimes placed on par with the Mosaic laws.
2. This could also be a reference to the manner in which the laws were implemented
Laws obviously had to be implemented and enforced, otherwise they would be of no use whatsoever. However, the implementation of these laws could become “a heavy burden”.
i) If no understanding is given to people already under great duress, then the laws can become particularly burdensome. The traditions of the elder prohibit the seeking of medical treatment on a Sabbath, unless the very life of the patient is in danger. The person who is quite ill, would have to suffer even more intensely, because of this “law” or better “tradition”.
ii) If there were too many of such laws (traditions) pressed upon people, then they can become burdensome indeed.
HOW DID THE SCRIBES GET OUT OF OBEYING THE LAWS THEY IMPOSED?
An interesting inquiry would be to ask this question. How did the scribes and Pharisees get out the laws they taught? Let us consider one of the ways in which they extricate themselves out of possible predicaments.
Let us consider one of the traditions concerning the keeping of the Sabbath. Strict Sabbath keeping was enjoined, and one of the laws concerned how many miles a person may travel on the Sabbath. A person is not allowed to walk more than 3 miles on the Sabbath. However, if he has a house within 3 miles, he may enter into his home and then carry on with his journey. When the second journey takes place, he is seen as just having begun his first journey.
Through “playing such games” the scribes and Pharisees were able on the one hand to bind heavy burdens on people, and on the other, be free from such burdens. The scribes and Pharisees, though not as rich as the Sadducees, were wealthy enough so that they were always able to find a way of “escape”. This approach was reprehensible, and Jesus was unafraid to point out this evil!