Matthew 23--Religious Hypocrisy: part 1

In the second century B.C., the Seleucid kings who ruled Palestine decided to form local governments similar to what was found in Greek cities. They set up councils who administered the city's affairs, made civil and religious laws and were to be subject to the supreme authority of the king. These local councils were known as "sanhedrins".

In Jerusalem, the council became known as The Sanhedrin due to its vast influence. The Romans were extremely tolerant of the local religious beliefs and practices of the people they conquered. They did not seek to change these beliefs nor did they desire to intrude into their religious practices. They wanted their subjected peoples to have a limited amount of freedom to rule themselves locally. The Sanhedrin was entrusted by the Romans with the administration of Jerusalem, but was subject to the Roman procurator or governor for Judea.

The Sanhedrin was composed of 71 men including its leader, the High Priest. These 71 men were divided into three groups. First were the "Chief Priests" of the Sadducees. These were usually very influential men of the priestly class. They were aristocrats in that they felt "entitled" to their positions of rank and privilege due to their nobility. They were the "upper class elites" of their time.

The second group making up The Sanhedrin was the "Ancients" which were non-priestly Sadducees of the "upper class elites". These men were every bit as influential as the chief priests, but represented the laity.

Sadducees were a socially liberal but doctrinally conservative faction. They strove to preserve the original and true moral heritage of Judaism found in the Torah (The Law of Moses). They refused to accept any additional oral regulations based on tradition. They believed tradition was the distortion of the Torah. Both the "Chief Priests" and the "Ancients" were Sadducees.

The third group making up the Sanhedrin was the "Scribes" which were "active" laymen who were predominantly Pharisees. Scribes were doctors of the Law as opposed to the Sadducees who were of the wealthy elite class. The priesthood became identified with the Sadducees and the Scribes with the Pharisees. Because the scribes were doctors of The Law, they became known as lawyers.

Scribes were highly educated in the Law and could in theory be a priest, layman, Pharisee or Sadducee. In Jesus' time, almost all the Scribes were laymen as opposed to priests and were of the Pharisee persuasion as opposed to that of the Sadducees. To become a Scribe, the education started as a child learning at the feet of a master. The course of study usually was not completed until the student was around forty years old. Scribes were usually very poor due to their extensive time studying. They had to work at another trade in order to earn a living.

The Scribes were the professional intellectuals of the day. They knew The Law of Moses inside and out. But they were also so well educated that they began writing commentaries on the Law which took precedence over the Law itself. There were several thousand of these commentaries which provided rules for the Sabbath, tithing, and worship. By the time of Jesus, the Scribes had strayed so far from the Law with their personal interpretations, what was taught was nothing more than tradition many times.

Where "Chief Priests", "Ancients" and "Scribes" addressed who these people were; "Sadducee" and "Pharisee" defined what they believed. The Pharisees were a group that had become bitter toward the ruling classes (Sadducees). The Pharisees held themselves aloof from the common people, thinking of themselves as superior and more pure. They also kept aloof from all that was secular, irreligious or impure. The Pharisees believed the Torah or "written law" was only part of what was to be believed. They believed there was also an extensive "oral law" built upon customs and traditions which had been passed along through the generations and carried equal weight to the "written law". The scribes and Pharisees worked together and developed the Talmud, which is a collection of maxims written or orally handed down through the centuries.

By Jesus' time, the Scribes had written that their words carried greater weight than the words of the Torah. Once they established this, any law could be drawn up and sanctioned as "The Law". Generally speaking, most scribes were Pharisees and most Pharisees were scribes. There were good and bad Pharisees just as there are good and bad Christians. Jesus himself was on good terms with many Pharisees like Simon, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. But it was also the Pharisees more than any other group who despised Jesus and sought constantly to destroy him.

Unlike the Sadducees where the only recorded confrontation between them and Jesus dealt with the subject of the resurrection; there was constant friction between the Pharisees and Jesus. Nowhere is that tension better shown than in Matthew 23.

Jesus told the multitude and his disciples that because the Pharisees and Scribes "sit in Moses seat" (as expounders of the law), they were to obey what they told them to do upon the authority of Moses, but not to imitate their conduct. He said this because the scribes and the Pharisees did not practice what they preached.

"Do as I say but not as I do" has been applied to many people, but the original guilty parties were the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus told the people that because the scribes and Pharisees did not practice what they preached, their words were to be obeyed but their actions were to be dismissed. He then goes on to explain how everything done by these people was done to be "seen of men."

The Phylacteries were small boxes containing slips of parchment on which were written some divine precept. The scribes and Pharisees made these small boxes bigger and more conspicuous so everyone could see how pious they were. They did the same type of thing with the blue fringes on their garments. They loved the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues. On the street, they loved to have men call them Rabbi, or "my master" (a title of great respect given a teacher).

All these things were done for "show". They were all superficial and hypocritical. Jesus then tells the people in verses 8 through 12 the proper way things are to be done. From the NIV:

"But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers.
And do not call anyone on earth ‘father' for you have one Father, and He is in heaven.
Nor are you to be called ‘teacher' for you have one Teacher, the Christ.
The greatest among you will be your servant.
For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

What Jesus told the people was the total opposite of everything the scribes and Pharisees practiced. He said no one is to be called "Rabbi" because Jesus is the only Master. We saw earlier that the scribes and Pharisees loved to be called "Rabbi" in public. Jesus said not to call anyone on earth "father" because our Father is in heaven. Calling someone "father" in Jesus' time was another title given to a teacher, implying that "fatherly" wisdom and authority should command submission and obedience, which the scribes and Pharisees demanded.

Jesus said no one is to called "teacher", or "master", for there is only one Master, and it is Christ. Masters were leaders and guides who exercised authority over others. The scribes and Pharisees loved to "lord it over" the common people and demanded that they call them "teacher" or "master" as a sign of total submission.

As he taught in other places, Jesus tells the people again that whoever is the greatest or is the leader, MUST be the servant. Whoever seeks to exalt himself will be humbled and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Religious leaders who demand the common people bow down before them and serve them are not representatives of Jesus Christ. It was at the "last supper" that Jesus got down on the floor and washed his disciple's feet as a sign of humility.

The scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' time were basically nothing but arrogant intellectuals who reflected a "holier than thou" persona and demanded the common man be under their subjection. They told others what to do, but did the opposite. They made a show of all that is "religious" to portray themselves as holy and pious. They were experts at pomp and pageantry and wherever they went they demanded the best seats and to be called "master". These religious leaders were the antithesis of what Jesus Christ was in his earthly ministry. That is why Jesus, in his last public teaching to the Jewish people, blasted the scribes and Pharisees' hypocrisy and sin with the 7 "woes" of Matthew 23.

Next time we will look at these 7 "woes" and see how they not only pertained to the religious leaders of Jesus' time, but could be applicable to religious leaders of any time. Leaders have a responsibility to those they lead, and it is not to "lord it over" them, lie to them or demand tithes and adoration from them. Leaders who do these things are the modern day "scribes" and "Pharisees" who need to repent in the same way those of Jesus' time should have, but didn't.

Madeleine Lewis @maddie ·

Ya know... In a company meeting I mentioned that being a manager was being a servant...

You should have seen all the managers get uncomfortably quiet...

God put people over others to serve them... As he made corporations to serve people, and not the other way around.

It is suppose to work the same in all walks of life.

Brian Cragin @psalmthirtyseven ·

Good post. You should include links to references that support your information.

Tl Sia @doulos ·

Thank you... this is very educational and I'm looking forward to the next part :)

Do not include honorifics.

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