To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 1:10,16-20; Mt 23:1-12
Jesus here addresses the people and his disciples and speaks of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. Scribes were a professional class with formal training. They were schooled in the tradition and its application to current issues. Pharisees were a group within Judaism defined by strictly religious rules, composed mostly of laypersons without formal theological training. Some scribes were also Pharisees, but few Pharisees were scribes. Moses’ seat is a metaphorical expression representing the teaching and administrative authority of the synagogue leadership, scribes and Pharisees. Jesus condemns only the practice of the scribes and Pharisees and not their teaching.
The Matthean Jesus makes three points about the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. The first is that “they say but do not do”, which means that there was no consonance between their words and actions. They did not act on their words. The second is that “they burden while failing to act themselves” which means that they lay law upon law upon the people and make life so much more complicated than it really is, and the third is that “they act for the wrong reasons: to make an impression on others”. This they did by wearing broader phylacteries. “Phylacteries” is the term Matthew uses for the “tephillin”, which were small leather boxes containing portions of the Torah (Exod 13:1-16; Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-32) strapped to the forehead and arm during the recitation of prayers in literal obedience to Deut 6:8. The “tassels” were attached to the prayer shawls, and the most important seats in the synagogue refer to the place of honour at the front facing the congregation, occupied by teachers and respected leaders. The term “Rabbi” was a title of honour. The Scribes and Pharisees wanted to be noticed, commended and honoured more than to pray.
In contrast the disciples of Jesus ought not to go for external titles and especially those which heighten distinction since they were brothers and sisters and there was to be no greater and smaller among them. They were to be one in God who alone is father. Authority and leadership were to be expressed in selfless service.
It is easy to say, but difficult to do, it is easy to preach but difficult to practice. There must be a correlation between our words and our actions. The way to ensure that there is a correlation between the two is to first do and then say, or better to let people hear not what we say but what we do. This doing, if it is to be regarded as a genuine work of love must be done not to earn titles or the approval or commendation but because one is a disciple of Jesus who has shown through his life and actions what true leadership means.