Matthew 23:1-12, The Humility Required of Teachers

[November 2, 2014] For no particular reason I decided to follow the Sunday Gospel lectionary schedule of the Presbyterian calendar, in which today is the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, instead of the Anglican alternative in which today is either the 4th Sunday before Advent or the celebration of All Saints’ Day. So I will do until the start of Advent, the 30th day of November.

Today’s Gospel text follows the series of four questions with which Jesus was engaged in Matthew 22:15-46. These questions represented a testing of Jesus, following the confrontation between Jesus and the council members and aristocratic priests of the city in 21:23—22:14. Introducing this was Jesus’ dramatic entrance into the city riding on a donkey and being hailed as the Messiah (the “Son of David” according to Matthew, and “the King come in the Name of the Lord” according to Luke); whereupon he staged a prophetic sign in the outer court (the Court of the Gentiles) of the Temple and then on the following morning performed a corresponding sign more privately before his disciples (21:1-22).

In 22:15-46 those who tested Jesus with questions were disciples of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Matthew tells us of three questions, all of which Jesus turned around into an accusation of his opponents, and a fourth that Jesus asked to “test” them, or at least get them to open their minds to what was new and unprecedented.

What follows in chapter 23 is an indictment of the scribes and Pharisees, the teachers—and therefore shepherds—of Israel, followed by a condemnation of the city, Jerusalem. Jesus does not concern himself with the Sadducees with whom he did not have as much in common, although the high priest and the chief (aristocratic) priests were mostly of that sect. With the Pharisees Jesus had much in common—so much so that Jesus’ teaching (excluding what he says specifically about himself) almost seems like a reforming platform for the Pharisees, reformations that were in fact followed by the rabbinic movement that followed the judgment took place which Jesus had predicted in chapter 24. I am not saying that Jesus inspired these reforms, but it would be interesting if he influenced them.

It was where Jesus differed from the Pharisees—and here his argument was almost always with the positions taken by the strict school of Rabbi Shammai—that the influence of Pharisaic teaching became destructive of the nation that lived in Palestine. According to Wikipedia (not always the most reliable source of information, remember), “The Jewish Amoraim attributed the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem as punishment from God for the ‘baseless hatred’ that pervaded Jewish society at the time. [Yoma, 9b]” (See here.) (The Amoraim, comprised of teachings of Jewish scholars between 200 and 500 CE, is codified in the Gemara.) The gospels seem to agree with this assessment. It was this Pharisaic attitude that hounded the church in the Acts of the Apostles on account of the apostles’ outreach to the gentiles (the inclusiveness of the messianic fellowships) and which Luke often simply characterized as “the Jews” (which hardly makes sense to us since they were often distinguished from others who were obviously Jews). These Pharisees are the constant foil for Jesus in the gospels themselves. Almost always what is at issue is Jesus’ reaching out to those on the margins of Jewish society, the nonobservant and sinful, the unclean, the demon-crazed, the sick and handicapped, women and children, tax collectors and sex-workers, and … gentiles.

Here, in chapter 23 of Matthew, we have Jesus’ words of condemnation directed at them, though spoken to the crowds and to his disciples. Perhaps Jesus is in the Porticos of Solomon, the columned perimeter surrounding the Temple grounds, where rabbis often gathered with their disciples and where in the Gospel according to John Jesus on occasion taught. Verses 1-12 focus on the motivations of the Pharisees. In verses 13-32 Jesus pronounces Seven Woes against them (“Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees”), accompanying each woe with a depiction of their offending behavior. This is followed in 33-36 with a pronouncement of punishment, and in 37-39 we hear Jesus’ prophetic cry, spoken in the Name of God: “Jerusalem! Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I [YHWH] longed to gather your children together, as a [mother] hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refused! Look! Your house [the Temple] will be deserted, for, I promise, you shall not see me any more until you are saying: ‘Blessed is he who is coming in the Name of the Lord!” (referring to Jesus’ Second Advent, his coming in glory).

Although this is the only time we will be considering chapter 23 before Advent, let us consider just verses 1-12.

First off, Jesus has great respect for the teaching office of the synagogue. “The scribes and the Pharisees occupy the chair of Moses. You must therefore do and observe what they tell you.” This should astonish most Christians since they are not usually aware that Jesus taught this. The archaeological evidence (see here) supports the interpretation that the “chair of Moses” was an actual armchair in the synagogue carved from a single block of stone usually with its back towards Jerusalem (so that the one sitting on it would be facing the congregation, which usually faced Jerusalem) and usually elevated. Later on we find that this chair was reserved for the Torah scrolls after they were read to the congregation, as a sort of throne for them. No person actually sat there. However, in the first century the chair was probably occupied by the teacher (rabbi) who interpreted the Torah and expounded on the Oral Law. Jesus thus respects the teaching office in the synagogue and the interpretation of the Torah that took place there, often by a Pharisee. It was probably for this reason that the first followers of Jesus, mostly Jews and “god-fearers” (gentiles who attended synagogue services), continued to attend the services of worship in the synagogues on the Sabbath as long as they were able (when the tensions between the messianic party and the others were not too severe). For it is unlikely that most early Christian communities could afford their own Torah scrolls, at least not at first, and yet the evangelists and apostles assumed that their members were familiar with their content. The believers that Matthew knew attended the synagogue on the Sabbath and their own fellowships on the first day of the week.

Jesus says, “You must therefore do and observe what they tell you.” Christians have a hard time with this because they assume that Jesus and the apostles rejected the Law. Actually, the apostle Paul, as a highly trained Pharisee, was giving a Pharisaic style interpretation of the Torah (in the light of the Prophets and Psalms) when he insisted that the gentiles, who turn to the God of Israel on account of the Messiah, not convert to Judaism. He would have agreed with the decision of the Council of Jerusalem in 47 CE that gentile are only bound by God’s covenant with Noah. Gentile converts fulfill the prophecies about the Messiah and become children of Abraham, but they do not become Jews, nor should they.

Jesus and the apostles did not reject the Law for the Jews either. They interpreted its role differently than some, insisting that a person is not justified before God by following the Halakah. Rather it is God’s faithful love that justifies a person. Following the Halakah, for the Jew, then becomes a sign rather than a condition of God’s grace (follow Paul’s argument in Romans 4 concerning circumcision). It marks a privilege given by grace (redemption secured; see Exodus 20:2) rather than a condition of privilege. Nevertheless, what God requires of both Jew and gentile is faithfulness or loyalty, love’s allegiance to God, and for those who are called by the Messiah, faithfulness to God through him (the personal fidelity that Jesus requires of his disciples).

“You must therefore do and observe what they tell you; but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practice what they preach.” When it comes to interpreting the Torah, that is one thing. The lives of the Pharisees to whom Jesus is referring is something else. Jesus points directly to their sense of privilege (self-justification) on the basis of their merely being teachers. Paul says to them in his epistle to the Romans:

“If you pass judgment you have no excuse. It is yourself that you condemn when you judge others, since you behave in the same way as those you are condemning. We are well aware that people who behave like that are justly condemned by God. But you—when you judge those who behave like this while you are doing the same yourself—do you think you will escape God’s condemnation?”

“If you can call yourself a Jew, and you really trust in the Torah, and are proud of your God, and know his will, and tell right from wrong because you have been taught by the Torah; if you are confident that you are a guide to the blind and a beacon to those in the dark, that you can teach the ignorant and instruct the unlearned because the Torah embodies all knowledge and all truth—so then, in teaching others, do you teach yourself as well? You preach that there is to be no stealing, but do you steal? You say that adultery is forbidden, but do you commit adultery? You detest the worship of objects, but do you desecrate holy things yourself? If, while you are boasting of the Torah, you disobey it, then you are bringing God into contempt. As scripture says: ‘It is your fault that the Name of God is held in contempt among the gentiles.”—Romans 2:1-4, 17-24

Jesus does not speak about any blatant abrogation of Halakah rules. Rather he points to certain attitudes and behaviors which suggest their motivations for teaching, which falsify their purported obedience.

“They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!” This speaks of their satisfaction with teaching but their lack of regard or compassion for those who receive their teaching. This puts them in the position of condemning others for not successfully carrying the burden of all the regulations while presuming that their own success at carrying them out makes them superior. But the regulations are external. God is looking for inner obedience, obedience that issues out of love for God and a trust in God’s grace. Without that, the external obedience is all a false front. Paul even says that if even a gentile keeps the intent of the Halakah (which is to love God, relying on God’s grace, “the good” of Romans 2:7 and 10), she “is a condemnation of you, who, by your concentration on the letter and on circumcision, actually break the Halakah. Being a Jew is not only having the outward appearance of a Jew, and circumcision is not only a visible physical operation. The real Jew is the one who is inwardly a Jew, and real circumcision is in the heart, a thing not of the letter but of the spirit. [She] may not be praised by any human being, but [she] will be praised by God” (Romans 2:25-29).

(Paul is rhetorically addressing these verses to Jews. “The real Jew” does not refer to any gentiles but to those who to be Jews. He is not saying that a gentile Christian is inwardly a Jew. He is saying that a Jew who loves and trusts God is not only outwardly a Jew but inwardly one. This one is a “real Jew.”)

“Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader headbands and longer tassels, like wanting to take the place of honor at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted respectfully in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi.” These Pharisees are not conscious of God at all but rather only of people. They appear to other people, unaware of also appearing before God. When they “appear” to themselves, it is only in this regard, how they perceive that others see and regard them. The approval of others, then, is what forms their conscience, rather than a sense of God in the splendor of holiness. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7) it is our living before the Father, our appearing in his presence as we go about every moment of our days, that is all that matters. This is especially brought out in 6:1-18, where even—or especially—what we do in secret is seen by the Father. What we do that can be seen by others is always questionable: we think our motives are pure but we can lie to ourselves and not know it.

Like the Sadducees who give no thought for the judgment of God beyond the circumstances of this life (and therefore imagine that their present wealth is a sign of God’s approval), these Pharisees do not realize that their hearts are what God sees right now, not their punctiliousness.

I’m sure they have no intention of living in this kind of hypocrisy. It just happens. It is people who matter to them since the consequences of their judgment is obvious. People’s approval often seems to us like God’s approval. This is at the heart of our own unfaithfulness to God. We think God approves of us when all we are doing is pleasing people. It is their approval that makes us think we are “justified.”

Of course, we do not realize we do this. Yet as a child we quickly learn to at least try to win the approval of our parents and perhaps even our older siblings and relatives, and then of our teachers and other adults in our lives. Once we are socialized in the school system, it becomes our peers who matter the most. This of course is normal and it socializes us to the ways of society. We learn to conform to survive.

What we do not realize is that while we are obeying what we have been taught by word and example (this is from whence the ego’s sense of right and wrong comes and makes up the weight of the superego), we are usually not conscious of God at all. For long before, we already made a decision to ignore that inner sense of God and to participate in the isolating-from-God human project of world-making.

What we are also not aware of is that by conforming to the desires and expectations of others, even if they be our parents, we may be being unfaithful to ourselves. This is particularly acute in the case of the transgender child. There is a great deal of pain here when the child is being told that they must conform to a gender with which (for neurological reasons) they cannot identify. They try and try and eventually (if they are one of the lucky ones) succeed in putting on a good performance. But they feel extremely uncomfortable in their own skin. They know that they are not like the others of their assigned gender, and have a very acute and agonizing sense that they do not belong, have never belonged and never will. This strong sense of alienation may make them even feel that they do not belong to their parents, especially since it is their parents who are the first ones who are trying to mold them into becoming what they are not, and can only be as a matter of performance. Their whole life feels like a pretention, inauthentic, like they are lying to everyone. They may not even know why they feel this way, but that they do is undeniable. As others continue to shame them and make them feel ashamed, they withdraw into themselves, often anesthetizing their own emotions so that living can be tolerable. But they are unable to really enjoy themselves, to have fun, to let go. It is no wonder that over a third of the people with this condition attempt suicide. They cannot stand being alive.

For a transgender person to continue to conform to their assigned gender is to be unfaithful to themselves. They are being unfaithful to their Creator by attempting to be faithful instead to other people. Christians often compound the problem by insisting that the transgender person can only be faithful to God by being, what the individual knows even if they cannot acknowledge it is in fact unfaithful to God. Christians who treat the transgender person in this manner are clearly guilty of Matthew 18:6-7.

The path in front of the transgender person is very difficult, for the only way they can really be faithful to God is to go against the grain of the world around them. It is all an uphill battle. Nevertheless, and here I must be emphatic, Jesus loves the transgender person and receives them as they are. Indeed, it is this love that can sustain them on their journey of transitioning. Jesus understands their plight and deeply identifies with them in it, and opens wide his arms to receive them. His embrace is strong and his love unwavering; he knows our weakness and confusion and his love is undeterred by it. By following Jesus—and less his zealous followers—the transgender person can find wholeness and peace as a gift of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s interior operation and coddling.

“You, however, must not allow yourselves to be called Rabbi, since you have only one Master, and you are all siblings. You must call no one on earth your father, since you have only one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor must you allow yourselves to be called teachers, for you have only one Teacher, the Messiah.” I do not think Jesus means this literally. He himself recognizes that he is a rabbi and father and teacher to his disciples. Paul speaks of himself as a father (and a mother and nurse) to the churches he planted and the believers he midwifed. The Acts of the Apostles and the apostolic writings have numerous references to Christian teachers; indeed, they seem necessary to the life of the Christian communities.

However, it is also clear that the one who teaches is not “higher” than the one who is taught. Within the body of Christ there is a mutuality of gifts. While gifts differ, every gift bear the weight of the head, of Christ who imparts it. “There are many different gifts, but it is always the same Spirit; there are many different ways of serving, but it is always the same Lord [Jesus Christ]. There are many different forms of activity, but in everything it is the same God [the Father] who is at work in them all” (1 Corinthians 12:4-5). The authority of the gift belongs to God, and while this authority is lent to the exercise of the gift, it is not given to the person.

James the brother of our Lord more than anyone else brings out the problem that accrues in particular to teachers. They bear a special responsibility. “Only a few of you, my brothers and sisters, should be teachers, bearing in mind that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all trip up in many ways” (James 3:1-2). One cannot be a teacher without tripping up and therefore there is always the potential of causing harm. One cannot be a teacher without coming under the heavy hand of God’s judgment. Why? Not only because their teaching becomes the standard by which their own behavior is measured, but also because no one who teaches is not also in the process of learning and often has to adjust what they know (and have already taught others). Otherwise, I doubt they are a true teacher. Christ alone learned—probably his mother was his primary teacher—without his mind already being poisoned by the perspectives of sin. Every other teacher has to constantly unlearn as they learn.

So no one can be a true teacher (just as no one can be an actual learner) without a great deal of humility. We stand under God’s judgment! There is no escaping this or imaging that because we teach God’s truth we ever measure up to it and therefore have the honor of what we are teaching. Indeed, our teaching is always imperfect and somewhat skewed, which is why we constantly have to readjust ourselves and our overall perspective. It is therefore a terrible burden to bear.

The only teacher any of us can really have is Christ. I am speaking of course of spiritual things. For unless the Holy Spirit teaches us, we are not learning anything, not really. What the “teacher” does is direct us by challenging our perceptions and opening our minds. The “teacher” points us in the right direction. Unless however we are willing to let our heart be pointed, and unless the Holy Spirit gives us the right bearings and the freedom to turn, we cannot actually be pointed in the right direction. Learning is all an interior work. The “teacher” can only give us an exterior superstructure of words and thoughts and concepts. It is up to God to provide the rest. And so a “teacher” can easily misdirect those she teaches.

The “teacher” moreover is especially vulnerable to being misdirected themselves. There is a story in the Early Documents of Francis of Assisi (New City Press, volume 2, page 207-209) where it says:

“[Francis] knew through the Holy Spirit and even repeated it many times to the brothers, that many brothers, under the pretext of edifying others, would abandon their vocation … And it will happen that, because they will afterwards believe themselves to be more imbued with devotion and enflamed with the love of God because of their understanding of the Scriptures, they will occasionally remain inwardly cold and almost empty. And so, they will be unable to return to their first vocation, especially since they have wasted the time for living according to their calling; and I fear that even what they came to possess will be taken away from them, because they have lost their vocation.”

“There are many” [Francis used to say,] “who day and night, place all their energy and care in knowledge, losing their holy vocation and devout prayer. And when they have preached to others [i.e., other brothers] or to the people, and see or learn that some have been edified or converted to penance, they become puffed up or congratulate themselves for someone else’s gain. For those whom they think they have edified or converted to penance by their words, the Lord edified and converted by the prayers of holy brothers, although they are ignorant of it. This is the will of God so that they do not take notice of it and become proud.

“These brothers of mine are my knights of the round table, the brothers who hide in deserted and remote places, to devote themselves more diligently to prayer and meditation, weeping over theirs sins and those of others, whose holiness is known to God, and is sometimes ignored by the brothers and people. And when their souls will be presented to the Lord by the angels, the Lord will then reveal to them the fruit and reward of their labors, that is, the many souls saved by their prayers, saying to them: ‘My sons, behold these souls have been saved by your prayer, and since you were faithful in little things, I will set you over many [Matthew 25:21]. ’”

[The narrator goes on to say,] “Because of this, blessed Francis used to say about this passage: ‘The barren one has given birth to many children and the mother of many languishes’ [1 Samuel 2:5]: the barren one is the good religious who edifies himself and others by his prayers and virtues.”

Francis also said,

“The Emperor Charles, Roland, and Oliver, and all the paladins and valiant knights who were mighty in battle, pursuing unbelievers with great toil and fatigue even to death, had a glorious and memorable victory for themselves, and, finally, died in battle fighting as holy martyrs for the faith of Christ [I do not know if Francis said this facetiously]. And there are many who want to receive honor and praise by only relating what they did.” In another place he said, “The saints have done these deeds, and we want to receive honor and glory by recounting and preaching about them,” as if, the narrator comments, “Knowledge puffs up, but charity builds” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

In other words, we think that because we can preach a thing it means that we already possess the thing we preach. This is not so, and this delusion is extremely dangerous. The Pharisees taught God’s law but deluded themselves into thinking that because they taught it (and perhaps maintained an external performance of it) that they therefore fulfilled it. They thought this because of the reaction of others. Since others honored and admired them, and perhaps even assumed that they had attained to what they preached, they imagined that it was so. They accepted others as their judges. In fact, however, the judgment of God is the only judgment that matters. The judgment—and approval—of others is just as likely to get us into trouble. Their approval actually fools us into thinking that God approves of us.

No. Jesus goes on, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Anyone who raises himself up will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be raised up.” As the apostle Peter says, “Humility towards one another must be the garment you all wear constantly, because ‘God opposes the proud but accords his favor to the humble (Proverbs 3:34).’ Bow down, then, before the power of God now, so that he may raise you up in due time; ‘unload all your burden on to him’ (Psalm 55:22), since he is concerned about you. Keep sober and alert, because your enemy the devil is on the prowl like a ‘roaring lion’ (Psalm 22:13), looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:5-8). We must all humble ourselves, seeing ourselves in God’s sight and beneath the hand of the divine judgment, but teachers especially so, for we cannot escape it, not in this life nor in the life to come.

This is no pretended humility either. The Pharisee might be proud of his “humility,” especially because he “teaches” humility to others. If we are humbled, it is not because we put ourselves down. It can only because we have some knowledge of ourselves, not by introspection (a rife source for delusion) but by hard experience of constant failure and disappointment. We see ourselves in God’s light, seeing our sin, and only in such light do we know anything at all about God’s love and grace to such as us, and therefore to others whose sin is invisible to us. That is nothing to be proud of! That pride is just a delusion, covering our ignorance. The depths of our sin hardly knows any bounds. Nor, however, is there any less goodness in us by virtue of our creation by God. This is indeed humbling.

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