Annas and Caiaphas - James Tissot (abt 1900)

After the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees attempted to trap him, Jesus told the crowd,

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So of course, you must do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do – for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s backs but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to help move them.

Everything they do is for other people to see. They make the phylacteries wide and their tassels on their garments long. They love sitting at the place of honor at banquets and in the most important seats in the synagogues.

They love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by others. But they are not to be called “Rabbi” for you have one teacher and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth “Father” for you have one Father and he is in heaven. Nor are you to call them “instructors” for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

What the story means to us today

Hypocrisy – the greatest threat to Christianity

Jesus publicly calls out the teachers of the law for what they are – hypocrites. As Jesus says, “they do not practice what they preach”.

The difference in Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees - Artist Unknown

Hypocrisy is self-defeating. Atheists can twist verses to manufacture an argument against Christian beliefs. Satan can lie and deceive to turn others away from our religion. But the greatest threat to Christianity comes from within – hypocrisy.

Some Christians smile and greet others, then talk about them behind their backs. They preach peace and love while allowing abject racism to fester in our midst. They protest against injustice but do nothing to foster change. They tout forgiveness as our creed then secretly cheer when a rival is harmed. Nothing turns others away from Christianity more efficiently than hypocorism. And as Jesus told the crowd, those who exalt themselves above others will ultimately be humbled.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Jesus denounces the Pharisees – in a public venue

Jesus’ ministry is becoming more brazen as he nears the end of his time on earth. The verses tell us that Jesus denounced the Pharisees publicly – before the crowds and disciples. His message was a lesson he harped on for most of his ministry – the Pharisees not only misinterpret (or misunderstand) the Old Testament laws, they preach one thing and do another. Their hypocrisy and “greater than thou” attitudes are sickening to God.

The Pharisees sitting on Moses’ seat

Jesus says, “The Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat”, meaning, the Pharisees succeeded Moses and his duties. It may have been that the teachers of the law were legally considered to be Moses’ successors. The people were obligated to follow their leadership.

Sadducees and Pharisees - Artist Unknown

In fact, the Pharisees considered themselves to be God’s messengers – physical representatives of God. This gave them the power to interpret and act on Moses’ teachings as they saw fit – most certainly not what God would have wanted as it gave them the authority to change the Bible’s interpretation and legally force the interpretation onto everyone else. In these verses, Jesus calls out the Pharisees for abusing their power.

The Pharisees seek to only help themselves

Jesus says the Pharisees “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” The rules the Pharisees oversaw were indeed strict, a heavy burden for the Israelites to follow. But they did nothing to help those with the burden they bore. They consistently misinterpreted scripture and placed unneeded burdens on the Israelites.

The Pharisees seek attention and accolades

The Pharisees’ hypocrisy derives partly from their need for attention. Jesus says they “make their phylacteries wide (the small leather case that contained the four texts from the law and was worn on the arm or forehead) and the tassels on their garments long”. They displayed their piety to the world and bathed in the attention they received. They believed that they represented God, but their dedication to God was clearly not sincere.

The importance of names -Rabbi, Father, Instructor

Jesus says, You are not to be called Rabbi, do not call anyone on earth “father”, nor are you to be called instructors”. This was not a literal command but an exercise in contrast. The Pharisees have exalted themselves in hypocritical fashion above everyone else. Before they can be called a Rabbi, they must understand that they have one teacher and that they are still brothers with everyone else and not above or more important than them. Before calling them father, they must remember that there is only one true father, our father in heaven. Before considering them instructors, they must admit that there is only one true instructor – the Messiah. Adopting this humble attitude would have removed the Pharisee’s hypocrisy.

Christians can (and must) fight against hypocrisy

The word hypocrite is rooted in the Greek word hypokrites which means stage actor or pretender. We all have a public persona we use in front of other people. But if that persona is used to pretend you are something that you are not, you are a hypocrite. It’s an easy rut to slip into.

School of Hypocrisy - Michael Cheval (2007)
Courtesy Michael Cheval – chevalfineart.com

Since Christianity sets a high standard, it is tempting to pretend you meet that standard without incurring the costs of truly reaching it. But studies have shown that “false signaling”, condemning behavior that you then engage in yourself, is one of the most hated behaviors by all people. It is a trifecta of sin – lying, cheating, and deception all rolled into one. It’s imperative that Christians conquer hypocrisy.

Become aware of the times when you are being hypocritical

The first step a Christian can take to combat hypocrisy is to become aware of the times when you are being hypocritical. Put hypocrisy at the forefront of your mind. If you are condemning someone else’s behavior or flaunting your own righteousness, then beware. There is rarely a need to condemn someone directly. Disapproving of some else’s behavior is fine but you must detach the behavior from the person. Then focus on loving the person, not their behavior. Often, recognizing hypocrisy and replacing it with love is all it takes to remove hypocrisy from your life.

Forget about other’s disapproval

Next, work to forget about other’s disapproval. Hypocrisy can be a reaction to help insulate against disapproval. But nobody but God has any say over your behavior and there is no need to criticize others or tout your righteousness to compensate for other’s disapproval.

Take a close look at what you are being hypocritical about

On the other hand, examine what behavior you are being hypocritical about. For instance, if you constantly denounce lying but tell little lies yourself, you may need to correct your behavior, rather than compensating for your fault through hypocrisy.

Recognize that Christians are not perfect

When you make a mistake, own it. Ask for forgiveness, learn from the mistake, and strive to do better. The point of Christianity is not to be a faultless human being (only one person in the entire history of mankind has achieved that) but to seek virtuousness with every breath we take. It is the journey toward righteousness that counts most in God’s eyes.

Monastic Refectory - Vasily Perov (1865)

The science and history behind the story

They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long

Phylacteries were small leather cases containing Old Testament Scripture. They were tied to the arm and forehead. It was important for the rabbit to wear them during prayer.

The tassels referred to were worn on the four corners of the outer garment. They were worn according to Numbers 15:37 (and Deuteronomy 22:12) where their usage is described in detail.

The teachers and the Pharisees

Only here in Matthew are the Greek words for “teachers of the law” and “Pharisees” held separate as if the two groups were distinct entities. The scribes (teachers of the law) were, as their name implies, teachers. The Pharisees on the other hand, did not necessarily have a responsibility to teach. Regardless, the people being addressed by Jesus were Jewish leaders who had disavowed Jesus as the Messiah and served as excellent examples of the hypocrisy that Jesus loathed.

Bible Text

NIV

Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes - Litho Print - Artist Unknown

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries r wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The NET Bible

23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 23:2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 23:3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 23:4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. 23:5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 23:6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 23:7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ 23:8 But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 23:9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 23:10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 23:11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 23:12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

New King James Version

23 Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, 2 saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 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. 4 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. 5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. 6 They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, 7 greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ 8 But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ. 11 But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.

The Message

      1–3 23 Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.

      4–7 “Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’

      8–10 “Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.

      11–12 “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

King James Version

23 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, 2 Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: 3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. 4 For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. 5 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, 6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, 7 And hgreetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. 8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archaeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database