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Matthew 23:1–12

5 November 2023

Exploring the Scripture

The phrase make me a servant is very familiar to Christians today. We often quote it. We know the teachings of Jesus Christ teach us that we must be humble, but for many it is difficult to live out. Matthew 23:1–12 highlights this struggle. The people Jesus speaks to and the examples he gives may not be familiar to us, however, we easily recognize the underlying human wish to get attention and be noticed.

The author of Matthew was Jewish, writing to and amid a Jewish community. We can think of this as “Matthew’s church,” probably located in Antioch, a city in southern Galilee. In Galilee certain groups of Pharisees were in conflict with devoted Jewish followers of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew emerged during a time when the early church was struggling with its identity and what it means to be the church. Should the early leaders organize the church in the familiar ways of Judaism or was Christ calling them to a different way? The author of Matthew argues for a different way. Matthew obviously has issues with the Pharisees and scribes. Chapter 23 begins a long speech known as “the woes against the Pharisees.” This section of Matthew reflects the growing conflict between Judaism and Christianity during the end of the first century.

Scribes were a professional group with formal training in the law. They were educated in the tradition and law of Judaism and its application to current issues. Pharisees were a rather small group of laypersons within Judaism without formal training, whose wish it was to adhere as closely as they could to all the rules of Judaism. “Moses’ seat” is an expression that represents the teaching and administrative authority of the synagogue leaders, scribes, and Pharisees.

Interestingly, Jesus does not condemn the scribes’ and Pharisees’ teaching, but the way they went about it. This passage highlights three issues. First, they don’t “practice what they preach.” This universal struggle plagues people even today.

Second, they place heavy burdens on others, which fails to help them. This is a complex issue. The Pharisees expected the average person to be able to keep all the priestly purity laws. Matthew condemns this as focusing on humanmade laws, not on God, and sees these laws as unnecessary burdens for people to take on. Jesus’ burden is easy because it focuses on God, not on personal abilities. One of the basic teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels is that worshiping God is not about making sure we follow all the rules of a religion. It is about giving our hearts over to Jesus; God will help guide us and carry our burdens.

Third, the Pharisees are too focused on impressing others and not on what is important— their relationship with God. So we are not too critical of the them, let’s look at the background in which Matthew was written. Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE, and the rabbinic leadership then felt it was important to stress external signs of piety to set themselves apart as a holy people of God in a religiously diverse society. They no longer had the temple to distinguish them from other groups and felt external signs would do so. Matthew’s church was also tempted to conform to such practices. The author of Matthew challenges people to resist and cautions them that such action is not what Jesus would do.

In chapter 23 we are reminded of the importance of being humble. All we do should point to God, not ourselves. This can be hard to do because humans are social creatures. We like attention and want people to like us. We live under pressure to be accepted by others. We like to be promoted at work. To get a job or a promotion we have to highlight all the good we have done. The world is one in which we must prove our worth by what we do and how we look to the outside world. Matthew helps us see a different world, a zionic vision where we no longer have the pressure to justify our being or prove our worth. In God’s kingdom, God is the Parent and we are all brothers and sisters; God is the Teacher and we are all students; God is the Master and we are the servants.

Project Zion Podcast

Co-hosts Karin Peter and Blake Smith consider how this week's scripture connects to our lives today.


Central Ideas

  1. While the text uses examples that are not necessarily important to us today, the message is still relevant.
  2. The social setting out of which this passage was written is helpful to understand the text and its meaning for us.
  3. We are called to practice what we preach, realize we cannot do it alone, and realize that in God’s kingdom we do not have to prove ourselves to others.
  4. We are called to be humble servants of God.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are some modern examples of the critiques Matthew brings up?
  2. Have there been times in our denomination when we have struggled with what sets us apart from other denominations? What is Christ’s message to us in these struggles?
  3. What are the implications for you as you invite God to “make me a servant”?
  4. How can we be better servants in our community and congregation?

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