Background and Context: The larger context is the gospel of Matthew, with all that implies.
The speech is public teaching. It’s addressed to “the crowds and to his [Jesus’] disciples,” presumably within earshot of any scribes and Pharisees who haven’t given up in disgust by this time.
It’s the climax of Jesus’ public preaching in Matthew. It comes after:
- Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, cleansing the Temple, and an overnight in Bethany (Matthew 21:1-17)
- cursing a fruitless fig tree the next day
- pointed exchanges with “the chief priests and elders,” including two ominous parables (Matthew 21:18-46), and the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14)
- a series of test questions posed by different religious-political factions – Should we pay taxes to Caesar? What will marriage law be in the resurrection? What is the greatest commandment? – in context, possibly a friendly, soft-ball question, designed to demonstrate “see, guys, we’re really all on the same page here”
- a rebuttal question by Jesus that throws the soft-ball back in the questioners’ faces (Matthew 22:15-45)
Right after this lecture/sermon, Jesus leaves the Temple, and has a long teaching session with the disciples alone (Matthew 24:1-25:46), focused on end times. After that the narrative turns quickly to the events of the rest of Holy Week.
This is one of those Biblical texts that triggers our Christian auto-pilot “Jesus vs. the Pharisees” reader-response script – because yes, Jesus’ last word to “the people” is a scathing denunciation of … someone, or something, tagged “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” and “blind guides” (vv 16-22).
We might not want to jump to the conclusion that it’s about “the Pharisees,” the villains of the gospels, as if we know what that means. Jesus’ own substantive position on various things seems to have been in alignment with the Pharisees’ on many things – in particular, with The School of Hillel.
We probably do not want to jump to the conclusion that “Jesus is denouncing legalism” here – especially in light of v3, where Jesus seems to be saying that people need to obey religious rules.
[Rant-y aside: I always cringe when I hear people talk about the “legalism” that Jesus was against, and go on to use the Pharisees as the poster-children for “legalism.” Hillel was apparently a Pharisee, and he was the opposite of a “legalist,” if by “legalism” we mean the view that “the letter of the law is more important than the spirit or substance or purpose of the law,” or that “proper procedure is more important than the condition of one’s heart.” Who advocates that? Not contemporary rabbinic Judaism. Probably not ancient Judaism, either. (At least, not any more than contemporary Christianity. That is, “legalism” is a recognized error in any religious tradition, as well as a recognized, ever-present danger of having religious rules.)
Jesus was, no doubt, against legalism. But the idea that Christianity came to solve the problem of “legalism” in ancient Judaism is a Christian mistake, that Christians should stop making, already. The idea that “Jesus is preaching against legalism here” is not an adequate reading of Matthew 23; it’s just a special case of that mistake.]
So, we might need to work against our own auto-pilot “lifetime of listening to Christian preaching” interpretive context, at least long enough to ask ourselves what precisely Jesus is against in this chapter, that is symbolized by the “scribes and Pharisees.”
The “common text” is just 8 verses of the longer discourse, so we’re focusing on a discourse within a discourse. It amounts to the introduction (vv1-4) – which establishes the larger theme – and the specific charges or “woes” about tithing vs. the weightier matters of the law, and external vs. internal purity (vv23-26).
Closer Reading: “Moses’ seat” (v1) refers to leadership of the community; maybe a direct reference to authority in synagogues; but it also echoes “church language.” The word “seat” (cathedros) would also have been used for the position of a bishop by the time Matthew was writing.
”do whatever they teach you” … “they do not practice” (v3) “practice” is literally “work;” the main charge is that the scribes and Pharisees don’t practice what they preach; consistent with the recurrent charge of being “hypocrites” (v13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29) – historically, a term that meant “playing a part,” like in the theater, or “putting on a show.”
“tie up” and “lay on” burdens gives an image of helping someone on with something they have to carry on their shoulders. If we’ve ever been backpacking, we know it can be helpful for someone to hold your pack for you while you get into it. But it’s not the same kind of help as having someone carry some of your gear.
So what are the “heavy burdens”? (v4) We usually read these as legal obligations. But the Pharisees seem to have borne these legal obligations themselves, so why the the reference to “not lifting a finger”?
Possibly the requirements were costly, or difficult to carry out. They may well have “fallen on all equally,” but that would mean they would be more difficult for poor people to fulfill. If so, then at least part of Jesus’ charge is that the better-off Pharisees do little or nothing to make it possible for those others to “shoulder” their religious obligations. Instead, they “hold people accountable,” without contributing anything to their account for them to be accountable with. (On this point, see Sharon Ringe’s commentary on Matthew 23:1-12)
If we read the charge that way, it makes extra sense of the criticism in vv5-7, that these “scribes and Pharisees” do everything to be seen by others; “broad” phylacteries and “long” fringes are not only extra visible, they use extra material, so they cost more – a cost, according to Jesus, his opponents willingly pay to be seen and recognized as pious. A cost they won’t pay to help others [to be pious? just to be? not 100% clear?]. That attitude, then, carries through vv8-12, and contrasts with what Jesus calls for. [“Don’t seek recognition as a ‘teacher.’ Help out.” This hits mighty close to home.]
“tithing mint, dill, and cumin” (v23) indicates that the Pharisees are, indeed, meticulous about turning their 10% of everything over to the authorities to support religious workers – the priests, the Levites, the Temple. So meticulous they go all the way down to the herbs, which weigh next to nothing (picture the fronds of a dill plant). But according to Jesus, they are behind in their pledges when it comes to “justice and mercy and faith.”
“strain out/at a gnat but swallow a camel” is (a) reportedly a word-play (the Aramaic words for “gnat” and “camel” being similar); (b) a contrast of two kinds of unclean-for-food animals, one tiny, one big; (c) funny – absurd, even, especially if you try to visualize it; (d) something like “being penny-wise and pound-foolish” or “not seeing the forest for the trees” – that is, getting so preoccupied with the details that you lose sight of the big picture; (d) something people still do today. I heard someone offer a similar critique of a strict branch of contemporary Orthodox Judaism once, saying “they care more about a blood-spot [which makes something unfit to eat] on an egg yolk than about a blood-spot on a ruble.” But it could just as easily have been a dollar as a ruble, it could just as easily have been a fleck of “dirt,” and it could just as easily have been about anyone.
“greed and self-indulgence” (v25) literally carries with it connotations of violently taking things or extortion; the contrast again is between external purity (“cleaning cup and plate”) and internal impurity.
[On the “whitewashed tombs” (v27), which are outside our “discourse within a discourse,” several sources point out that because contact with death caused ritual defilement, around the time of festivals tombs would be whitewashed to let people know to stay away from them. So while they were beautiful, it was a beauty that was a sign of danger, meant to warn people to stay away. Jesus’ charge attaches that meaning to the scribes’ and Pharisees’ ostentatious piety.]
Concluding Comments – not so much an attack on “legalism,” Jesus here seems to be bemoaning and attacking a set of religious attitudes that puts the stress on outward signs, what we might call “identity signals.” They exclude the poor; they don’t help the poor; so they don’t constitute “justice and mercy and faith”; they prioritize the desire for people’s, rather than God’s, approval; and they leave the vital person, the “inner person,” unimproved.