by Rev. Fr. K. K. John, Philadelphia
Gospel Reading: Mat: 23: 1-12
Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Obey what they teach but not do what they do, for they do not do what they teach. They burden the people instead of helping and show outward piety and yet love prominent seats in the feasts and respect from others.
Christ’s follower should be a different model. Christ is the only teacher and God in heaven is the only Father. All followers are brethren, that is, equal. Greatest among them shall become their servant. Self-exaltation leads to humiliation and humility exalt.
1. Moses’ seat (Al Kursiyod Moose Yiseb):
Moses’ seat was, in fact, an unrefined jungle stone. Truly, Moses did not virtually sit upon a throne as that of King David or Solomon. Israelites were fighting with Amalekites. Moses stretched his hands up during the fight so that Israel would win. When he held his hands down, Israel would fail. When “Moses hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur (supported and lifted) stayed his hands, the one on the one side and the other on the other side,” Ex 17:12.
Practically, what other than a stone could have been his throne in the wilderness? Jesus Christ had high regard for priesthood. Seat of Moses is reverentially called, ‘Throne of Moses.’ Contemporary concept of throne has nothing to do with it. There was a special chair in synagogues assigned only to chief rabbi that was known as Moses’ seat. Rabbis used to teach sitting on a raised seat. This meant that High priests derived their authority from Moses. They claimed that priesthood had divine origin and unbroken succession from Moses. Authority of Moses was uncontestable to the Jews.
Jesus did not conceive obliteration of priesthood. He criticized the priests with intent to correct the errors that crept in the system, correctly interpreted the law, pointed out the areas of failure and suggested restitution. “Do not think that I came to destroy the law or the prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill,” Mat 5:17. Prophets also criticized the priests e.g., Ish 28:7, Jer 2:8, Ez 22:26, Hos 4:4-6, Mal 2:6. That was total condemnation, not of the system but the evil attitude of the priests. Many Jewish priests converted to Christianity and continued as ordinary members, in the early church, Acts 6:7. We ought to think of the present predicament, if priesthood is blameless today?
2. Jesus said to obey what they taught!
The reason is obvious. The Pharisees taught the Law of Moses. The gist of Moses’ Law is to love the Lord God with full heart, soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself, Mat 22:37-40. The purpose of the law was to liberate man from sinful/burdensome life to a higher realm of righteousness. Pharisees and scribes, by their own traditions, converted Judaism into a religion of ostentation. One can understand on a peripheral reading of Decalogue that God’s commandments, do's and don’ts are in simple language so that ordinary people could easily grasp it. But the Rabbis made them complex by self-interpretations. They created a fence around the Law denying access to the ordinary, which is the case even today.
But the Law is wholesome and necessary. Jesus forbade his followers from breaking or teaching less of it. In today’s culture, especially in America, the word ‘obedience’ lost its meaning. Faithful does not obey the priest; the priest does not obey the bishop; the bishops does not obey the code of conduct or cannon; children do not obey parents; pupil does not obey teacher; and so on. Moral authority of parents, teachers and priests is at stake as a result of neglect of moral code of conduct and the result is a chaotic society. Here is the relevance of Jesus’ admonition to obey the God’s commandments. Disobedience cost paradise to Adam; Kingdom to Saul; salvation to humanity and woe to Jonah.
3. Jesus said, not do what they do.
Outwardly, they were very keen to follow the Law, which said to wear portions of law in their person as a sign and as a memorial, Ex 13 and Deut 6. But they were not content with the size and added more to it so that people would see and respect them. This was due to spiritual pride. “Pride is denial of God, and invention of the devil, the despising of men, the mother of condemnation, the offspring of praise, a sign of sterility, flight from Divine assistance, the precursor of madness, the cause of falls, a foothold for satanic possession, a source of anger, a door of hypocrisy, the support of demons, the guardian of sins, the patron of pitilessness, the rejection of compassion, a bitter inquisitor, and inhuman judge, an opponent of God, a root of blasphemy,” St. John Climacus.
Another problem was hypocrisy. They publicly preached virtuous matters but lived in sin privately. Thus Pharisees and scribes fell short of the righteousness expected of them. So Jesus admonished His disciples to exceed their righteousness, Mat 5:20.
Most of us are yet to take note that spiritual pride is more heinous than material pride and stumbling in the way of salvation. Religious hierarchy is consumed in spiritual pride, which God detests and judges. St Paul taught, ‘you do not preach what you cannot practice.’ In other words, practice what you preach, 1C 9:27. “It is better to allow our lives to speak for us than our words. God did not bear the cross only two thousand years ago. He bears it today, and he dies and is resurrected from day to day. It would be a poor comfort to the world if it had to depend on a historical God who died two thousand years ago. Do not, then, preach the God of history, but show him as he lives today through you.” Mahatma Gandhi.
4. Calling Rabbi and Father:
Do not be called Rabbi for you have only one teacher who is Christ, v8. You do not call anyone on earth father for you have only one father who is in heaven, v9. Some new-found-theologians and mushroom groups who call themselves pastors and church are very fond of these verses. They profusely twist, misinterpret and quote these verses to establish that clergies should not be honored as father or teacher. They are comfortable with ‘achen’ but not Rev. Father! We call priests fathers because they baptize and regeneration takes place in baptism.
Firstly, these verses do not oppose honoring those who deserve respect. In Aramaic (Syriac) language, vernacular of our Lord, there are distinct words for father. “Abo” is base form to mean father. Its derivative, “Abohe” denotes biological father, in the worldly sense. “Abohotho” is another derivation to mean spiritual father, bishop, abbot, etc. in the ecclesiastical sense, Syriac Dictionary by Paine Smith. Elisha called Elijah father, 2K 2:12. The rich man cried out in the hell, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” Luke 16:24. Abraham called him ‘son,’ v25. St Paul claimed spiritual father-ship of Corinthians, 1Cor 4:15, Col 3:21.
5. Rabbi literally means, ‘my great one.’
It became a technical name for teacher at the time of Jesus. Thus the teachers had an elevated feeling for themselves. Jesus is pointing to the sting of their inner pride. So was the case with the word, father. Rabbis interpreted that biological father gives life in the physical sense but the teacher gives eternal life and so they deserve more respect. Jesus called Nicodemus, teacher of Israel, John 3:10. Church in Antioch called Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen and Saul as teacher, Acts 13:1. Christ appointed teachers in the Church, Eph 4:11. Christ appointed Paul a teacher, 2Tim 1:11.
Self-absorbed Pharisees and scribes, devoid of humility, expected highest honor from others and exalted themselves above God. They were happy only with adjectives prefixed to their names, “Abba or Rabbi.” What Jesus condemned was not the title itself but the presumptuous claims the titles implied, says Dummelow. Jesus cautioned the followers that they should not think themselves equal to God or Jesus. Discipleship demands subjection to Lord.
However, looking at the present spiteful scenario in Christendom, one would doubt if the present hierarchy is in any way different from the Rabbis of Jesus’ time. For example, we address the Patriarch, “His holiness, Moran Mor Ignatius.” Does this not remind us Pharisees? ‘Moran’ means Lord (Lord-God). Are these titles biblically appropriate to address human beings? I think not. The loathsome Pharisees and scribes were better off than most of us!
“Blessed is he who humbles himself in all things, for he will be exalted in all. For a man who for God’s sake humbles himself, and thinks meanly of himself, is glorified by God. The man who hungers and thirsts for God's sake, God will make him drunk with His good things. And he who goes naked for God's sake is clad by Him in a robe of incorruption and glory. And he who becomes poor for His sake is consoled with His true riches,” St. Isaac the Syrian.
“Avoid arrogance, quarrel and pride while dealing in Church matters; instead, let your humility shine before others. Those who place their trust in God, and satisfy the people are blessed,” Parumala thirumeni. We extol Parumala thirumeni but do not heed to his admonition.
Bible honors David not for his might as king but for his humility to acknowledge, repent and confess his sins before prophet Nathan and walk righteously thereafter before the awesome majesty of God. Cardinal message of today’s gospel is, being righteous and humble before God and men, is Christian virtue, no matter how big the position, is.
Pride, Ego and Hypocrisy by Rev. Dr. V kurian Thomas Valiyaparambil
Humility and Exaltation by Rev. Dr. V Kurian Thomas Valiyaparambil
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 5th sunday after Sleebo
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