Many years ago I was talking with someone about something – I don’t even remember what. And the person with whom I was speaking said something about Myrtle Beach North Carolina. Now I don’t always correct someone’s minor mistakes, but I said that Myrtle Beach is in South Carolina. My friends laughed and said, “Right, like there is a difference.”
Well, there is a difference. Speaking as one having been born in SC, clearly one is better than the other. I’ll leave it to you to judge which one is best.
I have actually noticed that many times – people confuse NC and SC. I think we are also guilty of confusing North Dakota and South Dakota.
We might do the same with the Republicans and Democrates, the Sunnis and the Shiites, and many other groups.
And we do it with the Scribes and the Pharisees.
Jesus starts here with the phrase, “the Scribes and the Pharisees,” so it might be a good time to stop and think about the differences.
Do you remember the Jewish dairy farmer from Fiddler on the Roof singing, “Tradition!” In that song he talks about how tradition holds his people together. Because of tradition, everyone knows who he is and what is expected of him.
The Jewish people had a deep sense of tradition and continuity in their faith. We see that in the Pharisees and Scribes.
The Jews had a saying: ‘Moses received the law and delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua to the elders; and the elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue.’
The history of the Jews was designed to make them a people of the law.
These people had been conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians, and Jerusalem had been left desolate. They were never a political force in the ancient times. They were never a great military power in the ancient world. But what made them a separate people was their obedience to the Law.
At one time in their history, the Jews had been invaded by the Babylonians. Many of the best and brightest were exiled into Babylon. Assyria kept their rule by killing the people, but Babylon kept their rule by taking the best leaders and moving them far away to Babylon. There the Jews, like all other nations, would be incorporated into the Babylonian culture, lose their identity after a generation or two – but that did not happen with the Jews because of their devotion to the Law.
Under Ezra and Nehemiah, the people were allowed to return to Jerusalem. When they rebuilt their city, Ezra took the book of the Law and read it to everyone – those who had returned and those who had remained in Jerusalem. There was a national rededication to the Law, led by Ezra – THE SCRIBE. (Nehemiah 8:1–8).
From then on, the study of the law became the greatest of all professions. Those who studied the law as a profession were called Scribes.
The scribes interpreted the Law into thousands and thousands of little rules and regulations. Walking on the Sabbath was limited to how many paces one could walk before it was considered work, which could not be done on the Sabbath.
It took more than fifty volumes to hold all of these interpretations and regulations.
By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, the Scribes had been around for 450 years.
The Pharisees were not new, but they had only been around 175 years.
Around 175 BC, Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria tried to destroy the Jewish religion and replace it with Greek religion and Greek customs. That is when the Pharisees rose up as a new and separate sect.
The name “Pharisee” means the separated ones.
They dedicated their lives to the most careful and accurate observance of every rule and regulation which had been worked out by the Scribes – so these two groups, while separate, had a connection – the law and especially the law as interpreted by the scribes.
Scribes had knowledge of the law and could draft legal documents (contracts for marriage, divorce, loans, inheritance, mortgages, the sale of land, and the like). Every village had at least one scribe.
Pharisees were members of a party that believed in resurrection and in following legal traditions that were ascribed not to the Bible but to “the traditions of the fathers.” Like the scribes, they were also well-known legal experts: hence the partial overlap of membership of the two groups. It appears from subsequent rabbinic traditions, however, that most Pharisees were small landowners and traders, not professional scribes.
It is interesting that Jesus is speaking publically, not privately. There has been a growing rift between the Scribes and Pharisees with Jesus and it has gotten beyond the private conversations one might have with someone with whom you are in conflict.
Earlier in Matthew, just a couple of pages earlier, Jesus has had a very public run-in with religious leaders who are outwardly practicing faith, but inwardly have no true spirituality. The cleansing of the temple has taken place in Matthew 21, and there is a growing jealousy between the religious leaders and Jesus (describe there as “chief priests and teachers of the law).
21:12 Then Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple courts, and turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. 13 And he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are turning it into a den of robbers!” 14 The blind and lame came to him in the temple courts, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the experts in the law saw the wonderful things he did and heard the children crying out in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of children and nursing infants you have prepared praise for yourself’?” 17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and spent the night there.
Here in Matthew 23, Jesus acknowledges that they have authority. As he puts it, they sit on the seat of Moses. This referred to a teaching position in the local synagogue or in the local Jewish community.
He advises the people to listen to their teachings but not to practice their life styles.
"they tie up heavy burdens" This was a cultural metaphor which referred to the overloading or improper loading of domestic animals.
This is reminiscent of what Jesus said in the earliest parts of Matthew’s Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount:
11:28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.”
They were religious exhibitionists.
When I go into a restaurant, I always have a prayer, but sometimes it is not visible to others, and sometimes – especially when I’m in a group from the church, I do so very publically. It is a struggle sometimes.
Matthew 5:16 says, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Then almost immediately, Jesus says in chapter 6 of Matthew, “2"So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. 3"But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”
So here is a point for our group to ponder, “What is the difference here? What guides us in what is right – public displays, or private actions?”
The religion of the Scribes and Pharisees is a dangerous one, because it lends itself to being ostentatious. It becomes a bragging right. It makes one feel great, as if one has accomplished something greater than anyone else.
There was something arrogant about this way of life.
They made broad their phylacteries. Those were boxes they wore on their hands and foreheads and inside these boxes were Scripture passages.
In Exodus 13:9 it says: ‘It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead.’ The same saying is repeated: ‘It shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead’ (Exodus 13:16; cf. Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18). In order to fulfil these commandments, Jews wore at prayer, and still wear, what are called tephillin or phylacteries. They are worn on every day except the Sabbath and special holy days. They are like little leather boxes, strapped one on the wrist and one on the forehead. The one on the wrist is a little leather box of one compartment, and inside it there is a parchment roll with passages of Scripture.
The Pharisees, in order to draw attention to themselves, not only wore phylacteries, but wore specially big ones, so that they might demonstrate their exemplary obedience to the law and their exemplary piety.
They wear oversize tassels, and these tassels were mentioned in Numbers 15:37–41:
37 The Lord said to Moses: 38 Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. 39 You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. 40 So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. 41 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.
It is also mentioned in Deuteronomy 22:12.
12 You shall make tassels on the four corners of the cloak with which you cover yourself.
Today they are perpetuated in the tassels of the prayer shawl which devout Jews wear at prayer. It was easy to make these tassels of very large size so that they became an ostentatious display of piety, worn not as a reminder of the commandments but as a means of drawing attention to the wearer.
Today, how many people wear crosses as jewelry, but have no faith at all?
What do different translations say in verse 8?
NIV has "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.
You can take this to extreme and call everyone brother and sister, or today we might call everyone “person.” People do have titles, such as “teacher,” but in our faith there is an equality.
Colossians 3:11 Here there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all.
In the Presbyterian Church, there is a strong belief in the priesthood of all believers. All of the people in the church are equal – whether clergy or laity.
Among the membership of the Session, we are all equal – I’m a teaching elder and the others are ruling elders. We all have one vote.
Jesus is calling on us to practice this equality and not to put one person higher than another.
Jesus has brought up this concept of servanthood earlier.
20:25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 26 It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”