Father Maas’ Commentary on Matthew 23:1-12
Posted by Dim Bulb on February 21, 2016
1. Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes.] 3. Formal rejection of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus first points out the contrast between their principles and practice, vv. 1–12; secondly, he directly impeaches the Pharisees, vv. 13–39.
a. Contrast between principles and practice. The first portion of this section is directed to the multitudes, vv. 1–7, the second to the disciples, vv. 8–12.
α. Address to the multitudes. Both the multitudes and the disciples had been present at the discomfiture of the Pharisees, so that they were well prepared to hear the following doctrine. “On the chair of Moses” agrees with the Rabbinic manner of expressing succession in the office of teaching [cf. Vitringa, De synag. vet. Franequeræ, 1696, p. 165]; it was applied to the Sanhedrin in a special manner [cf. Lightfoot, ad h. l.; Wünsche, p. 271], and since the Pharisees and scribes exercised the greatest authority in the Sanhedrin [Josephus Ant. XVIII. i. 4; Schürer, The Jewish people in the Time of Jesus Christ, div. ii. vol. i. p. 179, Edinburgh, 1885], they may be said to “have sitten on the chair of Moses.” By this concession Jesus shows that he is no adversary of the law [Theophylact Sylveira], that he is not opposed to the highest Jewish authority [Calm.], that he does not act through ambition or hatred [Chrysostom, Cyril, Euyhymius], and at the same time he thus renders his words against his opponent more effective [cf. Schanz, Knabenbauer]. “All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you” should not be restricted by divers conditions such as “if they command what Moses taught” [Bruno Alb. Maldonado,Arnoldi], or “if they teach well” [Paschasius], or “if they do not command anything contrary to the law of Moses” [Dionysius the Carthusian, Janesenius, Lapide, Sylverisa, Calmet], or finally, “if they act according to the duties of their office” [Lam. Fillion]; for such a restriction would constitute the people the supreme judge of their moral obligations [cf. Augustine De doct. christ. iv. 27, 59; c. Faust. xvi. 29; ep. cv. 5, 16; cf. Schanz, Knabenbauer]. “Observe and do” can hardly be referred to the observance in the heart and the execution in deed [cf. Alb. Thomas Aquinas], or the observance of the negative and the positive precepts [cf. Cajetan], but seems to urge the need of constant and faithful compliance with all obligations. But the practice of the Pharisees is far removed from their principles: “according to their works do ye not.”
3. The last statement is further proved by our Lord: first, “they say and do not. For they bind heavy and insupportable burdens,” by multiplying the regulations of the Mosaic law about needless details [cf. Acts 15:10; Edersheim i. pp. 100 f.]; “and lay them on men’s shoulders; but with a finger of their own they will not move them,” refusing not only to lighten the burden for their fellow men by assistance or example [cf. Maldonado, Edersheim i. p. 101; ii. p. 408]. but also to act according to their own teaching [Chrysostom, Euthymius, Knabenbauer]. Secondly, besides this harshness to others and indulgence to self, the Pharisees are ambitious and strive after vainglory: “All their works they do for to be seen of men: for they make their phylacteries broad”; phylacteries [derived from a Greek verb meaning “to guard,” because they were considered as helps “to guard the law,” or as “guards against evil,” something like amulets; cf. Lightfoot, ad h. l.; Wünsche, p. 274; Schürer, The Jewish People, div. ii. vol. ii. pp. 113 ff. Edinburgh, 1885] or Tephillin [prayer-straps] were dice-shaped, hollow parchment cases, containing the passages Ex. 13:1–10, 13:11–16; Deut. 6:4–9; 11:13–21 written on parchment rolls. Their use was founded on the passages Ex. 13:9, 16; Deut. 6:8; 11:18, which the Jews interpreted literally, though Jerome, Paschasius, Theophylact believe that God intended them figuratively, only obliging the Jews to keep the law always before their eyes and to observe it in practice. Every male Israelite had to put on the phylacteries, at least during the morning prayers, excepting on Sabbaths and holy days; one was fastened to the upper part of the left arm, and another to the forehead just below the hair [cf. Schürer, l. c.]. The Pharisees appear to have enlarged the cases to an abnormal size, and to have worn them especially in public [cf. Josephus Ant. IV. viii. 13]. “And enlarge their fringes” or tassels of hyacinth-blue or white wool, which every Israelite by reason of the prescription in Num. 15:37 ff., Deut. 22:12, had to wear at the four corners of his upper garment. They were to be used “that ye may look upon them and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them” [cf. Schürer, l. c. p. 111 f.; Buxtorf, Lex. chald. col. 654]. “The first places at feasts” were those to the right hand and to the left of the host, and among the Persians and Romans the middle seats [cf. Lk. 14:8 ff.; Josephus Ant. XV. ii. 4; Marquardt, v. 1, p. 312]; “the first chairs in the synagogues” were at the extreme end of the synagogue, towards which all the worshippers turned. “Rabbi” was at first a respectful address, but developed into the title of the more eminent scribes; according to Maimonides [cf. Wetstein], Simon the son of Hillel was the first that was called Rabbi; according to the Aruch [cf. Lightfoot], this honor belongs to the older Gamaliel. At the time of Christ the title was almost new, since the older doctors are commonly known by their mere names [cf. Jn. 1:38; Schürer, The Jewish People, div. ii. vol. i. p. 315, Edinburgh, 1885].
β. Address to the disciples. “But be not you called Rabbi” is addressed especially to the apostles, in order to warn them that they must not covet this title through vainglory or ambition [Chrysostom, Euthymius, Paschasius, Cajetan, Jansenius]. Jesus adds two reasons why the foregoing title should not be coveted: first, “one is your master,” so that Christians ought to feel ashamed of being addressed by the same title as Jesus Christ; secondly, “all you are brethren,” so that again any title implying preference ought to cause pain rather than pleasure [cf. 1 Cor. 4:7]. “And call none your father upon earth,” as the Jewish students used to call their masters [cf. 2 Kings 2:12; Buxtorf, s. v. אָבָּא; Lightfoot], whom they often praised and admired excessively; the reason is similar to that of the preceding prohibition: “for one is your father, who is in heaven,” since from him alone you have your natural and supernatural life, and since he alone has the full right to the honor due to a father [cf. Mal. 1:6]. That Jesus forbade not the material use of the titles “Rabbi” and “father” is plain, first, from the fact that God himself applies the name “father” to men in the fourth commandment; secondly, from the Scriptural usage of calling disciples “sons” [cf. Prov. 1:8, 10, 15; 2:1; 3:1; 4:1; etc.], so that their masters are implicitly called “fathers”; thirdly, from the circumstance that St. Paul calls himself “doctor of the Gentiles” [1 Tim. 2:7], speaks of his children in Christ [1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Tim. 1:18; 2 Tim. 2:1; Phil. 1], and that St. Peter calls Mark his son [1 Pet. 5:14]. “Neither be ye called masters,” or more correctly “leaders” of a school or party [cf. Buxtorf, s. v. מוֹרֶה], a tendency that seems to have manifested itself in the early church of Corinth when the new converts began to claim Paul, or Cephas, or Apollo as their leader [cf. 1 Cor. 1:12, 13]; the reason for this prohibition is again drawn from the fact of Christ’s universal leadership [Acts 3:15; 5:31; Heb. 12:2; 2:10]. Jesus then again points out that one’s greatness in the Church will consist in being the servant of one’s brethren [cf. Mt. 18:4; 20:25], a principle that is repeatedly and in various forms expressed by the apostle of the Gentiles [cf. 1 Cor. 3:5; 12:7; Rom. 12:6 f.; Eph. 4:11, 12]. Finally, our Lord expresses in almost proverbial language the principle that self-exaltation leads to humiliation, and self-abasement to real greatness. The life of Jesus Christ illustrates this truth [Phil. 2:8, 9; cf. Heb. 2:9], and both the Old Testament [Job 22:29; Prov. 29:23; Ez. 17:24] and the New inculcate it [Lk. 1:52, 53; 14:11; 18:14; 1 Pet. 5:5, 6; James 4:10].