Last week in the Gospel, we heard Jesus name the two greatest commandments in the Law: Love God, and love your neighbour as yourself. He does this when the group of Pharisees come to test him. In the Gospel for this Sunday, we hear what Jesus thinks about about this group of Pharisees who cause problems not just for him, but for others, too.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;
What does Jesus mean by saying that the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat? God gave the Law—the Torah—to Moses. Under God's authority, Moses acted. Moses knew the Law better than anyone else. When Jesus says that the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, he acknowledges that they have been given authority—they speak for Moses now. In some ways this is like our priests at Mass. The chair the priest sits in is called the bishop's chair. Under the authority of the bishop, the priest acts. Under the authority of the pope, the bishop acts. Under the authority of our Lord, Jesus the Messiah, the pope acts. We can trace the train of authority.
therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it;
Because the Pharisees have been given the authority of Moses, Jesus says to do what they say and follow it. This is obedience. Obedience is easy if we agree with what we are being told to do. It is hard if we do not agree. By obeying, though, we acknowledge that some people hold positions of authority greater than ours. We respect the position they hold even when we do not agree. What does this do for our character? Does this make us weaker or stronger?
but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.
Jesus sees clearly that the Pharisees are hypocrites. They teach in the place of Moses, but they do not act as Moses acted. Jesus tells the people to obey with their bodies, but they do not have to give their minds and hearts to people who do not practice what they preach.
Now Jesus shows us clearly the behaviour of the Pharisees:
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
In their position of authority, the Pharisees make life heavy for their neighbours. We do not think Jesus means that they actually make people carry heavy things on their shoulders; instead the rules they enforce weigh people down. We get the feeling that the Pharisees enjoy making life difficult for their neighbours, since they do not offer any help. They do not want to lift a finger to help a neighbour struggling. They do not seem to love their neighbours.
They do all their deeds to be seen by others for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.
Phylacteries are small leather boxes that contain scripture verses. People wear them to remind themselves to keep the Law. But Jesus sees that the Pharisees wear large phylacteries so that everyone can see how holy they are.
Rabbis wear fringes as a sign that they study the Law. In scripture we hear that Jesus himself wears fringes. But Jesus sees that the Pharisees wear their fringes long because they want everyone to notice how important they are.
Who do these Pharisees love? It seems that the Pharisees concern themselves with appearing good and holy and important on the outside. We wonder if they ever take a look at themselves on the inside.
They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.
They love feeling more important than everyone else. They love getting better treatment than everyone else; they enjoy so much the respect people have to show them. They love that people call them rabbi—teacher. Probably, we all know people like this—people more concerned with loving themselves than with loving their neighbours.
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.
Jesus has been telling everyone about what the Pharisees do. Now he turns to the people and tells them not to be called rabbi. What does he mean by this? Does he accuse the people in the crowd of acting like the Pharisees? Certainly he draws their attention away from criticizing the Pharisees. Rather than pointing out others' sins, perhaps we need to take a look at our own insides.
And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.
With this reminder, Jesus focuses our attention on God. Remember the greatest commandment? Love God. He shows us the behaviour that he does not approve of, then turns our attention to our own hearts, and then finally asks us to look to God. If we do this, if we look to the One who gives us all life, will we see ourselves more clearly? Maybe. But it can be difficult not to slip into loving ourselves more than our neighbours. How can we keep the right balance?
Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.
Aha. Jesus the Messiah gives us the perfect example. Certainly he is greater than all, and yet he serves. When we serve others, when we put their needs first, good things get done and we feel good about ourselves. We love our neighbour as ourselves. Balance.
The Pharisees show us what not to do. But they also make us take a good look at our insides. Jesus reminds us to love God, our Father in heaven. And we look to Jesus, the Messiah, for our example. If he serves others, so can we. Then we can love our neighbour as ourselves.