On Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, the crowds love him, but the leaders feel threatened. After silencing his enemies, Jesus turns to the crowds and explains the reason for this conflict. What he says about the leaders isn’t pretty.
We shudder at the word hypocrite. Who wants to be accused of duplicity? It’s hard to defend against the accusation that my inner intentions don’t match my actions. But that understanding of hypocrisy reflects our culture of individualism, where personal authenticity is the greatest virtue. There’s a bit of that in Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees and Torah scholars, but that wasn’t his main concern.
In their collectivist culture, it was all about being honoured or shamed by the community. That’s still the case in many places today. The Chinese government is deploying a formal system of social credit: rewarding those who act honourably, restricting those who act shamefully by their standards.
That was the Pharisees’ game. Backed by Torah scholars, they took a social engineering role — controlling the community by assigning honour and shame. To those they regarded as scum they would say, “Shame on you! You’re not keeping to the Law of the Lord! You’re demeaning us all!”
Well, that’s the kind of thing they said. But what they were doing was seeking honour for themselves. They wanted to be seen as the top dogs. It was all a power game.
That’s why Jesus confronted them, shaming those who appointed themselves for honour. God had not appointed them. They were just role-playing. That’s a dangerous game when the person God has appointed arrives.
Matthew 23:1-12 (my translation, compare NIV)
1 Then Jesus addressed the crowds and his disciples.
2 He said, “On Moses seat sit the scholars and the Pharisees. 3 So whatever they tell you, do it and keep it all.
But do not do the deeds they do, for what they say is not what they do. 4 They strap together heavy loads and lay them on people’s shoulders, while they themselves don’t want to lift a finger to move them.
5 All the deeds they do are for human spectators. They wear wider phylacteries and thicker tassels. 6 They love the top seats at the dinner tables, and the leading chairs at the synagogues, 7 and being recognized at the markets, and having people call them, Rabbi.
8 You’re not to be called Rabbi. No individual among you is the Teacher; you’re all family. 9 No one of you on earth is to be called Father, for you have one heavenly Father. 10 None of you are to be called Instructors, since your instructor is the Anointed. 11 Among you, the one who serves you all is greater. 12 Whoever elevates themself on the social ladder will be brought down, and whoever comes down the social ladder will be elevated.”
Jesus’ authority is the regal power of God’s promise to David, the authority God gives his anointed. The Pharisees and Torah scholars claimed a different authority — the authority of the Law given through Moses. The king affirms the authority of the Law for Israel: they need to do it all (23:3).
What he does not affirm is that these guys represent the voice of God in how they apply the Law. Just watch the burdens they place on people! What they do looks more like Pharaoh’s taskmasters than the God Moses revealed, the God who lifts that oppression from his people (23:4).
What they want is human recognition. They dress for it (23:6). They take the top spots (23:7). They want the titles (23:7). That’s how the kingdoms of the world work: someone claims the title Caesar, and all the plebs play along.
That’s not how the kingdom of God works. Under God, there’s no autocrat telling everyone what do to (23:8). Rabbi was the title Pharisees wanted. Teacher was the top title at Qumran. But the kingdom of God is a family with one Father in heaven (23:9), and one anointed ruler giving instructions to the kingdom on earth (23:10).
Jesus subverts the whole pecking order. In a chicken pen, there’s the hen that everyone pecks. She’s on the bottom rung of the social ladder, and she gets only leftovers. The kingdom of God inverts that: she’s viewed as the most important, the one everybody is to care for (23:11).
With the usual power pyramid, the least important people are crushed at the bottom. Turn it upside down, and those people are supported at the top. That’s the kingdom Jesus wants. Jesus was swinging the social ladder 180º — going to the bottom for his people.
The Pharisees were role-playing a game where they stay on top by pushing everyone else down. And pushing Jesus out (23:31-32).
According to the king, they were going down. If people followed them, the whole city would go down with them. That’s what upset Jesus most (23:33 – 24:2).
Jesus couldn’t leave them in place, and leave his people under their power. God had promised the kingdom to his anointed, and his people needed to know he was turning the world back the right way up.
Open Matthew 23:1-12.