Click here for a print-friendly version
Jesus Criticizes Unjust Leaders
Summer Quarter: Justice in the New Testament
Unit 2: Jesus Call for Justice and Mercy
Sunday School lesson for the week of July 8, 2018
By Rev. Earnestine W. Campbell
: To respond to Christ’s call us to repent of hypocrisy in our lives.
Matthew 23:1-8, 23-26 (CEB)
Background: Matthew 23
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples, “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do. For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’ “But you shouldn’t be called Rabbi, because you have one teacher, and all of you are brothers and sisters…”
“How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters. You blind guides! You filter out an ant but swallow a camel. “How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of violence and pleasure seeking. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup so that the outside of the cup will be clean too.”
“The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do.” (Matthew 23:2-3)
The Text in Context
The Adult Bible Studies Summer 2018 Series
’ writer begins this week’s lesson in Matthew 23 and details Jesus’ interactions with the chief priests and Pharisees about the questions they raised in Matthew 22. Jesus’ words are powerful as he teaches and responds to those questioning. The author expresses that the text about the invitation to the wedding party or banquet is a portrayal of an invitation to God’s kingdom and likens it to an invitation by a king to his son’s wedding where many are invited but many excuses are given. However, later in the text, the invitation is extended to all. Similarly, to the first invitation, some responded, and some did not. In this regard, the writer suggests that Matthew 21:45 applies to the entirety of Matthew 22 and 23: “Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they know Jesus was talking about them.”
As we have examined in other lessons in the Gospels, we see an encounter with Jesus and the religious leaders that aims to trap him with religious laws and issues. However, Jesus always triumphs in these confrontations and debates. Nevertheless, the writer points to the meeting of the Pharisees to plan their trap for him (Matthew 22:15). They ask him: “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (verse 17). Jesus’ response to their question is considered to be contrary to what they thought it would be: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (verse 22).
In another encounter, the writer examines the confrontation between Jesus and the Sadducees in their convoluted scenario to trap him concerning the Resurrection. The Sadducees used “Levirate law” that said when a man died without a male descendant, his brother was to marry the deceased brother’s wife and raise the dead brother’s heir for him. Here is their question to Jesus: “At the resurrection, which of the seven brothers will be her husband? They were all married to her” (Matthew 22:23-28). Jesus, ever astute in his response, astounded them with his answer (verses 29-31). However, they continued to use other questions to try to trap him throughout Matthew 22, but he always shockingly countered them, and they failed miserably at their attempts of entrapment.
It is apparent that Jesus was engaged continuously by the deceptive questions from the legal experts and authorities (the chief priests, scribes, Sadducees, lawyers, and Pharisees). However, he always confounded them as he responded to their questions. The writer conveys that his responses were structured in these ways: 1) He took the “offensive” in that he talked about their practices; 2) Jesus did not condemn the “content” of the teaching of the religious authorities; 3) Instead, he denounced their “practice of the Law they taught.” In other words, their actions were not consistent with their haughty words. Also, the author makes the distinction that Jesus acknowledged their foundation as experts when he stated that they “sit on Moses’ seat” (verse 2). Furthermore, these religious authorities and experts were revered by the Jewish people (many uneducated) as the “scholars of the law of Moses,” and therefore relied upon them as the authority for various matters. Because of the legal experts and Pharisees’ influence as scholars of the Mosaic Law, the writer communicates this is why Jesus warns the people: “Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. However, don’t do what they do.” (verse 3).
Moreso, the writer expresses that Jesus’ statement to the disciples and the crowds not to do as those religious authorities do as they pile undue legal burdens upon the commoners as “heavy packs,” and do nothing to lift them. I believe that today many laws are unjust and those in authority have the power to lift those laws and should do so according to Jesus’ teachings. Also, these religious authorities demanded from the regular citizens that they live by the letter of the Law, as well as compounding Laws that they did not practice. The author uses a familiar catchphrase attributed to persons that are hypocrites: “Do as I say and not as I do.” As Christians, are we guilty of this hypocritical practice at times?
What are some issues in today’s society where persons of authority impose higher and stricter adherence of laws and even pile on to those laws as “heavy packs” to those that are marginalized and regular citizens of society? What can be done to challenge and change these unjust practices and hypocrisy?
However, Jesus does not end with the mandate to not follow their examples, but he went further and exposed them as grandstanders that seek public attention. He also provides a brief litany of things they did to be noticed by others such as, “They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes. They love to sit in places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues. They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’” The writer provides context for these things they showcased, explaining that the prayer bands are also called “phylacteries,” which are small leather boxes containing Hebrew texts worn as a reminder to observe the law of Moses. Jesus’ point is that they did not wear these items for ritual reasons but for the people to admire them. The author says that “hypocrisy is always in season, and this is why Jesus’ chief critique of these religious authorities…their actions did not correspond to their high-sounding words and the appearance they gave to others.” I believe we need to examine ourselves frequently to ensure that we are not exercising practices for appearance’s sake and admiration but for the “kingdom of heaven” works.
: Where is and in what ways have the “high-sounding words” of the rhetoric of those in authority today polluted Biblical teachings, moralism, and the ethical fabric of society?
Jesus continues in his criticism of the religious leaders and their hypocrisy in giving. However, he did not mean that they were wrong to give their tenth and was teaching that what they said was right about the Law, but what they did was “deplorable.” Yes, they tithed with their herbs, “mint, dill, and cumin,” making them of importance, but were negligent in what was most important to Jesus, ‘justice, peace and faith,’” as they were the ideal intent of the law of Moses. Furthermore, the writer expresses that those are the vital elements that make our relationship with God and others “exceptional.” In the text, Jesus draws out another point about the legal experts and Pharisees about their blindness in matters of importance so much that they focused on a small ant but could not see a large camel. The author explains that a camel was considered unceremoniously clean and weighed about 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, which compounds the point that those in authority were blind to the real matters. Jesus also makes another observation, again, pointing out their blinders about the intent of the ritual cleaning of cups and plates for ritual meals. He makes the argument that they are focused on the wrong things and what matters most is the inside of the person and not acts of the external ritual practices. The writer conveys that when Jesus uses these “domestic and ritual duties that he was in fact alluding to the people’s lives.” Expounding on that fact, we are only as clean on the outside as the inside and that the cleaning must begin within for outward change to occur.
As we conclude, the author reminds us that Jesus first acknowledged the legal experts and the Pharisees because they sat “on Moses’ seat” (verse 1), a place of authority. Acknowledging that they knew the law and said all the right things according to the law, but the principal focus is that they did not do what was right and just in their actions according to Jesus. In reflection, do our actions align with the intent of the Law and what Jesus requires of us as we live and commune with him and one another? Also, to this point, Jesus was intentional in shedding light on those malpractices by the religious authorities to the point that it cost him his life. How much are we willing to sacrifice and expose practices that are unjust and inhumane, our reputations, our circles, and finances, or being ostracized? Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
Father, thank you for the intent of your Laws according to Jesus and the desire for us to live a just and righteous life, aiming for the same for all of humanity. Continue to expose us when we err in our ways that we may examine ourselves and correct our actions for us to live in harmony with you and all of your people. Amen.
Rev. Earnestine W. Campbell serves as the Associate Director for Connectional Ministries. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The “Adult Bible Studies, Series Summer 2018, Justice in the New Testament” is used for the content of this lesson.