NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 1a: Then Jesus spoke to the people and to His followers.
After the Pharisees and other opponents walked away, Jesus turns to His disciples and those standing around who were following Him, and shares with them His thoughts on their view concerning how we are guided by God’s word. Since many of them felt they could not talk directly to God, it was necessary then for inspired and anointed human beings to converse with them and show them the light on living. But in this case, was the Light of the World and the Living Word Himself speaking to them in person.
Verses 1b-2: He said, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees now sit in the seat Moses once occupied.”
One Jewish scholar points out that in the Hebrew version the two words here should be translated as scribes and teachers of the law since they were the two groups who were authorized to sit on Moses’ seat rather than the Pharisees.1 While this is literally true, Jesus was including the Pharisees because they had symbolically and wrongly assumed a position to teach the Law, defining what were the right and wrong interpretations of that Law relating to personal conduct.
One layman in the early church gives his teaching on this subject. He writes: “The Lord had just humbled the disbelieving priests who were attacking Him like wild beasts. With the accuracy of a spear tip, He gives them a very sharp answer, showing them their own condition beyond repair. Mistaken laity may be more easily set straight, but clergy, if they are evil, are almost impossible to set straight. After this, He then turned His conversation to the apostles and to the people, saying, ‘The Pharisees and scribes sit on the throne of Moses.’ [In other words, these Pharisees and scribes have taken Moses place.] Their confusion then becomes what they end up teaching.”2
In terms of the scribes, even the Jews admit Jesus’ condemnation of them is well founded. We see this exposed by Jeremiah: “How can you say, ‘We are wise; ADONAI’S Torah is with us,’ when in fact the lying pen of the scribes has turned it into falsehood?”3 Yet, their failures are to be expected. According to Rabbi Nathan, “Because of his sin, it is not granted to man to know what likeness is on high; and were it not for that, the keys would have been handed over to him and he might have known what heaven and earth were created with.” He goes on to quote Rabbi Akiba who said: “Everything is foreseen and everything is revealed, yet everything happens according to man’s will’.”4 To put this in perspective, what God arranged for mankind in the Garden of Eden was well-conceived in man’s favor, but it was mankind’s will that got in the way of it turning out as God intended.
This is another way of saying, that even though God gave His Word and Commandments, it’s how man interprets that will become the rule of law. In fact, there were some Jewish teachers that rose to the level where their words were respected above all others. We find in the Jewish Talmud where one Rabbi was so impressed and awed by the words of wisdom of his Master that he exclaimed: “This is the very ‘Work of the Chariot.’5 Thereupon Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai rose and kissed him on his forehead and said: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, Who has given a son to Abraham our father, who knows how to hypothesize and investigate, and to expound the ‘Work of the Chariot’ — There are some who preach well but do not act well, others act well but do not preach well, but you do preach well and act well. Happy are you, O Abraham our father, that Rabbi Eleazar ben ‘Arak has come out from your loins.”6
So I’m sure there were some in the crowd who understood that Jesus was pointing to the bad apples in the barrel, not using a broad brush to incriminate every scribe, teacher of the law, and Pharisee. Also, scholars believe that Jesus’ reference to the seat of Moses comes from what we find in Nehemiah: “Ezra stood on a high wooden stage. It had been built just for this special time… So Ezra opened the scroll. All the people could see him because he was standing above them on the high stage. As he opened the Book of the Law, all the people stood up.”7 Also, we find this passage in a Jewish commentary: “They made for him [Moses] a throne like that of the advocates, in which one sits and yet seems to be standing.”8
And Rabbi Aha, commenting on a description of King Solomon’s large throne with ivory decorations and covered with pure gold, said: “There were six steps leading up to the throne. The back of the throne was round at the top. There were armrests on both sides of the throne, and there were lions in the sides of the throne under the armrests. There were also two lions on each of the six steps, one at each end. There was nothing like it in any other kingdom.”9 Then, Rabbi Aha said: “The throne resembled the seat of Moses.”10 In the footnotes, it goes on to explain: “The particular place in the synagogue where the elders used to sit was known metaphorically as the seat of Moses or as the throne of Torah, symbolizing the succession of teachers of Torah down through the ages.”11
From this, we can deduce that when Jesus spoke of the seat of Moses He was both referring to the seat in the synagogue as well as the claim that all of their teachings were derived Moses, and passed on to them generation after generation. But I believe, Jesus had a more subtle suggestion. What the scribes and Pharisees were teaching was not the Written Law but their commentary known as the Verbal Law. In other words, the Word of God as they interpreted it. As Christian believers, we too must be careful not to mistake the verbal Gospel of some preachers to be the genuine interpretation of the Written Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Early church scholar Origen points out the following, that may even apply to the church today. He says: “Those who profess that they interpret the law of Moses and glory in this, or who know the law well and seek to profit by this knowledge—these sit upon the throne of Moses. Those who do not depart from the letter of the law are called scribes. Then there are those who profess to know, even more, setting themselves apart because they think they are better than the masses.”12 Origen goes on to explain, that the word Pharisee comes from the Hebrew which means to divide or segregate. This can be seen in two ways. First, those who divide by interpretations that differ from the status quo, and those who segregate by calling out those who want to live by the word. But Jesus has another distinction that He wants His followers to see, and that is the division that the Pharisees and scribes make between what is stated and what is seen.
Verse 3: “So you should obey them. Do everything they tell you to do. But the way they live are not good examples for you to follow. They tell you to do things, but they don’t do those things themselves.”
Jesus has complimentary words for the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes, but He gives them a failing grade on practicing what they preach. The lay teacher we mentioned earlier provides his commentary on this subject as it effects the church: “If they speak well, it is to their credit. If they teach well, it is to yours. Accept therefore what is yours and do not discuss what is another’s. For just as our priests teach the unfaithful on account of the faithful, judging better to encourage the evil on account of the good rather than to neglect the good on account of the evil, so also, therefore, you must honor good priests and bad, lest you condemn the good on account of the bad. For it is better to preserve the just with the evil than to subvert the just for the good. For frequently you will treat the bad man with good faith. Remember that wretched land may produce precious gold. Is the gold despised on account of the wretched land? No! But just as gold is taken and the earth is left behind, so also you must accept their teaching and leave behind their customs.”13
All down through church history, beginning in the age of the apostles and leading up to the present time there have been those entrusted with teaching the Word of God and the creeds of the church who have not been sincere and honest enough to be an example as well as an exhorter. Such conduct takes all the shine off of their message. It thus comes across as dull and lacking in clarity. While people are willing to accept such a teacher, leader, or preacher who is repentant and transforms their ways, they are not as likely to tolerate those who insist that they have a right to be this way no matter what anyone says.
The anonymous early church writer goes on to say: “For you are sitting in the church not only as listeners but also as judges of the priests. You may be learning strange things that would be considered inappropriate. You are judging the priests in comparison with yourselves. You should listen to everything they say, but do not do everything which you hear. Yes, all priests teach, but they do not all practice what they teach. For among men, there is a ranking that is quite diverse. But in nature everything is equal. For from the beginning, men were created in this same way. Only afterward are they ranked for your sake. Therefore, on account of this, their nature belongs to them in and of itself, but their ranking is for your benefit.”14 In other words, people are often willing to follow a wounded leader, just as long as he is leading them on the right path. But few will support those healthy leaders who make their followers take the hard and punishing path while they pursue the easy way to the goal.
1 The Charge of Hypocrisy in Matthew 23 and in Jewish Sources, by Moshe Weinfeld, Immanuel 24/25, 1990, p. 53
2 Incomplete Work on Matthew: Homily 43
3 Nehemiah 8:8
4 The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, op. cit., Ch. 39, p. 161
5 The term “Work of the Chariot” is a reference to the startling vision that opens the book of Ezekiel. The idea of the students of the chariot was to re-create Ezekiel’s experience and ascend in the chariot to explore the heavens or the chambers of which Heaven was supposed to consist.
6 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Chagigah, folio 14b
7 Ibid., 8:4-5
8 Exodus Rabbah 43: 4
9 I Kings 10:18-20
10 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, Piska 1:7, p.22
11 Ibid., Footnote (59)
12 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 9
13 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 43