NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 4: “They make strict rules that are hard for people to obey. They try to force others to obey all their rules. But they themselves will not try to follow any of those rules.”
The biggest problem with this, as we can see, is that these self-proclaimed experts of the Law did not practice what they preached. What they were doing was similar to what the psalmist Asaph puts in his song, “God says to the wicked, ‘Stop quoting my laws! Stop talking about my covenant! You hate for Me to tell you what to do. You ignore what I say. You see a thief and run to join him. You jump into bed with those who commit adultery. You say evil things and tell lies. You sit around talking about people, finding fault with your own brothers.”1
While Jesus had few problems with many of the righteous dictates the Pharisees taught, what bothered Him the most was their hypocrisy. Someone once suggested, that for pastors to really know what their members were like just put a camera with a microphone in their car and listen to them as they drive to church and then when they drive home after the service. Who would want to pass that test?
Origen speaks about the conditions in the early church of the 2nd century this way: “Just as the scribes and Pharisees wickedly sat upon the throne of Moses, so do some in the church who sit upon the ecclesiastical throne. There are some in the church who have the right understanding of the law and pass it on correctly. They say what each person needs to do, but they themselves do not do it. Some of them lay heavy burdens upon the shoulders of men, but they won’t even lift a finger to help. These are the ones the Savior is talking about when He says, ‘Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of God.’2 There are others, however, who sit on the throne, who act before they speak and speak wisely, restraining those who are disorderly. They place merciful burdens on the shoulders of others. They themselves are the first to lift the heavy burden, for the exhortation of other listeners. It is these of whom the Lord speaks when He says, ‘He who does so and teaches others to do so, this man will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.’3”4
So, by the 4th century, Chrysostom has this to say about the double standard of some leaders in the church: “Jesus mentions here a twofold wickedness. First, they require great and extreme strictness of life, without any leniency, from those over whom they rule. Yet they are much less stringent with themselves. This is opposite from what the truly good pastor ought to practice. He ought to be a rigorous and severe judge in things that concern himself. But in the matters of those whom he rules, he ought to be gentle and ready to make allowances. What these men do is just the opposite. For such are all they who practice self-restraint in mere words while being unforgiving and grievous to bear when they have had no experience of the difficulty in actions. This is no small fault. In no small way does Jesus increase the former charge.”5
Then, by the 6th century in the early church, we read this commentary: “Priests who now order justice among their people but who themselves do not serve even moderately are surely not being fair in doing so, although they may appear to be fair-minded teachers. Such are they who impose heavy burdens on those coming to repentance, they who preach but do not practice; and so, while the punishment of sin is placed on those present, the punishment of future sin is despised.”6
Verse 5 : “The only reason they do what they do is for other people to see them. They make the little leather boxes they wear on their heads bigger and bigger. And they make the tassels on their prayer clothes long enough for people to notice them.”
These small leather boxes are called Tefillin or Phylacteries. They contain verses from the Torah. They are worn on the head and on one arm and are held in place by leather straps. This fulfills what they read in Deuteronomy: “These words, which I am ordering you today, are to be on your heart; and you are to teach them carefully to your children. You are to talk about them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband around your forehead, and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates.”7
According to one Jewish scholar, this was done so the person would not be content with reminding themselves and their children verbally of the meaning of Torah and loving God, but for them to perform good deeds which symbolize their deep attachment to God.”8 Some of the standard texts carried in these Phylacteries were Deuteronomy 6:4-8; 11:13-21. By saying that the Pharisees were making bigger and bigger Phylacteries, Jesus was suggesting that they not only wanted them more easily noticed but that they were putting more and more scriptures inside to show their supposed respect for God’s Word.
According to Jewish resources, the Biblical support for the custom of inscribing these four selections in the phylacteries are explained in the Talmud: “Our Rabbis taught: What is the order of the four Scriptural portions in the head-tefillah? ‘Sanctify to Me’9 and ‘And it shall be when the Lord shall bring thee’10 are on the right, while ‘Hear,’11 ‘And it shall come to pass if ye shall hearken diligently,’12 are on the left.”13 Also, we find in another tractate, “Has it not been taught: frontlets occurs thrice in the Torah, twice completely14 and once incompletely,15 four in all, to indicate [that four sections are to be inserted in the phylacteries].”16 The Jewish scholar Rashi in his commentary makes this note, “…and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes: These are the tefillin of the head, and because of the number of the Scriptural sections contained in them namely four, they are called – totafoth.”17
Jewish men wearing phylacteries during prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. According to rabbinic regulations, one of the phylacteries is worn on the left arm facing the heart and the other on the forehead at the morning service (except on the Sabbath and festivals) and at the afternoon service on the Ninth of Av.
Jerome gives us his understanding of this practice: “They called those phylacteries ‘little pictures’ of the Ten Commandments, because whoever had them had his own fortification and defense. But the knowledgeable Pharisees did not have them because these things must be carried in the heart, not on the body. They may have children and treasure boxes and storehouses, but they do not have knowledge of God. Even today there are those superstitious ladies who have their ‘little Gospels.’ In the absence of the true cross and other such things, they indeed have the zeal of God but no true knowledge of Him. Even today, they too do these same kinds of things in front of us by liquefying gnats for drinking and gulping down honey. This is what some see as the small, short fringe mandated by the law. But a better case is the woman with the bloody flow who touched the fringe of the Lord’s garment. She was not motivated by the superstitious sentiments of the Pharisees. And what is more, she was healed at His touch. And so when they widened their phylacteries and lengthened their fringes, attracting the honor of the people, they were exposed in their hypocrisies, showing why they seek the first seats at dinners and the front chairs in synagogues. They point out gluttony and glory in public and are hailed by men as rabbi, which in colloquial Latin means ‘teacher.’”18
Solomon thought this was important enough to share this, “Don’t ever let love and loyalty leave you. Tie them around your neck, and write them on your heart. Then God will be pleased and think well of you and so will everyone else.”19 Also, the tassels that Jesus spoke of are required: “Speak to the Israelites. Tell them this: Tie several pieces of thread together and tie them in the corner of your clothes. Put a piece of blue thread in each one of these tassels. You must wear these things now and forever. You will be able to look at these tassels and remember all the commands that the LORD has given you. Then you will obey the commands. You will not do wrong by forgetting about the commands and doing the things that your own bodies and eyes want.”20
Rabbi Abraham Saba adds: One of the four threads of the fringes was to be of the color of the sky to remind the Jew that there is a God above him, one who watches over him and who has given us the various commandments for our well being on this earth.”21 In other words, these were reminders, they were never intended to be worn as decorations of righteousness.
We might equate this today to Christians wearing of crosses around their necks or pins of their clothing. Also, the hanging of Christian icons from the rear-view mirror of their car, or the images of Jesus, Mary and the saints as objects on the walls and shelves in their homes. Just like the Jews phylacteries on their arms and foreheads, these were meant as a reminder of God’s instructions. Instead, they have become objects of veneration and prayer.
1 Psalm 50:16-20
2 Matthew 5:19a
3 Matthew 5:19b
4 Origen, Commentary on Matthew 9
5 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 72.2
6 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 43
7 Deuteronomy 6:6-9
8 Tzror Hamor, op. cit., loc. cit., Vaetchanan, Ch. 6.5-7, pp. 1838-1839
9 See Exodus 13:1-10
10 Ibid. 11-16
11 Deuteronomy 6:4-9
12 Ibid. 11:13-21
13 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Kodashim, Masekhet Menahoth, folio 34b, (cf. ibid., Masekhet Zebahim 37b)
14 Deuteronomy 6:8-9; 11:18
15 Exodus 13:16
16 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin 4b
17 The Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary, Devarim – Deuteronomy, 6:8
18 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 4, 23.5-7
19 Proverbs 3:3, cf. 6:21
20 Numbers 15:38-39, (cf. Deuteronomy 22:12)
21 Tzror Hamor, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 1627