NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 12: “People who think they are better than others will be humbled. But people who humble themselves will be honored.”
Solomon says, “Wisdom teaches you to respect the Lord. You must be humbled before you can be honored”1 Also, “Pride is the first step toward destruction. Proud thoughts will lead you to defeat. It is better to be a humble person living among the poor than to share the wealth among the proud.”2 And he goes on to say, “Your pride can bring you down. Humility will bring you honor.”3
One of the proudest potentates in the Old Testament found this out, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, give praise, honor, and glory to the King of Heaven. Everything He does is right. He is always fair, and He is able to make proud people humble!”4 Unfortunately, many in the early church got away from this idea of humility. Down through church history, we can see this malady raise its head again and again.
Several early church fathers must have been disturbed by trends they saw in their day, and so they have some strong words to say about what it means to humble oneself. For instance, Chrysostom put this in his sermon on the subject: “For nothing is as crucial as the practice of modesty. This is why Jesus is continually reminding them of this virtue, both when He brought the children into the midst and now. Even when He was preaching on the mount, beginning the Beatitudes, this is where He began. And in this passage He plucks up pride by the roots, saying, ‘Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.’5”6
If there was ever anyone who could go around bragging about His position in the Godhead and His anointing as the Messiah, it was Jesus of Nazareth. But He followed the examples of Abraham and Moses and gave God all the glory. Then Chrysostom says: “See how He draws the hearer right over to the contrary thing. For not only does He forbid them to set their hearts upon the first place but also requires them to follow after the last. For so shall you obtain your desire, He says. So one who pursues his own desire to be first must follow and take up their position in last place.”7 This certainly goes back to where Jesus taught that when you enter a banquet hall, don’t take the highest seat of honor on the platform but the lowest, so that if you are moved it will be a promotion, not a demotion.8
Then, Chrysostom finishes making this point: “And where will we find this humility? Go to the city of virtue, to the tents of the holy men, to the mountains, to the groves. There you may see this height of humility. For these persons, some illustrious from their rank in the world, some having had wealth, in every way put themselves down, by their clothing, by their dwelling, by those to whom they minister. As if they were written characters, they throughout all things are writing the story of humility.”9 Just as Jesus went up to the mountain alone to pray, and did not live in luxury or wear expensive clothing, so it appears that many in the early church era, including the rich and famous, did the same.
And the Patriarch of the church in Alexandria, Egypt had this to say: “Since those who have arrived teaching new beliefs, for the most part, do so from conceit and arrogance, I will say something concerning the value of the teaching. The Lord cuts short this opinion and way as leading to destruction. He says, ‘You love glory and the places of first importance.’ Meanwhile, He desires the servant’s role and cultivates humility.”10 How different this is from when I heard that a certain well-known televangelist asked his congregation to prove their faith by footing the bill on a new jet airplane so he could get around to his appointments easier. He requested that his congregation of 200,000 plus chip in $300 dollars each to pay for a $65 million Gulfstream G650 jet. And just think, Jesus, the Son of God, walked everywhere He went.
One of the earliest church scholars, Origen, said this to his fellow ministers: “I wish everyone might hear this, and most of all deacons, priests, and bishops, especially those who think to themselves that these words were not really written: ‘He who exalts himself will be humbled.’ On this basis, they then act as if they do not know that Jesus said, ‘He who has humbled himself will be exalted.’ They do not hear Him who said, ‘Learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly of heart.’11 They thought themselves to be self-inspired and through this inspiration fell ‘into the judgment of the devil.’12 They had not thought of critically examining their false humility. They would have done better to have remembered the word of wisdom that says, ‘The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself, and you will find grace before God.’13 It was the Lord who provided the pattern for this process. No matter how great He was, He humbled Himself. For ‘though He was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.’14”15
Verses 13-14: “It will be bad for you teachers of the law and you Pharisees! You are hypocrites! You block the way for people to enter God’s kingdom. You yourselves don’t enter, so you stop those who are trying to get in.”
It must be first understood here that Jesus was not calling them hypocrites because they were teachers and Pharisees. Rather, He was more or less saying, if you call yourselves teachers and Pharisees, then you need to live up to your high calling. So, Jesus was not targeting the whole group but only those who were making a mockery out of their position in society. Jesus was not alone, we find that King Alexander Jannai gave his wife Salome this advice while laying on his death-bed: “Fear not the Pharisees and the non-Pharisees but the hypocrites who ape the Pharisees; because their deeds are the deeds of Zimri,16 but they expect a reward like Phineas.”17
According to Jewish historian, Josephus, Jannai also told his wife: “She should go in triumph, as upon a victory, to Jerusalem, and put some of her authority into the hands of the Pharisees; for that they would commend her for the honor she had done them, and would reconcile the nation to her for he told her they had great authority among the Jews, both to do hurt to such as they hated, and to bring advantages to those to whom they were friendly disposed; for that they are then believed best of all by the multitude when they speak any strong thing against others, though it is only out of envy at them.”18
So Jesus was singling out some Pharisees, perhaps like those the Rabbi’s described: “A foolish [overly] pious person, a crafty wicked person…the “struck” Pharisees [i.e., they strike themselves to show humility and abstinence] destroy the world.”19 In fact, both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds have disparaging things to say about them. The following hybrid description combining elements from both Talmuds mentions the different types of Pharisees.
There are seven kinds of Pharisees: (1) the “shoulder” Pharisee, who ostentatiously carries his good deeds on his shoulder so all can see them; (2) the “wait-a-moment” Pharisee, who wants you to wait while he performs a good deed; (3) the “bruised” Pharisee, who runs into a wall while looking at the ground to avoid seeing a woman; (4) the “reckoning” Pharisee, who commits a sin, then does a good deed and balances the one against the other; (5) the “pestle” Pharisee, whose head is bowed in false humility, like a pestle in a mortar; (6) the Pharisee who asks, “What is my duty, so that I may do it?” as if he thought he had fulfilled every obligation already; (7) the “Fear of the consequences” Pharisee, who is afraid if he doesn’t perform each commandment; and, the “Pharisee from love” – love for the rewards God promises for performing the commandments, or love of Torah itself.20
Now our Lord gives a four-fold warning to the scribes and Pharisees for their oft pernicious methods in holding sway over the people. Extracting this sermon from its place and setting does not in the least diminish its force and essence for today’s believer. Some claim that it was a one-time affair. Like a stick of dynamite, good for only one blast. But Jesus meant for it to have a lasting effect.
I believe that it is just as relevant today as it was back then. Who then are the scribes and Pharisees of today? For sure, they are not as easily identified as belonging to any certain group or sect within Christianity. But, they are among us nevertheless, in our Christian society’s, government, leadership, administration at large, as well as at the local level in almost every church. But as in this situation, so also in our day, one would have to say to them, “Woe is thee!” The first warning involves how they police the gate to the kingdom of God.
It would be one thing if they were trying to screen people wanting into the kingdom of God by making sure they had the right identification, but they were hindering people from trying to get in because they themselves didn’t think it was right to enter. But Jesus knew their efforts were not based on any altruistic desire to prevent people from being harmed or exploited. Rather, that they were afraid that if the people did get in, they would be free from their power and authority to live in grace and mercy instead of under the bondage of the law and verbal traditions. But our Lord is not finished, He has a second warning for them.
1 Proverbs 15:33
2 Ibid., 16:18-19
3 Ibid., 29:23
4 Daniel 4:37
5 Luke 14:11
6 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 72.3
8 Luke 14:10
9 Chrysostom, ibid.
10 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 255
11 Matthew 11:29
12 1 Timothy 3:6
13 Sirach 3:18
14 Philippians 2:6-9
15 Origen, Commentary on Matthew 12
16 Numbers 25:14
17 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nashim, Masekhet Sotah, folio 22b
18 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13, Ch. 15:5
19 Mishnah, op. cit. Third Division: Nashim, Tractate Sotah, Ch. 3:4
20 Jewish New Testament Commentary by David H. Stern, 1992, Kindle Edition, Loc. 2391