Jack Miles on reading Matthew 23 carefully
From Jack Miles’s foreword to Daniel Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ:
Now to the personal example. On October 30, 2011, I heard the following Gospel passage read in my church (Church of the Messiah, Santa Ana, California):
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. Mathew 23:1-12; New Revised Standard Version)
Jesus was surely one of the greatest polemicists of all time. It is thanks to him that the very word “Pharisee” has as its second definition in Webster’s College Dictionary “a sanctimonious, self-righteous, or hypocritical person.” And it’s clear isn’t it, in this passage from the Gospel of Matthew that the sanctimonious, self-righteous, hypocritical persons whom Jesus has in his crosshairs do call one another “rabbi.” But all texts, including scripture, are read through the filter of what one “already knows.” […]
Most Christian interpreters slide with equal ease past Jesus’ injunction: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’s seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it.” I myself have read and heard this passage for years but only on October 30, 2011, thinking about my draft of this foreword, did I really lock on to do whatever they teach you and follow it. Post-Boyarin, I can only read this passage as a defense of un-sanctimonious, un-self-righteousness, un-hypocritical adherence to the Law of Moses against sanctimonious, self-righteous, hypocritical exploitation of it.