As a frequent participant in interfaith dialogues, I dread dealing with the things Matthew's Jesus says about Jews in chapter 23. But as a Roman Catholic priest deeply involved in the reform movement of my Church, I highly value those same remarks.
Through the centuries, Jesus' pointed, sarcastic denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees of His day and age has been used as a "proof text" to defend Christian anti-Semitism (Mt 23: 1-12). Yet, Scripture scholars today contend that Jesus' biting words were actually intended by Matthew to be a condemnation of abuses within Christianity itself.
As I mentioned in last week's commentary, modern biblical exegetes always try to find the situation in the life of the original scriptural community which prompted the sacred author to include a particular story, saying or theology in his work.
The writings included in our biblical library weren't composed in a vacuum. Something was going on long before the authors actually sat down to write, which motivate them to compose their works and almost never was the "something" a simple desire to preserve history.
Even a surface reading of the Bible shows that the authors of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures frequently feel forced to deal with leadership issues. Sometimes, as we hear in the first reading (Mal 1: 14-2:2, 8-10), they're very blunt; other times, as in the second reading and Gospel, the topic is more veiled.
About 500 years before Jesus' birth, Malachi, speaking in Yahweh's name, informs the priests at the Jerusalem temple, "I will send a curse upon you, and of your blessing I will make a curse." The reason for God's drastic actions is clear: "You have turned aside from the way and have caused many to falter by your instruction....You do not keep my ways."
Pauline scholars often discuss the bad image which many "religious" leaders conveyed during Paul's ministry. That's why he frequently emphasizes his unique leadership style. In the second reading (I Thes 2: 7-9, 13), he states, "You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the Gospel of God." Obviously, there must have been some who were "in the business" only for the money and prestige it offered.
Almost 30 years later, Matthew is still dealing with the same problem. Following the practice of some misguided "scribes and Pharisees," there are those in his Jewish/Christian community who exercise authority in an unchristian way.
The evangelist emphatically reminds his readers that Jesus never intended His followers to divide themselves into "clergy and laity," into "upstairs and downstairs." There are to be no such distinctions among His disciples. No one group is to "tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders." That which one preaches, one is also to practice.
Matthew points out the signs of this emerging Christian caste system. Leaders are beginning to wear distinctive clothes: "They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels." They expect special treatment: "places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces." They've even started to demand titles: "rabbi, teacher, father, master,"
According to the evangelist, any religious stratification runs counter to Jesus' faith. "The greatest among you," He reminds His community, "must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
Scripture takes on a whole different meaning when we recreate the historical situation of its writers. And that meaning almost always has something to say to and about our historical situation, whether we like it or not.