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Hypocritical leaders: Jesus attacks the Pharisees

August 25, 2015

Matthew 23: 23-26                            Tuesday 25 August 2015

Today I would like to try and explain the three gospel readings this week for yesterday, today and tomorrow, which are all taken from Chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel. Why pick on the Pharisees? I think it would be helpful to take a look at what these three groups represented, and how Jesus fitted in to the picture.

I was talking yesterday about the coming of the Messiah in the Old Testament; the Messiah, it was predicted, would perform three functions (or ‘offices’) in his earthly ministry: prophet, priest and king.

In Psalm 110 King David prophesied that the Messiah would be a priest:

‘You are a priest of the order of Melchizedek, and for ever.’ [1]

The Prophet Nathan told King David that the Messiah would be a king:

‘I will establish his throne forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be my Son.’ [2]

And in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses said that the Messiah would be a prophet:

‘a prophet like me from among your own people, and you are to obey him.’ [3]

It is from these sources that the Catholic Church today still teaches that Jesus ‘accomplished perfectly the divine mission….. Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope of Israel in his threefold office of priest, prophet, and king. [4]

And in today’s gospel, the writer Matthew is highlighting Jesus role as a PROPHET. Matthew does this by highlighting the phrase traditionally used by prophets to denounce poor leadership of the Jewish people. The prophets used the expression ‘woe’ to signal that they were speaking to the people who were in charge, the political leaders and rulers and their advisers – the ruling elites. Matthew lists seven “woes” against the scribes and Pharisees.

The rulers and Chief Priests lived at the top of the hill, on Mount Zion, looking down over the rest of the City of Jerusalem; and so it was, for example, that the Prophet Amos would warn the leaders of his day, saying,

‘Woe to those ensconced so snugly in Zion…..’ [5]

So in today’s gospel Jesus’ words place him in the role of a prophet criticizing the Jewish leaders

Who were these leaders? Well we know from the First Century Roman historian called Josephus that there were three main groups in the Jewish ruling classes in the period leading up to and during the life of Jesus. I think we would probably call them parties nowadays, but they were influential groups. These three groups, who held different opinions on how Jews should practice their faith in the world, were the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes. [6]

The Sadducees and the Essenes were two priestly classes who emerged as distinct group in the 200 years before Jesus, during the Maccabean revolt against the pagan Syrian kings leading to the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees were closely associated with Jewish aristocratic leaders, leaders who had fallen under the influence of Greek culture, and they were considered to be out of touch with ordinary Jews.

The Essenes formed as a group opposing some of the changes introduced into customs in the restored Temple (such as new methods of calculating the Jewish feast days). The Essenes were seen as being very pious and ascetic, devoting their lives to contemplating God through strict religious disciplines, living in communities rather like monks or nuns nowadays.

And then the third group of leaders, the Pharisees. Ah, the Pharisees. Don’t they get a bad press in the gospels! It sounds like Jesus can’t stand them. But this is why I am emphasizing the point that Jesus is addressing the LEADERS, not the ordinary, pious, God-fearing majority of Jews.

Now the Pharisees were not a priestly group, and they had a different approach to the Jewish religious laws from the other two groups. They were certainly strict in observing the laws…. but the Essenes were even stricter; and unlike the Sadducees they were more open to new interpretations, new theologies. For example, like Jesus, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body and in angels.

Historically there was very bad blood between these three factions of Jewish leaders. The High Priests in Jerusalem were associated with the Sadducees, and they did some pretty murderous and terrible things against the Essenes; in turn the Essenes denounced the Sadducees as wicked priests who broke the commandments. And the Pharisees openly encouraged violence against the Sadducees. This is the climate of political hatred and violence in which Jesus was living in the First Century. Think about the present-day murderous mayhem in Syria between different groups of Moslems, complex disagreement and grudges and historic hatred playing out in extreme violence, and you will realise why Jesus is never identified with any particular one of the three groups in His own times.

So why do the gospel writers seem to pick on the Pharisees all the time?

It is because they were the ruling party at the time of Jesus, and their ideas seemed to have the greatest influence on the thinking of ordinary Jews. And I stress, Our Lord is criticizing the LEADERS when He refers to the Pharisees: He is NOT condemning the ordinary, powerless man and woman in the street. Jesus was not part of the ruling system, he was preaching and teaching as a plain ordinary, observant working Jewish man.

Indeed, given this false idea that Jesus was really strongly anti-Pharisee, it’s ironic that Biblical scholars recognise that in His teaching Jesus has far more in common with the Pharisees than with the other two parties: unlike the Essenes, Jesus was not a priest and He much more realistic and practical in His interpretation of how to apply the Jewish religious laws; and Jesus certainly was not an aristocrat, nor would He wish to be associated with the High Priests of the Temple, like the Sadducees were.

In this gospel Jesus is denouncing the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders and pleading for justice and peace for the ordinary people. We know from our own times the horrors of terrorism and religious fanaticism, orchestrated by political thugs who hide behind the cloak of religion. We can recognise the hypocrisy of clever politicians with their honeyed words that encourage division and greed against those who are poor or who have suffered injustice. We know that Jesus experienced first hand what is still happening today in our world. He understands the issues. And that is why we must persevere in our prayers for peace and justice and be resolute in our trust in God, His promise that He will be with us through it all.

[1] Psalm 110: 4b

[2] 1 Chronicles 17:12-13

[3] Deuteronomy 18:15

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 436

[5] Amos 6: 1a

[6] See Brown, Raymond (1997) An Introduction to the New Testament pp. 75-83.

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