Matthew 23

This is a presentation given by Kairos Co-Director Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis at the Moral Political Organizing Leadership Institute and Summit in Whitakers, NC, organized by Repairers of the Breach, October 29th-30th, 2015.
You can read the full text of Matthew 23, the textual basis for this presentation, here.

I want to thank Repairers of the Breach, Roz Pelles, Charmeine Fletcher, Rev. Dr. William Barber, and all the leaders who are gathered here and others who are leading the Forward Together Moral Movement in this state and country. Your moral and prophetic leadership are not only a model of what’s needed today in our suffering nation and world but an inspiration of what could be if we really take our sacred texts and religious traditions seriously.
I was very excited to come to this historic Franklinton Center at Bricks as well. When I walked in I saw the name and photo of one of my main moral/religious mentors in the movement; Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk (for whom this Fellowship Hall was named) was the first African-American woman pastor in the UCC. I met her when I was involved in the National Union of the Homeless in the early 1990s where she encouraged and inspired thousands of homeless people to organize in 25 cities across this country, moving families into abandoned federally owned homes in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience and survival. At one of our National Survival Summit weekly meetings she once said: “Poor people are not sinners but poverty is a sin against God that could and should be ended.” I think Yvonne Delk would be very happy that this gathering is taking place here. We are surely standing on her shoulders.
I have to say, however, that I was humbled and a little overwhelmed when I got the assignment to share some words on Matthew 23 on this morning’s panel. It seems appropriate that this text – one of the strongest biblical critiques of religious and moral (mis)leadership – be addressed in this gathering. But I wasn’t sure that I was up to the task.
This critique of the Pharisees has been interpreted in very violent, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic ways. I have heard reference to this passage to argue for the backwardness of the Jewish people, the superiority of Protestants, even justify human atrocities such as the Holocaust. Many of the anti-Jewish sentiments expressed in our society still today make reference to the woes against the hypocrites from this chapter of Matthew and its connection to the crucifixion of Jesus a couple of chapters later.
But I want to suggest that Matthew 23 and the woes to the scribes and Pharisees are not being leveled against the whole people of Israel. Indeed Jesus and his followers are Jewish, they remain Jewish throughout the Bible. They are part of the body of the Israelite people themselves. And Matthew’s Jesus is a prophet sent to Israel not as an opponent of Israel.
These warnings are for those in religious leadership and emphasize their (and in many cases our) misplaced priorities, exclusion, hypocrisy, emphasis on form not content (where the content is justice, righteousness, the integrity of creation). They are a critique of how the religious leadership of his day were complicit in the further impoverishment and oppression of the people. And they have a strong critique of religious and political hypocrisy that applies to our day as well.
As folks in this room already know, throughout the Gospel of Matthew Jesus has a large-scale economic and social critique. I want to talk through the passage in Matthew 23 to lay out Jesus’ critique of hypocrites in some detail in the next 15 minutes or so. It is a powerful and very strong critique. It is consistent with the main themes of the Gospel of Matthew – a critique of wealth and poverty; a critique of the status quo and especially the complicity of leaders with the poverty and oppression of the Empire; and the necessity for all, but especially moral and religious leaders, to mix and meld their words and their actions. Jesus is concerned with doing justice, not with giving action-less lip service to it, or blatantly doing acts of injustice (as seen in Matt 21:28-32, 25:31-46) and he calls his followers to do the same.
Jesus starts off Matthew 23 with a warning about the authority and power of his contemporary political and religious leaders. He reminds his followers that they should follow the instructions of the authorities because they sit on Moses’ seat. Now this reference to Moses’ seat most likely is on a few different levels. In ancient near eastern temples, the place where those with authority sat was called “Moses’ seat.” So Jesus is telling his followers what to do to not get into unneeded trouble with the law and authorities. As he will talk about later, those in power have the authority to lock up and even kill. Since Jesus is a social and spiritual leader – a movement leader, as Ched Myers discussed in his presentation earlier – he is instructing his followers how to handle clashes with the authorities. He’s playing the role that someone like Attorney Al McSurely plays at the protests here. We should listen to the cops at this moment in order to be able to continue to demonstrate and get our message heard.
But Jesus is not just telling his followers to be strategic in how they make their witness for justice. Jesus is calling out the leaders who regularly sit on Moses’ seat by saying that they administrate injustice and violence. He’s also telling his followers to not do what they do. He’s telling his followers that they should not administer laws that punish the poor nor follow orders to exclude and discriminate and divide the people. Jesus’ mention of Moses is also probably a reminder of the Exodus from slavery in Egypt: Moses, the liberator, the leader of the Exodus, and a teacher who brought God’s commandment of justice to the people. Jesus is reminding people to follow in the footsteps of the liberator Moses and not those in authority who sit in the “Moses seat.”
Matthew 23 associates Father with God alone. It’s important to say a little about the structure of the Roman Empire here. The Emperor Caesar was called the Father of the Fatherland, he was called the Savior of the World, he was called the Lord of Lords, the Son of God and considered God himself. Therefore insisting that there is only one father and that that’s the God Father in Heaven is a polemic with Caesar who is making people slaves and dispossessing people from their land and livelihoods.
Matthew forbids hierarchical titles and insists on the brotherhood and sisterhood of all those following Jesus. Now this is not because Matthew is about anarchy or against leadership and structure per se but because he is responding to the hierarchy and brutality of the authorities – the Roman and Jewish collaborators with Empire. He’s saying there needs to be equality in the movement. That the leadership of all those taking up the gospel is important. And that the leadership and authority of Caesar and other authorities is immoral and unjust.
This teaching to only call God and not the worldly authorities Father is also about humility and integrity of moral and religious leadership. Matthew 23:5-13 reminds Jesus’ followers that those in religious and moral authority in his day closed the door to the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. Rather than upholding the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus teaches us in Matthew 5 that the Kingdom of Heaven/God belongs to the poor and oppressed, some religious authorities are only holding up themselves, keeping out the poor and marginalized from God’s kingdom, and supporting the status quo that takes lives and is terrorizes communities.
This sounds familiar to our day as well. In my experience too often it is our religious leadership who bring a message of inferiority and blame to the poor and oppressed of our society. Poor people are called sinners, lazy, and to blame for their situation. The rich and powerful are considered blessed.
Struggles for justice with some of these religious leaders in the lead ignore the deep faith, commitment, and difficult situations of the poor and oppressed. Sometimes these justice struggles become solely focused on the religious leaders involved and not the issues of low wages, the lack of health care, the policies that are hurting and discriminating against people.
Jesus continues in Matthew 23 to raise some specific critiques of these religious and political authorities. He says that his followers should talk the talk and walk the walk, unlike the religious leaders and authorities of their day. He says that instead of standing for justice and inclusion, the opponents of the poor, the opponents of the Jesus movement, are tying up heavy burdens, worshipping gold and power and wealth, and crossing land and sea to convert one person to the faith but excluding many others. If we explore these critiques in their literary and contemporary context, we see that they are economic and political critiques of power, corruption, and exploitation/exclusion of the poor by the rich and powerful.
This reminds me of an example from where I live, in New York City. Perhaps people here have heard of the statue of the Wall Street bull that’s right near Wall Street between all the buildings and centers of finance and trade? People go rub the genitals of this bull on Wall Street; they take pictures of this. You can even buy little statues of the bull all across New York City in little tourist shops and booths. These people – some of them in desperate financial situations, others because they desire more riches, are de facto praying to the corporations and business leaders, perhaps “worshipping Mammon” for individual prosperity rather than praying to the God of the poor, the God of justice, for community prosperity.
We too worship gold rather than our Creator God, the source of all of our resources, including gold. The Wall Street bull reminds me of both the story of the Golden Calf, where God’s people worship the very thing that was responsible for their slavery and oppression, but also the reference in Matthew 23 to holding gold and our religious temples sacred rather than what has made gold or those religious sites sacred and valuable in the first place. As a person who goes to my church says, “you can’t eat gold.” Why then do we worship it and try to get so much of it?
The passage on crossing land and sea in Matthew 23 is a biblical reference to Haggai 2:6 and 1 Maccabees 8:23 & 32, but also to the Roman Empire that controls (not just crosses) land and sea to ensure the empire’s growth and stability on the backs of the poor nations. Biblical scholars assert that a reference to the conversion of King Izates from Josephus Ant 20:34-38 is being made in Matthew 23.
This emphasis on converting important leaders – kings and merchants – to a particular religion and not being welcoming of all those poor and oppressed in our midst should also be familiar. So many of our churches get very excited about having famous and wealthy people in them. And so many extremists in our society today claim to be “religious” but get away with denying Medicaid expansion, criminalizing immigrants and the poor, causing low wages and poor living conditions in our communities. Many religious leaders today will not challenge congregants who are mistreating their workers or amassing great wealth at the expense of others. And in some poor communities, at least in the Northeast where I live, churches are closing down in poor communities but flourishing in rich neighborhoods where folks are building churches of the wealthy and prosperous, claiming that God is blessing these people with prosperity but damning others to the hell of poverty because of their “sins.”
Tithing is also critiqued in Matthew 23. Matthew 23: 23 says that giving a tenth of mint, dill, cumin are the lighter provisions of the law. Jesus insists that justice is heavier – justice is more important; it is more difficult to do. And this reference to tithing has to do with economics and power. On top of the taxes and other payments that went to landowners and the wealthy, economic pressures overwhelmed many farmers and fisherpeople in Jesus’ day. So tithing on basic things like dill, etc would have been only something the rich could afford to do.
When Jesus talks about religious leaders praying in public and wearing beautiful robes and large phylacteries, phylacteries also refer to amulets – again showing a concern for wealth and authority and power and less with genuine religious observance. We can see here how knowing something about the political, social and economic context of Jesus and the Bible helps us understand the large economic critiques of Jesus and what is hypocritical about religious leaders in his day (and ours).
Biblical and classical scholars argue that the Roman imperial economic system only minimally offered material assistance to individual poor people and entirely failed to address the larger social problem of poverty. In fact, this system deeply impoverished and enslaved the vast majority of the population – between 80% and 95% of the population was in deep poverty as a result of conquest and wealth appropriation. It was undergirded by systems of debt, charity, taxation, and poverty creation. The wealthy, and in many cases religious leaders, were rewarded for acts of patronage with appointments to paid positions of social, political and religious power. Therefore those who had accumulated enough wealth to donate some of it to the empire were able to secure well-paying positions of status, including positions of religious authority like those being critiqued in Matthew 23.
The wealthy were able to enrich themselves directly off the poverty of the poor, particularly in times of disaster. One such example contemporary to Jesus and the writing of the Gospel of Matthew shows that in a time of famine an elite from the Greek island of Amorgos lent other residents of the island money at a 20% APR so that they could buy grain from him at ten times the regular price. This elite was perceived to be a savior in a time of crisis, yet he not only profited from the exchange but caused the people to go into further debt and poverty. The debts of the poor become a source of wealth and income for the rich.
A contemporary example of the spiritual, material, ideological and political problems with charity comes from the challenge the HIV/AIDS crisis. Bill Gates and other philanthropists donate a fraction of the money needed to curb the deadly impact of AIDS on the poor of South Africa and other countries, but specify that their charity must be used to provide medicines in an effort to keep governments from producing vastly less expensive generic versions of them. These philanthropists receive public praise, tax breaks and even profits from the sale of the patent-protected medicines, all in the name of helping the poor, while their actions ultimately serve to protect their own intellectual property rights in the medical field and beyond. The question of why people are too poor to be able to afford medicine, malaria nets, etc. is never raised. I think it is this kind of hypocritical action that Jesus is critiquing in Matthew 23.
The chapter continues with its emphasis on the hypocrisy of the moral and political leadership in Jesus’ day. Calling out some religious authorities, Jesus says that: “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” “Gnat” and “camel” are probably a word play in Aramaic but this phrase also emphasizes how the focus is wrong – and not on justice and righteousness. Another word play is with “tomb” and “inside” – again showing what matters is not the surface but the substance of one’s justice work. Whitewashing tombs happened annually so Jesus and the disciples would have seen them while entering Jerusalem for the Passover. This would have been a real example of how those in power try to make rotten things look pretty. And it reminds me of seeing employees of the City of Philadelphia literally spray painting the grass green throughout poor communities for the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000.
Jesus continues by saying: “You build the tombs of prophets.” Even in ancient times there were large-scale projects to build tombs. Jesus is pointing out the irony and hypocrisy of building important monuments to the very prophets who were rejected and in fact killed by those in power. This reminds me of a saying from the documentary Citizen King about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that “it’s easier to build a monument than a movement.” Indeed Dr. King is a good example of people building tombs and monuments without having to follow his prophetic critique of society.
In the seven woes to the hypocrites, Matthew is adopting the biblical tradition of public denunciations from Amos 5:18-20, 6:1-7, Isaiah 5:8-10, 11-14, 18-19, 20, 21, 22-24; 10:1-3; 28:1-4; 29:1-4, 15; 30:1-3; 31:1-4 and Micah 2:1-4. These denunciations are addressed to people with power and influence, describe their evil action, and warn people not to follow them. Also in Matthew 23, Jesus summarizes the history of rejecting prophets.
When Jesus talks about killing and crucifying real prophetic and moral leadership in Matthew 23:34, the only ones with the power and authority to crucify – including who crucified Jesus – were the Romans. Crucifixion was punishment for revolutionaries, movement leaders who were opposing the state power, rebels – not common criminals and thieves. Indeed, one of the main things we know about Jesus from Paul’s letters and the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ mission and ministry – the fact of his crucifixion – demonstrates that Jesus was a threat to the Roman Empire and executed for being this kind of revolutionary who stood for justice and dignity and against forces that enslaves, degraded, and violated the people. His crucifixion shows us that Jesus is making a prophetic critique and moral witness/action against Rome and is executed because of his words and actions.
I want to conclude by trying to unpack a little more of what Jesus is saying with his insistence on focusing on the important and heavier things – like justice. I believe that doing justice is like the concept of “costly grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer discusses. Bonhoeffer lived from 1906 to 1945. One of the “Heroes of Conscience” who returned to Germany to join the fight against Hitler, Bonhoeffer was among the many outstanding leaders, pastors, and scholars who serve as an inspiration around the world to all those who, on grounds of conscience, are forced to protest the violation of human rights. In “The Cost of Discipleship” he writes:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace.
Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices…so everything can remain as it was before…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Bonhoeffer here is talking about justice and how difficult and costly the work of doing justice can be. He too is critiquing hypocrisy like Jesus in Matthew 23 is. And I think for the moral movement we have to develop out this concept of costly grace more. We have to commit ourselves to really understanding and then doing justice. We have to put the cross back into our theology and social justice witness knowing full well that resurrection follows crucifixion. In Matthew, the resurrection is not just of Jesus but all of the fallen fighters, the rejected prophets who have come before. In Matthew 28, the tombs of Jesus and the saints break open. These prophetic fighters are resurrected to continue the movement but only after the public execution/crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of his oppressors. This example is what the moral movement looks like. It’s not about one leader sacrificing or saving everyone but the leadership and prophetic witness and actions of everyone. I believe this is the call from Matthew 23, the entire book of Matthew and the Gospel. Doing justice. Standing for costly grace. Building a moral movement together.