Matthew 23: 1-12

I propose a biblical analysis with the following steps: a study of each Greek word of the gospel passage, followed by an analysis of the structure of the narrative and its context, to which is added a comparison of parallel or similar passages. At the end of this analysis and as a conclusion, I propose to summarize what the evangelist meant, and I end up with some suggestions on how this Gospel could shed light on our current situation.


  1. Translation of the Greek text (28th edition of Kurt Aland)

    Greek textTransliterated Greek textLiteral translationTranslation in current language
    1 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν τοῖς ὄχλοις καὶ τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ 1 Tote ho Iēsous elalēsen tois ochlois kai tois mathētais autou 1 Then the Jesus spoke to the crowds and the disciples of him,1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples
    2 λέγων• ἐπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι. 2 legōn• epi tēs Mōuseōs kathedras ekathisan hoi grammateis kai hoi Pharisaioi. 2 saying, upon the Moses' seat they sat down the scribes and the Pharisees.2 to say to them, "The scholars of the Bible and the Pharisees occupy the pulpit of Moses.
    3 πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἐὰν εἴπωσιν ὑμῖν ποιήσατε καὶ τηρεῖτε, κατὰ δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν μὴ ποιεῖτε• λέγουσιν γὰρ καὶ οὐ ποιοῦσιν.3 panta oun hosa ean eipōsin hymin poiēsate kai tēreite, kata de ta erga autōn mē poieite• legousin gar kai ou poiousin. 3 Therefore all things how many if they might say to you, do and keep, then according to the works of them do not do, for they say and do not do.3 So put into practice and observe everything they can say to you, on the other hand ignore their actions, because these actions differ from what they say.
    4 δεσμεύουσιν δὲ φορτία βαρέα [καὶ δυσβάστακτα] καὶ ἐπιτιθέασιν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὤμους τῶν ἀνθρώπων, αὐτοὶ δὲ τῷ δακτύλῳ αὐτῶν οὐ θέλουσιν κινῆσαι αὐτά. 4 desmeuousin de phortia barea [kai dysbastakta] kai epititheasin epi tous ōmous tōn anthrōpōn, autoi de tō daktylō autōn ou thelousin kinēsai auta. 4 For they tie up burdens heavy [and hard to bear] and place (them) upon the shoulders of the men, then themselves with the finger of them they are not willing to move them.4 In addition, they overload others with serious [demanding] and binding obligations, while they do not even want to lift them from their finger.
    5 πάντα δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν ποιοῦσιν πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι τοῖς ἀνθρώποις• πλατύνουσιν γὰρ τὰ φυλακτήρια αὐτῶν καὶ μεγαλύνουσιν τὰ κράσπεδα, 5 panta de ta erga autōn poiousin pros to theathēnai tois anthrōpois• platynousin gar ta phylaktēria autōn kai megalynousin ta kraspeda, 5 Then all the works of them they do towards the to be observed by the men. For they broaden the phylacteries of them and enlarge the tassels.5 All their actions they do to be seen by others, and this is how they magnify their badges of piety and lengthen the religious tassels at the bottom of their clothing.
    6 φιλοῦσιν δὲ τὴν πρωτοκλισίαν ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις καὶ τὰς πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς 6 philousin de tēn prōtoklisian en tois deipnois kai tas prōtokathedrias en tais synagōgais 6 Then, they love the chief place at the banquets and the first seats in the synagogues.6 They like the first couch at banquets and places of honor at the synagogue,
    7 καὶ τοὺς ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς καὶ καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων ῥαββί. 7 kai tous aspasmous en tais agorais kai kaleisthai hypo tōn anthrōpōn rhabbi.7 and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called by the men "rabbi".7 just like receiving bows in the public square and being called by others: master.
    8 Ὑμεῖς δὲ μὴ κληθῆτε ῥαββί• εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ διδάσκαλος, πάντες δὲ ὑμεῖς ἀδελφοί ἐστε. 8 Hymeis de mē klēthēte rhabbi• heis gar estin hymōn ho didaskalos, pantes de hymeis adelphoi este. 8 Then, yourself you should not be called "rabbi", for one is of you the teacher, then all yourself brothers are.8 But you do not call yourself a master, for you have only one master, and you are brothers to one another.
    9 καὶ πατέρα μὴ καλέσητε ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ πατὴρ ὁ οὐράνιος.9 kai patera mē kalesēte hymōn epi tēs gēs, heis gar estin hymōn ho patēr ho ouranios. 9 and father you should not call of you upon the earth, for one is of you the father the heavenly.9 And do not call yourself a "father" on this earth, for you have only one father in the world of God.
    10 μηδὲ κληθῆτε καθηγηταί, ὅτι καθηγητὴς ὑμῶν ἐστιν εἷς ὁ Χριστός.10 mēde klēthēte kathēgētai, hoti kathēgētēs hymōn estin heis ho Christos. 10 Neither you should be called teachers, for teacher of you is one, the Christ.10 Do not call yourself "leaders" because you have only one leader, Christ.
    11 ὁ δὲ μείζων ὑμῶν ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος. 11 ho de meizōn hymōn estai hymōn diakonos. 11 Then, the greatest of you will be of you servant.11 Let the most important among you become your servant,
    12 ὅστις δὲ ὑψώσει ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται καὶ ὅστις ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται. 12 hostis de hypsōsei heauton tapeinōthēsetai kai hostis tapeinōsei heauton hypsōthēsetai.12 Then whoever will lift up himself will be humbled, and whoever will humble himself will be lifted up.12 for the one who seeks to be important will be ignored, the one who is ignored will become important.

  1. Analysis of each verse

    v. 1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples

    Literally: Then (tote) the Jesus spoke (elalēsen) to the crowds (ochlois) and the disciples (mathētais) of him,

tote (then)
Tote is such an ordinary adverb that there would be nothing to say about it, if it were not an almost fetish word in Matthew: Mt = 90; Mk = 6; Lk = 15; Jn = 10; Acts = 21; it comes back almost every 12 verses. It is an adverb of time that is usually translated as "then" or "at that time". It is used to express a logical sequence of cause and effect. Since Matthew likes to structure things and present them in an orderly fashion, tote becomes the ideal tool for him. For example, "leave your offering there before the altar and go first to be reconciled with your brother; then return, and then present your offering" (5:24); here, reconciliation must precede the offering. Of the 90 occurrences in his gospel, 81 are his own. And so he likes to add this adverb to his sources, beginning with Mark. For example, in the scene where Jesus is tricked about the tax to Caesar and he responds with a question about the effigy of the coin, Mark writes: "They said to him, 'From Caesar. And Jesus said to them, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" (12:16-17). When Matthew copies this scene, he makes a slight modification: "They say, 'From Caesar. Then he says to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (22:20-21); thus, Mark's "and" has become a "then" with him, for the payment of taxes follows from using Caesar's money. He does the same thing with the Q Document. In Jesus' discourse on the return of the unclean spirit where the spirit seeks a place of rest and finds none, Luke writes, "He said, 'I will return to the house from which I came'" (11: 24). For his part, Matthew writes: "Then he said, 'To my house I will return, from whence I came out'" (12, 44); the addition of the small "then" allows Matthew to show the logical sequence between wandering without finding rest and returning to the point of departure.

What is the logical sequence here in v. 1? Earlier, in 22:34-35, Matthew writes: "When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had closed his mouth to the Sadducees, they gathered in a group, and one of them asked him, in order to embarrass him, 'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law? This pericope ends with this comment by the evangelist: "No one was able to answer him a word. And from that day on no one dared to question him" (22: 46). This scene marks the last intervention of the Pharisees, who disappear from the scene and only return after Jesus' death (27:62). Matthew's "then" introduces a form of conclusion about the Pharisees, which is the logical continuation of what has just been said, and which is in fact a judgment on them.

elalēsen (he spoke) Verb laleō is not particularly Matthean: Mt = 26; Mk = 21; Lk = 31; Jn = 59; Acts = 58. But half the occurrences in his gospels are his own, and most of the time it is Jesus who is speaking (9 times out of 13). There is more, for he usually uses the verb legō (505 times) to describe the action of saying something. The reason he sometimes chooses laleō is that he seems to be emphasizing the message Jesus is conveying. For example, this is the word he chooses to express the teaching given in parables: "And he spoke to them (laleō) of many things in parables, saying (legō)..." (13: 3; see also 13: 10.13.33); after his resurrection, this is how the message of sending out on mission is introduced: "Coming forward, Jesus spoke to them (laleō), saying (legō), "All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth..." (28: 18). Here, in v. 1, we have the same structure: "Jesus spoke (laleō)... saying (legō)". What is this message? This message is related with the above where the Pharisees tried to embarrass Jesus, and it is introduced by "then" (tote), thereby becoming a form of conclusion or judgment. Also, we translated laleō as "to speak", to convey the idea that Jesus is making his thoughts known about the Pharisees.

ochlois (crowds) Matthew refers to the crowds a little more than the other evangelists: Mt = 50; Mk = 38; Lk = 41; Jn = 20; Acts = 22. Of the 50 occurrences, 27 are unique to him. This means that he wants them to play an important role. Two points should be noted.

  1. Unlike the other gospels, which have almost only the singular, i.e. the crowd, the gospel according to Matthew, in the passages that are unique to him, almost always has the plural, i.e. the crowds, as here. This preference for the plural is so strong that, very often, Matthew, when he copies Mark, modifies his source to make it plural; thus
    • "a large crowd" (Mk 4:1) becomes "many crowds" (Mt 13:2);
    • "while he himself sends the crowd away" (Mk 6:45) becomes "while he sends the crowds away" (Mt 14:22);
    • "and they (the disciples) presented them to the crowd" (Mk 8:6) becomes "and the disciples (gave them) to the crowds (Mt 15:36);
    • "And they sought to arrest him, and feared the crowd" (Mk 12:12) becomes "And seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds" (Mt 21:46);
    • The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd" (Mk 15:11) becomes "the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds" (Mt 27:20).

    Why is this? We can guess that since the word crowd in the singular conveys the idea of a specific, unified group, Matthew may have wanted to emphasize diverse, unified groups without a common denominator, anticipating the final sending of the disciples to all nations. The one notable exception is the passage in Matthew where Pilate "washed his hands in the presence of the crowd, saying, 'I am not responsible for this blood; it is up to you to see'" (27, 24). In this case, the crowd represents a specific and unified group, the Jewish people, since this crowd responds, "His blood be on us and on our children!" (27: 25).

    Here, in v. 1, it is to the mixed crowds, anticipating all the nations, that Jesus addresses himself.

  2. In the gospels, the crowd can play three roles: a positive role that is almost equivalent to discipleship, a negative role as an obstacle to Jesus' activity, or a neutral role as a mere passive audience for Jesus' teaching. When we examine Matthew's own uses, we notice that he often gives these crowds a positive role: these crowds "follow" Jesus in the manner of the disciples (8:1; 12:15), or "draw near" to him (15:30); they are struck by his teaching (7:28; 22:33), and they marvel when they see all these healings (15:31); seized with awe, they glorify God (9:8), and they cry out, "Is not this one the Son of David?" (12: 23), or "Hosanna to the son of David!" (21:9), or "This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee" (21:11). The only two passages in which the crowds play a negative role or that of enemy are taken from Mark: the large crowd armed with swords who came with Judas to arrest Jesus (26:47), and those crowds who are persuaded by the chief priests and elders to claim Barabbas and kill Jesus (27:20).

Here, in v. 1, we have rather neutral crowds that passively receive Jesus' teaching.

mathētais (disciples)
Mathētēs means: learner, student, disciple. The word designates one who listens to a master. As one can imagine, the word is important in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 72; Mk = 46; Lk = 37; Jn = 78; Acts = 28. After his analysis, J.P. Meier concludes that this term really belongs to the time of Jesus, since the early Christians rather abandoned this term to define themselves. Moreover, among those who considered Jesus a teacher, three different groups of people can be distinguished
  • the small group of those who physically accompanied him on the road, leaving work, family and home,
  • those who welcomed him into their homes, offering him room and board and money when he visited their region,
  • the crowd of curious people who listened to his preaching and expressed some form of interest.
Even though several women are mentioned, none are given the title of disciple, no doubt due to the culture of the time. Finally, let us note that the gospels also refer to the disciples of John the Baptist and the disciples of the Pharisees (cf. Mk 2:18). Let us now turn to Matthew.

The evangelist loves the word disciple: not only does he use it very often (he is second only to John), but of the 72 occurrences, 42 (about 60%) are unique to him. But what must be emphasized is that Matthew wants to associate them with the Twelve: he is the only one to speak of the Twelve disciples, first to frame the mission speech (10:1 and 11:1), then to share the fate that awaits him as he goes up to Jerusalem (20:17). And after Judas betrays Jesus and commits suicide, Matthew speaks of the eleven disciples (28:16); he is the only one to have this expression. But Mark, who is the source of Matthew and Luke, speaks only of the "Twelve" and the "Eleven". What does this mean? Matthew seems to restrict the title of disciple to the small group of Twelve who accompany him on the road and whom he sends on mission. And when we look at the whole of his gospel, it is clear that he gives them a special and unique role:

  • If it is the sight of the crowd that leads Jesus to pronounce his speech on the mountain with his beatitudes, Matthew insists that he is addressing the disciples ("and when he was seated, his disciples came to him, and he taught them, saying, 5: 1-2)

  • It is to them that the understanding of Jesus' message is reserved ("The disciples came to him and said, 'Why do you speak to them in parables'?" -- "Because," he answered, "to you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to these people it has not been given.", 13: 10-11)

  • Whereas for Mark Jesus' mother and brothers are the people in the crowd around him who do the will of God, Matthew restricts this group to the disciples ("And holding out his hand to his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers,'" 12:49)

  • When he repeats Mark's two scenes of the feeding of the loaves, he clarifies Mark's text, as he often does, to avoid ambiguity; while Mark writes, "and (Jesus) gave them to the disciples to be presented to them" (6:41), Matthew writes, "he (Jesus) gave the disciples the loaves and the disciples to the crowds" (14:19). Why does Matthew, unlike Mark, repeat the word disciple, when only they can give it to the crowds, since Jesus handed the bread to them? One gets the impression that he wants to emphasize the structure of the Jesus-disciple and disciple-crowd relationships, highlighting the disciples' role as intermediary or mediator. He will do the same thing at the second feeding of the crowd (15:36). He will do the same at the Last Supper when he writes: "Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples" (26:26; Mark has simply: "gave it to them" (14:22))

  • The emphasis on the disciples' role as intermediary or mediator appears throughout his gospel. It is the role of the disciples to ask Jesus for explanations of his teaching (13, 36 "His disciples came to him and said, 'Explain to us the parable of the tares in the field'"). It is their role to inform Jesus (15: 12 "Then the disciples came to him and said, 'Do you know that the Pharisees were shocked to hear you speak like this?) It is their role to ask Jesus to act (15: 23 "When they came to him, his disciples insisted, 'Send her away, for she is behind us, breaking our ears'"). It is their role to ask Jesus to explain certain events: (21:20 "When the disciples saw this, they were amazed, 'How did the fig tree dry up in a moment?'"; see also 24:3 on the signs of the end of the world). Finally, it is their role to go into all the world, to baptize and to make Jesus' teaching known (28:16).

  • Yet, despite this unique role Matthew gives the disciples, he does not hesitate to point out their weakness, their limitations and sometimes their narrow-mindedness. For example, they are afraid when Jesus walks on water (14:26), or when they hear a voice from heaven (17:6), when Jesus presents his vision of marriage where a man cannot repudiate his wife for any reason, their remark would be considered macho today (19:10 "The disciples say to him, 'If this is the condition of the man toward the woman, it is not expedient to marry."), when Jesus tells them that it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, Matthew writes: "The disciples were astonished: "Who then can be saved? (19: 25), when a woman pours an alabaster bottle containing a very precious perfume on Jesus, it is on the backs of the disciples that Matthew drops this remark: "What good is this waste?" (26:8), when Peter brazenly claims that he is willing to die for Jesus and Mark writes that "all" said the same, Matthew makes a point of clarifying, "All the disciples said the same" (26:35).

Here, in v. 1, Jesus addresses both the crowds and his disciples. This means on the one hand that he wants to reach all the people, and on the other hand the specific group of Christian leaders through the disciples: these two groups must retain his teaching, because it applies to all, without exception.

v. 2 to say to them, "The scholars of the Bible and the Pharisees occupy the pulpit of Moses.

Literally: saying (legōn), upon the Moses' (Mōuseōs) seat (kathedras) they sat down (ekathisan) the scribes (grammateis) and the Pharisees (Pharisaioi).

legōn (saying) It is worth mentioning that the verb legō (to say, to affirm, to tell) is the one most used in the Gospels-Acts, 2,040 times: Mt = 505; Mk = 290; Lk = 531; Jn = 480; Acts = 234. This is understandable, because these are stories, and in a story one tells and speaks. When the verb is used in the present participle, as it is here, it serves to introduce the content of a saying, and it has the value a comma followed by quotation mark (very often, the biblical translations replace "saying" by , "..."). Let us conclude by noting that we are faced with a rather Matthaean expression with the turn of phrase: "Jesus spoke... saying" (elalēsen... legōn; see 13:3; 14:27; 23:1-2; 28:18; elsewhere it is found only in Mk 8:12).

grammateis (scribes)
The Greek words grammateus (scribe, clerk, secretary), gramma (letter, character, writing, sign of the alphabet) and graphō (to write, to trace letters, to compose, to record in writing) share the same root. That's why grammateus is translated as: scribe, because it refers to one who has a well-defined social function of reading and writing in a world where the majority of people cannot read or write. Personally, I like to translate the word by "Bible scholar", because the Bible was the main object through which one learned to read, and its primary purpose. Moreover, when we observe their interventions in the gospels, we notice that they intend to debate particular points of Scripture, like this echo in Mark where they taught that Elijah must come before the messiah (9: 11), that the messiah is the son of David (12: 35), and that God is unique (12: 32). So the question arises: how can we distinguish the Pharisees from the scribes? Some scribes belonged to the group of Pharisees, but not all Pharisees were scribes. We find in Luke the expression "the Pharisees and their scribes" (5:21) as he clarifies the expression "the scribes of the Pharisees" from Mark 2:16. It is even clearer in Acts with the phrase: Some scribes of the party of the Pharisees rose up (23:9). Thus, the title of scribe expressed a social role, while that of Pharisee expressed membership in a political-religious group. It was probably with the scribes, the biblical scholars, that Jesus had some disagreements about the interpretation of certain passages in the Bible.

The multiplication of the presence of the Pharisees alongside the scribes in the gospels is above all the work of the Christian community of decades later in direct conflict with them. This seems to be confirmed by the evolution of the writing of the gospels: while Mark, which we date to about the year 67, mentions the scribes 20 times, he has only three times the scribes-Pharisees couple, and each time in connection with the problem of dietary rules (2: 16; 7: 1.5), while the scribes appear alone 9 times (apart from the Pharisees, they are associated 8 times with the chief priests). Thus, the scribes are much more numerous than the Pharisees. On the other hand, Matthew, which is dated around 80 or 85, out of 21 mentions, has the scribes-Pharisees couple 10 times. Finally, in John, which we date around the year 90, the word scribe appears only once and with the scribes-pharisees couple, on the other hand the word Pharisee appears 20 times. We can see that the Pharisees have grown with time.

Here is the complete table of the various expressions. The first two rows show the number of occurrences of the words scribes and Pharisees, and the others their combinations or non-combinations:
The word scribe20142114
The word Pharisee122729209
Scribe-Pharisee pair351011
Scribes alone92500
Pharisees alone41912148
Scribes with the high priests87500
Scribes with the elders00002
Other types of scribes (Christian or Greek)00101

In short, historically speaking, Jesus' discussions about the interpretation of scripture were primarily with the scribes, especially if we refer to Galilee (the Pharisees were mostly in Jerusalem). Although Jesus probably had conflicts with the Pharisees, these conflicts became more important at the time of the Christian community.

  1. The unique occurrences of "scribe" in Matthew

    First, note that of the 21 occurrences of the word grammateus in his gospel, 13 are unique to him. Of these 13 occurrences, 5 appear in passages that are his own, 7 in passages that he borrows from the Q Document, and one passage that comes from Mark. It is still difficult to determine whether it was Matthew who added "scribe" to his source, or whether the word was already there. Let's take a closer look at passages common to Mt and Lk that are attributed to the Q Document.

    8: 19 And approaching him, a scribe said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go."9: 57 And as they went along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go
    23: 13 "Woe to you, scribes and hypocritical Pharisees, because you lock up the kingdom of heaven..."11: 52 "Woe to you, lawyers, because you have removed the key to science..."
    23: 23 "Woe to you, scribes and hypocritical Pharisees, because you tithe mint..." 11: 42 "But woe to you Pharisees, because you tithe mint..."
    23: 25 "Woe to you, scribes and hypocritical Pharisees, because you purify the outside of the cup..." 11: 39 "Now you Pharisees, the outside of the cup and dish, you purify..."
    23: 27 "Woe to you, scribes and hypocritical Pharisees, for you look like whitened sepulchres..." 11: 44 "Woe to you (the Pharisees), for you are like the tombs..."
    23: 29 "Woe to you, scribes and hypocritical Pharisees, because you build the tombs of the prophets..."11: 47 "Woe to you, because you build the tombs of the prophets..."
    23: 34 "Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes: you shall kill and crucify some and scourge some in your synagogues and persecute from city to city..."11: 49 "That is why also the wisdom of God said: 'I will send them prophets and apostles, and they will kill and persecute them'...."

    All these texts belong to two sequences: first, that of people who want to follow Jesus, and second, that of a series of curses with their conclusion. In the first sequence (Mt 8:19 || Lk 9:57), while in Luke it is any man who wants to follow Jesus, in Matthew it is a scribe. Was the Q Document talking about an ordinary man or a scribe? In the first case, it was Matthew who changed "someone" to "a scribe"; in the second case, it was Luke who changed "a scribe" to "someone."

    We think it is likely that Matthew replaced "someone" with "scribe", and our argument is this:

    • While the image of the scribe here is very positive, because he wants to follow Jesus, such an image is never present elsewhere in Luke, who associates him on the contrary with those who want to destroy Jesus (see Lk 6:7; 9:22; 11:53; 19:47; 20:19; 22:2); if Luke had introduced the idea of a scribe who wants to follow Jesus, he would have contradicted himself. Matthew, on the other hand, is quite different, as we shall see: not only is he the only one of all the gospel writers to give us a positive image of the scribe at times (apart from this verse, see 13:52 and 23:34), but he also never explicitly mentions in his own passages that the scribes want to kill Jesus (for example, there is no equivalent to Mk. 11:18, where "the scribes... sought how they could kill him", or "the chief priests and the scribes sought how they could kill him" in Mk 14:1 is replaced by "the chief priests and the elders of the people... decided together... to kill him" in Mt 26:3-4, just as the crowd, which came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, is sent by the chief priests and the scribes and the elders in Mt 14:43, and is sent only by the chief priests and elders of the people in Mt 26:47.)

    • Another argument could be added: as much as Luke can sometimes disrupt the sequence of events (see for example this sequence of the journey to Jerusalem which begins in 9:51, or his restructuring of the passion narrative), he is often more respectful than Matthew of the sources he uses (for example, his "Lord's Prayer" seems closer to the source than Matthew's)

    The second sequence concerns a series of curses. As we have seen, despite the similarity of the vocabulary, Matthew and Luke do not have the same order (one only has to pay attention to the sequence of verse numbers in Luke). Who is closer to his sources? Who has reworked what he has received from tradition more? After a thorough analysis, M.E. Boismard (Synopse des Quatre évangiles en français. Paris: Cerf, 1977, p. 357) concludes that it is "clear that Luke has kept the primitive structure of the whole while Matthew has more or less upset it." And so, according to his habit, Matthew has standardized his language, so that Pharisees and scribes appear together in an identical way throughout the curses. But in doing so, he ends up with something incongruous in the conclusion, as one may have noted: "Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes (!): you shall kill some and crucify some and scourge some in your synagogues and persecute some from city to city..." (23: 34). Let us not forget that the "you" of this verse refers to the scribes and Pharisees: we can understand that the scribes and Pharisees kill the prophets and the wise men, but how can they also kill the scribes? We must therefore assume that we are no longer dealing with the same scribes, i.e., we are no longer dealing with Jewish scribes, but with Christian scribes. Moreover, Luke (11:49) speaks rather of prophets and apostles, two well-defined functions in the Christian communities.

    In short, the tradition of cursing that Luke and Matthew received probably contained mostly references to the Pharisees, and it was Matthew who probably standardized the language to include the scribe-Pharisee pair. This had the advantage of casting a wider net among the Jewish population, since not all Pharisees were scribes, and not all scribes were Pharisees.

  2. The picture of the scribe in Matthew

    When we examine the 21 occurrences of the word scribe in Matthew, we can group them into three categories according to whether the image that emerges is neutral, positive or negative

    1. The neutral picture of the scribe (4 occurrences)

      • Being a scribe is a profession. The fact of knowing how to read and write not only allowed one to exercise a social role, but also gave one the opportunity to master the Scriptures where both religious and legal teaching were concentrated, so that one could call them a jurist or a lawyer. Let us not forget that the common language among the people of Palestine was Aramaic, and that the majority of the sacred texts were in Hebrew, which was no longer mastered by the people. Thus, in his infancy narrative, King Herod asks them to know, according to the Scriptures, "where the Messiah was to be born" (2: 4). And it seems that it was the scribes who spread the idea that the prophet Elijah was to return before the end of time according to the teaching of the Scriptures (17:10), and this is what the disciples of Jesus report.

      • Since the scribes are only interpreters and translators, their role was to make the Scriptures known, not to speak on their behalf or to propose new ideas. Therefore, we should not be surprised that Jesus' audience remarked that he "taught as a man of authority, not as their scribes" (7:29).

      • Because of their social role and their knowledge of the Scriptures, it was normal that some of them were part of the Sanhedrin, which was the supreme court of the Jews; in fact, this council consisted of 71 members, including the representatives of the secular aristocracy, called "elders", the scribes or specialists in the Law, and the high priests (resigning high priests and members of the 4 great priestly families) who presided over the assemblies. This council regulated religious and civil affairs. Thus, Matthew writes, "those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the High Priest, where the scribes and the elders met" (26:57); we are thus before a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

      In these four occurrences, there is nothing negative, but simply a reflection of the technical and social role of scribes.

    2. The positive picture of the scribe (3 occurrences)

      As we said, these 3 occurrences are unique to Matthew.

      • "And a scribe coming up to him said, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.'" (8: 19). Earlier, we argued that it was probably Matthew who changed the character in his source, which spoke of someone in general, to a "scribe." So a scribe wants to be a disciple of Jesus. What does this mean? First of all, there must have been scribes sympathetic to Jesus' teaching, especially concerning the resurrection of the dead; the Acts of the Apostles presents us with scribes, who were also members of the Pharisees' party, who take up Paul's defense at his trial in Jerusalem (23:9). Secondly, there must have been a number of scribes in the Christian communities; they were probably the ones who, above all, scrutinized the Scriptures to try to understand the Jesus event. They were the exegetes and biblical scholars of the time. It is therefore important for Matthew to represent them in his gospel.

      • "And Jesus said to them, 'So then every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like an owner who draws from his treasure both new and old.'" (13:52) There you have it, there are clearly scribes in the Christian community, and these scribes had to integrate their Jewish religious baggage with the newness of Jesus' message.

      • "Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some you shall kill and put on crosses, some you shall scourge in your synagogues, and some you shall chase from city to city" (23:34). These three groups, the prophets, the wise men and the scribes, seem to represent three different faces of the members of the Christian community. In any case, they are called to be persecuted because of their faith in Jesus.

    3. The negative picture of the scribe (14 occurrences)

      Let's start with the 9 occurrences where the mention of the word "scribe" is unique to Matthew.

      • "For I say to you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (5:20). Here, the scribe's attitude is not bad, but it is insufficient to enter the world of Jesus; the simple respect of the Mosaic, such as not killing one's brother, is not enough, but one must go further, one must love him.

      • "Then some of the Scribes and Pharisees answered and said to him, 'Teacher, we desire that you show us a sign.'" (12: 38). At first glance, there is nothing wrong with asking Jesus for a sign. It is Jesus' response that shows that this request is unjustified: "Evil and adulterous generation!" For it shows a lack of faith in his person and unnecessarily seeks extraordinary facts.

      • And finally there is the group of curses (23:1-36) where the scribes (as well as the Pharisees) are reproached:

        1. Not to do what they preach (1-3)
        2. To have so overloaded the Law with ancillary observances that it has become an impossible burden to carry (4)
        3. Not to be true, but only to seek to enhance their religious and social image (5-7)
        4. To indulge in an interpretation of the Scriptures so biased that they are no longer a path to life (13-15)
        5. To fall into a casuistry so complex that they no longer enlighten anyone, and even become absurd (16-22)
        6. To focus on very specific elements of the Law, and to forget the essential and most important (23-24)
        7. To emphasize the ritual aspect of religion, forgetting the inner moral behavior (25-33)

        All these curses are aimed at both their interpretation of the Scriptures and their inner attitude as well as their social behavior.

      Let us now consider the 5 instances where Matthew takes up the tradition he receives from Mark.

      • First of all, there are three passages where it is not really a question of real hostility, but an expression of surprise and a little indignation at Jesus' attitude:
        1. "And behold, some scribes said within themselves, 'This one blasphemes.' (Jesus' forgiving of sins, a gesture reserved for God)" (9:3);
        2. "Then some Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem came to Jesus and said to him, "Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat their meal.'" (15: 1-2);
        3. "Seeing the wonders he had just performed and those children crying out in the Temple, "Hosanna to the son of David," the chief priests and the scribes were indignant" (21: 15);

      • Then there is the attitude of true hostility where they mock Jesus and desire his death
        1. "Likewise the chief priests laughed and said with the scribes and the elders, 'He has saved others and he cannot save himself! He is king of Israel: let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him!'" (27: 41-42);
        2. "From that day on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem, suffer much there at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and on the third day rise again" (16:21).

      At the end of this analysis, Matthew leaves us with a nuanced portrait of the scribe. This biblical scholar played an important role, and those who became Christians certainly helped to shed light on Jesus' identity and to find meaning in such painful events. At the same time, their unique knowledge of the scriptures played havoc with them, so much so that they indulged in their science as a rung on the social ladder, and forgot the essential purpose of the scriptures, to illuminate and offer a way of life. In portraying the scribes, Matthew was referring both to the Jewish scribes who refused to believe in Jesus and to those who joined the Christian community and were prominent in it.

Pharisaioi (Pharisees)

For a presentation on the Pharisees, we refer to J.P. Meier. Let us summarize the main elements.

  • The Greek term Pharisaios attempts to render the Hebrew perûsîm (perîsayya in Aramaic) and literally means: "the separated" or "the separatists" and can refer to different groups, such as extremely pious or ascetic people, or sectarian or heretical people
  • More specifically, it is a politico-religious group of devout Jews who formed at the beginning of the Hasmonean period (around 150 BC) in response to the crisis of the Hellenization of Palestine
  • It is mainly located in Jerusalem and its presence in Galilee does not seem to have been significant
  • This group emphasizes the zealous and careful study and practice of the Mosaic Law, especially its legal obligations regarding ritual purity
  • But to justify all these observances, it develops a theory that it possesses a collection of normative traditions from the ancients going back to Moses. And so, in parallel with the Torah, an oral tradition develops of which it is the guardian
  • Their concerns can be summarized as follows:
    • Purity rules for food and vessels containing food and liquids
    • The rules of purity on bodies and coffins
    • The purity and holiness of the furnishings for worship in the temple in Jerusalem, as well as the proper way to practice one's religion and to offer a sacrifice in the temple
    • The tithe and the shares due to the priests
    • Proper observance of the Sabbath and holy days, especially in the context of work and travel
    • Marriage and divorce, including the act itself and its reason
  • Jesus and the Pharisees could agree on a number of points
    • the election of Israel,
    • the need to respond wholeheartedly to the requirements of the law
    • God's promise of his Messiah
    • the resurrection of the dead accompanied by the final judgment
  • But the Pharisees could not understand and accept that
    • the eschatological times had already begun with Jesus' actions, including his healings
    • the beginning of this restoration of the world as God originally intended it to be entailed a new morality, including the prohibition of divorce, a place for celibacy, the relativization of fasting and ritual purity practices
  • Historically, we must reject the idea that the Pharisees played a role in the arrest and execution of Jesus
  • After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem around the year 70 by the Romans, the Essenes and Sadducees disappeared from the map as a group, but the Pharisees survived and played a fundamental role by gathering in Jamnia to write down all their religious tradition and to become the basis of the rabbinic movement that would last for centuries.
  • Also, Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees in the Gospels is more a reflection of the conflicts of the early Christians with the Jewish community in the 70's to 90's than Jesus' conflict with them

If we remember that Matthew was addressing above all a Jewish-Christian audience, we can easily guess that the Pharisees will occupy an important place in his gospel: Mt = 29; Mk = 12; Lk = 27; Jn = 20; Acts = 9. For not only did the Christian community come into conflict with the Jewish Pharisees (think of the Pharisee Paul and his fanaticism against the Christians, as recounted in the book of Acts), but the Christian community itself included converted Pharisees, constituting its most conservative branch (see Acts 15:5, where they maintain that converted Gentiles should be circumcised). A study of the gospel according to Matthew shows that the author insists on making them an adversary par excellence. And he does this by making multiple modifications to his sources in order to make the Pharisees play the wrong role, while we note that, among the 29 occurrences of the word "Pharisee", 18 are his own.

  • While Mark speaks of the scribes accusing Jesus of expelling demons in the name of the prince of demons, Matthew replaces "scribes" with "Pharisees": "But the Pharisees said, 'It is by the prince of demons that he expels demons.'" (9:34; he does the same thing in 12:24)
  • While Luke, presumably more faithful to the source Q, recounts how John the Baptist denounces the attitude of the crowds coming to be baptized, Matthew replaces "crowds" with "Pharisees and Sadducees": "Now when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, he said to them, "You offspring of vipers! Who suggested that you should escape the coming wrath?" (3: 7)
  • While the parable of the homicidal vinedressers is addressed to the chief priests, scribes, and elders in Mark, Matthew is careful to conclude this parable thus: "The chief priests and the Pharisees, hearing his parables, understood that he was speaking of them. And seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, for they held him to be a prophet" (21:45-46)

There is one point in Matthew that is surprising: he is the only one in the gospels to associate the Pharisees and the Sadducees:

  • "As he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to baptism..." (3: 7)
  • "The Pharisees and Sadducees then approached and asked him, to put him to the test..." (16: 1)
  • "But Jesus said to them, 'See and beware of the leaven of Pharisees and Sadducees!'" (16: 6)
  • "Beware, I say, of the leaven of Pharisees and Sadducees!" (16: 11)
  • "Then they understood that he had said to beware, not of the leaven of which bread is made, but of the teaching of Pharisees and Sadducees." (16: 12)

Yet were they not rivals in their religious convictions, especially in the question of the resurrection of the dead, accepted by the Pharisees, rejected by the Sadducees (see Mk 12:18; see also Acts 23:6-8)? Rabbinic tradition presents us with their multiple conflicts concerning ritual purity, civil responsibility, the writing of divorce papers, the Sabbath, or criminal justice (on the subject, see J.P. Meier). And by the time Matthew writes his gospel around the year 80 or 85, the Sadducees are out of the picture. How can we explain the evangelist's decision to lump Pharisees and Sadducees together? One possible explanation is the probable role of the Sadducees in the death of Jesus. Let us not forget that they were part of the secular and priestly aristocracy, and that they directly or indirectly controlled the actions of the high priests in Jerusalem. Even if, according to historical data, the Pharisees played no role in the arrest and execution of Jesus, Matthew, by associating them with the Sadducees, wants to attribute some responsibility to them.

ekathisan (they sat down) Verb kathizō (Mt = 8; Mk = 8; Lk = 7; Jn = 3; Acts = 9) has two main meanings: to sit (29) and to remain (6 times). One sits on the floor either to teach (e.g. Jesus sits to teach, Mk 9:35), or for work requiring concentration (e.g. Jesus sits to examine the people in front of the temple treasury, Mk 12:41, or one sits to write, Lk 16:6); one sits on a seat or throne in the exercise of a judicial function or authority (e.g. James and John ask to sit on a chair or throne in the exercise of a judicial function or authority, Mk 12:41). James and John ask to sit on the right and left of Jesus in his glory, Mk 10:37); sitting on an animal (e.g. Jesus sits on a donkey, Jn 12:14) or sitting in a chariot (e.g. an Ethiopian sits in Philip's chariot, Acts 8:31).

In Matthew, kathizō offers nothing special (4 mentions are a reprise of Mark, 4 are unique to him): the evangelist repeats Mark's expressions of Jesus sitting down to teach (5:1), or asking his disciples in Gethsemane to stay put (26:36), or facing the request for James and John to sit at his right and left in his glory (20:21.23). It has the peculiarity of expanding the final event and the judicial function associated with it (Jesus promises the twelve to sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel, 19: 28; he announces that when the Son of Man returns in glory, he will sit on his throne to sort out the good from the bad (25: 31). This sorting function at the end of time is also expressed by the image of the fishermen, sitting (because they need concentration), sorting the fish (13:48). Thus, if there is a specific touch in Matthew, it is that of accentuating the judicial and authoritative dimension in the gesture of sitting. It is probably in this context that the action of sitting down, here in v. 2, should be read: of course, it is first of all a question of sitting down to teach, but the rest of the text indicates that they do not sit on the ground like Jesus, but on a seat; even if there is no mention of a throne, as in the exercise of a judicial function, it is clear on the other hand that they are recognized as having a form of authority.

kathedras (seat) The word kathedra is very rare: (Mt = 2; Mk = 1; Lk = 0; Jn = 0; Acts = 0). It means the seat on which one sits, the teacher's pulpit, the king's throne, or sitting or resting; this is what gave us the word "cathedral", the seat of episcopal authority. In the entire New Testament, it is used in only two passages, first in the scene of the sellers driven out of the temple where Jesus "overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of the dove-dealers" (Mk 11:15), a scene copied by Matthew 21:12), and our account in v. 2. The two scenes offer two different meanings to the word kathedra: in the first case, we must guess that the merchants, because of the long hours spent offering their wares, needed a seat of some sort to be comfortable; in the second case, the teacher's seat was a symbol of authority.

When we look at the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where its presence is not much more frequent (16 times), three main meanings stand out.

  • Kathedra refers to the seat of power or honor, or to royal or administrative authority, e.g., 1 Kings 16:18: (LXX) "And he (King Ahaz) built a base for the throne (kathedra) in the house of the Lord... "; Ps 106:22: (LXX) "Let them (Yahweh) exalt him in the assembly of the people, and praise him on the seat (kathedra) of the elders"; Sir 7:4: "Do not ask the Lord for power, nor the king for a seat (kathedra) of honor."

  • Kathedra designates the place assigned during a meal. Since people usually ate in an extended position, one can imagine that it was a kind of seat-bed. For example, 1 Sam 20:25: (LXX) "He (Saul) sat as from time to time on his seat (kathedra), the seat (kathedra) that was leaning against the wall; he had passed before Jonathan, and Abner sat down beside Saul; now the seat of the son of Jesse was empty." 1 Kings 10:5 (LXX) "(When the queen of Sheba saw) "The food of his (Solomon's) table, the assigned places (kathedra) of his servants, the dress of his officers, his garments, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings which he offered in the temple of the Lord...".

  • Kathedra means the sitting or resting position, e.g. Psalm 139:2: (LXX) "You (Yahweh) know my rest (kathedra) and my awakening"; 2 Kings 17:25 (LXX) "In the early days of their sojourn (kathedra) they did not fear the Lord, and the Lord sent lions against them, and they slew some of them." 2 Kings 19:27 (LXX) "I (Yahweh) knew your rest (kathedra) and your departure and your arrival and your rage against me".

Thus, occupying a seat or a pulpit as Matthew mentions for the scribes and Pharisees reflects the idea that they exercised a certain authority among the people, an authority that continued if they were also members of the Sanhedrin.

Mōuseōs (Moses) In Greek this word may have the form Mōsēs or Mōuseus, and translates the Hebrew Mōše. It may surprise us to learn that the word appears least often in the most Jewish evangelist: Mt = 7; Mk = 8; Lk = 10; Jn = 13; Acts = 19. And even there, of the seven occurrences, four are a simple reworking of Mark, and as for the three mentions that are his own, two come from Matthew's extension of Mark's dispute about divorce; this leaves one truly unique case, our v. 2 here. When we go through the gospels and Acts, we observe that the term has two main meanings: on the one hand, it refers to the historical person of Moses (22 times, e.g. Mk 9:4: "Elijah appeared to them with Moses and they were talking with Jesus"), on the other hand, it refers to the Pentateuch, those first five books of the Old Testament that were believed to have been written in their entirety by Moses (35 times, e.g., Mk 12:26: "As for the fact that the dead are raised, did you not read in the Book of Moses. In the latter case, we speak of the Law or Book of Moses (e.g. Lk 2:22), or of Moses and the Prophets (the whole Hebrew Bible is sometimes divided into three parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings or Psalms, see Lk 24:44), or of Moses said (e.g. Mk 7:10), or commanded (Mk 1:44), or has written (Mk 12:19).

What is fascinating is to note that, in spite of the latent or open conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, between the first Christians and the whole of the Jewish community, the figure of Moses and his writings are never presented in a negative way. Let us take the example of the gospel according to John, where Jewish opposition is the most sustained and the figure of Moses very present. The gospel puts in Jesus' mouth these words: "Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. Your accuser is Moses, in whom you have put your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would also believe me, for he wrote of me" (Jn 5:45-46). To affirm that to truly believe in Moses is also to believe in Jesus, is to express the conviction that there is continuity between the Old and New Testaments, not a rupture ("He of whom Moses wrote in the Law and the prophets, we have found him: Jesus, the son of Joseph of Nazareth," Jn 1:45). The events surrounding Moses foreshadow the events surrounding Jesus: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up" (Jn 3:14). Of course, between Jesus and Moses there is a huge qualitative leap: "For the Law was given by Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (Jn 1:17); but this is not an opposition.

This is the same attitude in Matthew. When he takes up Mark's discussion of divorce and the fact that Moses authorized it by means of a written document, he extends it by introducing a question typical of a Jew: "Why then did Moses prescribe that a written document of divorce be given when one repudiates" (19:7). Will the answer be: Moses did not understand God's thought? No, Moses did understand it, but had to make a concession because of the hardness of heart of the people (19:8). In short, the problem is not Moses, but those who claim to be his disciples. This is what will be revealed later.

v. 3 So put into practice and observe everything they can say to you, on the other hand ignore their actions, because these actions differ from what they say.

Literally: Therefore (oun) all things how many if (panta hosa ean) they might say to you, do (poiēsate) and keep (tēreite), then according to the works (erga) of them do not do (mē poieite), for they say and do not do (ou poiousin).

poiēsate... mē poieite... ou poiousin (do... do not do... they do not do) We have three instances of the Greek verb poieō. This verb means: to do, to make, to complete, to carry out, to perform, to create, to render, to accomplish; it is a verb that expresses action. It is as frequent in the Gospels-Acts as "to do" in our daily conversations: Mt = 86; Mk = 45; Lk = 88; Jn = 108; Acts = 68. It is a simple, general word that lends itself to all kinds of situations. That is why it is so frequent in John, who offers us a language of great simplicity. We have translated the three instances of the word in three different ways. We have rendered "do (what they tell you)" as "put into practice", as one puts into practice a recommendation. We have rendered "do not do (their works)" as "ignore (their actions)", to express the idea that one should not imitate them and that one should ignore their way of acting. We have rendered "(they say and) do not" as "(these actions) differ from (what they say)", to express the discrepancy between their word and their conduct. As we said, the word "do" is a very general, non-specialized term that offers great flexibility to cover different situations.

In Matthew, the verb "to do" is of great importance. As much as in the Catholic Church orthodoxy (right doctrine) is what takes precedence, in the Jewish world it is orthopraxy (right action) that takes precedence. So it is not surprising that the Jewish Matthew emphasizes the things to be done. Of the 86 occurrences of the word, 52 are his own. Matthew's perception of the importance of doing is accentuated if we look closely at his Sermon on the Mount (5:1; 7:28), which for him is in some sense the charter of the Christian life. The word "do" appears 22 times, and 17 times it is his own, which makes 33% (17 occurrences out of 52) of the occurrences his own. Let's look in more detail. First of all, there is the affirmation that Jewish legislation is here to stay, even for the Christian:

For truly I say unto you, Before heaven and earth pass away, not one i, not one dot over the i, shall pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled. He therefore who violates one of these least commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be held to be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven; on the contrary, he who does them (poieō) and teaches them, that one will be held to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven (5:18-19)

But it remains that the three main actions required are: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.

So whoever you give (poieō) alms, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do (poieō) ...when you give (poieō) alms, do not let your left hand know what your right and is doing (poieō) (6: 2-3)

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites... when you pray, retire to your room, close the door on you (6: 5-6)

When you fast, do not look gloomy as the hypocrites do... when you fast, perfume your head and wash your face (6: 16-17)

When Matthew concludes his Sermon on the Mount, we are not surprised to see that he returns to "doing": the important thing is not to proclaim that one is a Jew or a Christian, the important thing is to demonstrate that one has acted.

It is not by saying to me, "Lord, Lord," that one will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is by doing (poieō) the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, was it not in your name that we prophesied? In your name did we cast out demons? In your name we have done many miracles? Then I will say to their faces, I never knew you; depart from me, you who commit iniquity (anomia) (7:21-23)

It is important to know that anomia means: absence of law or commandments. Thus, after beginning his Sermon on the Mount by asking to observe every little point of the Law, he ends it by saying that this observance of the Law will be the criterion for entering the kingdom of God. One cannot be more Jewish. In the same vein, we should read his parable of the man who had two sons and to whom he asked to go and work in his vineyard, one of whom answered negatively, but finally went, and the other answered affirmatively, but did not go, and which ends like this:

Which of the two has done (poieō) the will of the father" - "The first," they say. Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes come before you to the Kingdom of God (21:31)

It is difficult to disentangle what goes back to the time of Jesus and Matthew's editing to address his community of Judeo-Christians, probably centered around Antioch. The latter had a reputation for being quite conservative. But when one reads Matthew's gospel as a whole, one cannot help but get the impression of a slackening of the initial enthusiasm, so much so that we have this surprising phrase from him: "As a result of increasing iniquity (anomia), love (agapē) will grow cold among the many" (24: 12). Again, recall that anomia means: absence of laws or commandments. Matthew thus feels the need to remind a Jewish Christian community that seems to be detached from this law, and which is summed up in that of love; and so the last speech he puts in Jesus' mouth is that of the last judgment, centered on "doing" in the face of one who is hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison:

And the King will give them this answer: Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you have done (poieō) to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you have done (poieō) to me... Then shall he answer them, Truly I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have not done it (poieō) to one of these least, neither have ye done (poieō) it to me (20: 40.45)

Matthew's focus on "doing" gives us the context for understanding the Jesus he presents to us inveighing against the scribes and Pharisees.

tēreite (keep) This word is used especially in the Johannine tradition: Mt = 5; Mk = 0; Lk = 0; Jn = 17; Acts = 8; 1Jn = 7. The word first means "to keep", but, as in English, it designates various realities, and therefore can be translated in various ways. Let us consider five of them.
  • To keep in the sense of "remain faithful to" (20 times, only in the Johannine tradition): "He who has my commandments and keeps them (tēreō, who remains faithful to them), this is the one who loves me" (Jn 14:21)
  • To keep in the sense of "to watch over" (9 times): "Two chains bound him (Peter), and in front of the door sentries were guarding (tēreō) the prison" (Acts 12:6)
  • To keep in the sense of "to observe a rule, to submit to it" (4 times): "Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, since he does not observe (tēreō) the Sabbath"" (Jn 9:16)
  • To keep in the sense of "to preserve, or to store something, to keep it for" (3 times): "Then Jesus said, 'Let her alone: it was for the day of my burial that she was to keep (tēreō) this perfume'" Jn 12:7)
  • To keep in the sense of "to protect something or someone" (1 time): "We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; the Begotten of God protects (tēreō) him, and the Evil One has no hold on him" (1 Jn 5:18)

In Matthew, we encounter only two different meanings of the word, first "observe," as here and in 28:20, and "watch" in that scene peculiar to Matthew in which guards are assigned to watch the tomb where Jesus has been laid (27:36,54; 28:4). The five occurrences of tēreō in his gospel are all unique to him. But what is especially noteworthy is that tēreō, in the sense of observing the commandments of our v. 3, also concludes his gospel, when the risen Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee to send them out on a mission and tells them:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe (tēreō) all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (28:19-20)

The observance of the commandments and the practice of Jesus' teaching is at the heart of his gospel.

oun (therefore)
Oun is a frequent conjunction (Mt = 56; Mk = 6; Lk = 33; Jn = 200; Acts = 61) which means: therefore, then, indeed, as a result, so. It establishes a link between what precedes and what follows, a logical or chronological link. Even if Matthew does not use it quantitatively the most, it is nevertheless part of his typical vocabulary. To see this, it is enough to observe that of the 56 occurrences of the word in his gospel, 46 are his own. Not only does it appear in the sources that are his own, but he takes the initiative to add it to the other sources he copies, i.e. the Marcan source and the Q Document. For example (underlined what he modifies from his source):
17: 10 And the disciples asked him, saying: "Why therefore the scribes say that it is necessary for Elijah to come first?"9: 11 And they were asking him, saying, that the scribes say that it is necessary for Elijah to come first?"
22: 28 In the resurrection therefore, of which of the seven will she be wife? For all had her.12: 23 In the resurection when they rise, of which of them will she be wife? For the seven had her as wife

MatthewLuke (Q Document)
7: 24 Therefore everyone whoever hears of me these words and does them will be like a wise man (anēr) who built the house of him upon the rock 6: 47-48a Everyone who is coming to me and hearing of me the words and doing them, I will show whom he is like; he is like a man (anthrōpos) building a house who dug and deepened and laid a foundation upon the rock
10: 32 Everyone, therefore, who will confess in me before the men, I, I will also confess in him before the Father of me, the (one) in the heavens. 12: 8 Then, I say to you, everyone who perchance will confess in me before the men, the son of man will also confess in him before the angels of God

Why does Matthew insert "therefore"? He likes things to be well structured. For example, the disciples' question in 17:10 follows the transfiguration scene where Elijah was present, so the "therefore" makes the logical connection between the two passages. The "therefore" of 22:28 concludes the story about the death of all the woman's husbands and presents the question asked as the logical continuation. The "therefore" of 7:24 follows Jesus' warning that it is not enough to call him Lord, but that what he teaches must be put into practice, and so it makes the connection between this warning and the little parable that follows. The "therefore" of 10:32 follows Jesus' reminder that God cares for each of us, and allows us to conclude that, as a result, we should not be afraid to bear witness. Matthew is the expert on connections.

What then does the "therefore" of our v. 3 mean? Jesus has just said: "The Bible scholars and the Pharisees are sitting on the chair of Moses". How should we interpret this statement? Some might think that it is a usurpation, in the sense that they have unduly taken that place. The "therefore" that follows says the opposite: "Therefore, put into practice and observe whatever they tell you". The "therefore" means: accordingly. Thus, the duty to listen to the scribes and Pharisees is based on the fact that they have the same authority as Moses.

panta hosa ean (how many if)
The combination of the Greek words pas hosos ean is unique to Matthew in the Gospels-Acts. Aside from its presence here, it also appears earlier in 7:12: "In everything as you would (pas hosos ean) want men to do for you, do it yourselves for them: this is the Law and the Prophets". In the latter case, Matthew takes a passage from the Q Document, but it is he who seems to add pas hosos ean to his source. As for the expression hosos ean, it appears a few times in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 5; Mk = 1; Lk = 0; Jn = 0; Acts = 0. As we can see, the expression is found almost exclusively in Matthew. We are really in front of his vocabulary.

Now, what does Matthew tell us? "Observe everything that they (the scribes and Pharisees) may say to you." We have underlined "everything" because the statement seems devoid of nuance. But it is consistent with his Sermon on the Mount: "Whoever, therefore, violates one of these least commandments and teaches others to do the same, will be held to be the least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them, that one will be held to be great in the kingdom of heaven" (5:19). Moreover, Matthew distinguishes the message from the messenger. Even though he denounces the attitude of the messengers, the message retains all its force.

erga (works) The word ergon (work, action, deed) is not very frequent in the Gospels-Acts, except in John: Mt = 6; Mk = 2; Lk = 2; Jn = 27; Acts = 10. But in Matthew it plays an important role. Let us not forget that the Jewish world is centered on orthopraxy, therefore on actions and works. In fact, of the six occurrences in his gospel, five are unique to him. And in this last case, the word is always in the plural, to designate the whole of human action. This is what is expected of the Christian:
So shall your light shine before men that they may see your good works (ergon) and glorify your Father who is in heaven (5:16)

Jesus made himself known by his works (11:2), and the Wisdom of God made himself known by his works (11:19; the word "works" seems to be added by Matthew). So, in front of the key value of the accomplishment of works, the scribes and the Pharisees failed.

v. 4 In addition, they overload others with serious [demanding] and binding obligations, while they do not even want to lift them from their finger.

Literally: For they tie up (desmeuousin) burdens (phortia) heavy (barea) [and hard to bear (dysbastakta)] and place (epititheasin) (them) upon the shoulders (ōmous) of the men (anthrōpōn), then themselves with the finger (daktylō) of them they are not willing (thelousin) to move (kinēsai) them.

desmeuousin (they tie up) Verb desmeuō is very rare: Mt = 1; Mk = 0; Lc = 1; Jn = 0; Acts = 0. It means: to bind, to tie up. For example, in Lk 8:29 we read, "For many times he (the unclean spirit) had taken hold of him and he was kept bound (desmeuō) with chains and fetters..." In Acts 22:4, Luke puts into Paul's mouth these words, "I persecuted this Way to death, binding with chains (desmeuō) and throwing men and women into prison." In the rest of the New Testament, it is mostly the noun desmos (bond, chain, tie) that is used, especially in the context of Paul's imprisonment where he speaks of his chains (e.g., Phil 1:7 or Phlm 1:13 or Col 4:18). One may be surprised to see words like chains, when we are talking about commandments. But the Jewish world saw the demands of the law as a form of fettering that had to be joyfully accepted, as Ben Sira writes to his son, asking him to welcome wisdom and its instructions: "Put your feet in its fetters and your neck in its collar. Present your shoulder to his burden, do not be impatient of his chains (desmos)."

phortia (burdens) Phortion is an equally infrequent noun: Mt = 2; Mk = 0; Lk = 2; Jn = 0; Acts = 1. It means: load, burden, cargo, freight, goods. Its literal meaning refers to the merchandise one carries, as shown in this passage from Acts 27:10 where the ship on which Paul is sailing is about to be wrecked: "My friends," he told them, "I see that the navigation will not be without peril and serious damage not only to the cargo (phortion) and the ship, but even to our persons". It is also what an animal is loaded with for transport: "To the ass the fodder, the staff, and the load (phortion); to the slave the bread, the correction, and the labor" (Sir 33:25).

But, in the Gospels, phortion has a symbolic meaning:

  • Lk 11: 46 He said, "To you also, the lawyers, woe! Because you load men with heavy burdens (phortion), and you yourselves do not touch (those) burdens (phortion) with one of your fingers
  • Mt 11: 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden (phortion) light.

As we saw earlier in Sirach, the burden or charge refers to the instruction of the wise. And like any commandment, which derives from instruction, it has requirements that are not always easy for a human person.

In view of Matthew 11:30, which we have just read, where Jesus invites people to come to him, because his burden is light, is there not a contradiction in Matthew? For, let us not forget, Jesus has just said: "put into practice and observe whatever they tell you". But, at the same time, what they say is a heavy and binding burden; so Jesus would ask to accept this burden. One possible solution to this apparent contraction is that Matthew must maintain a delicate balance between avoiding a Jewish Christian community abandoning its entire religious heritage, somehow disintegrating and losing all its landmarks, and accepting a new vision centered on the risen Jesus and his message of radical love as spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew's community will remain a conservative community, but it will be able to find the essential.

In short, the image of chains conveys the idea of obligation: to practice the commandments is not optional. Here Matthew uses the image of loads or goods that are chained around an animal, such as a donkey, for transportation; since this load is well tied, the animal cannot get rid of it. Therefore, to translate the idea of a load to be carried that is obligatory, I have opted for the translation: "to overload with obligations".

barea (heavy) Barys is a very infrequent adjective (Mt = 1; Mk = 0; Lk = 0; Jn = 0; Acts = 2) in the whole New Testament and means: heavy, grave, violent. Luke uses it twice in Acts, first by putting the adjective in Paul's mouth in his farewell speech in Miletus when he says: "I, for one, know that after my departure there will come among you fierce (barys) wolves who will not spare the flock" (20:29); then he uses it to describe the situation of Paul under arrest in Caesarea, when "Jews who had come down from Jerusalem surrounded him, bringing against him many serious (barys) charges, which they were not able to prove" (25:7). Here, in the context of obligations, it should be translated as "serious": these obligations are important and serious.

anthrōpōn (men) Is there a word more banal than anthropos: man? Of course, it does not refer to the male as opposed to the female, but to the human being in general. We will learn without surprise that it is very frequent: Mt = 115; Mk = 56; Lk = 95; Jn = 59; Acts = 45. As we can see, this is a word that Matthew likes very much. Why is it so? He is not here to tell us. But we can put forward some hypotheses. First of all, let us note that out of the 115 occurrences, 53 are his own. And when we look closely at these occurrences that are his own, we get the impression that the evangelist has it play three roles:

  1. The word anthropos could be translated as: others, i.e. other people as opposed to ourself. This happens when Matthew presents people playing different roles, like the teacher versus the student, the believer versus the unbeliever. Some examples.
    • So must your light shine before others (anthropos) that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven (5:16)
    • He therefore who violates one of these least commandments, and teaches the others (anthropos) to do the same, shall be held to be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven (5:19)
    • And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites: they love, in order to make their prayers, to camp in synagogues and crossroads, so that they may be seen by others (anthropos) (6: 5)
    • You likewise outwardly offer to the eyes of others (anthropos) the appearance of righteousness, but within you are full of hypocrisy and unrighteousness (23: 28)

  2. Matthew likes to generalize concrete cases, and seems to want a particular situation to be applicable to a set of situations.
    • While Luke presents us with the phrase: "Now to which of you the father will the son ask for a fish" (11:11), Matthew offers us instead: "Or which of you the man (anthropos) will his son ask for bread" (7:9); without knowing the original version of the Q Document, one may nevertheless wonder why Matthew did not choose the word "father" which made more sense, since he is addressing a son?
    • While Luke presents us with the phrase: "Will be divided father against son and son against father" (12:53), Matthew offers instead: "For I have come to separate man (anthropos) against his father" (10:35); again, we note the same tendency in Matthew to generalize things, while he prefers man to father.
    • By generalizing the meaning of the word "man" in this way, Matthew is extending the applicability of his teaching, which becomes in some way universal:
      • Now I tell you, for every unfounded word that men (anthropos) have spoken, they shall give account on the Day of Judgment (12:36)
      • At the sight of this, the crowds were seized with fear and glorified God for having given such power (to forgive sins) to men (anthropos) (9:8)

  3. Finally, the word "man" is used as a vehicle to personalize a certain number of situations, in particular the parables: one passes from abstract ideas or phenomena to concrete persons.
    • While Mark writes, "One (someone) from the crowd answered him, 'Teacher, I have brought my son to you'" (9:17), Matthew prefers to take up this account thus: "A man (anthropos) came to him... and said, 'Lord, have mercy on my son'" (17:14-15)
    • In the parable of the mustard seed, Mark begins, "How shall we compare the kingdom of God... (It is) like a mustard seed which, when sown on the earth..." (4:31); Matthew prefers to write: "The kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed which a man (anthropos), (having taken it), sowed in his field" (13:31)
    • In all of Matthew's parables, man is always at the center of the action.
      • "He offered them another parable: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man (anthropos) who has sown good grain in his field" (13: 24)
      • "The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that was hidden in a field and that a man (anthropos) comes to find: he hides it again" (13, 44)
      • "The Kingdom of Heaven is again like a merchant man (anthropos) in search of fine pearls" (13: 45)
      • "And he said to them, "So then every scribe who has become a disciple of the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man (anthropos) who is a landlord who draws from his treasure both new and old" (13:52)

Why is it so important to insert the word "man"? Once again, let us recall the capital importance of orthopraxy in the Jewish world. Man is called to act, and by his free will he decides on these choices. Matthew seems to emphasize this dramatic aspect of human life, where man is called to choose between good and evil, as Deuteronomy so often reminds us. And in speaking of man, he can address humanity in general.

Let us return to v. 4. We have said that Matthew seems to give the word "man" three roles. It is quite clear that here it is the first role that he makes the word play, and that it must be translated by "others": indeed, on the one hand there are the scribes and the Pharisees who enact the rules, and on the other hand there are those who must put them into practice, i.e. "the others".

dysbastakta (hard to bear)
The adjective dysbastaktos means: hard to bear, intolerable, heavy. It comes from the Q Document and is found nowhere else in the entire New Testament: Mt = 1; Mk = 0; Lk = 1; Jn = 0; Acts = 0. And in the Septuagint it appears only in the book of Proverbs: "The stone is heavy and the sand is difficult (dysbastaktos) (to carry)" (27:3). This adjective also has as a synonym: dyskolos (difficult, uneasy) which appears only in Mark throughout the New Testament in the context of Jesus' speech about the rich ("My children, how difficult (dyskolos) it is to enter the kingdom of God! ", 10:23), and the associated adverb dyskolōs (hardly) which also appears in the same context in Mark ("How difficult (dyskolōs) it will be for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God!", 10:24), a text which Luke (18:24) and Matthew (19:23) copy. Two conclusions are obvious: first dysbastaktos is not part of Matthew's vocabulary, and second, the word means something heavy, in the sense that it is difficult to bear, almost intolerable, hence our translation "demanding."

One will have noticed the square brackets: [and demanding]. Why? There is no unanimity in the Greek manuscripts. The expression is present in the codeci Synaicus (4th c.), Vaticanus (4th c.), Bezae (5th c.), in the Latin translation of the Vulgate (4th c.) and some old Latin translations that range from the 5th to the 7th century, some Syriac translations that range from the 4th to the 7th century, as well as the Coptic Sahidic translation (3rd or 4th c.) and in some ancient authors like Clement of Alexandria (3rd c.) or John Chrysostom (5th c.). On the other hand, it is absent from the Codex Regius (8th c.), from certain old Latin, Syriac (including the Peshitta) and Coptic translations, and from ancient authors such as Irenaeus of Lyon (3rd c.) and Origen (3rd c.). How can we decide which version is the most authentic? Because of the value and number of manuscripts that support the "demanding" reading, most Bibles have opted to keep this expression. It must be acknowledged, however, that it is possible that the presence of the expression in Matthew v. 4 comes from the initiative of a copyist who, having noted it in the parallel passage of Luke 11:46 ("because you burden others with heavy (dysbastaktos) burdens", thought it appropriate to make some harmonization between the two texts. And this harmonization may have occurred very early in the manuscript tradition. In short, one cannot be completely sure of the authentic reading, hence the square brackets.

epititheasin (they place upon) Verb epitithēmi is a compound word, formed from the verb tithēmi (to put) and the preposition epi (upon), hence the various translations: to lay upon, to put upon, to impose, to inflict, to provide: Mt = 6; Mk = 8; Lk = 4; Jn = 2; Acts = 13. In the whole of the Gospels-Acts, it appears especially in three different contexts.

  1. In the context of the laying on of hands (15 times, including 8 times in the Acts of the Apostles): "And he could do no miracle there, except that he healed some of the infirm by laying on (epitithēmi) his hands" (Mk 6:5)

  2. In the context of putting or placing something on an object or person (14 times): "Jesus put (epitithēmi) his hands on the blind man's eyes again, and he saw clearly and was made whole" (Mk 8:25); or again, "and having woven a crown with thorns, they placed it (epitithēmi) on his head" (Mt 27:29); note that Mark also uses it in the case where a name is given to someone, i. e. one puts a name on the person: "So he instituted the Twelve, and he gave (epitithēmi) to Simon the name Peter" (3:16).

  3. Finally, in the context of putting blows on someone, thus inflicting wounds (3 times): "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell into the midst of robbers who, after stripping him and beating (epitithēmi) him with blows, went away, leaving him half-dead" (Lk 10:30)

What about in Matthew? The first thing to note is that the verb epitithēmi appears twice in the context of laying on of hands (to children) (19: 13.15), and four times in the context of placing something on an object or person. Then, even if it does not appear as a word he is particularly fond of, he uses it systematically to describe certain situations according to his habit of standardizing everything, i.e. similar actions must be described with the same words. Let's give some examples.

  • While Mark on four occasions uses epitithēmi to speak of the laying on of hands, surprisingly he opts for tithēmi(put, place, lay) when he describes Jesus' action with the children: "And having kissed them, he blessed them, having laid (tithēmi) his hands on them" (Mk 10:16). When Matthew copies this passage into his gospel, what does he do? Of course, he corrects tithēmi with epitithēmi: "And having laid (epitithēmi) his hands on them, he departed from there" (Mt 19: 15)

  • In the scene of Jesus' messianic entry into Jerusalem, Mark writes: "And they bring the colt to Jesus and they put (epiballō) on him their coats" (Mk 11:8). Since we are dealing here with putting something on an object, Matthew resorts to his standard language when he recopies this scene: "They brought the donkey and the colt and they put (epitithēmi) on them the cloaks" (Mt 21: 7).

  • When Mark describes the episode of the crown of thorns, he uses the verb peritithēmi (to throw around, to put on): "And they put (peritithēmi) on him, having braided it, a thorny crown" (Mk 15:17). Matthew repeats this scene thus: "and having braided a crown of thorns, they laid (epitithēmi) it on his head" (Mt 27:29; it is difficult to determine whether Matthew makes this change, or receives it from a tradition also known to Jn 19:2, the fact remains that he likes the standard language).

Because of this systematization of vocabulary, the six occurrences of epitithēmi in his gospel are unique to him, even though most of the scenes are borrowed from Mark; he does not seem to appreciate the fanciful impulses of his predecessor.

Here, in v. 4, we have a clear case of placing something on someone, in this case obligations that people will have to put into practice. We have a similar situation in the Acts of the Apostles as Luke recounts that famous meeting in Jerusalem where it was necessary to discuss what obligations should or should not be imposed on Christians from paganism, and where he puts this phrase in Peter's mouth: "Why then are you now tempting God by wanting to put (epitithēmi) on the disciples a yoke that neither our fathers nor we ourselves had the strength to bear?" (Acts 15: 10) The parallel is clear enough: whether we speak of burdens, obligations, loads or yoke, we are referring to these commandments of the Jewish tradition. And it is also clear that they are demanding and difficult to follow.

ōmous (shoulders) In the entire New Testament, this word appears only here and in Luke 15:5 ("And when he (the shepherd) had found it (his sheep), he put it on his shoulders with joy"). The shoulder refers to the upper back. As one carries heavy objects on one's back, the shoulders come to designate the loads that one must carry. Even today, in common parlance, someone is said to have "broad shoulders" to express the fact that he or she is responsible for many things. In the Old Testament, the responsibilities on his shoulders could be seen in a positive light: LXX "For unto us a little child is born, and unto us a son is given; and the principality rests upon his shoulder (ōmos), and he is called by that name, the Angel of the great council. By him I will bring peace upon princes, by him health and peace" (Isa 9:5). But more often the word refers to the constraints that stifle: LXX "And in that day this will happen: your yoke will be taken off your shoulder (ōmos), and you will be delivered from your fear, and the yoke that weighed on your shoulders (ōmos) will be reduced to powder" (Isa 10:25). It is in this context that we must read what the scribes and Pharisees put on people's shoulders. As we saw earlier with Sirach, the commandments of the law can be seen as a weight on the shoulders, i.e., something heavy that one must carry: "Bend your shoulder (ōmos) to carry it (wisdom), and do not be angry at its bonds" (Sir 6:25). In fact, it is about bending the back, but the shoulder represents the back. And it is on one's back that one must carry the commandments of the law, i.e. put them into practice.

thelousin (they are willing) Verb thelō means: to want, to be determined to, to desire, to wish, to enjoy, to love. This is a very Matthaean word: Mt = 43; Mk = 25; Lk = 28; Jn = 23; Acts = 14. Of the 43 occurrences in his gospel, 27 are his own. Thus, not only does he use it more often than the other evangelists, but he sometimes adds it to his sources. A typical example is the account of the transfiguration. Mark 9:5 writes: "And Peter answering said to Jesus, 'Rabbi, it is good that we are here; and let us make three tents, for you one and for Moses one and for Elijah one'", Matthew copies this text with especially two modifications: "And Peter answering said to Jesus: 'Lord, it is good that we are here; if thou wilt, I will make here three tents, for thee one and for Moses one and for Elijah one'" (see also the feeding of the crowds where, faced with the prospect of Jesus sending the crowd away fasting, Matthew adds to Mark's account "I do not want to, they might faint" (15:32).

Why this insistence on the will? When we read Matthew's gospel, we notice a particular insistence on doing: "It is not by saying to me, 'Lord, Lord,' that one will enter the kingdom of heaven, but by doing the will of my Father who is in heaven" (7:21). This is a typically Jewish attitude where the emphasis is on orthopraxis, the "doing", the right action; it is more important to have right actions, than right ideas (orthodoxy). Thus, it is likely that he adds "Thy will be done as in heaven so on earth" to the Lord's Prayer (a phrase absent in Luke 11:2). The importance of this will is seen in some parables, such as that of the workers of the last hour: "Take what is yours, and go. I want this last to give as to thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I want with my goods? Or is your eye evil because I am good?" (20:14-15); or again, that of the two sons to whom the father asks to go and work in the vineyard: "I do not want , answered the first; then overcome with remorse, he went... the second answered, "Understood, Lord, and he did not go. Which of the two did the will of the father" (21:29-31).

Thus, for Matthew, the human being has the immense responsibility for his decisions and actions, which he is called to adjust to the will of God. When he says in the words of Jesus to the Canaanite woman: "Let it be done to you as you wish" (Mt 15: 28), he underlines the importance of the action taken by the woman from the beginning, of respecting her free decision to pursue him to the point of annoying him. This decision and action was based on his great faith.

Here, in v. 4, Matthew emphasizes the responsibility of the scribes and Pharisees. He does not say: they are not able, but rather: they are not willing. It is a decision on their part for which they bear responsibility; they have made themselves "outlaws".

kinēsai (to move) Verb kineō is very rare and is only present in Mt, Mk, Ac and Revelation in the whole New Testament: Mt = 2; Mk = 1; Lk = 0; Jn = 0; Ac = 3; Rev = 2. It means: to move, stir, shake, remove. It is a word that refers to the dynamic capacities of the body, and which gave us the word: kinesthesia. It was Mark who introduced the word with the scene at the cross: "The passers-by reviled him by shaking (kineō) his head and saying, 'Hey, you who destroy the Sanctuary and rebuild it in three days'" (15:29). Matthew repeated this scene in 27:29. The movement of moving the head was seen as a sign of derision as seen in some Old Testament passages:
  • "All who saw me mocked me; they murmured between their lips, they shook (kineō) their heads" (Ps 22:8)
  • "Then he (your enemy) will shake (kineō) his head, he will clap his hands, he will not cease to whisper and will take on another face" (Sir 12:18)
  • "He (the rich man) will make you ashamed with his feasts, until he has robbed you two or three times, after which he will see you and forsake you, and shake (kineō) his head before you." (Sir 13: 7)

In the Acts of the Apostles, the verb designates movement of which we are capable by the very fact that we are alive (17: 28), the agitation of an overexcited crowd (21: 30), the action of sowing disorder in a city (24: 5).

Here, in v. 4, we are faced with a unique meaning: moving the finger. Since it is a matter of moving the finger to assume the burden of obligations, we have chosen to translate kineō with "to lift", as one lifts a weight.

daktylō (finger)
There is little to say about daktylos which, surprising as it may seem, is found only in the gospels throughout the New Testament: Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 3; Jn = 3; Acts = 0. In John, it is Jesus who writes with his finger in the sand and remains silent when asked about the adulterous woman (8:6) and it is the scene with Thomas who will not believe until he puts his finger in the nail mark (20:25.27). In Mark, it is Jesus who heals a deaf man by putting his fingers in his ears (7: 33). In Luke, it is Jesus who says that he casts out demons by the finger of God (11:20), it is the rich man who, in the afterlife, asks Abraham to dip his finger in water to refresh his tongue (16:24), and it is the passage parallel to Matthew where Jesus reproaches the lawyers for not touching with one of their fingers the burdens that they impose on people (16:24)

Thus, here in v. 4, Matthew takes from the Q Document this passage where Jesus pities the scholars of the law who make harsh demands on people, while they in no way touch these demands, either closely or remotely. But his way of expressing himself differs slightly from that of Luke. Let's take a closer look.

Mt 23: 4Lk 11: 46
then themselves with the finger of them, they are unwilling (thelō) to move (kineō) them (phortia = burdens).and yourselves with one of the fingers of you, you do not touch (prospsauō) the burdens (phortia)

Four things should be noted:

  1. Mt and Lk have the same vocabulary to designate the burdens that crush people: phortia
  2. While Mt uses kineō (move, stir, lift) to describe the relationship with the finger, a word found 8 times in the New Testament, and many times in the Old Testament, Lk uses prospsauō (touch), a word found nowhere else in the entire Bible
  3. Mt addresses the disciples, and therefore speaks of the scribes and Pharisees in the 3rd person (themselves), whereas Luke addresses the lawyers directly with 1st person language (yourself)
  4. Finally, Matthew introduces us to the verb thelō, one of his favorite words.

It is likely, then, that Luke, as we have already pointed out, is closer to the original Q Document, while Mt makes his editing work felt, such as the use of thelō, an important word in his vocabulary. For if similar words were in the mouth of Jesus (in their Aramaic version, of course), it is likely that he was addressing the scholars of the law directly to denounce their attitude, in the manner of a prophet; with Matthew, we are in the time of the Christian community being taught about "adversaries" not to imitate. Finally, if one has to choose between "touch" or "lift" for the original version of the Q Document, in speaking of the finger, one must choose "touch", even because of its rarity, for in an editing work one tends to resort to vocabulary one knows well.

So, if "touch with one of his fingers" comes from the Q Document that Matthew had in front of him, why did he turn it into "lift with their fingers"? Knowing Matthew's taste for logical structures, we can guess that, after a sentence about a burden on the shoulders, he found it more logical to have fingers lifting them, rather than fingers touching them. That would be his style anyway.

v. 5 All their actions they do to be seen by others, and this is how they magnify their badges of piety and lengthen the religious tassels at the bottom of their clothing.

Literally: Then all the works of them they do towards the to be observed (theathēnai) by the men. For they broaden (platynousin) the phylacteries (phylaktēria) of them and enlarge (megalynousin) the tassels (kraspeda).

theathēnai (to be observed) The word theaomai is practically non-existent outside the gospels-Acts and the Johannine tradition: Mt = 4; Mk = 2; Lk = 3; Jn = 5; Acts = 3; 1 Jn = 3 (the exception being Rom 15:24). It means: to look, to contemplate, to see, to observe. It appears in two different contexts: that of noticing someone, observing and examining him, and that of faith where one "sees" the risen Jesus (appendix to Mark's gospel) and contemplates his glory (Johannine tradition).

In Matthew, of the four occurrences, three are unique to him. But what is remarkable is to find twice in these three occurrences a structure that is a mirror of his style: the preposition "towards" (pros), followed by the neuter definite article "the" (to), followed by the verb in the infinitive.

  • 6: 1 "Beware of practicing your piety before others, towards (pros) the(to) to be seen (theathēnai) by them (i.e. in order to be seen)"
  • 23: 5 "They do all deeds towards (pros) the (to) to be seen (theathēnai) by others (i.e. in order to be seen)"

In the Gospels-Acts, this structure is used 7 times: 1 time by Luke (18: 1), 1 time by Mark (13: 22) and 5 times by Matthew; apart from the two verses quoted, there is also:

  • 5: 28 "Everyone who looks at a woman towards (pros) the (to) to lust (epithymēsai) (i.e. in order to lust) after her had committed adultery with her already in his heart"
  • 13: 30 "Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles towards (pros) the (to) to be burned (katakausai) (i.e. in order to be burnt), but gather the wheat into my barn"
  • 26: 12 "By pouring this ointment on my body, she did it towards (pros) the (to) to prepare burial (entaphiasai) (i.e. in order to prepare the burial) of me"

Thus, here in 23: 5, we have a sentence that reflects the style of Matthew, and which is the negative side of one of the recommendations of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount in 6,1: "Beware of practicing your righteousness in front of others in order to be well seen by them". And three examples are given:

  • "Therefore, when you give alms, do not go about proclaiming it before you... let your alms be secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will repay you" (6: 2-4)
  • "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who like to camp out in the synagogues and crossroads so that they may be seen... When you pray, go to your room and shut the door, and pray to your Father who is there..." (6: 5-6)
  • "When you fast, do not look gloomy as hypocrites do... so that men may see that they are fasting... when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be known, not to men, but to your Father who is there in secret" (6: 16-18)

The scribes and Pharisees are doing exactly what Jesus told them not to do.

platynousin (they broadened) Verb platynō appears only here in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 1; Mk = 0; Lk = 0; Jn = 0; Acts = 0. It means: to enlarge, to widen, to open, to amplify. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul uses it twice in 2 Corinthians 6 where he writes that he has opened his heart wide to the Corinthians (11), and invites them to do the same (13). In the Old Testament it is found a few times in its main books; it speaks of opening wide or dilating one's heart (e.g. Ps 119:32), of opening one's mouth wide to rant against someone (e.g. Ps 35:21), of the branches of a tree growing larger because of the abundance of water (Ezek 31:5), of the person who has become fat (Deut 32:15), etc. In short, it is always the idea of a person or an object that is expanding. Here, in v. 5, the expanding object is a symbol of piety, because the scribes and Pharisees want it to be seen. We have opted for the translation: to magnify, as one magnifies a small object with a magnifying glass.

phylaktēria (phylacteries) Chagall: a Jew in prayer The word phylaktērion appears only here in the whole Bible. It designates the parchments containing, written, certain texts of the law, and that one carried in small boxes attached to the forehead or on the arm, according to a very literal reading of the prescriptions of the Bible, more precisely of the following texts:

  • Ex 13: 16: "It will be a sign on your hand, a band on your forehead, for by the strength of his hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt"
  • Deut 6: 6.8: "Let these words that I dictate to you today remain in your heart... you will attach them to your hand as a sign, on your forehead as a bandage"
  • Deut 11: 18: "These words that I say to you, put them in your heart and in your soul, attach them to your hand as a sign, to your forehead as a bandage"

Phylactery is therefore a very technical term. To generalize its meaning, I thought of translating it by: badge of piety, i.e. an emblem expressing their devotion to the word of God (Picture: a Jew in prayer of Chagall where we see on the forehead and on the arm of the phylacteries)

megalynousin (they enlarge) Verb megalynō is very rare: Mt = 1; Mk = 0; Lk = 2; Jn = 0; Acts = 3. Apart from the Gospels-Acts, it is found only in Paul (Phil 1:20; 2 Cor 10:15). It means: to make great, to enlarge, to grow, to magnify, to exalt. In Luke, it means to magnify or proclaim praise or express the greatness of someone: Mary exalts the Lord (Lk 1:48), the Lord expresses his greatness by his mercy (Lk 1:58), the people hold Christian community in high esteem (Acts 5:13), the people speak in tongues and magnify God (Acts 10:46), and the name of the Lord is glorified (Acts 19:17); the context is religious and liturgical. In Paul, it is the place of the apostle in the heart of his community that grows (2 Cor 10:15), or it is Christ who is glorified in the body of the apostle (Phil 1:20). All this offers few parallels with Mt 23:5. As for the Old Testament, we wander around in the same waters, where the term varies between its religious meaning (e.g. Sir 43:31: "Who is able to praise him as he is?"), and its ordinary meaning (e.g. Ezek 9:9: "The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah has grown very, very much").

Megalynō in Mt 23:5 refers to what was done with the fringe or the tassels of the robes of the pious, and we think that it was a question of lengthening them so that they were more conspicuous.

kraspeda (tassels) Fringe of the Egyptian garment As one might guess, kraspedon (edge or fringe of a garment or cloak) is infrequent in the entire Bible (9 occurrences in all): Mt = 3; Mk = 1; Lk = 1; Jn = 0; Acts = 0; Nb = 2; Dt = 1; Za = 1. This fringe is made at the end of a piece of cloth by reserving a certain length of the warp threads that are knotted, or tied with another thread. "Mesopotamian art almost always represents people dressed in fringed fabrics... Later, fringe was reduced to four tassels at the corners of coats" (L. Monloubou, F.M. Du But, Dictionnaire biblique universel. Paris-Québec, Desclée – Anne Sigier, 1984, p. 275).

In the Gospels, Jesus is presented as a pious Jew who wore a fringe on his garment. This fringe had a purple thread on it, a symbol of heaven, and was meant to remind people of the commandments of God. Thus, it was surrounded by a certain veneration, as we see in the episodes where people try to touch it.

  • Mk 6: 56: "And wherever he went, whether villages, towns or farms, they put the sick in the squares and begged him to let them touch even the fringe (kraspedon) of his cloak, and all who touched him were saved" (see also Mt 14:36)
  • Lk 8: 44: "Came up from behind and (the hemorrhoidal woman) touched the fringe (kraspedon) of his cloak; and immediately her flow of blood stopped" (see also Mt 9:20)


Jewish tradition dates this practice back to Moses.

  • Num 15: 38-39: LXX "Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, Make fringes (kraspedon) on the edges of your coats in all your generations; add to the fringe (kraspedon) a taper the color of hyacinth. This taper shall be mingled with the fringe (kraspedon), and you shall have it before your eyes, and you shall remember the commandments of the Lord, and keep them, and not be perverted by your evil thoughts, nor by eyes that would cause you to fall into fornication.
  • Deut 22: 12: LXX "Thou shalt make fringes (kraspedon) on the four borders of thy garments, with which soever thou mayest be clothed"

Note that the hyacinth-colored taper in the book of Numbers is a reference to the red-violet ribbon used in the liturgy (see Ex 28:28), and thus evokes the consecration of the people to God.


The scribes and Pharisees would "enlarge" these "fringes." Since the word "fringe" can be applied to any garment to indicate the edge, we preferred to translate kraspedon as "religious tassel" to indicate that it is the extension of the fringe with this tassel shape. And enlarging this tassel was to make it longer, hence our translation.

v. 6 They like the first couch at banquets and places of honor at the synagogue,

Literally: Then, they love (philousin) the chief place (prōtoklisian) at the banquets (deipnois) and the first seats (prōtokathedrias) in the synagogues (synagōgais).

philousin (they love)
Phileō is with agapaō the way to express the act of loving in the Greek world (if we exclude eraō which expresses rather the passionate love of a man and a woman). In this culture, the adjective philos expresses membership in a social group, without sentimental connotations, while the verb phileō means: to cherish, to love, to have friendship (on phileō and agapaō, see the Glossary). In the Old Testament, the act of loving one's God or neighbor is expressed by the Hebrew verb ʾāhab, which the Septuagint translated as agapaō (e.g., Deut 6:5: "You shall love (agapaō) the Lord your God with all your mind, with all your soul, with all your strength"). In the New Testament, it is also agapaō that is used to express this reality. But sometimes agapaō and phileō are used equivalently, especially in John.

Let's look more specifically at phileō. In the Old Testament, the verb usually has three different meanings.

  1. To love a person, and therefore is synonymous with agapaō, and it translates the Hebrew ʾāhab. Examples:
    • Gen 37: 4: LXX "His (Joseph's) brothers, having seen that his father loved (phileō) him more than any of his sons, hated him; and they could not speak a word of peace to him"
    • Prov 8: 17: LXX "I love (agapaō) those who love me (phileō), and those who seek me find me"

  2. The verb means: to kiss, and translates the Hebrew: nāšaq. Examples:
    • Prov 7: 13: LXX "then she caught him, and kissed (phileō) him, and said to him in an impudent voice"
    • Gen 29: 11: LXX "And Jacob kissed (phileō) Rachel, ad cried with a loud voice and wept"

  3. The verb describes the love of a thing or the preference for an object, and translates the Hebrew ʾāhab . Examples:
    • Isa 56: 10: LXX "See how blinded they all are; they know nothing; they are dumb dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming on their beds, loving (phileō) to slumber."
    • Gen 27: 4: LXX "And make me meats, as I like (phileō) them, and bring them to me that I may eat, that my soul may bless thee, before I die."
    • Prov 21: 17: LXX "A poor man loves (agapaō) mirth, loving (phileō) wine and oil in abundance"

When we turn to the New Testament (Mt = 5; Mk = 1; Lk = 2; Jn = 13; Acts = 0), we also find these three meanings:

  • Loving another person: "For the Father himself loves (phileō) you, because you have loved (phileō) me and have believed that I came from God." (Jn 16: 27)
  • To kiss: "Now the traitor had given them this agreed sign: 'He whom I shall kiss (phileō), is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard" (Mk 14: 44)
  • Liking or preferring a thing: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites: they love (phileō) to stand and pray in the synagogues and the streets corners, so that they may be seen by others" (Mt 6: 5)

Here, in v. 6, it is the expression of the interest and preferences of the scribes and Pharisees that phileō translates; this interest and preferences go to what makes them look good and makes them look good to others.

prōtoklisian (chief place) Prōtoklisia is formed from two words: prōtos (first) and klisia (a place to lie down at a meal). Thus it means: place of honor at the table, or first couch. Note that people used to lie on couches at festive meals. In the New Testament, it appears only in the synoptic gospels: Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 3; Jn = 0; Acts = 0. It was Mark who introduced the term with this passage: "(The scribes delight) in occupying the first seats in the synagogues and the first couches (prōtoklisia) at feasts" (12:39), a passage that is taken up by Lk 40:46 and Mt 23:6. To these three references, we can add two occurrences in Luke:
  • Lk 14: 7-8: "He then said a parable to the guests, noticing how they chose the first couches (prōtoklisia); he said to them: when someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not go and lie down on the first couch (prōtoklisia), lest a more worthy person than you has been invited by your host."

From the social mores of the time, we can guess that the best couch was very close to the host who had organized the banquet, and that this was a mark of deference and honor. So this is what the scribes and Pharisees seem to be looking for. At first glance, one imagines that many of them must have been members of the aristocracy.

deipnois (banquets) Deipnon does not designate any meal, but the main meal taken in the evening, and especially a festive meal, especially at the wedding. It is not very frequent in the New Testament as a whole: apart from the Gospels-Acts (Mt = 1; Mk = 2; Lk = 5; Jn = 4; Acts = 0), it appears only in Paul when he admonishes the Christian community about their way of eating the Lord's Supper together (1 Cor 11:20-21), and in Revelation, which speaks of the wedding feast with the Lamb (Rev 19:9.17).

In John, the festive meal appears in two circumstances: the meal with Martha, Mary and Lazarus (12:2), and Jesus' last meal (13:2.4; 22:20). In Mark, reference is made to two meals, that of Herod celebrating his birthday (6:21) and that of the admonition of the scribes (12:39). In Luke, the mention of the festive meal is found in an exhortation of Jesus, when invited to a meal by a Pharisee, not to invite his friends when one is being held (14:12), followed by a parable about a man frustrated at not receiving a response when he invites to a large meal (14:16-17.24), and in a warning against the lawyers (20:46). In Matthew, we find only our text in 23:6.

In short, we are not dealing with a frequent event. It is a meal of great occasion. But this is what the scribes and Pharisees are looking for.

prōtokathedrias (first seats) Prōtokathedria is formed from two words: prōtos (first) and kathedra (seat, sitting or resting position), and thus means: first place, place of honor. It is a word that appears nowhere in the Bible, except in the synoptic gospels: Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 2; Jn = 0; Acts = 0. And the four occurrences are centered on the attitude of the scribes, the Pharisees and the lawyers and their search for the first place in the synagogue: there is first Mark 12:39 ("they like to occupy the first seats in the synagogues") which is taken up again in Lk 20:46 and Mt 23:6, then Lk 11:43 ("Woe to you Pharisees, who like the first seat in the synagogues")

There is a strong theme here in the evangelical tradition. And it should come as no surprise: what could be more gratifying for a biblical scholar than to be recognized in the very place where the Bible is proclaimed and studied?

synagōgais (synagogues)
The word means: place of gathering, synagogue, assembly. It is associated with the verb synagō which means: to gather, assembly. In the Old Testament it is very frequent and refers to anything that is multiple of something, for example: "an assembly of nations" (Gen 35:11), "the assembly of Jacob" (Deut 33:4), "the band of bulls" (Ps 68:31). In the New Testament, the word is found practically only in the Gospels-Acts (Mt = 9; Mk = 8; Lk = 15; Jn = 2; Acts = 19; the exception being Jas 2: 2 and Rev 2:9; 3:9). And it always refers to the gathering in the synagogue. This is not surprising: Jesus frequented the synagogue, and the first Christians, like Paul, frequented the synagogue until they were thrown out (on the synagogue celebrations, see the Glossary).

What about the synagogue in Matthew? It is remarkable that of the 9 occurrences of the word in Matthew, 6 are preceded by the possessive adjective "their" or "your", for example, "their synagogues" (4:23; 9:35; 10:7; 12:9; 13:54) or "your synagogues" (23:34). This is much, much more than in the other authors: Mt = 6; Mk = 2; Lk = 1; Jn = 0; Acts = 0. Let us recognize that of the 6 occurrences, 2 come from Mark (just as the only reference in Lk comes from Mark). The fact remains that 4 occurrences are his own. What conclusion can we draw from this? First of all, the expression "their" or "your" creates a certain distance: it now means that there is a separation between the we and the you; it is no longer our synagogue, but your synagogue. Second, the Jew Matthew seems to be at loggerheads with his co-religionists or people of his race. Thus, some of these texts seem to have been written at a time when Christians were going less and less to the synagogue.

On the other hand, we notice that our v.6 speaks only of "the synagogues", as do the parallel texts of the Sermon on the Mount 6: 2.5: these three occurrences all belong to a context where Jesus denounces this attitude of going to the synagogue to be seen and to assert one's claims, and these three occurrences are the only ones in Matthew where it is not a question of "their synagogues". What does this mean? We seem to have an echo of a tradition that goes back a long way, perhaps to Jesus himself, even if Matthew reshapes it according to his own style.

v. 7 just like receiving bows in the public square and being called by others: master.

Literally: and the greetings (aspasmous) in the marketplaces (agorais) and to be called (kaleisthai) by the men "rabbi" (rhabbi).

aspasmous (greetings) The name aspasmos means: oral or written greeting, embrace, hug. In the New Testament, it appears only in the synoptic gospels (Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 5; Jn = 0; Acts = 0) and in Paul ("The greeting is from my hand, Paul") where it is used to conclude some letters (1 Cor 16:21; Col 4:18; 2 Thess 3:17). It is totally absent from the Septuagint. In the Synoptics, it is found only in two contexts, first that of the scribes who, according to Mark 12:38, like to receive greetings in public places, taken up by Matthew 23:7 and Luke 11:43 and 20:46, then that of Luke's infancy narrative where Mary receives the angel's greeting (1:29: "Greeting, full of grace, the Lord is with you") and wonders what it means, where Elizabeth receives Mary's greeting (1:40. 44), which causes little John the Baptist to leap in her womb. There is, therefore, an important action in the gesture of the greeting that no longer exists in our modern greetings. For the scribes, lawyers and Pharisees to seek it out, there must have been a social impact that is difficult for us to guess. In order to describe what was rewarding about this gesture, we propose to translate aspasmos as "bowing," to express the social recognition implied by this gesture.

agorais (marketplaces)
The agora was an important place of social life in antiquity. First of all, it was located at the entrance to the city, not in its center. It was where the magistrates passed judgment (Acts 16:19: "But his masters, seeing their hopes of gain vanish, seized Paul and Silas, dragged them to the agora before the magistrates"), it was where the market was held (Ezek 27:22: "The merchants of Sheba and Rhamma traded with you; they brought to your market (agora) the most sought-after spices, precious stones, and gold"), this is where one must go to meet people (Acts 17:17: "So he (Paul) talked in the synagogue with Jews and those who worshipped God, and in the agora every day with the passers-by"). According to Mark, Jesus frequented the public squares, and it was there very often that he performed healings (Mk 6:56: "And wherever he went, whether villages, towns, or farms, they put the sick in the marketplaces (agora) and begged him to let them touch even the fringe of his cloak, and everyone who touched him was saved"). So a motley crowd was there, and that is why Mark writes: "The Pharisees do not eat on their way back from the marketplaces (agora) until they have sprinkled themselves with water (to purify themselves)" (7:4).

Matthew uses this word three times (Mt = 3; Mk = 3; Lk = 3; Jn = 0; Acts = 0) which does not exist elsewhere in the New Testament than in the Gospels-Acts.

  • 11: 16 "But to whom shall I compare this generation? It looks like kids sitting in the marketplaces (agora), calling out to others"
  • 20: 3 (parable of the 11th hour workers) "When he went out about the third hour, he saw others standing idle in the marketplaces (agora)"
  • 23: 7 "As well as receiving bows in the marketplaces (agora)"

While the parable of the workers of the 11th hour is unique to Matthew, the other two references where agora appears are also found in Luke

  • Lk 7: 32 "They are like children sitting in the marketplace (agora) and calling to one another"
  • Lk 11: 43 "Woe to Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces! (agora)"
  • Lk 20: 46 "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces (agora)"

It will be seen later, in the analysis of parallels, that because of the order in which agora appears (i.e., last, after feasts and synagogues), we can conclude that Matthew, here in v. 7, has copied not Mark, but the source Q (that source common to Matthew and Luke). And given the antiquity of this source and the fact that the attitude reproached seems to fit well with the time of Jesus, it is possible that these reproaches against biblical scholars reflect Jesus' prophetic interventions: despite the requirement to be cleansed afterwards, highly religious people frequented public squares to be adored. When Matthew takes up this tradition, he is now targeting Christians tempted by a similar attitude.

kaleisthai (to be called) Verb kaleō (Mt = 26; Mk = 4; Lk = 43; Jn = 2; Acts = 18) has two main meanings: 1) to receive a name, to be called by the name of, to give a name (2/3 of the Gospels-Acts); 2) to invite someone, to call him, to summon him (very often to a festive meal). In Matthew, of the 26 occurrences, 20 are his own, which represents a good proportion. As for the two main meanings, they are almost equally divided (14 in reference to the name, 12 in reference to the summons). Here, in v. 7, it is of course the meaning of "to receive a name", a meaning that he likes, since out of the 14 occurrences, 13 are his own.

rhabbi (rabbi) Greek term rhabbi is a transliteration of the Hebrew rabbi, and the Greek rhabbouni of the Aramaic rabbouni. This is what gave us the word: rabbi. It means: "my master"; because the root is רַב, "great" to which we add the possessive adjective "my", which is expressed in Hebrew and Aramaic with the suffix in "i": רַבִּי‎ (rhabbi in Hebrew), רַבּוּני‎ (rhabbouni in Aramaic). The word rhabbi does not exist outside the Gospels: Mt = 4; Mk = 3; Lk = 0; Jn = 8; Acts = 0, and it is absent from the Septuagint. In Judaic tradition, the word seems to be attested in writing for the first time in the Mishna (2nd c.) and refers to all those Jewish scholars who tried to write down the Jewish traditions after the destruction of the temple. Historically and from the gospels, it seems that Jesus was called "rabbi" by his disciples and the crowds:
  • Mk 9: 5 (Transfiguration scene) "Then Peter, speaking up, said to Jesus, 'Rabbi, it is fortunate that we are here; let us therefore make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.'"
  • Mk 10: 51 "Then Jesus spoke to him, 'What do you want me to do for you?' The blind man answered him, 'Rabbouni, may I receive my sight!'"
  • Mk 11: 21 "And Peter, remembering, said to him, 'Rabbi, look: the fig tree which you cursed is dried up.'"
  • Mk 14: 45 "And as soon as he arrived, he (Judas) came up to him and said, 'Rabbi,' and gave him a kiss"
  • Jn 1: 38 "Jesus turned and, seeing that they (Andrew and another disciple) were following him, said to them, 'What are you looking for?' They said to him, 'Rabbi -- which means Master -- where are you staying?'"
  • Jn 1: 49 "Nathanael said again, 'Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.'"
  • Jn 3: 2 "He (Nicodemus) came to Jesus by night and said to him, 'Rabbi, we know that you come from God as a Teacher: no one can do the signs that you do, if God is not with him.'"
  • Jn 4: 31 "Meanwhile, the disciples were praying to him, saying, 'Rabbi, eat.'" (see also Jn 6:25; 9:2; 11:8)
  • Jn 6: 25 "Having found him on the other side of the sea, they (the crowd) said to him, 'Rabbi, when did you get here?'"
  • Jn 20: 16 "Jesus said to her, 'Mary!' Turning around, she said to him in Hebrew, 'Rabbouni' - which means, 'Master.'"

Even John the Baptist, according to the evangelist John (3:26), was called "rabbi": "they (John the Baptist's disciples) came to John and said to him, "Rabbi, the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan, the one to whom you bore witness, behold, he baptizes, and all come to him!"

Surprisingly, Matthew the Jew counters this by putting the word in a negative context. Indeed, of the four occurrences of the word, two are put in the mouth of Judas in the betrayal scene (26:25.49), and two are an invitation not to use the term (23:7-8); Jesus is never called "rabbi" by the "good" disciples or by the crowd. What to conclude? Again, we must place ourselves around the 80s CE when the scholars of Jewish tradition, especially the Pharisees, who had codified the ancestral traditions, and who would give rise to the Mishna, enjoyed a certain reputation; the title "rabbi" was valued. Given the proximity of the Matthaean community to the entire Jewish world, one can imagine that some literate Christians tended to avail themselves of this title. Let us not forget that Matthew is the only evangelist to put in the mouth of Jesus a call to avoid being called "rabbi". Why? It cannot be the disciples at the time of Jesus who would have been tempted to claim the title of "rabbi"; we have no testimony in this sense. Rather, we must look at the time when the young Christian community, not yet truly separated from its Jewish milieu, was tempted to take on some of its habits. Matthew's call is clear: do not go down this road!

v. 8 But you do not call yourself a master, for you have only one master, and you are brothers to one another.

Literally: Then, yourself you should not be called "rabbi", for one (heis) is of you the teacher (didaskalos), then all yourself brothers (adelphoi) are.

heis (one) The numeral adjective heis occupies a large place in Matthew's vocabulary: Mt = 66; Mk = 44; Lk = 43; Jn = 40; Acts = 27. And more than half of the 66 occurrences are particular to him. But there is one point in his style that is surprising and worth noting: on several occasions he uses the numeral adjective heis in the sense of an indefinite article which, in Greek, is expressed by the absence of an article. Let us give some examples.
  • 8: 19 "And one (heis) scribe approached and said, 'Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go'" (Lk 9: 57 instead has the indefinite pronoun "Someone (tis) told him."
  • 9: 18 "suddenly one (heis) leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him" (Mk 5: 22 has as well heis but in an expression that has more meaning "one of synagogue leaders")
  • 13: 46 (parable of the treasure and the pearl which is unique to Matthew) "on finding one (heis) pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."
  • 18: 5 "Whoever welcomes one (heis) such child in my name welcomes me" (Mk 9: 37 has as well heis, but in an expression that has more meaning "one of these little children")
  • 21: 19 "And seeing one (heis) fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves" (Mk 11: 13 has rather "seeing fig tree", the equivalent of the indefinite article expressed by the absence of an article in Greek)
  • 26: 69 "one (heis) servant-girl came to him (Peter) and said" (Mk 14: 66 has as well heis, but in an expression that has more meaning "And when Peter was down in the courtyard, one of the high priest's maids came"

This way of writing in Matthew comes up too often for it not to be intentional. What significance can we find in it? One possible answer would come from Matthew's taste for accuracy and precision: he does not like things vague and unclear. And so heis could be almost translated as "one only", a form of emphasis: only one scribe (among many others), only one ruler (among many others), only one pearl (that's enough to make it worthwhile), only one child (even if it's done to a single one), only one fig tree (among many others), only one maid (among many others). This is, in fact, how this passage from the Sermon on the Mount is translated: "For I tell you the truth: before heaven and earth pass away, not one (heis) i, not one (heis) dot on the i, will pass from the Law, until all is fulfilled" (5:18).

Let us now turn to our v. 8: for one (heis) is the teacher of you. With what we have just stated, we could translate: for only one of you is the teacher. The statement where there is only one being to possess certain qualities comes up a few times in Matthew.

  • 19: 17 "And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one (heis) who is good."
  • 23: 8 "But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one (heis) teacher, and you are all brothers."
  • 23: 9 "And call no one (heis) your father on earth, for you have one Father - the one in heaven.
  • 23: 10 "Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one (heis) instructor, the Messiah"

Here we find a stereotypical formula that is unique to Matthew. Of course, a similar formula is found in Mk 12:29, but it is a citation from Deuteronomy 6:4, called Shema Israel which is part of the daily prayer of every devout Jew:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one (heis)

This is probably what inspired Matthew to use this formula, a formula also found in Sirach (1:8), this time applied to wisdom (sophia).

There is one (heis) wise and greatly to be feared, the Lord sitting upon his throne.

By using this formula reserved for describing God in the Old Testament, it is clear that Matthew wants to give a certain solemnity to the affirmation that God alone is the Good and Father, that Jesus alone is the Teacher and Doctor of teaching, and that thus to them alone these titles must be attributed; in other words, God bears the attributes of that which is source of life, love and goodness, Jesus bears the titles related to the word and the light. This is a short summary of Matthew's theology.

In this same line, one might ask: while Matthew (22:34-40) picks up the scene from Mark (12:28-34) on the first of all the commandments, why does he skip the beginning of Jesus' response, which quotes the Shema Israel affirming that the only one is the Lord (kurios, God), and then immediately moves on to "You shall love the Lord your God..."?

Mt 22Mk 12
29 Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;
37 "He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'"30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'"

As we can see, Matthew eliminates v. 29 of Mark. Why does he do this? One possible answer is that, also proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, he would like to avoid the logical problem of having Jesus and God as Lord in a solemn formula, while affirming that the Lord is unique. One senses a constant effort on his part to have a coherent thought.

didaskalos (teacher)
Didaskalos is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew rhabbi and means: one who teaches, the teacher, the master. It is quite common: Mt = 12; Mk = 11; Lk = 17; Jn = 8; Acts = 1. In the gospels, this title is almost always attributed to Jesus, with the exception of Lk 2:46 where it refers to the teachers in the temple whom the child Jesus listens to and questions, Lk 3:12 where it is attributed to John the Baptist by the tax collectors, and Jn 3:10 where it appears as the title given to Nicodemus by the Jewish society of the time.

In Matthew, this title of didaskalos is always attributed to Jesus, with the exception of two verses where the teacher-disciple relationship is generally spoken of (10:24-25). And of the 10 occurrences where it refers to Jesus, six are unique to Matthew; and these are sometimes additions he makes to the tradition either from Mark (see e.g. 9:11 or 22:36) or from the Q Document (see e.g. 8:19). Thus, the relationship with Jesus is that of disciples before a teacher, and this is how Jesus is addressed in the gospels, i.e., not by saying "Jesus" but by saying "teacher."

One will recognize that there is something incongruous in putting in the mouth of Jesus a sentence like this: "For you have only one teacher: me". In the mouth of an ordinary man, one would cry out for pretentiousness or authoritarianism. Again, we have to go back to about the year 80, perhaps to Antioch, where Matthew addresses his Christian community and puts into Jesus' mouth this reminder that their true teacher is Jesus. For a number of Christians bore the title didaskalos, if we are to believe Luke in Acts 13:1:

There were prophets and teachers (didaskalos) in the Church established at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, childhood friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.

In fact, according to Paul, a number of Christians played this role (1 Cor 12:28-29), and Paul himself, according to 2 Tim 1:11, played this role. What can we conclude? Matthew serves us a warning, much as James does in his epistle (3:1: "Do not be many, my brothers, who become teachers (didaskalos). You know that we will only receive a more severe judgment"): it is not a personal doctrine that is being promoted, but it is the teaching of the one who showed the way of life through his own death.

adelphoi (brothers)
The word adelphos means: brother. It has two main meanings, brother in the biological sense, and brother in the spiritual sense (for example, members of the same religious or social community). It is also very frequent: Mt = 39; Mk = 20; Lk = 24; Jn = 14; Acts = 57. Since the Acts of the Apostles tells of the development of the Christian community, it is not surprising to see the high number of occurrences of the word. But if we focus on the gospels, we notice that Matthew uses it the most. And if we go further and focus only on the spiritual meaning of the word, the numbers highlight Matthew's accents more: Mt = 17; Mk = 3; Lk = 7; Jn = 2. This is Matthew's great focus, the brothers of the Christian community.

When we group his texts on the Christian brothers, we obtain five major themes:

  1. Reconciliation with one's brother precedes all religious action (5: 22-24)
  2. Before judging your brother, you must first examine yourself (7: 3-5)
  3. The true brother is the one who does the will of the Father (12: 50)
  4. One must know how to forgive one's brother constantly, without becoming weary (18: 15-35)
  5. To show compassion to one's brother is to show compassion for Jesus himself (25: 40)

Let us mention that for items ii and iv Matthew drew from the Q Document, and that for item iii he copied the Marcan tradition. What is peculiar to him is item i, which is found in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' inaugural discourse, and item v, which belongs to the great parable about the last judgment, Jesus' final teaching; in other words, Jesus' teaching begins and ends with the theme of the brothers. All this is intended by Matthew. For his gospel has no other purpose than to guide this community with the whole heritage of Jesus. And here in v. 8, it is a reminder that to want to use one's title of teacher to elevate oneself above others is to forget one's identity as a brother.

v. 9 And do not call yourself a "father" on this earth, for you have only one father in the world of God.

Literally: and father (patera) you should not call of you upon the earth (gēs), for one is of you the father the heavenly (ouranios);

patera (father) As one might expect, the word patēr (father, ancestor) is widespread: Mt = 62; Mk = 18; Lk = 52; Jn = 130; Acts = 34. But, just as in English, it can have various meanings, from biological father to spiritual father. When we go through the Gospels-Acts, we can group these various meanings into four categories:

  1. This was first the title given to God by Jesus, later taken up by the evangelists, especially by John: Mt = 44; Mk = 4; Lk = 13; Jn = 113; Acts = 3. For example, "So shall your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father (patēr) who is in heaven" (Mt 15:16)

  2. The word also obviously refers to the begetter, the biological father: Mt = 15; Mk = 13; Lk = 26; Jn = 8; Acts = 6. For example, "But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of Herod his father (patēr), he feared to go there; being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the region of Galilee" (Mt 2:22)

  3. The word is also used, especially in the plural, to refer to the ancestors of a nation or community: Mt = 2; Mk = 0; Lk = 7; Jn = 4; Acts = 22. For example, "If we had lived in the days of our fathers (patēr), we would not have joined them in shedding the blood of the prophets" (Mt 23:30)

  4. On a few occasions, it is used in a spiritual sense to designate a person at the source of one's personal, social, or religious identity; among the Jews this would be Abraham or David: Mt = 1; Mk = 1; Lk = 6; Jn = 3; Acts = 2. For example, "do not dare to say within yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father (patēr). For I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones'" (Mt 3:9)

The examples given show that all four meanings are found in Matthew, so that the 62 occurrences of the word can be divided up as follows: i = 44; ii = 15; iii = 2; iv = 1. Thus, it is above all God as father who appears in his gospel. But what about here in v. 9? When Jesus asks not to be called "father", to which meaning of the word should we refer? We can quickly eliminate i (God father), ii (biological father), iii (ancestors). That would leave iv (spiritual father). Were there people who wanted to be called "father" in the spiritual sense?

First of all, according to Xavier Léon-Dufour (Dictionnaire du Nouveau Testament: Paris: Seuil, 1979, p. 420), the rabbi was called "father" in Judaism. One imagines that some of them took advantage of this role to put themselves forward socially. But if Matthew has reworked his sources to give us this scene, it is certainly not just out of a desire to be a good historian of the past or to condemn his fellow Jews; there must have been similar situations in his own community. And indeed, we have an echo of it in Paul's own words:

  • 1 Cor 4:15 "For would you have thousands of teachers in Christ, that you have not many fathers (patēr); for I through the gospel have begotten you in Christ Jesus"
  • Gal 4: 19 "My little children, you whom I give birth to again in pain until Christ is formed in you"
  • 1 Thess 2:11-12 "As a father (patēr) to his children, so you know, we have exhorted you, each of you, encouraged you, adjured you to lead a life worthy of God"
  • Phlm 10 "The request is for my child, whom I have begotten in chains, this Onesimus"

Paul gives an echo of a custom in the Christian community where the evangelizer or catechist or missionary could consider himself the father of the person he had begotten to the faith. Very often, this "father" was the one who had initiated the baptism of his protégé. But this kind of action could easily degenerate into a personality conflict, as the epistle to the Corinthians gives us an echo of it: "By this I mean that each of you says, 'I am Paul's' - 'I am Apollos' - 'I am Cephas' - 'I am Christ's'" (1: 12). All this became a source of division. If the situation in Corinth is an echo of what could happen elsewhere, then we understand the warning: do not be called "father".

gēs (earth) The name is frequent throughout the Bible, and especially in the Gospels-Acts: Mt = 43; Mk = 19; Lk = 25; Jn = 13; Acts = 33. In English, the earth refers to different realities, such as the humus where vegetables are grown or the planet that circulates in space. It is the same in the Greek language of the Gospels-Acts. Let us mention five different meanings.

  1. There is earth here below as opposed to heaven, and therefore the world of men in its relation to the world of God. Earth and heaven are the two components of the universe. For example: "At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth (), because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants" (Mt 11: 25)

  2. There is earth here below as opposed to heaven, and therefore the world of men in its relation to the world of God. Earth and heaven are the two components of the universe. Example: "At that time Jesus said, 'I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth (), because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants'" (Mt 5: 13)

  3. The earth is a political territory, and could be replaced by the word "country" or "territory". For example: "Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land () of Israel" (Mt 2: 21)

  4. The earth is the ground on which we walk, as opposed to moving on the water or in the air. For example: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground () apart from your Father" (Mt 10, 29)

  5. Finally, the earth is this humus, this fertile soil that we sow and where fruits and vegetables grow. For example: "But as for what was sown on good soil (), this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty" (Mt 13: 23)

As can be seen from our examples, the five categories are found in Matthew in the following frequency: i = 15; ii = 9; iii = 9; iv = 6; v = 4. All in all, we can say that Matthew is a man who has "his feet on the ground". Not only is he the one who uses the term more than the others, but of his 43 occurrences, 31 are unique to him (i.e., he either added the word to his sources or the word came to him from a source of his own). For example, while Mark writes, "Good is salt" (9:50), Matthew repeats his text thus: "You are the salt of the earth." While Luke draws from the Q Document to write, "And not one of them (the sparrows) is forgotten before God" (Lk 12:6), Matthew draws from this same source to write, "And not one of them falls to the earth without your Father." Truly, Matthew makes a point of mentioning the earth.

What about our verse 9: "do not be called 'father' on this earth"? It is clear that we must understand earth in relation to heaven, because the end of the sentence refers to the Father of heaven. This means that we can only understand this earth in a framework where heaven, i.e. God's world, plays a predominant role; our world takes on its meaning in relation to God's. In this case, true fatherhood belongs to God alone. We are on the same level as Jesus' answer about the good: "Why do you ask me about the good? Only one is good" (Mt 19:17).

Noun in the Gospels-Acts
ouranios (heavenly) Ouranios (heavenly) is an adjective used as a noun with the article "the". It is found almost exclusively in Matthew (Mt = 7; Mk = 0; Lk = 1; Jn = 0; Acts = 1), and in the latter it always accompanies "Father" (5:48; 6:14.28.32; 15:13; 18:35; 23:9); Luke speaks instead of "the heavenly host" in his gospel (2:13), and of "heavenly vision" in Acts (26:19). To fully understand the meaning of ouranios, we need to analyze the name ouranos (heaven).

As one would expect, ouranos is a frequent word: Mt = 82; Mk = 18; Lk = 36; Jn = 18; Acts = 26. And it will come as no surprise that the highest occurrences are found in Matthew the Jew: for heaven was among the Jews a way of designating God while avoiding pronouncing the ineffable name. Thus, of the 82 occurrences in Matthew, more than half (44) are used to say either: Kingdom of Heavens, or: Father who is in heavens. This brings up the question of singular and plural. Here are some statistics on singular/plural: Mt = 26/56; Mk = 13/5; Lk = 32/4; Jn = 18/0; Acts = 25/1. To untangle the singular and plural, it is best to turn to Matthew who, as usual, has a systematic and logical approach.

In Matthew, when ouranos intends to refer to God's world per se, it is always in the plural. It is as if God's world is perceived in different strata or universes, and this plural universe forms God. Thus heaven, when it is the attribute of "kingdom", is always in the plural: "kingdom of heavens". Note that the 33 occurrences of "kingdom of heavens" in his gospel are his own: it is his signature; no other evangelist uses this expression. And systematically, whenever he encounters the expression "kingdom of God" in his sources, he transforms it into "kingdom of heavens". For example, when Mark writes, "The kingdom of God is near" (1:15), Matthew takes the phrase and writes instead, "The kingdom of Heavens is near (4:17). When Luke uses the Q Document to write, "Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (6:20), Matthew picks up on this tradition to write instead, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heavens" (5:3). For Matthew, this is respecting the Jewish sensibility that refuses to speak God's name.

Sometimes ouranos is plural, even though it is not the attribute of kingdom (23 times). It has the same meaning: to designate the world of God. Most of the time it is used in the expression "Father of the heavens", but it is also found alone ("behold, the heavens were opened", 3: 16) to indicate that the world of God has intervened in the human world, ("whatever you bind on earth, it will be held in heavens for bound"; ("As for the date of that day and the hour, no one knows them, nor the angels of heavens", 24: 36), to describe the characters of the world of God. Note that there is an exception to what we have just said: "And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet to gather his chosen ones from the four winds, from the ends of the heavens to the ends of the heavens" (24:31); clearly, this is no longer God's world, but we must probably imagine that each end of the earth, seen as a four-sided square, had its own heaven, and thus we were looking at a total of four heavens, hence the plural.

Otherwise, ouranos is in the singular in Matthew (26 times out of 82). These occurrences can be grouped into three categories.

  1. Ouranos is singular when coupled with earth to refer to both components of the universe. For example, "Thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (6:10) (11 times)
  2. Ouranos is singular when it refers to the space above the ground (e.g., "Look at the birds of the air," 6:26), or to the firmament (e.g., "In the twilight you say, 'It will be fine weather, for the sky is fiery red,' " 16:2) (12 times)
  3. Ouranos is in the singular when it refers to the boundary that separates the earth from God's world, or refers to that other universe that belongs to God (e.g., "And you, Capernaum, do you think you will be raised to heaven? To Hades you will descend", 11:23) (3 times)

We can now return to v. 9 and the expression: the father, the heavenly. This is here for Matthew the synonym for "Father who is in heavens" which he uses 13 times in his gospel. As we have seen, the heavens, in the plural, intends to designate the world of God without pronouncing the ineffable name. That is why we have chosen the translation: "you have only one Father in the world of God".

v. 10 Do not call yourself "leaders" because you have only one leader, Christ.

Literally: Neither you should be called teachers (kathēgētai), for teacher of you is one, the Christ (Christos);

kathēgētai (teachers) Kathēgētēs Is a noun that means: teacher, master, professor, guide. It is said to be derived from the verb kathēgeomai : to walk before, to lead. Unfortunately, we cannot delve further into its meaning, because the word appears only here in the entire Bible: Mt = 2; Mk = 0; Lk = 0; Jn = 0; Acts = 0. It is therefore difficult to find examples of people who declared themselves "leader" or "chief", either in the Jewish milieu or in the first Christian communities. The various translations of the Bible opt for "doctor", "director", "master", "leader", "guide". The idea is the same: it refers to someone who walks in front and indicates the direction. We have therefore opted for "leader", a well-known contemporary term.

Christos (Christ)
The word christos means: one who has been anointed, i.e. a physical or spiritual anointing. The Septuagint translated the Hebrew word this way: māšîaḥ, which in Aramaic was said: měšîḥâ'. Note that the evangelist John twice translates the Aramaic term by the Greek term: messias (1, 4; 4, 25), hence our word: messiah. On this term, one may refer to the Glossary or to R.E. Brown. Let's summarize the highlights.

From the time of Solomon (10th century), son of David, the king was anointed with oil at his enthronement, a sign of his election and adoption by God, which assured him victory over his enemies and an eternal dynasty. When kings are no longer of David's lineage, there is hope, at least in Judah, for a return of that lineage, an earthly king, an anointed one, who will rule his people with justice. During Jesus' ministry, it is plausible that some of his followers saw him as the promised king of the house of David, the anointed one called to rule over God's people. Similarly, it is very likely that opponents of Jesus interpreted his words or those of his followers as a claim to messiahship, which contributed to the accusation that he was to be crucified as "king of the Jews". On the other hand, it is unlikely that Jesus would have claimed to be the messiah: one would look in vain for texts showing that Jesus knew he was the messiah, but refrained from expressing it in order to leave all the space to God; his answer on the question is rather ambivalent, neither affirming nor denying it, probably because of his conception of what he had to do, and because he left in God's hands the manifestation of his true role. But what is clear, if we trust Acts 2:36 ("Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty: God has made him Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."), is that by his resurrection and exaltation Jesus, hitherto called "Nazarene," becomes anointed, Christ, or messiah. From then on, this title of christos becomes the most important and even his proper name. This is a reflection of the royal ideology that colored the title christ and was current in Jerusalem, where the word christ evokes either King David or the various functions of the king, such as that of shepherd, guide and savior of his people, or the chosen one of God.

What about Matthew? Although he is not the one who uses this word the most, it is nevertheless very important in his Gospel: Mt = 16; Mk = 7; Lk = 12; Jn = 19; Acts = 25. In fact, of the 16 occurrences in his gospel, 12 are his own. And above all, he insists on making the title christos a central issue. Let's give some examples.

  • At the trial before Pilate, Mark writes, "Now Pilate answered them, saying, 'Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?'" (15:9), while Matthew repeats this phrase, writing, "Pilate said to them, 'Whom do you want me to release to you, Jesus Barrabas or Jesus, who is said to be Christ?'" (27:17); he will do the same in v. 22, as he takes up Mk. 15:12. For a Jew, this is the question: is he or is he not the messiah? When Paul goes around the synagogues, it is to demonstrate that Jesus is really the Messiah.

  • When Mark reports the scene of abuse toward Jesus, he writes, "And some began to spit on him... and to say to him, 'Do the prophet!'" (14: 65), Matthew for his part picks up on this scene writing, "Then they spat in his face... saying, "Make us the prophet, Christ!" (26:67-68); this is the issue.

  • When Mark presents Jesus' eschatological discourse, he puts into Jesus' mouth this phrase: "Many will come in my name saying, 'It is I,' and they will lead many astray" (13:6), Matthew repeats this phrase, writing instead, "For many will come in my name, saying, 'It is I the Christ,' and they will lead many astray" (24:5). Again, for the sake of clarity, he specifies what is at stake: the identity of the true messiah.

  • When he recounts the scene of Peter's confession ("You are the Christ"), Mark writes: "And he commanded them that they should tell no one about him" (8: 30). Again, Matthew clarifies when he copies the scene: "Then he charged the disciples that they should tell no one that he is the Christ" (16:20); the secret at issue is not anything, but his messiahship.

Thus, of the 16 occurrences, 8 are the proper name of Jesus, without associating anything else with him (e.g., "Now John, in his prison, had heard of the works of Christ", 11:2). And that is what we have here in v. 10: "for you have but one leader, Christ." With all that was said earlier, it is difficult to believe that Jesus spoke of himself as "the Christ" (he spoke of himself as "the son of man"). We are dealing with a title used by the first Christians, and so Matthew is saying: only this descendant of King David, the promised Messiah, the anointed one of God, can carry the title of leader in the Christian communities. Otherwise, you are usurping the title.

v. 11 Let the most important among you become your servant,

Literally: Then, the greatest (meizōn) of you will be of you servant (diakonos);

meizōn (the greatest) Meizōn is the comparative adjective of megas (great). It is found scattered throughout the gospels: Mt = 10; Mk = 3; Lk = 7; Jn = 13; Acts = 0. The question about the greatest may seem to us to lack spiritual height. But if we observe the frequency with which it recurs in the gospels, it seems to have been a question that preoccupied the first Christian communities. Let's take a closer look at some of Matthew's statements.

  • 5: 19 "Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
  • 11: 11 "Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."
  • 12: 6 "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here"
  • 18: 1.4 "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?'...Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven "
  • 19: 29-30 "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
  • 20: 26-27 "It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave"

In Matthew's universe, which presents us with the universe of Jesus, there is a kind of hierarchy. Who is at the top in the kingdom of God? It is the one who carries out and teaches all the commandments of the Law (5:9). It is also the one who makes himself little like a child (18:4). He is the one who makes himself the servant and slave of others (20:26-27). It is the one who accepts to lose houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or fields (19: 29-30). And at the same time, the Christian at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder is greater than any non-Christian (11: 11; 12: 6).

In this context, it is clear that those who do not do what they teach, who want the first places and to be hailed in the marketplaces, want to be called teacher, father, or leader have no place in the Christian community.

diakonos (servant) Although the gospels often seem to promote the spirit of service, the word diakonos (servant) is not so frequent: Mt = 3; Mk = 2; Lk = 0; Jn = 3; Acts = 0. Of the three occurrences in Matthew, two are a repeat of Mark 10:43.

20: 26 but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant
23: 11 The greatest among you will be your servant.
10: 43 but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant

This leaves us only with Mt 22:15 (the servants in the parable of the king who invites to a feast for his son) as a mention of his owns. If we expand the scope of analysis to include the verb diakoneō (to serve), we get more examples of what Matthew means by service. Again, we find only two occurrences that are unique to Matthew: caring for the hungry or thirsty, strangers or naked people, sick or imprisoned in the parable about the last judgment (25:44), and the reference to the women who cared for Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem (27:55). These two occurrences probably reflect what Matthew means by becoming someone's servant: caring for them.

v. 12 for the one who seeks to be important will be ignored, the one who is ignored will become important.

Literally: Then whoever will lift up (hypsōsei) himself will be humbled (tapeinōthēsetai), and whoever will humble himself will be lifted up.

hypsōsei (he will lift up)
Verb hypsoō is quite rare: Mt = 3; Mk = 0; Lk = 6; Jn = 5; Acts = 3. It means: to raise, to lift, to exalt. What is fundamental is to determine the subject of the verb. In fact, according to the Gospels-Acts, God alone can elevate the human person: "He (God) has overthrown the potentates from their thrones and elevated (hypsoō) the lowly" (Lk 1:52); this was even the case for Jesus: "It was he (Jesus) whom God exalted (hypsoō) by his right hand, making him Head and Savior, that through him he might grant Israel repentance and remission of sins" (Acts 5:31). The problem arises when it is the human being himself who intends to rise.

In Matthew, the three occurrences come from the Q Document that Luke also knows. First, there is the expression of disappointment with certain towns in Galilee that did not have faith in Jesus: "And you, Capernaum, do you think you will be raised to heaven? To Hades you will go down" (Mt 11:23 || Lk 10:15); the elevation refers to the judgment of God that would have been favorable if these cities had accepted Jesus' message. And there are the two occurrences in our v. 12, which also come from the Q Document that Luke repeats twice (Mt 23:12 || Lk 14:11; 18:14: "he who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted"). In Luke, the context is first that of a banquet where people are looking for the first places, then that of the prayer in the temple of the Pharisee and the tax collector where one gives thanks for his perfection, the other asks God to have mercy on the sinner that he is. In Matthew, the context is that of the scholars who want to be well regarded in society. In both Luke and Matthew, we are faced with people who seek to be important according to human criteria, and therefore want to elevate themselves.

tapeinōthēsetai (he will be humbled) Verb tapeinoō is the opposite of that hypsoō we have just seen, and means: to lower, to humble, to lessen, to live in destitution, to reduce. Its frequency is similar, but even more reduced: Mt = 3; Mk = 0; Lk = 5; Jn = 0; Acts = 1. Of this total of 9 occurrences, 6 are used to say: whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Lk 14:11; 18:14; Mt 23:12). But it is worth emphasizing here an important point in Matthew's theology. To do this, let us compare how he takes up Mark's account of Jesus and the children.

Mark 9Matthew 18
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 
36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said,
 "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
37 "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Mark and Matthew ask the same question, "Who is the greatest?" Mark provides two answers: first, the one who will be great or first is the one who is last; in other words, those who appear worthless in the eyes of humans are the ones who have the greatest value in the eyes of God. Then, logically, Mark introduces the children who, in antiquity, had no social value, to affirm that to welcome one of these beings without social value, because they are in the image of Jesus, is to welcome Jesus himself. Mark thus reverses our scale of values. What does Matthew do? His answer to the main question, unlike Mark's, goes straight to the children: "You must change and become like children. In other words, the Christian must humble himself (tapeinoō) like a child, i.e. must accept to lose his social value, and then comes the second part of the answer: having accepted to lose his social value, he will be able to welcome others who have no social value, for example a child. Matthew has introduced a more logical sequence than Mark.

But what is most important in Matthew is that there is a step to be taken, which Mark did not mention: one must learn to humble oneself, to lower oneself, to renounce one's social status. This is what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (5:3), i.e. those who have renounced their social status. It is in this context that we must interpret our v. 10 where Jesus castigates the scribes and Pharisees, they who seek to be important in the eyes of society: they are on the wrong track, because only God's outlook counts, not those of people in society. That is why we have translated hypsoō as "to be important", and tapeinoō as "to be ignored". For all of us, whoever we are, need to be important to someone. The scholars, according to Matthew, make this quest to society, when they should be making it to God; they should have accepted to be ignored by men, in order to be important to God.

  1. Analysis of the narrative's structure

    Introduction - recipients of Jesus' speech: the crowds and the disciples v. 1

    1. A statement about the current situation: Bible scholars (scribes and Pharisees) are currently playing the role of Moses teaching v. 2
    2. Guidance on how to respond to this situation v. 3-7
      1. It is necessary to put into practice and observe what they say v. 3a
      2. But you should not imitate their actions for the following reasons v. 3b
        1. they crush people with obligations that they do not even respect themselves v. 4
        2. the motivation for their actions is their own reputation, for example v. 5
          • to look more fervent than the others, they enlarge their signs of piety and lengthen the religious tassels
        3. they look for anything that makes them look great, for example v. 6-7
          • the first places in the banquets v. 6a
          • the places of honor in the synagogue v. 6b
          • to have people bowing at them in the marketplaces v. 7a
          • be called "master" v. 7b

    3. Directive on Christian Behavior v. 8-10
      1. Do not be called "master" for the following reasons: v. 8
        • you have only one master (Jesus)
        • you are on an equal footing by being brothers to each other
      2. Do not be called "father" for the following reason: v. 9
        • God alone is truly your Father
      3. Don't be called a "leader" for the following reason: v. 10
        • Your only true "leader" is Christ

    Conclusion: the reversal of values v. 11-12
    • Let the most important among you become your servant v. 11
    • Indeed, whoever seeks to be important will be ignored, and whoever is ignored will become important v. 12

    This structure reveals that Matthew's purpose is to present what Christian behavior should be, and he does so by first giving a counter-example: he describes the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees to indicate what the Christian should not do. Thus, the Christian must avoid the pursuit of being great and having a great reputation. But he must also avoid burdening people with obligations when he is not even able to fulfill them himself. In all of this, there is a call for authenticity and integrity. There is still one surprising point: why ask the disciples to do everything that these haughty and pretentious scholars ask? No doubt, for Matthew, the message of the Bible is greater than its messengers.

  2. Context analysis

    Let us proceed in two stages, first by considering a possible plan of the whole of the Gospel and by observing where our passage fits in this great plan, then by considering the immediate context of our narrative, ie what precedes and what follows.

    1. General context

      Establishing which plan Matthew had in mind when composing his Gospel is a matter of conjecture. First, did he have any? Generally, it follows the sequence of Mark which begins in Galilee where takes place almost the whole of the ministry of Jesus, and ends in Jerusalem in a final confrontation with the Jewish authorities, where he will undergo a Jewish and Roman trial and will die crucified.

      But Matthew gives us a certain number of clues which allow us to make divisions. First there are the first two chapters of the narrative of the childhood of Jesus which represent in advance what will be the life of Jesus, son of David, the Emmanuel, ie God with us, rejected by the Jews through the figure of Herod who wants to kill him, received by the pagans through the figure of the Magi of the East, reliving the destiny of the chosen people through the stay in Egypt. We can consider these two chapters as a prologue to the Gospel.

      In ch. 3, through the preaching of John the Baptist, we have an introduction to Jesus who is clothed in the Holy Spirit, ready for his mission.

      The section that extends from ch. 4 though ch. 27 can be clearly divided into two separate sections using the situation of John the Baptist. In 4: 12, Matthew writes: "Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum". The imprisonment of John the Baptist is an opportunity for Jesus to stand on his own two feet, to begin his preaching, to choose disciples. This first section seems to end in 13: 58 while Jesus preaches in his homeland and the evangelist concludes: "And there he did not do many miracles, because they did not believe." In 14: 1, the evangelist announces a new section with the formula: "At that time" and describing the death of John the Baptist, figure of the fate that awaits Jesus. And in fact, this second section is marked by the shadow of suffering (16: 21 "From that moment, Jesus Christ began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem, to suffer a lot .. . ") And death is awaiting Jesus with the three announcements of passion. It is a section initially centered on the disciples and on the opening of the pagans through the figure of the Canaanite woman, before the final confrontation with the Jewish authorities.

      The first section (4: 1 - 13: 58) starts by emphasizing the mission of Jesus with his preparation through the ordeal of the desert (4: 1-11), his initial preaching (4: 12-17 ) and the choice of the first disciples (4: 18-22), which ends with a summary (4: 23-25). Then comes the presentation of his program on the mountain, and of his action which accompanies his word through the grouping of ten miracles (5: 1 - 9: 38): Jesus shows himself powerful in words and in actions. And he delegates this mission to the disciples who will have to do the same (10: 1 - 11: 1). All of this triggers a period when one have to take a stand in relation to Jesus' person and teaching, where one have to know how to recognize the signs (11: 2 - 13: 58).

      The second section (14: 1 - 27: 66) is marked by the shadow of the death of Jesus, which began with the death of John the Baptist himself. The first section has ended with a statement of failure, so Jesus is now focusing on his disciples, preparing them for his demise. The Eucharistic symbols appear with the two schenes of Jesus feeding the crowd (ch. 14 and 15), the arrival of the pagans is announced with the story of the Canaanite woman (ch. 15), and the prospect of her imminent death which marks this whole section, just as of his resurrection through the story of the transfiguration (ch. 17). This is an opportunity for Jesus to explain how the disciples should live together (ch. 18). Then there is the final confrontation in which traps are constantly laid before him and where Jesus denounces the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (ch. 21 - 23). Finally, Jesus offers a final speech concerning the coming of the Son of man and what will be the criteria for judgment, ie compassion (ch. 24 - 25), before remaining almost completly silent during his Jewish and Roman trial (ch. 26 - 27).

      The conclusion of ch. 28 is centered on the experience of the resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the disciples to the whole world in a mission.

      One of the characteristics of the Gospel according to Matthew is to present to us five well-defined discourses or catecheses: teaching on the mountain (from 5: 1, "When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him" through 7: 28-29 "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things... "); the teaching on the mission (from 10: 1" Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples... These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions..." through 11: 1 "Now, when Jesus had finished giving these instructions to his twelve disciples ... "); teaching in parables (from 13: 1 "That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea... and he told them many things in parables..." through 13: 51-52 "Did you understood all this? ... "); teaching on fraternal life (from 18: 1 "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" through 19: 1 "When Jesus had finished saying these things..."); eschatological teaching (from 24: 3 "When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, 'Tell us, when will this be'..." through 26: 1 "When Jesus had finished saying all these things").

      All these considerations on a possible plan of the Gospel according to Matthew can be represented by the following table.

    2. Immediate context

      When we look at this general context, we observe that Mt 23:1-12 belongs to the section of Jesus' last confrontations. This section begins with the triumphal arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem where he is acclaimed as a messiah-prophet on his donkey with the cry: "Hosanna to the son of David! Let us consider what follows, focusing on Jesus' action and the Jewish reaction.

      Intervention of JesusReaction of the Jewish authorities
      21: 1-11 Jesus drives the sellers out of the temple, then heals the blind and lame, who later shout "Hosanna to the son of David!The chief priests and scribes are indignant
      21: 12-22 Jesus is disappointed with the fig tree that does not produce fruit and predicts that it will never produce fruit again
      21: 23-24 Jesus teaches in the templeThe chief priests and elders ask him by what authority he does this.
      21: 25-27 Jesus asks them to take a stand on John's baptism: is it from God?They refuse to pronounce
      21: 28-32 Jesus tells the parable of the two sons, where one, after saying "no", ends up doing what his father asks, while the other says "yes", but does nothing, and concludes by reproaching the chief priests and the elders for not believing even after seeing the conversion of prostitutes and tax collectors
      21: 33-46 Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard owners who rebel against their landlord, even to the point of murdering his son, and concludes that the kingdom of God will be taken away from the Jewish people and given to a people who will know how to produce fruitThe chief priests and Pharisees seek to arrest Jesus, but they are afraid of the crowd
      22: 1-22 Jesus tells the parable of the king who, after inviting people to his son's wedding and receiving a general refusal so strong that even some messengers are killed, retaliates by judging the murderers and eliminating their cities; then, after inviting anyone to the meal that is ready, and being confronted with a guest without the proper attire, immediately kicks him out. And Jesus concludes: the multitude is called, but few are chosen.The Pharisees hold council in order to trap Jesus by making him speak and send him some of their disciples with the Herodians with the question: "Is it permitted, yes or no, to pay tribute to Caesar". When they were told: "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's", they were astonished and could not answer.
      22: 23 – 40 Jesus answers the Sadducees, (for whom the resurrection of the dead makes no sense, with the example of a woman who has had several legitimate husbands according to the law and for whom it will be impossible to determine her husband in the afterlife) by saying: in the afterlife, there is no longer a male-female relationship, but this afterlife does exist, because God has declared himself to be the God of the living. Then one of the Pharisees, those enemies of the Sadducees, in turn ask Jesus a question, to trap him, about the greatest commandment of the law, to be answered by love of God and neighbor.
      22: 41-46 In turn, Jesus, like a good rabbi, asks the Pharisees a difficult question, assuming the Jewish view that the psalms were written by David and that Psalm 110 is about the enthronement of the messiah, David's son: how can the messiah be his son, when he gives him in v. 1 the title Lord? In other words, a father cannot call his son: Lord.No one is able to answer and they stop questioning him.

      If we pay attention to the right column, we can note the various reactions:

      • The chief priests and the scribes are indignant about what is happening
      • The chief priests and the elders question the authority of Jesus
      • They refuse to compromise themselves
      • The chief priests and Pharisees seek to arrest Jesus
      • The Pharisees and Herodians question Jesus in order to trap him
      • The Pharisees take over from the Sadducees and ask him another trick question
      • When Jesus takes the initiative with a trick question, everyone knows, and the dialogue is definitely interrupted

      Thus, we find ourselves faced with a dialogue of the deaf. The Jewish opposition grows until the final rupture. On the side of Jesus, his parables express the deep disappointment in front of all that was entrusted to his people and the invitations launched, which did not receive an adequate response. The withered fig tree is the image of the Jewish authorities. For Matthew's Jesus, all that remains is the judgment of God. It is in this context that our text 23: 1-12 begins.

      Let's look briefly at the context that follows (23:13-39). It is a long litany of complaints about the scribes and Pharisees (23:13-35)

      • Woe to you... you will not enter the kingdom... and you bar the door to others
      • Woe to you... you proselytize, but make people worse than before
      • Your casuistry and legalism is totally stupid
      • Woe to you... you tithe especially, but forget justice, mercy and good faith
      • Woe to you... who purify the outside of things like dishes and utensils, while your inside is rotten
      • Woe to you... who have a beautiful external appearance, but inside you are corpses
      • Woe to... who build monuments to the prophets, while you are the sons of those who killed them

      Then follows the conclusion, which is a form of judgment (23: 36-38)

      • All the blood shed in the past in the murder of the righteous will fall on the present generation
      • Jesus makes a final complaint about Jerusalem, whose children he wanted to gather but refused, resulting in the desertion of its temple and its destruction, and the death of Jesus himself.

      It is therefore a very sad and harsh page that ends. But we will have noticed that, whereas Jesus addresses the disciples and the crowd in our text 23: 1-12, from v. 13 onwards the speech is suddenly and without warning addressed to the scribes and the Pharisees: "Woe is you... Thus, our text appears as a form of testament to the disciples, before his death, even if this testament takes the form of an invitation not to imitate certain behaviors.

  3. Analysis of Parallels

    Recall that, according to the most accepted theory in the biblical world, Mark would have been the first to publish his gospel, Matthew and Luke would have reused much of Mark's work in their gospel, while incorporating another source, known to both of them and referred to as the "Q Document" as well as other sources of their own, and finally John would have published an independent gospel at a later date, with no knowledge of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, even though he seems to have had access to similar sources.

    In this context, the study of parallels allows us to better identify what is specific to each evangelist. Here is our convention. Underlined are words or part of words from Mark found also in other gospels. We have put in blue what is common to Matthew and Luke only, which may be an echo of the Q Document. Verses in square bracket are out of sequence for comparison purpose. Please note that the translation from Greek is quite literal for comparison purpose, which may seem rough English.

    Mark 12Matthew 23Luke 20Luke 11
    37b And [the] great crowd was listening to him gladly. 38a And in the teaching of him he was saying, 1 Next, the Jesus spoke to the crowds and the disciples of him, 2a saying,45 Then, listening all the people, he said to the disciples [of him]46a Then, him he said,
    38b Beware from the scribes2b upon the Moses' seat they sat down the scribes and the Pharisees.46a Pay attention from the scribes46b Also to you the lawyers woe
     3 Therefore all things how many if they might say to you, do and keep, then according to the works of them do not do, for they say and do not do.   
     4 Then they tie up burdens heavy [and hard to bear] and place (them) upon the shoulders of the men, then themselves with the finger of them they are not willing to move them. 46c for you burden them men (with) burdens heavy to bear and them with one of the fingers of you, you do not touch to the burdens.
    38c the (one) wanting in robes to walk about5 Then all the works of them they do towards the to be observed by the men. For they broaden the phylacteries of them and enlarge the tassels.46b the (one) wanting to walk about in robes[43a] Woe to you the Pharisees
    and greetings in the marketplaces and first seats in the synagogues and chief place in the banquets6 Then, they like the chief place in the banquets and the first seats in the synagogues. 7 and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called by the men "rabbi".46c And liking greetings in the marketplaces and first seats in the synagogues and chief place in the banquets,[43b] for they love the first seats in the synagogues and the greetings in the marketplaces.
     8 Then, yourself you should not be called "rabbi", for one is of you the teacher, then all yourself brothers are.  
     9 and father you should not call of you upon the earth, for one is of you the father the heavenly.  
     10 Neither you should be called teachers, for teacher of you is one, the Christ.  
    [10: 43 But who perchance would want to become great among you will be of you servant]11 Then, the greatest among you will be of you servant.  
     12 Then whoever will lift up himself will be humbled, and whoever will humble himself will be lifted up.[18: 14b for everyone lifting up himself will be humbled, then the (one) humbling himself will be lifted up ][14: 11 for everyone lifting up himself will be humbled, and the one humbling himself will be lifted up]

    The main parallels are between Mt 23, Mk 12 and Lk 20, but we have also added Mk 10, Lk 14 and Lk 18. All of this indicates that Matthew had recourse to different sources to construct our pericope. The proposed translation tries to follow the Greek text as closely as possible in order to allow for word comparison. From these parallels we can make a number of observations.

    • In Mark 12, the context appears similar, for we are in Jerusalem, in the temple precincts, and Jesus, as in Matthew, has just asked the question about the enigma of Psalm 110:1 where David would call the messiah Lord, when he should be his son (12:37a). But the tone is totally different. In Matthew, this question is a trick question from addressed to the Pharisees and which will shut them up, because from that moment on, they no longer dare to question him. In Mark, on the contrary, this question is in the form of a general teaching addressed to the crowd, which takes pleasure in it. Moreover, the last mention of a scribe appears earlier when one of them summarizes Jesus' statement about the first commandment by saying: "Well, Teacher, you were right to say..." (12:32) and to whom the question is addressed. (12:32) and to whom Jesus replies: "You are not far from the Kingdom of God" (12:34). A rather good scribe! It is therefore with surprise that we see Mark now put into Jesus' mouth: "Beware of the scribes" (12:37b), while he continues to address the crowd. We need to go back in time and remember the episode where the chief priests, scribes and elders ask Jesus the trick question about the tax to Caesar (12:14). Matthew probably perceived the incoherence of Mark's text and reorganized it in a more logical way and in a much more polemical tone. And it is in this polemical tone that our pericope begins, addressed not only to the crowd as in Mark, but also to the disciples. So we can guess that Matthew is giving us here an echo of his own environment, an environment where Christians were confronted with the Jews, in particular the Pharisees and all the biblical scholars.

    • In Luke 20 the context is also similar to Mark's, for the scene is in Jerusalem, in the temple precincts, and Jesus also asks this question from Psalm 110:1, but this time addressed to the scribes, without any response from anyone. Luke had earlier described the reaction of the scribes to Jesus' answer to the Sadducees about the existence of life after death: "Teacher, you have spoken well". And he concluded: "For they dared not question him about anything. In such a context, the scribes appear to be rather sympathetic people, as in Mark, and one has to go back in time to understand the conflict. But Luke sees no problem in continuing Mark's text with this warning against them. This warning is addressed to all the people and the disciples.

    • Luke 11 belongs to this group (9:51; 19:28), which presents a sequence of teachings by Jesus on various topics of interest to his disciples as he travels from Galilee to Jerusalem. Here the teaching is about the failure of the spokesmen of the Jewish tradition (11:37-53), while Jesus is at table, invited by a Pharisee (11:37). Then comes a series of reproaches ranging from their casuistry which forgets the essential to their search for honors. Then a lawyer intervenes to say that he feels insulted. This is the context in which 11:46 is inserted, and it becomes a direct questioning addressed to the lawyers.

    • Who are the people whom Jesus denounces? Matthew, Mark, and Luke 20 speak of the scribes, and Luke 14 speaks of nomikos (lawyer), which refers to a man of law, a jurist, and thus is included in the more generic title of scribe. Matthew speaks of the Pharisees and as well Luke 11. As we have noted, it was during the time of the Jewish Christian communities that conflicts with the Pharisees intensified, and this is probably why Matthew, especially, is keen to include them in the group that Jesus denounces.

    • Matthew is the only one who asks that the scribes and Pharisees be listened to. This is understandable if one is in a Jewish Christian environment, where the Mosaic law and traditions still prevail, which is not the case for Mark (probably Rome) or Luke (Greek environment, perhaps Corinth).

    • The first example of a behavior denounced in Matthew is aimed at the obligations they overburden people with without themselves assuming them. Here Matthew seems to be drawing from the Q Document, for the same example is found in Luke 14. Some small differences between Luke's version and Matthew's will have been noted
      • In Luke, Jesus inveighs directly against the scholars: "you", whereas in Matthew Jesus speaks of them in the third person ("they"), because he addresses the disciples and the crowd
      • Matthew completes the mention of the burdens on the men by specifying that they are put on the shoulders, a clear reference to the yoke, a symbol of the law that a pious Jew would accept to carry, as we saw earlier
      • Finally, in Luke the scholar stays away from these obligations by not daring to touch them, whereas Matthew gives a more logical and personal twist by insisting on the scribe's willingness not to assume (not to lift a finger) these laws.
      We have already argued that Luke is probably closer to the Q Document than Matthew, who often does extensive editing. And if the Q Document is an echo of events surrounding Jesus, it is more natural to think that, as a prophet, Jesus directly denounced certain behaviors. Matthew's interest is primarily his community, hence his editing for a Jewish Christian milieu.

    • The first example of a behavior denounced in Mark is the desire of the scribes to frequent the marketplaces in order to be seen, first by going around in long robes. Luke 20 simply copies Mark. But Matthew wants to be more explicit: in order to be seen, he says, they widen their phylacteries and lengthen their fringes; this data can only be understood in a Jewish environment. One can imagine that in the second part of the first century, in Jewish circles, at the time Matthew finalizes his work, such dress behaviors were common.

    • For the other examples of vanity, Matthew, like Luke 20, closely follows Mark with first places at feasts, first seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the public square. However, he completely reverses Mark's order (greetings-synagogues-festivals) to present the order: feasts-synagogues-greetings. It is difficult to understand why. One possible answer comes from the fact that, in addition to the text of Mark, Matthew also had before his eyes the Q Document that Luke 11 also reflects, and from Luke 11:43, it would seem that this Q Document had its own version of the first seats in the synagogue and the greetings in the marketplaces, in the same order found in Matthew; thus, the latter would have made a collage of Q Document (with its order synagogues-marketplaces and having the definite article "the" with public greetings) and Mark (which speaks of feasts, absent from the Q Document).

    • It is surprising that Luke, in ch. 11, agrees to repeat this word, which he also presents to us in ch. 20, although he follows the order of Mark. The only difference is that in ch. 11 the invective is addressed to the Pharisees, and there is no mention of the first places at the feasts. One possible answer comes from the observation that Luke knows the Q Document which contains a whole series of invectives and which he presents to us in ch. 11, and which probably had a similar statement. And the absence of the reference to feasting comes either from the Q Document or from a modification of Luke's view that these strict and extremely religious Pharisees were not likely to frequent feasts.

    • And the whole sequence that begins with not being called "rabbi" and continues with "do not be called..." is clearly Matthew's work. As we have seen, the context is his own Jewish Christian community.

    • To conclude this pericope, Matthew uses two different sources. First, he takes a phrase from Mark 10:43b, a phrase that concludes the section on the request of the sons of Zebedee to be seated at the right and left of Jesus in his glory, and which Matthew has already quoted as it stands (Mt 20:26). But here he modifies it: instead of addressing ambitious people like the sons of Zebedee who want to become great, he addresses those who are already great, i.e. the community leaders, those who bear the name "teacher" or "father".

    • Matthew also concludes the pericope with a passage from the Q Document which Luke presents as a conclusion to the parable about the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collecteur (18:14), and as a reflection of Jesus who had been invited to eat at the home of a chief Pharisee and observed how the guests chose the first couches (14:11).

    In conclusion, we can get a good idea of Matthew's work. When he has before his eyes this short passage from Mark (12:38-40) in which Jesus reproaches the scribes for their vanity, he takes advantage of it to give it a great expansion and also to gather the data from the Q Document, so that he constructs this great picture in two stages, first this exhortation not to imitate the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees, and then this direct invective which extends to v. 35. This is how he settles his scores with the scribes and Pharisees, no doubt targeting those of his time.

  4. Intention of the author when writing this passage

    To understand Matthew, we must place ourselves in the context of his life. We are around 80 or 85, perhaps in Antioch (today Antakya, in southern Turkey, near the western border of Syria, on the banks of the Orontes River), at that time the capital of the Roman province of Syria. And according to Luke (Acts 11:26), "it was in Antioch that the disciples first received the name 'Christians. There was a large Jewish community there, for the Jews had the same rights as the other inhabitants. We know from Paul's letters that the Christian community in Antioch was large, and it was this community that first sent Paul on mission to the rest of what is now Turkey and Greece. But under pressure from the Christian community in Jerusalem, it became conservative, especially with regard to respecting Jewish traditions for new converts (see Galatians, 2:11-14). Paul had problems with groups of Christians from Antioch who attacked his missionary work which emphasized Christian freedom and salvation by faith, without the works of the law (see the letter to the Galatians and the letter to the Romans). Let us not forget that a number of converted Pharisees and scribes were part of this community (see Acts 15:5). The situation could be exacerbated by conflicts with non-Christian Jews who would eventually excommunicate the Judeo-Christians from the synagogues around the year 85 or 90.

    At the same time, it knew how to organize itself, thanks especially to its famous episcope (bishop), Ignatius of Antioch, who was appointed around the year 68 and who died a martyr in Rome around the year 110. We have an echo of this structure with Acts 13:1: "There were in the church established at Antioch prophets and teachers (didaskalos): Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, a childhood friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul." And if we rely on Matthew himself, there was a process for dealing with certain cases, such as those who committed deviations: first meet with the individual alone to talk to him (18:15); if that doesn't work, then meet with the individual with two or three people (18:16); if that doesn't work, involve the whole community (18:17); if that doesn't work, excommunication. This framework helps us to understand the Gospel according to Matthew: a fairly well-structured community, made up mostly of Jewish Christians

    At the time of writing (23:1-12), Matthew has just recounted Jesus' difficult discussions with the chief priests, scribes, elders and Pharisees who set traps for him as he teaches in the temple precincts in Jerusalem. The basis of his sources comes from Mark. But he gives it a more polemical tone. And at the end, it is Jesus who asks the Pharisees a question about the messiah who is supposed to be the son of David, but whom he calls Lord in Psalm 110:1. His opponents do not know how to answer, and will never dialogue with him again. Why does Matthew emphasize this conflict, especially with the Pharisees? Even though he draws on ancient sources, Matthew is describing his milieu in the year 80, when the Jewish Christians are in open conflict with their Jewish brothers and on the verge of being excluded from the synagogues: dialogue is no longer possible.

    At this point, as Jesus' relations with his opponents are broken off, Mark takes the opportunity to introduce a short parenthesis about Jesus' judgment of one of his opponents, the group of scribes who are constantly seeking honor. Matthew jumps on the occasion to develop this parenthesis into a long speech by Jesus which has two parts, first a teaching to the crowds and the disciples (23:1-12), and hence to the members of the Christian community and to all people of good will, and then a direct invective addressed to the scribes and Pharisees (23:13-36), and hence to his Jewish brothers with whom dialogue no longer seems possible.

    Jesus' starting point in his teaching to the crowds and the disciples is the current situation: the scribes and Pharisees are the authority in the biblical field (they are sitting on Moses chair), and therefore with respect to the word of God, especially in the clarification of what God asks us to do. Let us not forget. For a Jew, and this applies to Jewish Christians as well, keeping the law, and all the rules handed down by Moses, is central to religious practice and faithfulness to God. For Matthew, it is not because one has become a Christian that there are no more laws or rules? And especially when we know how almsgiving, youth and prayer were three essential practices in the Jewish world (see Mt 6:2-18). And in his Sermon on the Mount, did not the Jesus of Matthew say: "Whoever therefore violates one of these least commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be held to be the least in the Kingdom of Heaven" (5:19); for Jesus did not come "to abolish the Law or the Prophets" (5:17), but to bring it to its fullness.

    So can we be surprised when Matthew puts into Jesus' mouth: "Therefore, put into practice and observe whatever they tell you"? Thus, even if the dialogue with the Jewish world is broken, the Bible and its traditions continue to have their place. The problem with all these specialists in the Word of God is their actions, their behavior. And Matthew intends to make clear why this behavior is unacceptable.

    First of all, he uses a phrase from Document Q in which Jesus is said to have reproached the scholars of the law for imposing on people obligations from which they themselves were far removed. There is no explanation as to why this reproach was made. But it may be a form of power. Matthew takes this sentence and modifies it slightly to affirm that it is by personal decision that these people do not assume these obligations, and thus accentuates their responsibility for which they will have to account. And this responsibility will be all the greater because they go against the teaching of Jesus who said: "Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light" (11:30).

    Then, rather than copying Mark's opening line about how the scribes liked to strut around in long robes, he personalizes the gesture by describing what the Pharisees often did, enlarging all the religious signs they wore to look more pious and fervent than others. Everything is focused on appearance and exterior, while the interior is empty.

    Finally, he has in his hands Mark's text and a similar text from the Q Document on the constant pursuit of honors. He uses the order of the Q Document (first seats in synagogues and public greetings), and precedes it with Mark's information about first couches at feasts. The whole emphasis is on the need of the scribes and Pharisees to be recognized by society, to be great in the eyes of others. The reader of Matthew remembers what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount: "When you give alms, do not go about advertising it before you... so that you may be glorified by men" (6:2; same for prayer and fasting).

    Why does Matthew write this account? It is probably a desire that this behavior, which he sees in many, first of all those Jews who have become hostile, be denounced to the Jewish Christians who are marked by their influence; it is a way of undermining their authority and preventing such behavior from becoming contagious. But Matthew is certainly also targeting the scribes and Pharisees who had become Christians and who might have tended to retain these old habits.

    After all these denunciations, there follow three exhortations addressed only to the members of the Christian community (23:8-10). Do not be called "teacher" or "father" or "leader. This is most likely an allusion to specific roles in this highly structured community. Paul, in his letters, alludes to a number of these roles such as teacher, prophet, leader of exhortation or healing, and even the title "father" seems to have been used, since Paul himself gives himself this title. One may have noticed that the titles "teacher", "father", "leader" are all linked to the prestigious role of speaking, teaching, and leading. And this seems to have created turmoil in the community, as we saw in Corinth (see 1:12 where one claims to be Cephas, another Apollos, another Paul, another Christ). Matthew's solution? To put these titles in the garbage, or rather, to reserve them for God and Christ.

    In conclusion, Matthew uses two sources. First, he takes a phrase from Mark 10:43b ("But whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant"), a phrase that concludes the section on the request of the sons of Zebedee to be seated at the right and left of Jesus in his glory, and which Matthew has already quoted as it stands (Mt 20:26). But here he modifies it: instead of addressing the ambitious ones like the sons of Zebedee who want to become great, he addresses those who are already great, i.e. the community leaders, those who bear the name "teacher" or "father". What are these great ones told? To become servants. Let's be careful, for Matthew to be a servant is very precise: to take care of others, i.e. to take care of the hungry or thirsty, strangers or naked people, sick or prisoners, as he mentioned in the parable about the last judgment (25: 44) when he used the word "serve" (diakoneō).

    Then he also concludes the pericope by resorting to a passage from the source Q ("For everyone who exalts himself...and whoever humbles himself") that Luke presents to us as a conclusion to the parable about the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:14), and as a reflection of Jesus who had been invited to eat at the home of a Pharisee ruler and was observing how the guests chose the first couches (14:11). By transforming the present tense verbs in Luke into a future tense ("Whoever rises... and whoever falls"), he is tracing the program of the Christian. For if we look back at what he said earlier about "humbling ourselves", the program is very clear. He had already spelled it out in this passage about children, "Whoever therefore will humble himself (tapeinoō) like this little child this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (18:4). In other words, the Christian must humble himself like a child, i.e. must accept to lose his social value, and having accepted to lose his social value, he will be able to welcome others who have no social value, for example a child. This is a reprise of the beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in heart" (5: 3). And this is particularly addressed to the scholars.

  5. Current situations or events in which we could read this text

    1. Suggestions from the different symbols in the story

      • A first symbol is that of the "expert". For the scribes and Pharisees were experts in the Bible, the laws and the Mosaic traditions. When you are an expert, you have unique knowledge that others rely on. What do you do with that expertise? Expertise can be a service, as well as a tool of power to enslave others.

      • There is also the symbol of the bonds. Where do these obligations come from? There are those that life imposes on us naturally, such as those of caring for children. There are those imposed by a society. Among these, are there any that stifle life? Which are only instruments of power in the hands of some?

      • Religious signs are powerful symbols. They may have their source in a living faith. But once in the hands of people, they know another life. They can become an object of manipulation, a shameless lie, an object emptied of all meaning. Isn't that what happens when you multiply them, or put them in the maretplaces?

      • Who doesn't love a place of honor? This is an important symbol. Because we need to feel that we are somebody in the eyes of others, we need to feel that we have succeeded in our life. But is public recognition the best place to test one's importance? Is society the best judge of the quality of our lives?

      • Today's gospel ends with the symbol of the servant. It is not a very glorious role. Yet, isn't doing service, caring for others, what most fulfills the human heart? Is it not the royal road to finding meaning in life? Is it not a response to the desire to love that rises from within us?

    2. Current situations or events in which we could read this text

      • When Catalonia wanted to hold a referendum on its independence, the central government immediately claimed that it was illegal and used the police to prevent it, with the results that we know. In a situation like this, what is the value and wisdom of simply using a law? Are there not other more productive ways? Matthew's gospel mentions conditions for a law to be productive.

      • In the United States, several members of the Republican Party are trying to find ways to reduce access to abortion. One of them, a Pennsylvania congressman and strong pro-life advocate, was caught asking his mistress to terminate her pregnancy after an extramarital affair. What does it mean when a law applies only to others, not to oneself? Why do we want a law that does not apply to ourselves? Paradoxically, is it not a law that is far from life?

      • Another tragedy in Somalia. The Islamist group al-Shabab reportedly planted two bombs killing 27 people. This comes two weeks after another attack that killed 358 people. There seems to be no limit to the hatred anymore. And above all, we have the impression that we are facing a situation where the rule of law does not exist. This is an example of a country where the law plays no role. Is this not proof that a world where laws guide social life is desirable?

      • Since the revelation of the sexual harassment of the American film producer Harvey Weinstein, we have not stopped hearing from women who dare to reveal that they were harassed or raped not only by Weinstein, but by many other men. But isn't the law against harassment? It is as if a law alone cannot ensure a world of healthy relationships. What else is needed? What would Matthew tell us?

      • In Quebec province, the government has just passed a law stating the religious neutrality of the state and seeking to regulate requests for accommodation for religious reasons in certain organizations. One of the provisions of this law is the subject of debate: all public services must be provided and received with their faces uncovered, which directly affects all Muslim women who wear the niqab or burqa. But what is a law that targets only 150 people out of a population of 8 million? What is the role of the law, to ensure the common good, or to control the expression of values and behaviors that the majority rejects? Can we include Matthew in the debate?


-André Gilbert, Gatineau, October 2017