Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Paradox of Honor

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 23:1-12, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. For those of you who are preaching from Matthew 5:1-12 for All Saints Day, here is my work for that text. 

After being targeted with trick questions, parrying them and countering them in dialogues with Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians in c.22, Jesus goes on the offensive in this chapter. No longer in conversation with those who are trying to entrap him, Jesus turns to the crowds and to his disciples. In vv.1-12 Jesus talks to them about the scribes and Pharisees. The voice changes starting in v.13, when Jesus begins to pronounce “woes” at the scribes and Pharisees.

1 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν τοῖς ὄχλοις καὶ τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples
ἐλάλησεν: AAI 3s, λαλέω, 1) to utter a voice or emit a sound
1. This is a change of audience from c.22, where the conversations (from v.15 on) were Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians, trying to trick Jesus into saying something actionable. Yet, the crowd was ever in the background of the story, because one reason that the religious leaders were trying to ensnare Jesus is suggested in the end of c.21: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” 

2 λέγων, Ἐπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι.
Saying, “On the seat of Moses sat the Scribes and the Pharisees. 
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐκάθισαν: AAI 3p, καθίζω, 1) to make to sit down
1. The main verb is past tense (aorist), but the implications that follow are present tense. 
2. I hereby don’t believe anyone who pretends to know exactly what the “Seat of Moses” really is. Nope … Sorry …. Zip it … Shh … 
3. Okay, one possibility seems to have some credence to me. Exodus 18 is the story of Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, paying a visit and returning Moses’ wife and children to him. V.13 says, “The next day Moses sat a judge for the people …” an exhausting work of settling disputes, which Jethro points out would be better done if Moses delegated it to other trustworthy persons and focused his own energies on liaising between God and the people. V.22 reads, “Let them sit as judges for the people ….” One could see how someone with judgmental authority might refer to it as the “seat of Moses” in terms of this delegated work. Maybe. But, I like how Mark Allen Powell says, “Any interpretation of this text, then, must begin with the recognition that we are expected to know something that we do not know.” (“Do and Keep What Moses Says: Matthew 23:2-7,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 114 no. 3 Fall. 1995, p 419-435.)
4. Maybe since we are, in 2017, celebrating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, my mind wants to notice how the word for seat is καθέδρας, so that one speaking out of this seat is speaking ex cathedra.

3 πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἐὰν εἴπωσιν ὑμῖν ποιήσατε καὶ τηρεῖτε, κατὰ δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν μὴ ποιεῖτε: λέγουσιν γὰρ καὶ οὐ ποιοῦσιν.
Therefore everything that they may say to you do and observe, yet do not do according to their works; for they speak and do not.
εἴπωσιν: AASubj 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ποιήσατε: AAImpv 2p, ποιέω, 1) to make
τηρεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, τηρέω, 1) to attend to carefully, take care of
ποιεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, ποιέω, 1) to make
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ποιοῦσιν: PAI 3p, ποιέω, 1) to make
1. “For they speak and do not.” It seems a straightforward critique of hypocrisy, that gap between what they say (λέγω) and what they do (ποιέω). However, it’s complicated. 
2. It is curious that Jesus affords the scribes and Pharisees some authority, the proper authority that comes with sitting on the seat of Moses. What they say is what one ought to do and observe. Is that because they are reading Torah? Is it because God can use them howsoever hypocritical and misguided their own actions are? One might suggest that Jesus is merely feigning obedience in order not to get into trouble, or that Jesus (Matthew) is trying to assure the religious authorities that it is not their authority per se that Jesus is questioning. Or, maybe Jesus actually has respect for the position of leadership, even if it happens to be populated by hypocrites at present. Does Jesus or Matthew have a concern that the radical critique that Jesus makes of the practitioners of those offices might be confused with a critique of the offices themselves? Is there some backstory here? 
3. This comment distinguishing the office from the person in the office reminds me of the brief conversation in Acts 23:1-5, when Paul gets slapped and responds harshly. When asked if he dared speaking that way to the high priest, he actually backtracks, saying that he didn’t realize it was the high priest, and the cites Exodus 22:28, “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.”
4. HOWEVER, Jesus is not reticent about speaking evil of the leaders, if vv.13ff mean anything. And Jesus’ critique is not just based on their actions, but also on their teachings (23:16-18). It is no wonder that Mark Allen Powell says “many scholars have come to regard this passage as a vagrant pericope that simply cannot be reconciled with the theology of the overall work” (Op cit, v.1, n.3 above). In fact, Powell observes 10 different proposals for resolving the inconsistencies of this text within the whole of Matthew, none of which prove entirely satisfactory. (I personally would lean toward David Garland’s suggestion that Jesus is critiquing Pharisaic Judaism, because I always assume that there are vivid, enduring questions at work among people of God, with “Who speaks for God?” as one of them.) 
5. What I want this text to mean is that when reading Torah (not something that was readily possible or accessible to everyone, I imagine), the scribes and Pharisees are speaking the Word of the Lord in a way that one ought to listen, but when they begin interpreting the text – and their own interests begin to infect the meaning of the text – then their words and actions have betrayed the seat of Moses. Hmm… the implications of that distinction are troubling for a preacher who is Reformed enough to imagine that sermons are “the Word of the Lord” also, even if the preacher is a sinner wholly dependent on God’s grace.

4 δεσμεύουσιν δὲ φορτία βαρέα [καὶ δυσβάστακτα] καὶ ἐπιτιθέασιν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὤμους τῶν ἀνθρώπων, αὐτοὶ δὲ τῷ δακτύλῳ αὐτῶν οὐ θέλουσιν κινῆσαι αὐτά.
Yet they bind heavy burdens [and hard borne] and lay on the shoulders of people, yet they with their finger are not willing to move them. 
δεσμεύουσιν: PAI 3p, δεσμεύω, 1) to put in chains  2) to bind up, bind together
δυσβάστακτα: API, δυσβάστακτος, 1) hard to be borne
ἐπιτιθέασιν: PAI 3p, ἐπιτίθημι, 1) to put or lay upon
θέλουσιν: PAI 3p, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
κινῆσαι: AAInf, κινέω, 1) to cause to go, i.e. to move, set in motion
1. Some ancient texts do not contain the phrase “and hard borne.” 
2. This almost sounds like a Congress that would complain about the costs of providing health insurance for the poor, but would grant themselves premium coverage. Almost.

5 πάντα δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν ποιοῦσιν πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι τοῖς ἀνθρώποις: πλατύνουσιν γὰρ τὰ φυλακτήρια αὐτῶν καὶ μεγαλύνουσιν τὰ κράσπεδα,
Yet all their works they do to the showboating to the people; for they broaden their phylacteries and enlarge the hems,  
ποιοῦσιν: PAI 3p, ποιέω, 1) to make
θεαθῆναι: APInf, θεάομαι, 1) to behold, look upon, view attentively, (often used of public shows)
πλατύνουσιν: PAI 3p, πλατύνω, 1) to make broad, enlarge  2) be enlarged in heart, i.e. to welcome and embrace you in love
μεγαλύνουσιν: PAI 3p, μεγαλύνω, 1) to make great, magnify
1. It seems that “the hems” refers to fringes, but I defer judgments on 1st century sartorial trends to others. 

6 φιλοῦσιν δὲ τὴν πρωτοκλισίαν ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις καὶ τὰς πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς
yet they love the chief rooms in the feasts and the chief seats in the synagogues 
φιλοῦσιν: PAI 3p, φιλέω, 1) to love   1a) to approve of   1b) to like   1c) sanction
1. We need to notice the return of "seat" as in "chief seats" πρωτο/καθεδρίας in this verse. 

7 καὶ τοὺς ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς καὶ καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, Ῥαββί.
and the greetings in the marketplace and to be called by the people, “Rabbi.” 
καλεῖσθαι: PPInf, καλέω, 1) to call

8 ὑμεῖς δὲ μὴ κληθῆτε, Ῥαββί, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ διδάσκαλος, πάντες δὲ ὑμεῖς ἀδελφοί ἐστε.
Yet you may not be called, “Rabbi,” for to you there is one teacher, yet all of you are brothers. 
κληθῆτε: APSubj 2p, καλέω, 1) to call
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐστε: PAI 2p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. So, the audience seems to have shifted here, if not in v.1 itself. Maybe one could make the case that Jesus is speaking to his motley crew of followers, whom he knew one day would be addressed with honorific titles of respect by their own followers. Or, more likely in my mind, Matthew is addressing those within his community who have become recognized as teachers. 

9 καὶ πατέρα μὴ καλέσητε ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ πατὴρ ὁ οὐράνιος.
And you may not call your father on the earth, for there is one to you heavenly father.
καλέσητε: AASubj 2p, καλέω, 1) to call
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Growing up in a Fundamentalist tradition, it was – and to some degree still is – very curious that some Christian traditions actually employ the term “Father” to name their leadership. On a simple, plain reading level, that kind of title seems inappropriate. On a more complex level, the question of how to recognize and name leadership, while maintaining an egalitarian sense of siblinghood – like “the priesthood of all believers,” is not easy. I feel it whenever our interfaith groups encourages me to wear “clerical garb” at a protest or an ecumenical worship service, or when parents encourage their children to call me “Pastor Mark” instead of “Mark.” Avoiding the title Father is one thing, but the title Teacher? Any title at all? 

10 μηδὲ κληθῆτε καθηγηταί, ὅτι καθηγητὴς ὑμῶν ἐστιν εἷς ὁ Χριστός.
Nor may you be called masters, because your one master is the Christ. 
κληθῆτε: APSubj 2p, καλέω, 1) to call
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Avoiding the title “Master” seems easy enough, as long as we don’t go looking at the etymology of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” 

11 ὁ δὲ μείζων ὑμῶν ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος.
Yet the greatest of you will be your servant. 
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Young’s Literal Translation here reads: “And the greater of you shall be your ministrant.” That’ll preach. 
2. It is worth noting that this is a future verb, not an imperative, although some future verbs seem to have imperative force. 

12 ὅστις δὲ ὑψώσει ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, καὶ ὅστις ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται.
Yet whoever will exalt himself will be humbled and whoever will humble himself will be exalted. 
ὑψώσει: FAI 3s, ὑψόω, 1) to lift up on high, to exalt
ταπεινωθήσεται: FPI 3s, ταπεινόω, 1) to make low, bring low 1a) to level, reduce to a plain
ταπεινώσει: FAI 3s, ταπεινόω, 1) to make low, bring low 1a) to level, reduce to a plain
ὑψωθήσεται: FPI 3s, ὑψόω, 1) to lift up on high, to exalt
1. Again, the verbs here are all future. They are not imperatives, like “You must …” or subjunctives, like “If you will….” 
2. So, the whole discussion of honorific titles seems to be leading to this familiar, chiastic paradox that lies at the heart of Jesus’ call. Many folks have tried to capture it with titles like “servant leaders.” 

This pericope begins as a withering critique of scribes and Pharisees. As such, it is a complicated text, particularly with regard to vv.2-3, per the notes above. Verse 4-6 is full of 3rd person plural nouns, “them” “they” etc. anticipating Jesus’ words in the next pericope. But, in v.7, the subject changes from the 3rd person to the 2nd person: “You.” Whether Jesus is addressing a reality of his moment or Matthew is addressing a reality of his, it is to Jesus’ followers that the “You” of vv. 7-10 is addressed. The challenge that Jesus is addressing is not particular to either early 1st century Jewish leadership or to late 1st century emerging Christian leadership, so this text should not be the warrant for either anti-Semitic or anti-Roman Catholic diatribes. It is a human challenge to embrace that honor is the result of humility, not of exalting oneself.

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