Over the past few weeks we have seens Jesus in contention with the “chief priests and elders of the people,” now he takes on the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes. And in our readings today, these religious leaders do not come off very well.
Jesus is not accusing the scribes and Pharisees of not knowing their religion. They knew it very well. They were even good at teaching it to others; it is just that they didn’t practice what they taught and preached. “For they preach but they do not practice.”
In Jesus’ time, the teachers of Torah fell into two broad categories: those who took a very strict interpretation of the religious law and those who were broad interpreters. The strict teachers made religious observance very difficult for the ordinary person who lacked both the education and time to learn and practice all the minutiae these teachers emphasized. Thus, the strict interpreters could easily point an accusing finger at those around them, the common folk, who in their ignorance were constantly breaking the rules. They did little to lighten the religious burdens they taught - in fact, they provided still more loads for an already oppressed people to carry. As a result, they made it sound as if God were exacting and demanding.
On the other hand, those who gave a broad interpretation had a more pastoral approach.
In today’s passage Jesus addresses the Pharisees and their strict interpretation. He accuses them of taking a position they themselves do not follow. Nor, he says, do they do anything to relieve the heavy burdens they have imposed on others.
The Gospel of Matthew was written around the year 90 for a Christian community that had many Jewish converts. They struggled with their former Jewish leaders and their own past, so this narrative strongly states the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, perhaps even over-emphasizing the conflict. The Evangelist may have wanted to help the community make a final break from the old religious influences and more fully embrace Jesus’ teachings and ways - or, he may simply have preserved Jesus’ teaching about hypocrisy because of the leaders in his own community.
Hypocrisy didn’t die out with the some of the Pharisees; it is always around. And it can be present in a strict interpretation of religion and it can manifest itself in a "pastoral" approach to religion, as well. When Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “As for you....” he is looking at us as we profess our faith today. The way we live and how we treat others will either support or undermine the message we are trying to communicate. Actions really do speak louder than words. If we are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as our self, then total dedication to the Gospel message is required - in all aspects of our lives — words and actions; in church and in the market place.
Who we are and what we are is less important than what we are called to do. Jesus has breathed His Spirit into each of us and we each are part of the community of God’s people… a community that is ever-changing, ever-diverse and ever-growing. All of us are called to practice what we preach: we must do what we can to lighten the loads that weigh on people (especially excessively restrictive or burdensome religious laws) and the “officials” among us must not let the respect and honor we receive because of our titles and roles, go to our heads. The name of the game is Service. If our lives conform to what we teach, that will be enough. God will take care of the rest.