Matthew 23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, Mat 23:2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, Mat 23:3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. Mat 23:4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.
Acts 15:6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. Act 15:7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them…Act 15:10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
Matthew 11:25 At that time Jesus declared…Mat 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Mat 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Mat 11:30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
In the first quotation given above, the portion of verses 2 and 3 which I have placed in bold print is usually taken to be as much the teaching and commandment of Jesus Christ (peace be to him) as is the rest of the passage in chapter 23. That is, Jesus is thought to be instructing his disciples and the crowd – as part of his own teaching – that the Scribes “sit in Moses’ seat” (speak with Moses’ authority) and therefore ought to be obeyed.
I find this simply impossible to accept. How is it possible that one can seriously believe Jesus was telling his disciples and the other hearers that they should accept the teachings of people whom he immediately began to castigate and ridicule? He calls them hypocrites who don’t ‘practice what they preach’, and who only do things in order to be seen and acclaimed by other people. He says they neither enter the kingdom of God themselves nor permit others to enter it. Those who convert to the religion of the Scribes and Pharisees become “children of hell” – in fact, twice as bad as the Scribes and Pharisees themselves.
In verses 16-26, Jesus (PBUH) called the Scribes and Pharisees “blind” 5 times (blind guides twice, blind fools, blind men, and blind Pharisees). They are like whitewashed tombs – beautiful on the outside, but inside full of the rotting flesh and the bones of dead men; they are outwardly righteous, but inwardly full of hypocrisy and iniquity. They are serpents and vipers, and are unable “to escape being sentenced to hell”.
Regarding the Scribes being “blind guides”, it is interesting to note what Jesus, on other occasions, had to say about following such guides. In Matthew 15, verses 1-11, we are informed of an incident when Scribes and Pharisees challenged Jesus (PBUH) about the practice of his disciples – who, contrary to the “traditions of the elders”, didn’t wash their hands when they ate. Jesus responded by asking them why they violated the law of God by means of their traditions! He gave an example of how the “traditions of the elders” violated God’s law, quoted from the prophet Isaiah (peace to him) to say that the Scribes and Pharisees taught “the commandments of men” rather than the law of God, and then explained why eating without washing one’s hands does not “defile” a person in God’s sight. The disciples then (verse 12) ‘informed’ Jesus that what he said had offended the Pharisees. Here is what Jesus said in response:
Matthew 15:13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Mat 15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
Instead of telling his disciples that they ought to obey those “blind guides”, he told them not to do so – since they would wind up falling into the pit along with their guides if they obeyed/followed them. How could one even imagine that Jesus would tell his hearers to obey teachings which he said violated the law of God?!
Luke 6:39, 40 gives another instance of Jesus talking about following blind guides: Luke 6:39 He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? Luk 6:40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.
If you take a “blind person” (obviously figuratively speaking) as your teacher/guide, you can only wind up “blind” yourself – and in the same pit. You won’t wind up better than your teacher. So surely Jesus would never instruct people to obey the teachings of “blind guides” and “blind fools”!
In the verses quoted at the beginning of this post, Jesus and Peter (peace to both of them) had commented on how heavy the burdens and the “yoke” of the Scribes and Pharisees were. Peter commented that the Jews had been unable to bear that yoke. In contrast, Jesus called on his heavily burdened hearers to take his yoke and burden instead, because my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Again, how can one imagine that Jesus would ever instruct anyone to bear the heavy burden or “yoke” of the Scribes and Pharisees (Judaism), when his message was that they should take his “yoke” and burden instead?
What, then, did Jesus mean in Matthew 23: 2 and 3? It was another instance of Jesus quoting the teaching of “the Jews” in order to contrast it with his own teaching. Just as a Christian preacher may begin his sermon by reading or quoting from the Bible; or a Muslim teacher may begin a message with a quotation from the Qur’an; so Jesus on this occasion began his message with a quotation from the traditions of the Scribes – a quotation with which his hearers would be very familiar, and would have no trouble recognizing for what it was. The obvious difference, though, is that instead of treating the quotation as Divine Truth, he immediately began to demolish it as ‘a lie of the Devil’. Instead of honoring the Scribes for the sake of their supposed position as representatives of Moses (and consequently of God), he repudiated and mocked them in all of those vivid terms which I noted earlier.
So in effect what Jesus was saying was: You have been taught: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you”; but let me tell you, you sure don’t want to do the things they do! They say one thing and do another. You should be sure that your actions match your words. They seek public acclaim; you should only seek the ‘acclaim’ of your Father in Heaven… This was the same sort of “compare and contrast” statement Jesus had made to the Samaritan “woman at the well” in John 4. There he inserted a quotation from “the Jews” into his own teaching (You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews) in order to contrast it with the truth of his own teachings. Here in Matthew 23 Jesus began his ‘sermon’ with the quotation he wished to repudiate.