22 October 2014

‘Do what I tell you, not what I do’ …
words and actions in Matthew 23: 1-12

All Souls College, Oxford … a reminder of the ‘Faithful Departed’ on 2 November (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday week [2 November 2014] is the Fourth Sunday before Advent (Proper 26). The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary that Sunday are: Joshua 3: 7-17; Psalm 107: 1-7, 33-37; I Thessalonians 2: 9-13; Matthew 23: 1-12.

The Church of Ireland Directory says the “readings for All Saints’ Day may be preferred.” All Saints’ Day is the previous day (1 November), and the readings are: Joshua 31: 31-34; Psalm 34: 1-10; Revelation 7: 9-17 or I John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12.

In the calendar of many member churches of the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England (Common Worship), the Church in Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church, but not the Church of Ireland, 2 November is also observed as All Souls’ Day (Readings: Lamentations 3: 17-26, 31-33 or Wisdom 3: 1-9; Psalm 23 or 27: 1-6, 16, 17; Romans 5: 5-11 or I Peter 1: 3-9; John 5: 19-25 or John 6: 37-40).

Which readings are being used in your church or parish that Sunday?

How is 2 November being marked in your parish or church?

If All Saints’ Day is not being marked, how do you celebrate the saints in your parish or church?

What are your feelings about the commemoration of All Souls?

It is interesting that All Souls is the name of one of the leading evangelical churches in London, All Souls’ Church, Langham Place, where the Revd John Stott was first a curate (1945-1950) and then the Rector (1950-1975). All Souls College in Oxford (officially known as the Warden and the College of the Souls of All Faithful People Deceased in the University of Oxford) is a unique college, where members automatically become fellows and where there are no undergraduates. It was founded by Henry VI and Archbishop Henry Chichele of Canterbury for a Warden and forty fellows, all in Holy Orders. All services in the college chapel are said, and the chapel does not have an organ or a choir.


All Souls’ Day was marked in the Chapel of Pusey House last year with Fauré’s Requiem (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 23: 1-12

1 Τότε ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν τοῖς ὄχλοις καὶ τοῖς μαθηταῖς αὐτοῦ 2 λέγων, Ἐπὶ τῆς Μωϋσέως καθέδρας ἐκάθισαν οἱ γραμματεῖς καὶ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι. 3 πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἐὰν εἴπωσιν ὑμῖν ποιήσατε καὶ τηρεῖτε, κατὰ δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν μὴ ποιεῖτε: λέγουσιν γὰρ καὶ οὐ ποιοῦσιν. 4 δεσμεύουσιν δὲ φορτία βαρέα [καὶ δυσβάστακτα] καὶ ἐπιτιθέασιν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὤμους τῶν ἀνθρώπων, αὐτοὶ δὲ τῷ δακτύλῳ αὐτῶν οὐ θέλουσιν κινῆσαι αὐτά. 5 πάντα δὲ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν ποιοῦσιν πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι τοῖς ἀνθρώποις: πλατύνουσιν γὰρ τὰ φυλακτήρια αὐτῶν καὶ μεγαλύνουσιν τὰ κράσπεδα, 6 φιλοῦσιν δὲ τὴν πρωτοκλισίαν ἐν τοῖς δείπνοις καὶ τὰς πρωτοκαθεδρίας ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς 7 καὶ τοὺς ἀσπασμοὺς ἐν ταῖς ἀγοραῖς καὶ καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, Ῥαββί. 8 ὑμεῖς δὲ μὴ κληθῆτε, Ῥαββί, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ διδάσκαλος, πάντες δὲ ὑμεῖς ἀδελφοί ἐστε. 9 καὶ πατέρα μὴ καλέσητε ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, εἷς γάρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁ πατὴρ ὁ οὐράνιος. 10 μηδὲ κληθῆτε καθηγηταί, ὅτι καθηγητὴς ὑμῶν ἐστιν εἷς ὁ Χριστός. 11 ὁ δὲ μείζων ὑμῶν ἔσται ὑμῶν διάκονος. 12 ὅστις δὲ ὑψώσει ἑαυτὸν ταπεινωθήσεται, καὶ ὅστις ταπεινώσει ἑαυτὸν ὑψωθήσεται.

Translation (NRSV):

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Putting the Gospel reading in context:

In this community, this reading may come to some of us as an important reminder that ordained ministry is not a career path or career option. Instead, we are called to be servants (verse 11). The word used for servant here is διάκονος, a reminder, hopefully, that being a deacon is foundational for ordained ministry, and that service, not honour and privilege, is at the heart of future ministry.

You may also be encouraged by Christ telling the disciples, according to the NRSV version, that “you are all students” (verse 8). However, the original Greek here is ἀδελφοί (singular, ἀδελφός), better translated, perhaps, as “brothers and sisters.” We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and children of the one God and Father of all.

However, that may not help you in working on a sermon in a parish setting for that Sunday. It is important in looking at a Gospel reading on Sunday morning, to also take account of the other readings in the Old Testament, Psalm and Epistle.

Joshua 3: 7-17

In our Old Testament reading, we see the connection between belief and action, but thinking and living. God tells Joshua that he will give a sign to show the people that God will be with him as he was with Moses. Joshua is to give the order to the priests and he tells the people that what they will see will show that God is with them. They believe and show their trust in God not just through intellectual assent, but through their actions, as they dare to cross over the River Jordan as they once crossed through the waters of the Red Sea.

Psalm 107: 1-7, 33-37

In this psalm, the pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem thank God for their escape from various dangers. Their faith in God is a lived, truly living communal experience, and not merely about individual intellectual assent.

I Thessalonians 2: 9-13

Saint Paul reminds the members of the Church in Thessaloniki that they are witnesses to not only in their beliefs but in the way they live their lives and in their conduct towards the new Church members. Like a father teaching his children, he urges and encourages them, and pleads with them to walk in God’s ways, so that God’s word becomes made active in those who believe.

Looking at the Gospel reading (Matthew 23: 1-12):

We are still in the Temple with Christ in Holy Week. There he has silenced his principal critics, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, showing their lack of understanding of the core message of the Bible and the Law. In this morning’s reading, he turns to speak “to the crowds and to his disciples” about the scribes and the Pharisees, and their attitude to and teaching of the Law and the Bible.

Christ tells the people in the Temple that the Pharisees have authority to teach the Law, and he concedes that they are in an unbroken chain that goes back to Moses, for they “sit on Moses’ seat.”

But while honouring their teachings, they should be wary of their practices. In their interpretation the Law, they impose heavy burdens on others, yet do not follow the Law themselves.

Externally, they appear pious. They wear teffelin or phylacteries, small, black, leather boxes, on their left arms and foreheads with four Biblical passages as a “sign” and “remembrance” that God liberated their ancestors from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 13: 1-10; Exodus 13: 11-16; Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; and Deuteronomy 11: 13-21. They also have lengthy fringes or tassels on their prayer shawls (tallitot, singular talit), as visible reminders of the 613 commandments in the Law (see Numbers 15: 38, Deuteronomy 22: 12).

In verses 6-7, Christ gives four examples of vanity: they love places of honour at banquets, the best seats in the synagogues, being greeted with respect publicly, and being called “Rabbi,” which means master and later becomes a title for the leader in a synagogue.

In verses 8-10, we are warned about the danger of loving honorific titles, such as “teacher,” “father” and instructor, for we are all students, we are all brothers and sisters, children of God and disciples.

Yet I am a teacher, a father and a tutor. Is Christ warning against the position or against seeking honours that have not been earned?

It is a truism that parents must earn the respect of their children, not seek or demand it. Most parents have, at one time or another, said to their children: “Do what I tell you, not what I do.” Needless to say, my sons, when they were children, never listened to me when I said something so silly.

All parents know, on the other hand, that actions speak louder than words.

Perhaps this passage in Matthew 23 may reflect later tensions between the Jewish synagogue and the new Christian community. But, in Christ’s own days, people would have expected a Pharisee to be a careful observer of the Law. Unlike the Temple priests and village elders, the Pharisees did not have a high social status.

Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, the Pharisees were a relatively modest group of people without political power and tried live out Jewish tradition and the Torah seriously conscientiously in their daily lives. The Pharisees saw the Law as applying not only to every aspect of public life, but to every aspect of private, domestic, daily life too.

There is another well-worn statement: “It’s not where you start out but where you end up.” The Pharisees started out with good intentions, but some of them ended by seeking to be great, seeking to be exalted (verses 11-12). They started out concerned for holiness but some ended in exclusion. They started out seeking to recognise God in all aspects of life, but some of them ended by seeking recognition at banquets and in the synagogue (verses 6-7).

Christ calls us to live in such a way that they can say to the world: “Do as we say and as we do.”

Who do we teach this? By remembering that in “the greatest among you will be your servant” (verse 11) and that “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (verse 12).

But the problem here is not so much a conflict between words and actions, but the need to make the connection between words and actions. Words must mean what they point to, and the actions must be describable in words.

Most of us, as children, learned by watching how adults behave, we learn as members of the human community. As a child, when I needed to learn how to use a fork, I did not need a lecture on the hygienic and sanitary contribution that have benefitted European lifestyles since the introduction of the fork through Byzantium and Venice to mediaeval Europe; I did not need an engineering lecture on the practicalities and difficulties of balancing the prongs and the handle; I would have been too young to read a delightful chapter by Judith Herrin one of her books on how the fork-using Byzantines were much more sophisticated than their western allies or rivals who ate with their hands (Judith Herrin, Byzantium – the Surprising Life of a Mediaeval Empire, London: Allen Lane, 2007, Chapter 19).

The same principle applies to everything else, as Andrew Davison of Westcott House, Cambridge, points out in his contribution to Imaginative Apologetics (London: SCM Press, 2011), the same principle applies to how we learn about everything else in life – cups, books, bicycles and so on. He might have added love – the love of God and the love of one another.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s steps in the Great Palm House in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

I was visiting the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin last Friday afternoon [17 October 2014]. There, in the Great Palm House are the steps on which the great 20th century German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein regularly sat in contemplation and thought while he was living in Dublin in the late 1940s.

Even if you find Wittgenstein difficult to read – and a good introduction is available in Fergus Kerr’s Theology after Wittgenstein (London: SPCK, 1997) – theologians can find useful insights in his writings.

Wittgenstein teaches us that thinking and language must be inter-connected. “Words have meaning only in the stream of life,” he says. Thinking requires language, language is a communal experience, and, as Davison points out, we learn language as members of a human community and through induction into common human practices.

We can talk about prayer, forgiveness, and most of all about love itself, to others. But if it only remains talk and has no application, then the words have no meaning.

Let us remind ourselves about the previous Sunday’s Gospel reading (Matthew 22: 34-46) – Christ tells the lawyer sent by the Pharisees and the Sadducees that the greatest commandments are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbour as yourself.” And, he adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

If the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the young lawyer were teaching and doing in conformity with these laws, then there would have been an unassailable ring of authenticity to their teaching.

We may try teach the two great commandments, but we only teach them with credibility when we live them out in our lives. There must be no gap that separates what we teach and how we live out what we teach in our lives.

‘As we rejoice in their triumphs, we may be sustained by their example and fellowship’ … All Souls College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Almighty and eternal God,
you have kindled the flame of love in the hearts of the saints:
Grant to us the same faith and power of love,
that, as we rejoice in their triumphs,
we may be sustained by their example and fellowship;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this Eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Next: Matthew 25: 1-13.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with MTh students in a tutorial group on 22 October 2014.

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