Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
(Matthew 23:1-12 ESV)
Jesus always had three distinct audiences: The Religious (Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Priests), His Disciples (The Twelve, The Seventy, and many others), and The Crowds. Throughout his ministry he was nearly always, though not exclusively, speaking to one of these three groups. So when he singles one of the groups, The Religious, out he does it with intent.
Moses’ Seat. There is no such literal place. So we must understand the phrase in the same way we talk about “the seat of government” today. Kings developed thrones of greater and greater glory with the deliberate purpose of instilling awe in their subjects. If you look at the Throne of Coronation, King Edward’s Chair, which was carved in 1297 and has been used for almost all British coronations ever since, you quickly realize it was intended as the grandest of chairs in its day. But compare it with St. Peter’s Chair (made 400 years earlier, around 875), and you’ll see who had the grander seat. Ironically, no one ever sits in either of these chairs today except on the most important of ceremonial occasions.
All preaching in Jesus’ day was done “ex-cathedra” – from the chair. Matthew’s gospel is bookended by two of five major discourses by Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) in which Jesus blesses The Crowds and The Sermon on The End Times in chapters 23-25 in which Jesus delivers seven woes to The Religious and mourns over Jerusalem. In both “sermons” Jesus sits to preach, as was the custom for a rabbi of his day. The Religious speak from Moses’ seat. Jesus speaks from The Mercy Seat, the figurative Ark of the Covenant.
They speak with only derived authority. Jesus speaks with the authority of his own Father. They may speak truth, but then they impose great judging burdens on people that make it impossible for the people to apply truth. Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “Satan himself could deliver the elements of Communion, and it would still be Communion for the people.”
That is why Jesus is able to tell them to follow what the Pharisees tell them as separate from their actions. The Scriptures are still the Scriptures. Don’t tell me you can’t worship in a “liberal” church that interprets the Bible very differently than you do. They’re still bringing forth the Word of God! And frankly, there have been far more high-profile Evangelical pastors who have been in the news over the years because of hypocrisy of one sort or another than there have been Liberal pastors.
Phylacteries are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers. The Hebrew word is "tefillin.” The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, and the strap wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers; while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. The Torah commands that they should be worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt (Wikipedia).
Isn’t it funny that in creating a show of great piety, the Scribes were creating a burden for themselves! If you look at a person wearing broad phylacteries and long fringes, you’re immediately struck by how uncomfortable they look.
Jesus here gives us clear instructions that the church is to be set up on a “flat” leadership structure. The priest or pastor of a church should be considered as no more important or holy than anyone else. The pastor’s role is different, to be sure. He or she is there to shepherd the people and love them into growth in Christ. But they are not to have authority over the people in any way like parental authority. The ultimate flattening happens when Jesus says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”
So pastors: the next time you’re thinking how great your last Bible study or sermon was and feel tempted to tell your people what you’ve discerned God’s will for them is, go stack some tables – those 8 footers. Better yet, go over to one of their houses and help them clean or paint or organize. You’ll probably have given them a great gift and you’ll have spent valuable time with them. When you do, you most likely won’t have to admonish them to do God’s will. They will have seen you doing what you hear your Father telling you, and they will emulate your actions.