Reading through the Bible together
In Matthew 23, we continue in the conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus which started with the triumphal entry. In this chapter, though, the theme of power is the focus. Jesus opens by telling the scribes and Pharisees that they were wrong for laying heavy burdens on the people–exercising religious power over them–while they don’t practice their own commands. And they didn’t even help those they oppressed to fulfill those prescribed duties (vs 3-4). These leaders relished being recognized as “Rabbi,” a person of authority (vs 6-7), and loved the prestige associated with their office (vs 5).
This power and prestige theme is reiterated in the eight “woes” (vs 13-30) Christ pronounced on the scribes and Pharisees. They exercise power by shutting the kingdom of heaven for people and are blind guides (vs 13,16). By contrast, Jesus tells his followers, “you are not to be called rabbi,” “call no man father,” do not be called instructors, “the greatest among you will be willing servants” (vs 8-11).
Christ never intended for religion to become a tool of personal power, yet like the Pharisees and scribes of that day, many today still attempt to harness divine authority in support of their personal power and goals. Some church leaders oppress members into submission. Some parents threaten their children in the name of God, keeping those children from having a positive relationship with God and the church.
Like the fig tree, those who use religion as a tool to foster and build religious or personal power have the appearance of spirituality and fruitfulness for God, but lacking the fruits of self-sacrificial service and Christlikeness. “The greatest among you will be your servant.”
Stephen Bauer, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology and Ethics
Southern Adventist University