Teachers of the law are literally "scribes," which throughout the Empire included those who wrote legal documents for others, but in Judea and Galilee included educated teachers who instructed children in the law and in some cases taught adults as well. Pharisees were a particularly scrupulous brotherhood of teachers and laypersons committed to interpreting the law according to the traditions received from earlier Pharisees. Both groups (which overlapped at points) probably derived from families with some means, and Pharisees clustered especially (though not exclusively) in Jerusalem, where some of them belonged to the urban elite. Luke correctly distinguishes scribes and Pharisees (Lk 11:39-54), but like modern preachers, Matthew is telling the story in a manner that addresses the enemies of his own community, of whom Pharisaic scribes seem to be the dominant element (compare Hare 1967:81). Matthew is sensitive to the Jewish orthodoxy of his own audience, which probably included some Christian scribes (Mt 13:52; 23:34) and Pharisees (Acts 15:5; compare 23:6), but by Matthew's day the non-Christian Pharisaic leadership had probably marginalized all Christians, Pharisaic or not.Religious Leaders Must Live What They Teach (23:1-4) Jesus agrees that many of the scribes and Pharisees' ethical teachings are good; the problem is not their teaching but their lives (vv. 2-3; Rom 2:21), a dichotomy known to exist among many religious professionals and other religious people today. The religious leaders here have seated themselves in Moses' seat, probably meaning that they have adopted the role of the law's interpreters (compare Carson 1984:472). Although Pharisaic ethics emphasized being as lenient or strict with others as one was with oneself (ARN 23, Section 46B), in practice Jesus accuses them of being too strict with others and too lenient with their own failings (compare 5:18-20; 15:1-20), which fits the way Christians often evaluate sins today.Religious Leaders Must Not Seek Marks of Honor (23:5) Many Greek philosophical teachers wore identifying apparel that elicited respectful greetings (as in Justin Dial. 1), and Jewish scribes may have preferred identifying raiment as well (see b. Baba Batra 98a). Whereas phylacteries were supposed to glorify God (Bonsirven 1964:61), the wearers here use them to draw attention to themselves. Jewish sources associated phylacteries, tepillin, with sissim, tassels or fringes attached to the outer cloak's four corners (Num 15:38-40; Deut 22:12). Following the law, Jesus himself presumably wore sissim (9:20; 14:36) and used tepillin. The issue here is not about wearing fringes or not, but whether we seek honor for ourselves or for God alone.Religious Leaders Must Not Seek Honored Treatment (23:6) As in much of the Mediterranean world, Palestinian Jewish society included a heavy emphasis on honor and even hierarchy. Seating was normally by rank (as in t. Sanhedrin 7:8; 8:1; Lk 14:7-11; 1QS 2.19-23), and greetings (Mt 23:7; compare 26:49) were virtually mandated by social custom.Religious Leaders Must Not Seek Honorary Titles (23:7-11) Social etiquette dictated the manner of greetings: one must greet one's social superior first (Manson 1979:99; Goodman 1983:78). Sages were objects of special honor (as in t. Mo`ed Qatan 2:17). Fitting this context of public honor and salutations (vv. 6-7), in Jesus' day Rabbi was probably an honorary greeting, "my master" (vv. 7-8; only gradually did it come to be added as a title to a given teacher's name). But whereas Jesus' disciples will carry on his mission of teaching, they will make disciples for him rather than for themselves (28:19).
Some people used abba ("papa") as a respectful title for older men and other prominent individuals (Jeremias 1971:68), and may have especially viewed Bible teachers in these terms (see, for example, Sipre Deut. 34.3.1-3). But with God as their Father, Jesus' disciples are all siblings (compare 12:48-50; 18:15; 28:10). Matthew's original readers, who knew all about the titles and power Pharisaic teachers were claiming for themselves, would hear Jesus' teaching as a warning not to be like their competitors by seeking honorary titles or a position above others.
John Meier, a Roman Catholic scholar, notes Jesus' prohibition of the title father and questions the use of ecclesiastical titles, which arose even in Matthew's church in Syria a few decades after his Gospel (1980:265). But while we Protestants may determine "pecking order" by different means, most of our churches offer the same temptations for personal advancement. In most church services, ministers (including guest ministers performing no function in the service) grace the platform; many churches use various forms of social conformity to increase offerings. In some circles ordained ministers are taken aback if they are not greeted with the title "Reverend," which literally means "one worthy of reverence, one who should be revered." Is it possible that the very criticisms Jesus laid against the religious establishments of his day now stand institutionalized in most of his church?God Alone Exalts in the End (23:12) Sometimes we grow jealous of others' ministries or spiritual gifts. But Jesus teaches here that exalting remains God's business alone. He echoes the biblical (as in Is 2:11-12; 5:15-16; Ezek 21:26) and later Jewish (as in Sirach 11:5-6; 1 Enoch 104:2; 1QM 14.10-11) emphasis on end-time reversal of present status.