Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today we invite you to explore the ancient Jewish group, the Pharisees, and Jesus’s condemnation of Pharisees contextualized as in-group disagreements among Jewish people; and engage the anti-Semitism baked into Christian understandings of the Bible and its people. The examples of Adrienne Rich and the art of Marc Chagall help us on this path.
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
A great ruler am I, says the God of Hosts,
and my name will be feared among the nations.
If you do not lay it to heart,
to give glory to my Name, says the God of Hosts,
I will send a curse upon you
and of your blessing I will make a curse.
Yes, I have already cursed it,
because you do not lay it to heart.
You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
you have made void the covenant of Levi,
says the God of Hosts.
I, therefore, have made you contemptible
and base before all the people,
since you do not keep my ways,
but show partiality in your decisions.
Have we not all the one God?
Has not the one God created us?
Why then do we break faith with each other,
violating the covenant of our ancestors?
Response: In You, Adonai, I have found my peace.
Adonai, my heart has no lofty ambitions, / my eyes do not look too high.
I am not concerned with great affairs / or marvels beyond my scope.
R: In You, Adonai, I have found my peace.
Enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet / like a child in its mothers arms,
As content as a child that has been weaned.
R: In You, Adonai, I have found my peace.
Israel, rely on Our God, / now and always!
R: In You, Adonai, I have found my peace.
While we were with you,
we were as gentle as any nursing mother caring for her little ones.
So well disposed were we toward you, in fact,
that we were willing to share with you not only the Good News,
but our very lives as well — you had become that dear to us.
Let us remind you, sisters and brothers, of our toil and hardship;
we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone
while we preached the Good News of God to you.
And we constantly thank God for the way you received the words we preached to you,
not as our word but as the word of God, which it really was.
And it changed your lives when you believed it.
Jesus told the crowds and the disciples,
“The religious scholars and the Pharisees have succeeded Moses as teachers;
therefore, perform every observance they tell you.
But do not follow their example;
even they do not do what they say.
They tie up heavy loads and lay them on others’ shoulders,
while they themselves will not lift a finger to help alleviate the burden.
“All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and wear huge tassels.
They are fond of places of honor at banquets and the front seats in synagogues.
They love respectful greetings in public and being called ‘Rabbi.’
“But as for you, avoid the title ‘Rabbi.’
For you have only one Teacher, and you are all sisters and brothers.
And do not call anyone on earth your ‘Mother’ or ‘Father.’
You have only one parent — our loving God in heaven.
Avoid being called leaders.
You have only one leader — the Messiah.
“The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest.
Those who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
Jesus and the Pharisees
When Jesus talks about the Pharisees in today’s reading, he’s pretty brutal. He tells the crowds and the disciples that the Pharisees are bad examples: they’re insincere and full of themselves. Most Christians today grow up hearing that the Pharisees are the bad guys, and the Gospel of Matthew has a lot to do with this. In this Gospel, the Pharisees are one-dimensional villains. Matthew never misses a chance to throw in a dig at these guys. At several points, like Matthew 23:13, we’re even told that the Pharisees will “have no place in the Kingdom.”
Over the millennia, Christians have translated Matthew’s condemnation of the Pharisees into anti-Jewish theology, rhetoric, and oppression. Christian tradition has taken tension in the Gospels out of context and weaponized it for its own agenda. The term “supersessionism” refers to the belief that Christ came to supersede, or replace, the Law or Torah. This passage can easily be read through a supersessionist lens: Jesus tells the crowds not to emulate the Jewish religious leaders. As an example of bad behavior, he talks about how the Pharisees lengthen their tassels – emphasizing their commitment to the Law. Matthew 23:23 seems to repeat a common anti-Jewish sentiment: Jesus urges the Pharisees to stop focusing on the minutiae of observance. Instead, he exhorts them to prioritize justice, faith, and mercy – which today’s Christian’s are tempted to read as confirmation of their own, distinctly Christian priorities.
Supersessionist readings of Matthew are inconsistent with the actual content of this passage, though: Jesus repeatedly argues that the Pharisees aren’t strict enough in their observance of the Law. This Gospel never sets the Law aside or dismisses its relevance. In fact, the whole force of Matthew’s argument depends upon it. In today’s reading, Jesus also tells the crowds to “do and observe all things whatsoever [the Pharisees] tell you” (Matthew 23:3). Jesus says that people should do what the Pharisees say. The Pharisees were teachers of the Law, and Jesus recognizes their authority. The problem is that they don’t follow the Law they teach. Jesus’s point is that justice, faith, and mercy are essential to the Law.
So who was the community that put together the Gospel of Matthew as we know it today? Who were these people who had such serious beef with the Pharisees – and yet share their allegiance to the Law?
Scholar Anders Runesson argues in his article “Behind the Gospel of Matthew: Radical Pharisees in Post-War Galilee?” that the Gospel of Matthew was actually written…by a group of Pharisees (468). Specifically, he proposes that it was written by a subgroup that had been a minority in a Pharisean association before breaking off from the Pharisees to form their own group. Who else but a former insider could be so petty, so aggrieved, so single-minded in their attacks on the Pharisees? According to Runesson, the Gospel of Matthew reads like the legitimization of a new community rule (470). The “Matthean community” would have told and retold these stories to create their new identity and assure themselves that they were on the right path.
Noting textual similarities with Matthew, Runesson even argues that these breakaway Phariseans created a community rule that survives in the Didache, an early Christian document. He points out that Pharisees were involved in the Christian movement, most notably Paul, who never renounced his Pharisean identity (Acts 23:6). Acts and Luke give examples of Pharisees being “good guys” by demonstrating sympathy with Christian leaders or becoming Christian themselves (Runesson 468).
Decontextualized, Matthew leaves us to come to our own conclusions about why Jesus was so disappointed in the Pharisees. When we take a step back, then, we realize that Matthew has a specific agenda and that maybe we shouldn’t accept all that criticism at face value. And we certainly shouldn’t read Jesus’s condemnation of the Pharisees as a condemnation of the Law or religious authority, much less as a condemnation of Judaism. Rather, the authors of this Gospel were wrestling with members of their own, diverse community.
Anders Runesson is a scholar specializing in New Testament studies, early Judaism, and Christian Origins.
Commentary by Abby Rampone
Engage Catholic Social Teaching
When Christians are unsatisfied with our religious leaders, it’s tempting to call them Pharisees. Scripture is full of condemnation of hypocritical religious leaders, so why shouldn’t we quote it? We fancy ourselves to be following in Jesus’s example by calling out our priests’ pettiness, corruption, and insincerity.
Similarly, progressive Christians are often tempted to draw on supersessionist ideas to make their point. We attribute harm in our communities, like the condemnation of homosexuality, to Levitical law, so we’re tempted to call the Law petty and irrelevant. This is how people end up thinking it’s a clever “gotcha” to list all the other proscriptions that anti-gay Christians ignore by eating shellfish and removing their facial hair. For example, one commentator in the New Yorker argued that “the Christian who says God forbids homosexuality – then shaves before going out for dinner at Red Lobster – is speaking from both sides of his mouth.” Repeatedly emphasizing that these are “ancient” rules, the writer implies that it is silly and old-fashioned to follow the Law.
When Christians do this, we employ age-old anti-Jewish tropes for our own purposes. For centuries, Christians have depicted Jews as overly rigid, narrow-minded, hypocritical, old-fashioned, and untrustworthy. Many of those stereotypes could be pulled straight from Matthew’s description of the Pharisees. Emboldened by scripture – typically decontextualized and misinterpreted – Christians have committed horrific violence against Jewish people and communities. When we call a reactionary parish priest a Pharisee, we may unconsciously echo anti-Jewish ideas that have been baked into Christian theology. When we dismiss the Law to counter homophobia, we demean the Jewish people – including queer Jewish people – who are deeply committed to the Law. Jesus’s conflict with the Pharisees in Matthew is an intra-community conflict, which should be relatable to anyone who has ever struggled with their religious tradition.
Jesus criticized his community’s failures to live up to its ideals, and that’s something that can inspire us. We should just take care to avoid anti-Jewish tropes in the process. Understanding scripture in its historical context is the first step. The next step is to understand that the original authors’ historical context isn’t the whole picture: we can’t read or cite that scripture without two millennia of interpretation shaping us. It may be ahistorical to think that the Pharisees were bad guys who represent Judaism as a whole, but it’s an ahistorical idea that still has a lot of power.
We cannot create liberation for marginalized Christians by harming Jewish people and communities. Furthermore, we have a responsibility to dismantle anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic ideas with care and intention. This responsibility is hyper-politicized in October 2023, in the context of renewed atrocities in Israel and Palestine. Many Christians in the U.S. want to stand against anti-Semitism – without examining our own role in it. This can feed uncritical support for the State of Israel. Criticizing Israel should not be conflated with anti-Semitism, but at the same time, it is wrong to downplay anti-Semitism in light of Israel’s actions. Christians need to dig deeper into the root causes – history, theology, and white supremacy – of anti-Semitism and other oppressive systems like Islamophobia and colonialism. By deconstructing anti-Jewish theologies and using scripture’s radical content thoughtfully, Christians can commit ourselves to liberation for all.
A Contemplative Exercise
Contemplative Christian practices often ask us to imagine ourselves as a witness to the events of scripture. We imagine what it would be like to be part of a crowd listening to Jesus or walking along a road with the disciples. What would we have heard, smelled, and felt? But it can be hard to enter into the text when we’re missing so many dimensions about what its authors were thinking and feeling.
Reflect on how you read today’s Gospel. How do you feel about the Pharisees when you read Jesus’s words? What kind of characters are they? Who do they remind you of?
Leaving Jesus’s time, allow yourself to reflect on what you learned about Jewish groups like the Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests – from the pulpit, in Sunday School, or on TV. How might anti-Jewish theology inform your understanding of scripture? How does the story change when you reframe familiar scripture as a Jewish text written for a Jewish audience?
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was a poet, essayist, and feminist. Born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, Rich wrestled with her religious identity throughout her life. Though her family raised her as a Christian, she came to consciously embrace her Jewish identity. As a lesbian, Rich also navigated the intersection of her heritage, gender, and sexuality. Her work witnesses to anti-Semitism in the U.S. and contributes to the vibrancy of liberative Jewish thought in the 20th century. Learn more about Rich and her work from the Academy of American Poets.
In this painting, Chagall depicts Jesus as a Jewish martyr, invoking the persecution of European Jews in the 1930s. Jesus wears a prayer shawl instead of a loincloth and a headcloth instead of a crown of thorns. Three biblical patriarchs and a matriarch surround his head. Around the cross are images of the pogroms and persecution. Pope Francis has called “White Crucifixion” his favorite painting. Learn more.