"Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers." - Matt. 23:1-4
What do you make of this passage? Was Jesus really telling his audience that they should follow the Pharisees? Some seem to think that Jesus was saying this because the Law of Moses was totally valid, even if people would add additional man-made rules on top of it, and were hypocrites who didn't follow the rules they gave to others. Some used this type of passage to teach Christians not to disobey their bishop, even if he acted like the Pharisees (e.g., 3rd Clementine Homily, 70). Would you agree with this idea?
You do start some very interesting threads!
I understand this passage to be referring to two things. Firstly, the scribes and Pharisees taught the Law and Jesus approved of that. Secondly, they also taught a legalistic set of rules that had been added to the Law. The Fence Around the Torah, it was called. These extra laws were added over the centuries as an attempt to ensure that the original 613 weren't broken, but they had become so complicated and burdensome that the people were basically being strangled by them.
I think that Christ might be referring to these rules when he refers to "their works". It seems to be always regarding the Fence Around the Torah that Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees. They were man-made rules, added in good faith, I'm sure; but they were damaging in the sense that they had created a legalism that was stiffling and disheartening.
Interestingly, even though the scribes and Pharisess insisted that everyone should obey these rules to the letter, they kept them in letter rather than spirit and had found many ways to get around them.
One example would be the extra Sabbath rules. From memory, there were some 1500 tagged onto the original, making it virtually impossible to do anything on the Sabbath. Take the one regarding travel. It stated that one could only travel a certain distance from one's home on the Sabbath. A merchant might have large distances to cover and having to stop for the Sabbath could mean not arriving in town in time for market and, therefore, losing income. This hampered a poor merchant, but the rich one managed to get around the restriction by sending out a couple of spare servants the day before the Sabbath; to wait at the precise spot that was considered a day's travel from the merchant's previous encampment. As the servants could *legally* be considered the rich person's residence, he could then legitimately continue travelling on the Sabbath; arriving at his next destination when the poor merchant was still stuck on the road somewhere.
Or is this a passage that was meant for a specific people at a specific time, as Ireneaus seems to imply (Against All Heresies, 4, 12) when he says that Jesus said what he did because at the time "Jerusalem was as yet in safety"? Did this idea fall away with the victory of Christ, or the rise of Christianity, or when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans?
This passage seems to me to be much akin to the "turn the other cheek" type passages (especially in the Sermon on the Mount). It's the idea that, even if you are wronged, or the other person is being abusive or rude, it's better to be meek and humble and let yourself be wronged, than to be bold and outspoken and presume to correct others. Is this doormat theology? I know quite a few Orthodox saints who would quite support the idea of being a doormat, as anathema as such an idea is to most people.
I don't see this as a teaching of turning the other cheek, but a warning to follow authorities only in rulings that they can honestly claim to be legitimate; for the betterment of one's own soul and of society. It's human nature to add rules; the Christian Church has been doing it for two thousand years. And sometimes, one has to question if it's always done in the best of interests. If rules became legalistic, rather than helpful suggestions, they are no longer beneficial. They can create legalists of those who keep them with such rigidity that they look down on those who don't; and in consequence they can be discouragement to those who are too weak, for whatever reason, to obey.
I'm not trying to necessarily give a view that I think is correct, I'm just saying what comes to mind. What about you? If you had been around when Jesus said what he did, would you have followed his advice, or would you have said "No way Jesus! I'm following you, I'm not going to follow these hypocrtical Pharisees!" And if you wouldn't have followed the Pharisees, wouldn't you have been disobeying Jesus? Jesus didn't say "do the good stuff they say," but rather, "All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do".
Again, I don't think Jesus is saying to follow the Pharisees in that which is wrong. We have to remember that the Pharisees were very pious; and they weren't always wrong. In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, we see the Pharisee has been doing everything perfectly right; externally. It was his heart that was in error not his practice. It's the heart issue that Jesus touches on time and time again. In my opinion, His concern was always with judgementalism and anything that disadvantaged some and led others to become proud and legalistic.
So my answer to the question would be two-fold. First, hurtling myself back into that 1st Century setting, as a Jew I would like to think that I could have been pious enough to follow the Pharisees in the keeping of the Law. Jesus followed it and it was, after all, pretty much mandatory to the time and place. But, I would hope to follow Christ in His attitude of mercy and compassion to my fellow-man, His understanding that the added laws of the Fence Around the Torah were good suggestions, but they weren't mandatory to my salvation and I shouldn't judge others or feel guilty if sometimes they had to be broken.