More than any other part of the Gospels, these passages warn us of the dangers of corrupt authority as found in Judaism. All power tends to be corrupt, as we’ve heard, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Religious authority, which claims to be absolute since it speaks in the name of God, is even more prone to corruption.
Jesus warns his hearers, simple people most of them, about being deceived by those who speak in the name of God – in other words, “who sit on the chair of Moses”. Listen to what they say, but do not imitate what they do, he admonishes.
What is it that they do which is so reprehensible?
There are two complaints about the scribes and Pharisees: firstly, they are too rigid in what they demand. They do not interpret the Law in a humane way. Their demands often lack compassion.
Secondly, they are vain, ostentatious and love to be flattered.
Among my disciples, Jesus says, there must be a simplicity and humility, which rejects pompous titles. Even by hyperbole, no one should address each other as ‘father’ or ‘master’, because God is our only Father, and Christ is our unique Master. Florid titles only smack of insincerity.
How far we’ve gone from this in the Church today with titles like ‘Your Holiness,’ ‘Your Eminence,’ ‘Your Lordship’ and ‘Monsignor’!