Sitting in Moses Seat

 Jesus and the Pharisees disagreed over the interpretation of the Law of Moses. The Pharisees attempted to protect the Law by surrounding it with their traditions. It was like Grandma telling me, “Don’t go near the water till you learn to swim.” In other words, Grandma’s law is “Don’t drown.” The tradition protecting her law is “Don’t go near the water!”

Now let’s look at an example from the Law of Moses. The Fourth Commandment reads, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” The Pharisees protected the Sabbath with a plethora of traditions. (Many of them seem silly to us, but I respect their devotion to holiness.)

If we were good Pharisees, we would stroke our long beards and ask, “What does it mean to keep the Sabbath Day holy?”

“That means ‘Do no work’ (Exodus 20:10).”

Our Pharisee – and the Pharisees were very good at asking questions – would respond, “Yes, but what is ‘work’?”

Here is an example of their reasoning: “Tying knots is work, so you cannot tie a knot on the Sabbath.” That answer didn’t settle it, of course. After dutifully stroking their beards once more, they would ask: “Yes, but what is a ‘knot’?” Finally, they concluded if you could tie it with one hand, it’s not a knot. Their arguments went on and on. You are allowed to eat an egg laid on the Sabbath (the chicken violated the Sabbath), but only if you killed the chicken first! You can draw water from a well on the Sabbath, but only if the bucket is already attached to the rope. (Remember, you can’t tie a knot on the Sabbath.) However, modesty demands women to wear undergarments, which require tying knots. Thus it is permissible to tie a knot in women’s underwear. And so, in a pinch, you may tie a girdle to the bucket and then tie the girdle to the rope, and draw your water without violating the Sabbath commandment!

Did Jesus agree with them? After all, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Likewise, the most troubling passage is Matthew 23:1 – 3.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.

At first glance, it appears Jesus is telling his disciples to observe the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. It seems like his criticism is pointed at the difference between what they say and what they do. They’re not practicing what they preach. But if that’s the case, how can we reconcile Jesus’ condemnations of their teachings and traditions elsewhere? For example, listen to what Jesus says about the Pharisees’ ritualistic tradition of handwashing:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God (Matthew 15:1 – 6. See 12:1 – 14; 15:3 – 9; and 19:3 – 9 for more examples).

How do we reconcile Jesus telling his disciples to listen to the Pharisees while sitting in Moses’ Seat and the Lord’s teaching against the Pharisees’ traditions? The Pharisees sitting in Moses’ Seat is not the same as the pope speaking ex cathedra! In the days before the printing press, Bibles were scarce. I believe Jesus is talking about listening to the scribes and Pharisees who had access to the rare copies of the Scriptures. In effect, Jesus is saying, “Listen to the Pharisees as they read the Scriptures, but don’t follow their hypocritical interpretations.”

While Satan tempted Jesus (Luke 4; Matthew 4), the devil quoted Scripture after Scripture. Jesus didn’t disagree with the quotations. He disagreed with the interpretations. Likewise, I may not agree with a teacher or a preacher. He may be a scoundrel, but I will honor the Word of God no matter who is reading it – or where they are sitting.

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