Fr Paul reads from the Gospel of Matthew (23: 1-12) in which Jesus tells his disciples, ‘the greatest among you will be your servant…’.

Fr Paul says, this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel contains the worst of what Matthew has to say about the scribes and Pharisees. It introduces in fact a sevenfold curse upon them. The Pharisees were a group of the Jews which were most concerned about the exact observance of the Law of Moses. The ‘scribes’ were lawyers who the Pharisees could turn to in the case of a clash between two laws. It is good to follow laws and it is good to be able to work out what the laws are telling us to do, but the Pharisee’s and scribes’ attention to detail often made them lose sight of the real purpose of the Law.

Fr Paul says, we know Jesus was prepared to meet the Pharisees on their own ground and debate with them in their own terms. Also remember that the Pharisees took no part in the condemnation and death of Jesus; that was the Sadducees, who were in charge of Jerusalem, they were his opponents.

Fr Paul says, an argument about legal observance is part of the Jewish way of life, right up until this day, and the controversies in the story of Jesus could well have been in house discussions about the interpretation of the Law, rather than hostile confrontations. He even used, and used brilliantly, the Pharisaic method of quoting the Law in arguments, setting text against text, and the recognised rules of interpretation. He used this technique to put the Law of love of neighbour on the very same level as love of God.

Fr Paul says, in the gospels, and especially in Matthew, were written towards the end of the first century, where the hostility to this group has obviously become fiercer, no doubt because of their persecution of the followers of Jesus. As Matthew warns, ‘they will flog you in their synagogues’. One of the concerns of the Pharisees and the scribes was obviously the status of religious leaders. It looks as though they were turning into little gods of their own. This was a danger in Judaism, where specialised interpreters of the Law were required and honoured; there were many Rabbis in Israel.

For today’s reflection, Fr Paul asks us to consider this – ‘Rather than seeking greatness, how can I serve others and how can I live a humble life?’