Matthew 23:1-12 (NRSVCE)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
“Do as I say, not as I do” is one message you might take out of today’s reading. Jesus certainly does seem to say that with regard to the scribes and the Pharisees. But he goes into quite a bit of detail about what exactly they are doing, and why it is not to be done. He prefaces it with “do whatever they teach you and follow it” to make the point that the scribes and Pharisees are not false teachers, but they are sinners. Just like if you see your pastor committing a sin, whether it’s cutting in line during potluck (the gravest of all sins) or maybe sneaking a few dollars out of the offering plate, that doesn’t invalidate the pastoral office given to him by God. It means he’s a sinner.
The sins Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees in this passage all seem to be summed up in a single word: vainglory. This might be a more technical term than you are used to. In moral philosophy and moral theology, it is often, particularly in the Thomistic tradition, placed among the Capital Vices. You may know them instead as the Cardinal Sins, or even the Seven Deadly Sins. They are those vices from which other vices spring. You might imagine it as a tree with thick shoots, and on each shoot are many branches. Pride is typically the trunk of the tree, as all sin ultimately stems from pride.
Vainglory can be the desire for glory which one has not earned, as Thomas says in ST II-II, Q. 1, A. 1. And we certainly see plenty of that here, as the Pharisees who do not practice what they preach deserve no praise for doing it, and yet that is what they seek. But vainglory can also be the desire for glory purely for oneself—that is, without any reference to God, or to our neighbor. And we see that here too, as the Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others”, and not because they desire by their deeds to give honor to God or to serve their neighbors. So on multiple counts here, the scribes and the Pharisees are vainglorious.
Jesus gives instruction to his followers to combat this, as He knows that this is a temptation for all men. Everyone loves being praised, and I think all of us can think of times where we did something purely, or at least primarily, because we knew we would be praised for doing it. Jesus tells us that none of us are to be called “rabbi”, or teacher. None of us are to be rulers. We are servants. We serve each other, and we serve our teacher, Jesus Christ. We are to emulate the Only-Begotten Son in this, as remember it was the Son who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:7). It was the Son who shows us what true humility is: God become man. Respect the office of the scribes and the Pharisees, yes, but do not act like them. Do not be vainglorious. For the way of Christ is humility.