Jesus’ encounters with religious leaders

Jesus often clashed with the Jewish religious leaders. They were the leading citizens – yet Jesus criticised them and exposed their hypocrisy. This is in contrast to his treatment of women, tax collectors and leprosy sufferers. These people were often regarded as second class citizens, but Jesus makes a point of treating them as equals.

Jesus challenges the religious leaders (Matthew 23:1-12)

Jesus spoke about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. He said, “You must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not copy what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” Jesus went on to explain that these religious leaders place unnecessary burdens on people, make a big show of religious observance and love to be treated with honour as if they are really important.


  • Pharisees – This name means 'the separate ones'. They regarded themselves as morally superior to many in society – like tax collectors, Gentiles (non-Jews) and sinners. They liked to keep themselves ‘pure’ and separate from such people. Their main responsibility was to make sure that all the Jewish laws were kept. The Pharisees were very strict and self-righteous, but they were often stricter on others than they were on themselves.
  • Scribes – The scribes were writers. They might write letters or official documents, but mostly they copied out God’s Laws from the Old Testament. Scribes were important people in Jesus’ day and they had a high opinion of themselves.
  • Rabbi – This is a Hebrew word literally meaning ‘great’ and it is used for a respected person. By the time of Jesus it was a respectful way of addressing a religious teacher, such as a scribe or Pharisee. Jesus was often called ‘Rabbi’. Today in modern Judaism, this title is still used for the person who is ordained as leader of synagogue worship and teaching.
  • Phylactery – This is a hollow cube made from leather from a kosher animal. It contains a piece of parchment on which the words of the Shema, an important Jewish prayer, are written. Long leather straps are used to strap the phylactery to the forehead or upper left arm. This is so that a reminder to honour God can be kept close to the head or near to the heart. Traditionally, phylacteries are worn for prayer, a practice still kept by many modern Jews.
  • Prayer shawls – Another practice for prayer, still observed by some Jews today, is to wear a special shawl to cover the head and shoulders. There are special tassels at each corner and they have to be a set length, according to Old Testament regulations.

Understanding the text

Jesus launched into a scathing attack on two prominent groups of religious leaders – the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus always showed that he cared deeply for ordinary people and that he had great patience - even with the wicked, greedy and weak. However, he could not put up with the religious pride and hypocrisy of these leaders.

"They love to be respected and admired, given important seats and called Rabbi." Jesus warns people that although the Pharisees preach God’s Law, they do not practice it. Therefore people should not copy their behaviour.

Jesus criticised how the scribes and Pharisees loved to make a show of how religious they were, with extra wide phylacteries and extra long tassels on their prayer shawls. Jesus sees past this show to the real person - and in these Jewish leaders he sees pride, a self-righteous attitude and no desire to change.

Jesus concludes by making the point that all people are equals and only God has the right to anyone’s absolute respect. One of the qualities of great human leadership is that a person is prepared to be humble and to serve others.