Jesus, Virtue Embodied: A Balm Against Hypocrisy

If Aristotle regarded the ‘good man’ as the ‘canon’ in ethics, Matthew considered Jesus the ‘canon’ of Christian morality: the Messiah went infallibly right.  Investigation of Matthew’s employment of ‘hypocrisy’ tends towards the same conclusion.  One of the chief charges against Jesus’ chief opponents, the Pharisees, is that they are ‘hypocrites’.  Precisely what that means, especially the extent to which it connotes the pretense of conscious deception, has been the subject of some dispute.  One thing, however, is clear: hypocrisy involves, among other things, disjunction between word and deed.  Recall especially  the striking (Matt) 23.2-3: ‘The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do, for they preach, but do not practice.’  According to this the Jewish leaders are guilty not of erroneous doctrine but of failure to live up to their own injunctions (*I would add that while Jesus accuses the Jewish leaders for failure to live up to their injunctions, He also accuses them of setting aside the doctrine of God for the commandments of men.  Thus, they should have taught and lived according to God’s Word, but they taught God’s Word, and while minimizing it, elevated their own traditions in its place, bound men to it, but did not live according to either).  In other words, the ability to discern what should be done exists, but not the inclination or power to it.  This is why the Pharisees are the superior examples of how not to behave.  Their words outshine their deeds, as if in illustration of La Rochefoucauld’s famous dictum: ‘l’hypocrise est un hommage que le vice rend a la vertu’ (*hypocrisy is homage paid by vice to virtue).  Matthew’s Jesus, however, is the antithesis of all this.  Thus the disciples not only confront his words but study the Messiah himself: mathete ap emou (11.29, *”learn from me”) means, in effect, akolouthei (9.9, *”follow me”; cf. 4.19).  One learns not just with the ears but also, so to speak, with the feet: education is much more than heeding an infallible wordsmith; it additionally involves the mimetic (*means: characterized by imitation or mimicking) following of Jesus, who is virtue embodied.

– W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 19-28, 3:717 (italics theirs; some parenthesis mine, denoted with a star).


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