Thursday, October 13, 2011

Matthew 23

Matthew 23 (ESV): Woes to the scribes and Pharisees, and Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem


In this passage Jesus takes an especially harsh view of the scribes and Pharisees, just in case people weren’t getting the message before. Interestingly, however, before he talks about what they’re doing wrong, he reminds the average Jewish people (i.e. not the religious leaders) of their place: they are to listen to the scribes and Pharisees, and do what they say, because the scribes and Pharisees are the religious leaders—they “sit on Moses’ seat” (verse 2 (ESV)). So even though the scribes and Pharisees aren’t themselves living up to the rules they’re handing down, the people are to listen to what they say, even as they try to avoid what they do (or do not do).

“For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” (verses 3b–7 (ESV), Jesus speaking)
For those who aren’t familiar with “phylacteries” or why the Jews were wearing “fringes,” I’ll steal the ESV Study Bible note on verse 5:

phylacteries. Small cube-shaped cases made of leather, containing Scripture passages written on parchment. They were worn on the left arm and forehead as a literal way to obey the admonition of Deut. 11:18 (ESV) (cf. Ex. 13:9 (ESV); Deut. 6:8 (ESV)). fringes. Tassels with a blue cord that were attached to the four corners of a man’s garment (Num. 15:37–41 (ESV); Deut. 22:12 (ESV)), reminding the people to obey God’s commandments and to be holy (Num. 15:40 (ESV)).
Back to Jesus’ message…

But the people are not to be called “rabbi,” for the have only one teacher, and they are all brothers. They are to call nobody “father,” for they have only one Father, who is God. They are not to be called “instructors” since their one instructor is Christ. (This leads me to believe that the “one teacher” mentioned is the Spirit, though Jesus doesn’t call Him by name, since their “father” is the Father and their “instructor” is Christ.)

To sum up, Jesus says that, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (verse 12 (ESV)).

Jesus then calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, and pronounces seven “woes” on them. Woe to them because:
  1. They shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces—they don’t enter, and they prevent others from entering as well.
  2. They travel the earth (“across sea and land,” verse 15 (ESV)) to convert a single person to Judaism (make him a “proselyte”) and when they do they make him twice as much a “son of hell” as the scribes and Pharisees are themselves (verse 15 (ESV)).
  3. They create complex rules about swearing oaths on the temple, or the gold in the temple, or the altar, or the gifts on the altar, while completely missing the point of all of those things (verses 16–22 (ESV)).
  4. They are so particular about their tithes that they give a tithe even if their spices, yet they neglect justice, mercy, and faithfulness. (Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t tell them that they should have done the latter instead of the former, but that they should have done both.) He likens their behaviour to “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (verse 24 (ESV)).
  5. They clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside are full of greed and self indulgence. (I’m guessing this is an allusion to ceremonial washing of cups and plates, but the main intent is obviously a metaphor for the scribes and Pharisees caring about outward appearances but not caring about the heart.)
  6. Similarly, they are like “whitewashed tombs,” appearing beautiful but being full of “dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (verse 27 (ESV)). They appear to be righteous, but are full of “hypocrisy and lawlessness” (verse 28 (ESV)).
  7. They claim that they would not have spilled the blood of the prophets, whereas they act just like the ones who did—and will suffer the same penalty (verses 29–36 (ESV)).
Jesus then finishes the passage with a seeming change in focus: a lament over the city of Jerusalem:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (verses 37–39 (ESV))


You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to see this passage as one long, scathing indictment of the scribes and Pharisees, mostly because of their hypocrisy. There are teachings which are unbiblical, but that is not Jesus’ focus for this passage; his focus is that even when they are teaching the people to do the right things, they do not do the right things themselves. It’s impossible to miss the harsh language Jesus uses: “hypocrites,” “hypocrites,” “child of hell,” “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “blind men,” “hypocrites,” “blind guides,” “hypocrites,” “blind,” “hypocrites,” “full of hypocrisy and lawlessness,” “hypocrites,” “sons of those who murdered the prophets,” “serpents,” “brood of vipers.”

But, as mentioned, Jesus doesn’t start off by talking to them, he starts off by talking to the “regular” people, who are to listen to their religious leaders, but not to do as they do. The religious leaders are hypocrites, but the people are not to be hypocrites. The religious leaders care more about outward appearances than actual righteousness, but the people are to care about righteousness instead of outward appearances.

There are lessons for the modern-day Christians. Our religious leaders—our pastors and ministers and elders—are to be examples to us, but even if they’re not, we aren’t to follow their example. If a preacher preaches against adultery (for example), and then is caught in adultery himself, the people are to listen to the teaching and avoid adultery, not follow the preacher into adultery themselves. The difference between the Israelites of Jesus’ day and modern-day Christians is that most of us attend churches where preachers can be removed for moral misconduct; the Israelites of Jesus’ day were stuck with their religious leaders, and had the difficult task of listening to their good teachings while ignoring their bad behaviour.

Aside from that, when Jesus tells us that we are not to be called “rabbi” or “instructor,” and that we’re not to call anyone “father” except for God, is he being literal? Though Jesus is the ultimate instructor, and God the ultimate father, are we really not to be called instructors or fathers at all? (“Rabbi” doesn’t seem to be an issue, for Christians.) Even those of us who are fathers, or who are instructors? I’m going to have to assume that Jesus isn’t being 100% literal here, but that he’s talking about a general attitude. If someone is a father then he should remember that God is the ultimate father, and act accordingly; if someone is an instructor—especially a religious instructor—then he should remember that Jesus is the ultimate instructor and act accordingly. I think.

In terms of the woes:
  1. I like the language Jesus uses when he talks of shutting the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. It’s very descriptive; the scribes and Pharisees are so blinded by their own hypocrisy and sin that they can’t enter the kingdom, and they are so zealous to follow their own wrong-minded ways, and force others to do so as well, that they prevent other Israelites from entering the kingdom. Probably—and this is a crucial point—with the very best of intentions. Jesus doesn’t condemn their zeal, as such, he condemns their hypocrisy. If they weren’t hypocrites, and truly followed the spirit of God’s law, and were just and merciful and faithful, their zeal would actually be very good. As it is, since they’re so wrong-headed, their zeal does a lot of damage. Which brings us to…
  2. Since their zeal is so wrong-headed, when they do create a convert to Judaism they make him “twice as much a child of hell” as they themselves are! Considering the harsh terms Jesus used against the scribes and Pharisees, for someone to be twice as bad is… worse.
  3. Jesus’s condemnation of the religious leaders for their byzantine rules regarding swearing on things from the temple is interesting. Or rather, his condemnation is perfectly understandable, but their rules are interesting: If they swear by the temple, or by the altar, their oath is not actually binding, whereas if they swear by the gold in the temple or by the gift on the altar their oath is binding.
    • First of all, should they really be creating rules under which you could swear an oath that didn’t mean anything?!? This seems patently dishonest to me. Like codifying in the law that if you cross your fingers behind your back while making a promise it doesn’t count. (I like the Christian approach better anyway: don’t swear at all; simply let your yes be yes and your no be no—in other words, be honest, and when you say you’re going to do something, do it. Build a reputation for being honest, so that people believe you when you speak, rather than relying on oaths to try and “prove” you’re being honest. See James 5:12 (ESV).) However, that aside…
    • Even if it were valid to swear by some things and not by others, or that swearing by some things would be binding and swearing by other things would be “nothing” (verses 16 (ESV) and 18 (ESV)), Jesus’ point is that the religious leaders have it backwards. What’s more important, the temple or the gold inside the temple? What’s more important, the altar or the gift on the altar? The religious leaders are more concerned with the things in the temple, whereas Jesus is pointing out that it’s the temple and the altar themselves that are holy, not the things inside the temple. If the gold in the temple is holy it’s because the temple makes it holy; if the gift on the altar is holy it’s because the altar makes it holy. Essentially, it is the same problem Jesus is pointing out in this entire passage: the religious leaders are focusing on superficial things—the gold and the gift—rather than on the intrinsic things, like the holiness of God.
  4. Jesus’ issue with the religious leaders’ tithing is especially interesting, because the action itself isn’t condemned; it’s almost even praised. It is right for them to tithe everything, even down to the smallest amounts of spices that they grow in their little gardens. In fact, it’s possible that they are properly understanding the whole concept of tithing as outlined in the Old Testament, that everything—everything—belongs to God, no matter how big or small. Jesus doesn’t condemn them for tithing, he even says in verse 23 (ESV) that they should be doing what they’re doing.

    But, to get back to the heart of their problem, let’s face it: tithing your spices is easy, and it makes you look very holy. It is—or at least it can be—very superficial. But tithing is not enough; as Jesus points out to them, God demands justice, and mercy, and faithfulness. (See, for example, Hosea 6:6 (ESV), which is an example that comes quickly to mind but is only one of many examples of God’s prophets trying to tell the Israelites that God demands justice and mercy from them.) Tithing your mint and dill and cumin is easy; being just and merciful and faithful is difficult. (And again, I love the way Jesus phrases it: “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (verse 24 (ESV)).)
  5. As mentioned, when Jesus talks about cleaning the outside of the plate or the cup, and not the inside, he’s probably making a reference to some kind of ceremonial cleaning that they were doing—whether something prescribed by the Old Testament law or something they invented themselves—but it doesn’t matter because it’s obviously a metaphor, and it’s a metaphor for the same issue Jesus has been pointing out for the entire passage: They look good, but inside they’re not.
  6. When Jesus compares them to whitewashed tombs, saying that inside they’re full of hypocrisy and lawlessness, it must be especially stinging to these people—who pride themselves on their adherence to the law! And Jesus is calling them lawless? Who knows the law better than the scribes and Pharisees? (Of course, they have a slight advantage, since they wrote so much of it—but Jesus has that pesky habit of disregarding the laws they made up and only counting the ones from God…)
  7. Finally, for the seven woes, Jesus talks about the religious leaders’ relation to their ancestors, who killed the prophets. They build fancy tombs and monuments for the prophets, and claim that if they’d been alive, back in the day, they never would have killed the prophets—and yet by their actions they show that this is not true at all. They have the same problems that the Israelite leaders had had back in the day of the prophets: despite all of their protestations to the contrary, they simply don’t take the Word of God seriously. They would argue that point—strenuously. Nobody seemed to take the Scriptures more seriously than they did. And yet they consistently missed the point, even as they studied the Scriptures so intensely.

    And, of course, they are about to kill Jesus, and will kill further Christians after that as well. So despite their protestations to the contrary, they will be killing God’s prophets. Just like their ancestors before them, they won’t believe that they’ll be killing prophets, but they will be.

    This is, as usual, a lesson for us as well: For those of us who are studying our Bibles diligently, and trying to mine every nugget of theological truth out of the Word, are we still missing the point, sometimes? To cite an example that’s been on my mind a lot lately, I read Timothy Keller’s book Generous Justice a while ago, and am currently listening to another book of his on tape, both of which have helping the poor as their major themes. Generous Justice points out that helping the poor is more than “charity,” it is actually “justice”—and that, therefore, not helping the poor is an injustice. Time and time again in the Old Testament when God sent His prophets to Israel one of their major complaints against His people was that they were neglecting the poor. But we don’t think of helping the poor as being “justice,” we think of it as being charity—an optional thing, that the Christian may or may not do, on top of everything else he does. We certainly, therefore, don’t think of refusing to help the poor as being an injustice; we’d simply see it as being uncharitable. When we read about helping the poor in the Bible, are we sometimes missing the point? When we read about money being the root of all kinds of evil, are we missing the point?

    I’m picking examples that would probably prick the conscience of North American Christians because if I have any readers that’s where they probably are. I think it’s safe to say, though, that any Christian, in any part of the world, at any point in history, has got some blind spot when it comes to Biblical teaching; some point that we continually miss, even if we are reading our Bibles as we should.
Also, one quick note on verse 36 (ESV):

“Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Jesus speaking)
When Jesus says “this generation,” no commentator I’ve seen has taken this to mean the literal generation of people to whom Jesus was speaking. Most commentators say that we—everyone who lived between Jesus’ death and resurrection until his second coming—are “this generation.”

Finally, though Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem might seem like a bit of a diversion, it fits in perfectly with what he’s just been talking about: He has been talking about the killing of God’s prophets, and surely many of the prophets were killed in Jerusalem; it was usually the leaders (religious or political) who had the prophets killed, and they would have been in Jerusalem.

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