Read the passage here.
It should be obvious that the verses we’re looking at today are directly related to the verses we read last week, which are also situated in this section of Matthew as part of Jesus’ on-going and increasing criticism of the religious leaders (again, Jesus seems to single out the Pharisees and teachers of the law (the “scribes” in other translations) but we’ve seen how Jesus’ condemnation and concern extends to the entire religious system – for this reason, we prefer to talk about “the religious leaders”).
Last week, we noted how there is a pattern of conflict with the religious leaders which will culminate in Jesus’ proclamation that the temple will be torn down or destroyed.
1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”Matthew 24:1-2
So after last week’s passage, Matthew 22:41 – 23:12, where Jesus calls out the religious leaders, we get our passage today which is typically referred to as the seven woes.
Now whether or not the number seven is significant – the number seven usually symbolic of completeness or wholeness – isn’t really clear here. It may be Jesus pointing to how completely and totally the religious leaders are fallen – they have completley missed the mark of what they are supposed to be as leaders in the Israelite community. However, we have to acknowledge that this may be reading more than is actually in the text.
Nevertheless, scholars do often see a pattern in the pronouncement of woes – usually as three couplets/pairs followed by a concluding woe. If we follow this kind of pattern/structure, we get something like this:
23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.Matthew 23:13-15
As a bit of a side note, the NIV (and most modern translations) exclude verse 14, citing that it is likely a later addition (that is, most of the earliest manuscripts don’t have verse 14). If you’re interested, it reads:
[“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]Matthew 23:14 (NASB – parentheses original)
At any rate, the first couplet seems to point to the religious leaders’ hypocrisy in that they are supposed to help people be faithful to God, but instead they are keeping people away from God.
We could go on, but following the general criticism that we see throughout Matthew, this is based on the religious leaders’ being more concerned about making people religious than making people faithful (that’s a loaded statement, but in keeping with what we’ve been seeing in Matthew, I think).
16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.Matthew 23:16-24
This pronouncement can be seen as logically following what we’ve just read in the previous couplet. The religious leaders are so concerned about the minutiae of the law, that they miss the meaning of the law. A common phrase that we use today might be: They miss the forest for the trees. In other words, they are so focussed on the details [of the Law] that they have no room left for God.
25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.Matthew 23:25-28
Here, Jesus seems to revisit the criticism that we saw in last week’s passage. In particular, that the religious leaders’ concern is only about appearance and reputation. This being the case (and here, we’re leaning on last week’s verses a little more), they have forsaken their responsibility to actually help, guide, and encourage the people and are only concerned about their own power and position.
29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!Matthew 23:29-32
Now these verses are a little difficult because of the awkwardness of the phrasing (I think). But it seems to say something like this: You claim to honour the prophets of the past (who incidentally frequently pointed to Israel’s shortcomings – God’s call to renewed righteousness). And you say that you would have supported them if you were there. So the difficulty is how is this a “testifying against yourselves”?
Leon Morris points to the religious leaders’ building and decorating the tombs of the prophets and the “righteous.” Morris suggests that this is another example of making a show of religiosity. But when another righteous man (indeed, THE righteous man) is in their midst, they don’t recognize him. Further, they did not recognize the nature of the call to righteousness that these prophets demanded (and indeed would perhaps be the very kind of people that the prophets were speaking against). So their very honouring the prophets points to their hypocrisy and is judgment against themselves.
Craig Blomberg goes further and suggests that this is pointing to the religious leaders intent to have Jesus killed (this is noted way back in Matthew 12:14 – this happens after the Pharisees criticize Jesus’ disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath, and then Jesus heals on the Sabbath: “14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.”). So for Blomberg, Jesus is not being merely enigmatic, he’s being prophetic – seeing into the hearts of the religious leaders.
And following Blomberg, perhaps most telling is Jesus’ closing statement, “Go ahead then and complete what your ancestors started!” which seems to point to Jesus’ impending crucifixion. This is further indicated in the following verses:
33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”Matthew 23:33-39
Now we’ve gone through that very quickly and, as usual, not nearly thoroughly enough. And at this point, I want to reflect on a few things. Firstly, once again, this is set in the context of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God that is, precisely, the kingdom of God. And, especially in this section of Matthew, this in contrast to whatever kingdom the religious leaders seem to be concerned with. Note Jesus’ words when he says in verse 37, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” Here, Jesus points to the heart of God in gathering His people together – His desire to bring them into the kingdom. And this again seems to be set in contrast with the desire or goal of the religious leaders which, as we have seen, seems to be something quite different.
The second thing I want to point out is the contrast between this section of seven woes and the beatitudes earlier in the gospel.
In Matthew 5:1-12, Jesus tells us that according to the Kingdom (or according to kingdom values), Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted in the kingdom. In proclaiming blessings on those who demonstrate such values, Jesus tells us what is important in the kingdom.
And this stands in stark contrast to his condemnation of the religious leaders. Here Jesus says, woe to those who keep people from the kingdom, to those who lead people in the wrong way, who care about appearances, who care more about rules than righteousness, and who refuse to listen to the message of the Messiah. These, then, are precisely not people of the kingdom.
And this leads to the third thing I want to point out, which is the nature and level of Jesus’ anger (and I think it is indeed anger that we’re seeing). Look at some of the words Jesus uses:
- Woe to you…you hypocrites (7x)
- …you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
- You blind guides! … You blind fools! … You blind men!
- You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
- Blind Pharisee!
- [You] look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.
- …on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
- You are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.
- You snakes! You brood of vipers!
- How will you escape being condemned to hell?
The intensity of Jesus’ invective should, I think shock us. But at the same time, we cannot be surprised because of the content of what Jesus is saying. In his ministry, Jesus is announcing the kingdom of God. He is announcing that God, creator of heaven and earth, who has been working to restore a fallen creation, this God is now bringing about the culmination of his work in the person of the Messiah. The Kingdom of God is here.
But these folks who have thus far been assumed to be the caretakers of God’s people, the spiritual leaders, these religious leaders have failed to recognize God moving in their midst. But more serious than that, they have actively worked against his kingdom. They have actively sought to keep people from the redemptive work of God, actively tried to keep people from following Jesus, that they could maintain their place of prominence and power among a desperate people.
No wonder Jesus is furious. And no wonder his proclamation is so severe. Because the hypocrisy of the religious leaders is that they claim to be God’s people, they are supposed to lead people to and help people know God, but they sure don’t seem to care much about God.
This is the hypocrisy. They are supposed to be contributing to, participating in God’s kingdom. But they are only interested in building up their own. Which begs the question, of course: What is it that we are doing? What is it that the church in the 21st century western world, for example, doing?
I’m not suggesting there’s an easy formula for this. There’s no easy test to determine whether we, or any expression of Christianity, is genuinely seeking God’s kingdom or not.
And make no mistake, we (or any other church) can live out and present the kingdom of God with extreme faithfulness and people will still reject it. There will always be people who want something else.
However, in the midst of all of the conversations of postmodernism, post-Christendom, the decline of the western church and etc., I wonder how much of what people are rejecting is not God and His kingdom, but Christians. I worry that people are not running away from God, people are not finding God obsolete, irrelevant, and objectionable, but the church that claims to proclaim His name.
We won’t go on about this because 1) we know this already, and 2) it’s of questionable actual help. So what I will say is this. What this calls for, I believe, is a constant attitude of repentance. Again, we’ve talked about what we mean by repentance (as distinct from merely “being sorry”) so we’re not going to go on about that. But as Christians and as churches, we need to constantly have an attitude of repentance. Of examining ourselves, turning away from the kingdoms of this world, and the kingdom we are seeking to build for ourselves, so that we may participate in the Kingdom of God. We need to constantly be asking ourselves if we are seeking the blessing of Matthew 5 and rejecting the perspective of the religious leaders in Matthew 23. If we are able to seek first His kingdom, we will be able to see God’s work in building that kingdom worked out in us.