According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 24: Pharisees under Fire
Our topic; 'Pharisees under Fire'. Many moons ago we began a journey through the Gospel of Matthew and are now approaching the last few chapters. We began with a genealogy and a birth. We witnessed the beginning of Jesus ministry and His anointing for service at His baptism. We saw Him gather His disciples together and teach them about the kingdom that He had come to bring to this world, a Kingdom whose manifesto was outlined in a mountain top sermon.
From the start of his gospel we have seen there has been a conflict between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. The Kingship of Jesus is like nothing on earth. He comes as a servant and declares that He will lay down His life to reveal the love of God. He comes with authority, that we defined by a Greek Word “Exousia” … the freedom of God seemed to 'ooze' out of His life, in sometimes miraculous ways.
We have seen how Jesus expresses God's concern for all people, particularly the 'little ones' pushed aside by the world. We have heard talk of 'mustard seed' faith and challenges that genuine discipleship required the total commitment of a persons life to God. We have heard parables that speak about how the Kingdom of Gd will grow in unexpected ways.
We have seen how opposition to Jesus has been steadily growing and intensifying. Particular is that the case among the religious authorities and the Pharisees, who have, at this stage of our journey, decided it would be better for all concerned if Jesus were silenced. In our last couple of chapters, following a violent incident in the temple, Jesus has been disputing with the Pharisees, Teachers of the law and Saduccees, about the nature of true religion.
In chapter 23, Jesus leaves us in no doubt that as far as He was concerned, whatever true religion may be, it was the very opposite of the way the Pharisees practiced their faith. In chapter 23 we find the Pharisees under the fire of His judgment. He takes them to task over numerous points in their conduct.
The basis of His harsh words lies in their hypocrisy. A Biblical dictionary definition of a hypocrite is as follows. “Hypocrite: One who puts on a mask and feigns himself to be what he is not; a dissembler in religion. Our Lord severely rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy (Mt 6:2,5,16) “The hypocrite’s hope shall perish” (Job 8:13). The Hebrew word here rendered “hypocrite” means the “godless” or “profane,” as it is rendered in (Jer. 23:11) i.e, polluted with crimes.”
As we look at these startling condemnations the disturbing thing is as how we can identify such behavior in religious communities of all ages and generations. Unfortunately we may even identify some of them in our selves. Read: Matthew 23:1-4
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
Jesus describes the Pharisees as metaphorically being seated in 'Moses Seat'. They were as judges, or a bench of justices, whose function was to make the final judgment. They were not itinerant justices who rode the circuit, trying cases whose outcome could be appealed, they were the final authority. That was their function.
But they were not meeting the demands such a high office required. That did not nullify the authority of Moses seat. Jesus does not suggest all that Moses stood for and could be achieved through right observance of Moses teaching should be got rid of. Elsewhere He says He did not come to' do away with the law and the prophets but to fulfill them'. Rather Jesus suggests that whilst the office should be held in high regard, sometimes the example being set by the officers needed to be set aside.
Whenever a preacher or TV Evangelist or priest falls from grace there are always those who say: 'See that ...religion just doesn't work.' They judge the message by the character of those who are the most spectacular at not living it. Thankfully Christianity is much greater than it's greatest failures.
Even those who do not live up to it have, in their better moments, often shared some great teaching and had some genuine insights. It's a shame to dismiss all they have done on the basis of a time when they were at their worst. This passage seems to suggest that whilst we may not always approve of the messenger, what really matters is the message.
On Sundays when I'm not preaching I often visit another church to hear a preacher and experience their way of worship. Regardless of the denomination or the character in the pulpit, I find there is always something new to learn. I know that in many churches when their incumbent is away, the congregation feels the need to take a Sunday off!
But to me, you very much need to hear perspectives other than mine from your pulpit. I don't see things the ways others do. I have my blind spots. I have my traditions and prejudices. Sometimes I get in the way of the message rather than enhance it. So, again, I am thankful that the message has a much greater significance than the messengers.
Whilst it is often said tongue-in-cheek, the message, “Do as I say, not as I do”, can sometimes be worth taking to heart. Human beings, even those in religious leadership, are fickle, prone to wander, and made of the same sinful flesh and common blood as everybody else. Only Jesus truly lived God's words. And it is His example we to follow, not the example of the Pharisees, (nor anybody else) who did not practice what they preached.
The second thing Jesus points out about the Pharisees is that they acted only to be seen and admired by others, not to please God. Read 5 thru 12.
"Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called 'Rabbi' by others. "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
In a previous chapter we saw how the Pharisees evaded answering a question about 'where John the Baptist had received his authority from' on the grounds that they were afraid of what people may think of their answer. They really worried about how they looked in other peoples eyes. Somehow they felt that the approval of people around them meant that they were also approved by God. If people saw them looking religious then they had to BE religious. Right?
Phlyacteries were like small leather wallets that they would attach either to their foreheads or left arms that contained four paragraphs from the law of Moses. Exodus 13:2-11 & 13: 11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 & 11:13-21. The first Deuteronomy passage reads: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.”
Somewhere along the line somebody had the crazy idea that the bigger the wallet containing the laws then the greater was the ability of the one wearing it to keep them. This was, and is, of course, nonsense. True spirituality is never a matter of outward appearance, but a matter of the heart. Likewise with the tassels.
The tassels were the Pharisaic equivalent of prayer beads. Each tassel was to remind them of a law of God, so that as you went through your tassels you could recall the laws of God and be more prone to keep them. So if you had tassels that were bigger and more numerous than anybody else then you had to be somebody important.
And if you were someone important then other people would recognize your importance and greet you and single you out from the crowd. And that will make you feel special. And blessed. So you must be special and God must really like you!
Very attractive it is. In one church I had served we had a congressman in the congregation. He always walked in the memorial day town parade. One time Yvonne and I were standing watching the parade go by and the congressman saw me in the crowd and came over and shook me by the hand and said, 'See you later'. Later there was a community dinner in his honor and I was doing the invocation prayer.
And it did feel good! To be singled out, among the crowd, by somebody important must mean I'm important. I imagined the people around thinking, 'Wow. Who is that guy that the congressman comes out of the parade, shakes his hand and says 'See you later'?”
Of course if they knew I was just the preacher from a downtown church that had seen better days and was struggling to keep the doors open, they probably would have shook their head, said “Oh. A preacher” and accused the congressman of trying to look good by shaking the hand of the preacher of the home church he only occasionally attended.
It really raises for us the question of where we find our sense of security. Is it from the approval of others or because we know that, through the grace of God, we are children that God claims as 'little ones' through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Are we content with being who God claims us to be, or do we need tokens of affirmation that boost our ego and massage our desire for acceptance?
The titles we accumulate, the degrees we hang on our walls, the letters before or after our names, certainly have a significance in that they open for us doors of service. If I go to see a doctor, it is comforting to see certificates that suggest the doctor is not a quack, but has achieved certain standards. Those standards don't make him a good person or even a special human being, but they do show that he or she has reached a certain stage of proficiency and at least in those areas can be trusted.
But we also know of folk who parade their titles and degree's, not because they want to serve, but because they want to be admired. I recall a certain clerical gentlemen who had more letters both before and after his name than he had in his name and how he loved to wear the most ostentatious clerical garb he could get away with and strut around like a darn peacock. At least that's how it seemed to me!
But even by saying that, I am displaying more of my own insecurities than his particular character. Maybe he felt that was a role somebody needed to take on. Maybe his behavior opened doors I would never be asked to walk through. It's always a fine line we walk!
Jesus levels the playing field. 'You are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.
Jesus reminds us that we are all in this together, as brothers and sisters, and have so much to learn from each other that we shouldn't desire titles that differentiate or separate us. Paul spoke about us being a 'fellow priesthood'. We are all called to sit at the feet of Christ and learn. Our only authority is God, whom we pray to as “Our Father.” The only instruction that we should ultimately follow is that of Scripture. The Word of God, the words of the Messiah, His words are the ones we need to listen to. And when those claiming to speak in His name contradict His Word, than we should seek His Word, not theirs.
I am grateful for having a congregation that takes notice of the sermons that the preacher preaches. But if ever you feel that this preacher, or any other who occupies your pulpit, is contradicting scripture or simply giving their own view on a topic rather than feeding you with God's Word, then you have the responsibility to take what is said and balance it against what the Bible says. God invites us to be people of discernment, guided by His Word. We have One Father, One instructor, One Savior, who is the authority over and above all others.
This section closes by lifting up the virtue of humility. In the kingdom, it is through service of others that joy is found. It is through recognizing that we are all people with gifts to offer, stories to share, perspectives to bring to the table... and dismissing nobody as being unimportant... that we grow to understand just how deep and wide the love of God truly is.
We see in these first verses four reasons Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy.
- They preached, but did not practice (3)
- They acted only to be seen and admired by others, not to please God. (5)
- They were proud, seeking to be prominent and exalted over others (6-9)
- Because they rejected servanthood and humility, they were themselves rejected by God. (10-12)
We move now to eight 'woes.' “Woe to you...” In the Message Bible the 'woes' become the phrase "You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees!” There is no nice way of calling people “Losers!!!” (which is the general atmosphere of these sayings). Jesus is through being nice with this particular crowd. Retrospectively we understand that they would carry through with their plans to do away with Him, so there is certainly justification for Him pulling no punches. Let us wander through the woes! Verse 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.
Or as 'The Message' has it..."I've had it with you! You're hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God's kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won't let anyone else in either."
One commentary makes the comment 'the woes are not a petty outburst, but proleptic pronouncemnts of the eschatological judge”. I confess I had to look up in my dictionary what 'proleptic' meant! 'The anticipation and answering of an objection or argument before one's opponent has put it forward.' In other words, it's what they call a 'pre-emptive strike.' Hitting them first before they fire a shot at you. That makes the 'woes' - pre-final-judgment judgments!
In a previous session we saw how the Pharisees refused to submit to the offer of repentance offered to them by John the Baptist. They were afraid of what the people would think if they said John was not a prophet. So they just kept quiet about the whole affair. But the terms for knowing the kingdom of God had not changed. The doorway to the kingdom was through repentance. The Pharisees did not like a religion that insisted upon humility and self-denial. So when it came to Jesus they were happy to confront His miracles, quarrel with His doctrines, point out the kind of company He kept and use every power within them to make Him look like He was the one in the wrong.
The bottom line in this condemnation is simply that the Pharisees neither responded to God nor let others respond. Their response should have been repentance. But instead they instruct others to become just as unrepentant than they ever were!
The next verse, verse 14, is missing from many translations. This is because in the earliest manuscripts yet discovered of the New Testament, it is absent. However if you have a King James, it may well be there, depending on what edition it is. Or it may be in other versions in parentheses. In the New King James version it reads:
Matthew 23:14 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. (Mat 23:14 NKJ)
Some older commentators, such as Matthew Henry, suggest that the eight woes are the antithesis of the eight Beatitudes of Matthew chapter 5... the 'Blessed are you... if you...” passages. Thus the opposite of 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.' (Mat 5:4 NIV) is our current verse where rather than comforting those who mourn (the widowers), the Pharisees prey upon their situation of disadvantage and 'devour widow's houses' .
Whilst taking advantage of them, the Pharisees continue to offer up to the world a religious veneer by offering long prayers for the widows plight. To make a pun of it, “They pray for their prey”. Such gives a whole new meaning to “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful!” This deserves special condemnation because it was the Pharisees duty to protect and support the less fortunate. That was the intention and requirement of their law. The widows had nobody else to turn to.
Over the last two centuries there has been a tension in religion between those who practiced a social gospel and those who preached a gospel of personal salvation. The former have accused the latter of being so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use. Those who preach a personal gospel accuse the social gospel advocates of denying that change can only come through personal renewal.
The example of the Pharisees suggests that religion must be both social and personal. Long prayers are a waste of words if they are a cover up for wrong actions or a substitute for taking action. Yet hearts that are unrepentant cannot create lives with the spiritual vitality necessary for transforming communities. The gospel is not a choice between personal piety or social action. It is a both/and experience. The kingdom message transforms both the individual and society.
Our next woe, verse 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." Or as the Message bible has it; "You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him into a replica of yourselves, double-damned."
There were those who found themselves drawn to the religion of the Pharisees. After all it was a religion with clear rules that made you stand out from the crowd as being a religious person. In our own day there are many attracted to religious movements that do all the thinking for them and offer clear cut answers to life's most perplexing questions. The gospel of Fundamentalism has it's appeal. Such takes away any real responsibility. All you have to do is pay your tithe, follow the rules and never question what the senior pastor teaches you.
Then, as now, it wasn't easy to be a convert. It took a lot of commitment to be 'in with the in crowd'. Fundamentalist churches today often make heavy demands from their members, if not in writing then in unspoken expectations and requirements. They often practice an unhealthy amount of intrusion into their members lives, in everything from what folk can wear, what they can watch, who they can hang out with, how they should vote etc, etc. (One commentator described the phenomena as 'Heavy Shepherding'). And they will often go to great lengths to attract converts.
Likewise the Pharisees would go to great lengths if they felt somebody was warming to their approach. Particularly if it meant they turned against the kinds of ministry Jesus seemed to be up to. They loved that kind of convert!
Commenting on the phrase 'You make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.' William Barclay writes 'The most converted were the most perverted' pointing out that it can often turn out that a convert becomes even more of a fanatical follower of a movement than those who converted them.
I remember a chap who was fanatical about the Welsh language and cause. He would only speak a word of English with the greatest reluctance as 'every word spoken in English was a word less spoken for the Welsh cause'. I thought it was because he had a fierce streak of national pride. I only later discovered that he was born and bred in England, to English parents, and had only learned to speak Welsh later in life. His only real claim to 'Welshness' was his linguistic ability. Common sense and religion do not always sit well together. Things can become warped. Read 16-22
"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.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 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.' You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it."
This passage recalls the teaching in the sermon on the mount that Jesus gives in Matthew 5:37 when, in the context of making promises He tells us: “All you need to say is simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” The Pharisees had developed a whole system of rules to get out of fulfilling obligations. That way you could look good by saying you were going to do something, and then look even better by not doing it, on the basis of some technicality in the law. They had elevated the science of evasion to unprecedented heights.
A distinction was made between promises that actually invoked the name of God and those which didn't. The gold in the temple was seen as especially belonging to God (and had financial implications)... so if you swore by God's gold, then that was it, you were committed. But if you just promised to do something in the name of the temple, then it was OK to go back on that promise. Likewise a distinction was made between the altar... and the 'gift on the altar'. If you said something at the altar, and then went back on it, well no big deal. But if you had some financial obligation, with the 'gift on the altar'...then... no way, you have to see that one through.
Now lest we think the Pharisees were being ridiculous, consider this. Whenever a member is received into a Presbyterian Church they make a promise, in church, to support the life of that church with their time, talents and treasures. But you know, and I know, that there are church members who make their church just about the last thing on their list of priorities. They will commit to this and to that, but if something else comes up, 'Oh no, this is much more important!' and the church commitment is the first thing to go. The one exception can be if some financial commitment has been made. It's not exactly a comforting thought that at times we appear not that far away from the woeful actions of Pharisees.
We move from the science of evasion to the loss of proportion. Verses 23-24.
"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. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."
The Pharisees were very strict and and precise in the smaller matters of the law, but careless and loose when it came to the weightier duties of religion. They happily ignored passages such as Micah 6:8 'He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Then they get themselves all out of shape arguing over trivialities peculiar to their own traditions, which Jesus pictures as 'tithing spices'.
Again, for us, this is a call to make a reality check! I would like to say that in all my years as a pastor I have witnessed that churches always veer on the side of the weightier matters. But if you have ever sat through a three hour Session meeting whose main cause of concern was a heated and passionate debate, about the color of the sanctuary carpet, then you may feel differently. If you have ever been privy to conversations with church members who threaten to resign or withdraw their support of their local church over something they read in a tabloid newspaper about a supposed decision of a General Assembly, then, again, you may feel there is ample justification for Jesus describing Pharisaic attitudes as those which “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel”.
The Pharisees always seemed to be able to justify their actions, however reprehensible, by referring to some minute detail of their law or traditions. Later in our studies we will see how when Judas betrays Jesus to them, they pay him blood money amounting to the miserly sum of thirty pieces of silver. Judas throws it back at them. They then get into an argument about whether it was moral to put that money back into the temple treasury!
But there's more. Jesus, as He has done in the Sermon on the Mount, identifies all these negative attitudes as something that come from a persons inner sense of values. Outward actions reflected what was really going on in the heart. Verses 25-28
"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. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. "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. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness."
No need to say much here. They focused on outward appearances, when within they were filled with greed and pride. (point 8 on sheet). In this they were just like their “fathers” (Predecessors) who, when they had authority, killed the prophets and wise men God sent to Israel. Read 29 – 32.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 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.' So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants If those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!"
I find that one of our most moving Good Friday hymns is 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” In our less enlightened moments we like to think that if we were there, we would have stood on the right side of the equation. It's a wonderful thing that Jesus died for our sins.
At the same time it's a disturbing thing. If Jesus died BECAUSE of our sins, that identifies our lives with the forces that nailed Him to the Cross. That's an uneasy place to be, because I know how I feel about folk who persecute others and cause them great suffering. And it's not a good or benevolent feeling! I know what I feel they deserve. And so we reach some of the harshest words in this whole passage. Verses 33-36.
"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 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. 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. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation."
In the Hebrew bible, that the Pharisees were familiar with, the first book is the Book of Genesis, but the final book in their canon is 2 Chronicles. We are probably familiar with the story in Genesis of Abel's murder by his brother Cain. We are not so familiar of the story of the murder of the prophet Zechariah during the reign of King Joash. In their canon it is the closing account of the murder of one of Israel's prophets. So Jesus is telling them that from first to last, from A -Z (and in English lit. 'Able to Zach') their history had been one of persecuting the prophets of God.
And it wasn't going to change. They would continue to make martyrs of the disciples of the new Covenant, those who were disciples of Jesus. From the perspective of Matthew's church this had become a reality. From the stoning of Stephen onward they would witness many martyred for their faith.
Sadly the passage 'upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth' has been seized upon by anti-Semites to justify the persecution of the Jewish people. They have been pictured as Christ-killers who only got what they deserved. Such a view could not be further from the grace of God that Jesus offered to them. For sure, what goes around, comes around, but judgment is the prerogative of God alone. And though Jesus burns with righteous indignation at the actions of the Pharisees, His closing words are not of judgment, but of longing to see them truly be embraced by the kingdom and experience the love of God. Read 37-39.
"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. Look, 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.' "
Here is one of the most tender pictures in all of Scripture. Jesus pictured as a mother hen. The rebellious Pharisees as 'helpless chickens' whom Jesus wants to shelter and protect and gather into His loving care. Gone is the anger and fire and brimstone and here is the love and the grace of God taking precedence.
The pharisees needed exposing for their hypocrisy. It wasn't going to be pretty. But it was necessary. Jesus came as a truth teller and truth sometimes hurts. His intention was not to be a trouble-maker, but a refiner. Even His harshest words are spoken against a background of love and of grace.
As we review this chapter we do well to consider that the faults of the Pharisees are ones in which we often share. There is a saying 'There but for the grace of God go I'. Were it not for God's amazing grace we would all be lost. So, thanks be to God, for his love that though it may sometimes comes as a refiners fire, nevertheless intends to produce gold!
In Chapters 24 and 25 we will be dealing with Jesus predictions for the future. How would the kingdom come? When would it come? How would we know? All this and more are topics for the next two chapters.