Matthew 23:13-39

Direct Criticisms

The listing of the seven “griefs” that follow mirrors the literary form, while clearly contrasting at the same time the list of beatitudes proclaimed by Jesus, and collected in Jesus’ first major sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.

13Grief awaits you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.  
You shut the heavenly kingdom in people’s faces.  
You do not enter it yourselves,
and you prevent entry to those seeking to enter.

Jesus had given to Peter the keys of the Kingdom, and, shortly afterwards, he gave the authority to “bind and loose” to the community of disciples [16:19; 18:18].  He had directed the community to exclude those who would not accept correction [18:8-9,17].  His basic criticism of these Pharisees was not the power they enjoyed, but the mistaken way they exercised it by placing impossible burdens on the shoulders of those least capable of carrying them.

15 Grief awaits you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.  
You go over sea and land to make one convert;
and when you have done so,
you make them doubly children of Gehenna
than you are yourselves.

Obviously , the criticism did not apply to life in Galilee as Jesus experienced it, but reflected the experience of Matthew’s community.  Research, however, shows that Diaspora Jews were not, in fact, very interested in attracting converts.  Their main concern was to maintain their clear Jewish identity.  Nevertheless, occasional Gentiles would be drawn to the synagogue, and adopt Jewish ways.  It often happens that people who have recently experienced profound conversion are so captivated that they energetically try to persuade others to join them.

16Grief awaits you, blind guides.  
You say, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the temple,
it is invalid;
but whoever takes an oath by the gold of the temple
is bound by it.’  
17 Foolish and blind people, for which is greater,
the gold or the temple?  
18 And, ‘Whoever takes an oath by the altar, it is invalid;
but whoever takes an oath by the gift placed on the altar
is bound by it.’
19 Oh, you blind people! For which is greater,
the gift or the altar that makes the gift holy?  
20 Whoever swears by the altar,
swears by it and by everything that is on it;
21 and whoever swears by the temple
swears by it and by the one who dwells in it;
22 and whoever swears by heaven
swears by the throne of God and by him who sits on it.

It would seem that some Pharisees were concerned at the common practice of oath-taking and the indiscriminate way some people drew God and sacred things into the process.  Their solution was to divert the wording of oaths away from the truly sacred to the less sacred.  Jesus’ shared something of the same concern, but his response, as recorded by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, was to avoid oaths altogether, and to insist that all speech be trustworthy [5:34-37].  Matthew seemed to take for granted the entrenched custom of oath-taking.

23Grief awaits you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.  
You pay tithes on mint and aniseed and cumin,
yet you neglect the weightier matters of the law,
discernment, mercy and faithfulness.  
These you should have practised,
without neglecting the other matters.  
24 You blind guides! You strain out a mosquito
and you gulp down a camel.

The Torah commanded primary producers to tithe their produce – mainly grain, fruits, wine and oil.  Apparently , some scrupulous Pharisees sought to extend the reach of the command to include even what grew in the home  garden.  Matthew had already emphasised the criteria adopted by Jesus for the proper interpretation of the Torah.  His summary of priorities here was clear: the weightier matters of the law: discernment and mercy and faithfulness.  The problem with all precise commandments is that the law’s purpose can become submerged by mistaken concern for literal observance of the letter.

25Grief awaits you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.  
You purify the outside of cup and plate,
but inside yourselves you are full of extortion
and lack of self-restraint.  
26 Oh, blind Pharisee!  Purify first the inside of the cup,
so that what is outside it may become clean.

The criticism reflected the period of the early Christian community, rather than the time of Jesus.  Ritual purity had become increasingly important throughout the Diaspora.  Clearly differentiated behaviour tended to confirm the Jewish sense of religious and ethnic identity and distinguish them from the surrounding Gentile culture.  Particularly, after the temple had been destroyed and the cultic priesthood made redundant, many Pharisees sought to emphasise the fact that all members of the People of God constituted “a royal priesthood, a people set apart”.  Some of them chose to do so by extending the previous requirements of priestly purity to the people as a whole.  Jesus wished to emphasise the priority of inner attitudes over external practices.  Personal integrity rated higher than ritual purity.

27Grief awaits you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.  
You are like whitewashed graves
whose external appearance is beautiful,
but inside they are full of dead bones and every kind of corruption.  
28 You are just like that.  
From the exterior, people see you as just people,
but interiorly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Within the culture, particularly around the outskirts of Jerusalem (which in Jesus’ time was periodically crowded with pilgrims), tombs were whitewashed to make them obvious.  To touch a grave, even inadvertently, rendered people impure until sunset.  Pilgrims present in Jerusalem to take part in the temple sacrifices were particularly sensitive to the need to remain ritually pure.  To the previous criticisms of greed and self-indulgence, Matthew now added hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29Grief awaits you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.  
You build tombs for the prophets
and adorn the monuments for the just;
30 and you say, ‘If we lived in the days of our ancestors,
we would not have been their accomplices
in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  
31 In doing this you testify against yourselves
that you are the children of the prophets’ murderers
32 and that you complete the unfinished work of your ancestors.  
33 You snakes, offspring of snakes,
how can you escape the sentence of Gehenna?

The verbal abuse, offspring of snakes  reflected that used earlier by John the Baptist [3:7].  It would seem to have become part of the armoury of those who opposed the influence of the Pharisees.

34 Because of this, I send prophets, wise people and scribes to you.  
Some of them you kill and crucify;
some you pursue from city to city –
35 in order that all the just blood shed on the earth may come upon you,
from the blood of the innocent Abel
to the blood of Zachariah, the son of Barachiah,
whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 

The accusation clearly supposed the oppression experienced, not by disciples during the time of Jesus’ ministry, but by the early Church.  Yet again, the reference confirmed the conclusion that the whole collection of sayings was more the composition of the later community of disciples, or of Matthew himself, than of Jesus.

36 I tell you truly, all this will come upon this generation.

Ten or twenty years before the Gospel was written, the temple had been destroyed, Jerusalem wiped out and thousands of Jews killed.  Matthew interpreted their experience as punishment, not only for their failure to accept Jesus and to crucify him, but also for their decision to ostracise and to persecute his faithful disciples.

The Price of Unbelief

The focus moved from scribes and Pharisees to the city and its temple.  Not only would the leadership be dispossessed, but the city and temple would be destroyed.

Matthew 23:37-39     Jerusalem will be Left Desolate

(Lk 13:34-35)
37Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who killed the prophets
and stoned those sent to you!
How many times I wanted to gather together your children, 
as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings,
and you wanted none of it.  
38 So now, ‘your dwelling will be left empty’.  

Jesus’ use of the image of a hen and her chickens speaks of a feminine energy in Jesus: an instinctive energy for gentleness, protective care and self-sacrifice.  According to the folklore, in cases of a barnyard fire, a hen would cover her chickens with her wings.  The hen would lose her life, but the chickens would live.  Jesus would face death so that sinners might live.  The stage was set.  Jesus had given his invitation, but Israel was not willing.

The Gospel narrative mentioned only one visit of Jesus to Jerusalem.  Jesus’ comment how often would suggest that he had ministered there on more than one occasion.  Matthew did not choose to edit out the anomaly.

The claim that your dwelling will be left empty referred to the city’s destruction – or more specifically, perhaps, to the Temple’s – by the Roman armies.  The confidence behind the assertion was due to the hindsight enjoyed by Matthew’s community.  The phrase echoed a prophecy given through Jeremiah:

 “..if you will not heed these words,
I swear by myself, says the Lord,
that this house shall become a desolation [Jeremiah 22:5].

The city’s fate confirmed the observation made earlier by Jesus (when Pharisees had maintained that he acted by the power of Beelzebul): every … household divided against itself cannot endure [12.25

39 For I tell you, from now on you shall not see me until you say,
‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’."

To what was Jesus referring?  The crowds had already greeted Jesus with those words on his entry into Jerusalem [21:9].  Some scholars wonder whether Matthew hoped for an eventual conversion of the Jewish people as a whole (the crowds) at the end of the age.  The phrase would forecast their salvation: Israel would not be rejected forever.

Next >> Matthew 24:1-31