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Matthew 23

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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The Pharisees Judged by Jesus (23:1-39)

The Gospel by Matthew is unique in retaining in its entirety this severe discourse, the most severe which Jesus ever pronounced. In considering it, let us remember that Jesus addressed these reproaches to the most "churchgoing" believers of his day. All false piety, all piety which does not translate itself into action, was abhorrent to Jesus because it is an insult to the living God. The danger of such aberrations is present in every age, and the history of Christianity is not exempt from them. Is any one of us wholly exempt? To be "true" implies a total harmony of thought, word, and act, a total freedom from pretense. It is this harmony and this transparency which give to Jesus his unique authority. Everything is "Yes" in him as it is in God ( Cor. 1:19). That is why in his presence we can only acknowledge ourselves sinners and wait for him to re-create us in his image. The sin of the Pharisees is in their refusal to acknowledge Jesus for what he is; that would oblige them to acknowledge themselves for what they are. We must listen to his warnings as addressed to ourselves.

Verses 1-12

"They Preach, But Do Not Practice" (23:1-12)

The scribes and Pharisees "sit on Moses’ seat." They are charged to teach, which is always a solemn responsibility (compare James 3:1). Jesus does not here dispute their teaching, but says: "Practice and observe whatever they tell you." Once again this verifies his respect for the Scriptures. What he objects to in the Pharisees, however, is that "they preach, but do not practice." Their legalism weighs on the faithful like an intolerable burden, but they themselves find ways to circumvent the Law. They love to play a part; they love to "be seen by men" (Matthew 6:1-6). They parade their piety by magnifying its external marks "phylacteries" were bands, fastened on the forehead and arm, on which some verses of the Law were inscribed (see Deuteronomy 6:4-9); "fringes" on their garments were a sign of the consecration of Israel to her God (Numbers 15:37-40).

Jesus himself seems to have complied with this last custom, as did all Jews, for we are told on two occasions that someone touched "the fringe" of his garment (Matthew 9:20; Matthew 14:36). It is, then, not the custom itself that he condemned, but the ostentation of those who do these things merely to be seen. The Pharisees seek everywhere to occupy the "place of honor"; they crave the honors which they consider to belong to their rank. They have themselves called "rabbi," from a word signifying "great." Celebrated rabbis received the title "Abba," or Father.

In verses 8-12 he addresses himself directly to his disciples. No one among them is to be called "great," for One only is great, One only is their Master, One only is their Father and they are all "brothers." Likewise, One only is their Master or Leader the Christ. The characteristic mark of the new community lies in the fact that he who is greatest makes himself the servant of his brothers: "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Here again is found a fundamental thought which has already been expressed on several occasions (Matthew 20:25-28; Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16; Luke 14:7-11).

Do these words of Jesus exclude all gradations of office in the Church? Certainly not. Jesus himself established the primacy of the Apostles in the nascent community (Matthew 16:18; Matthew 19:28; Matthew 28:16-20). But in the sight of God he only is great who knows himself to be small, a sinner redeemed, as are all his brothers, solely by the grace of God. All human authority is only delegated. One alone is Lord, One alone is Father God; One alone has authority to govern us in God’s name Jesus Christ

Jesus knows that the demons of pride and power which blind the religious leaders of his people will also menace, ever anew, his Church. He does not tire of putting his disciples on guard against this deadly snare and reminding them continually of the humility of the Servant

Verses 13-39

"Woe to You ... !"(23:13-39)

This "Woe to you . . . !" is repeated seven times eight times if verse 14, which is found in certain manuscripts, is included. These woes are like a negative counterpart of the Beatitudes: Jesus opens the Kingdom, the Pharisees shut it.

Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees as "hypocrites." This term in the original language signifies an inconsistent attitude of which the one who adopts it is not necessarily conscious but which renders his behavior false, objectively speaking. In what sense did the Pharisees close the Kingdom of heaven to their followers? Jesus does not upbraid them for taking the Law seriously. He takes it more seriously than they (see Matthew 5:17-20). But if they had truly understood the Scriptures, they would have recognized in Jesus the One who comes to liberate men from the condemnation of the Law. They crushed others under a yoke which they themselves could not bear (see vs. 4). Not only did they refuse the good news of salvation, they also deterred others from believing it Verse 14 underlines the contradiction between the Pharisees’ lack of charity and their "long prayers" (on the "widows," see Exodus 22:22-23; Isaiah 1:17). Verse 15 accuses them of having a false missionary zeal, for in weighing down the Gentiles under their Law they make them children of "Gehenna" (see margin; the term "Gehenna" comes from the Valley of Hinnom where refuse was thrown). The thought of Jesus here seems to be very near that of Paul, who sees the knowledge of the Law as an intensification of condemnation (see Romans 2:12-16; Romans 7:7-13).

Verses 16-22 take up again the question of oaths which was raised earlier (Matthew 5:33-37). By subtle distinctions the Pharisees have succeeded in making perjury legitimate. One is not bound unless he swears by the gold of the Temple or by the offering which is on the altar. Jesus overthrows all considerations established in this fashion: the Temple and the altar are consecrated to God; they are signs of his presence. Who swears by them calls on God as a witness. This is exactly the same as swearing by heaven, which is the throne of God. The casuistry of the Pharisees proves their blindness. The real meaning of worship offered to God escapes them.

Verses 23-24 point out another flagrant inconsistency. The Pharisees are very careful to pay the tithe even on the little herbs, but they neglect the weighty matters of the Law. They filter their wine so as not to swallow an impure gnat, but they swallow "a camel"! For they trample under foot the two great commandments love to God and neighbor.

The Law requires that they should cleanse not only the outside of cups and plates but the interior as well. Jesus uses this image (vss. 25-26) to stress once more that the hearts of the Pharisees remain impure and that the real issue is that they be cleansed (see Matthew 15:7-20).

Sepulchres were whitewashed in order that no one defile himself in walking over them; they were polished anew for the influx of pilgrims, in order that they should be "beautiful." Jesus compares the Pharisees to these whitewashed sepulchres which contain only corpses (vss. 27-28). This saying seems singularly hard. In considering it one must understand that for Jesus he who does not live the life given by God, he whose life is shut against love, is a dead person with only the appearance of life (compare Ephesians 2:1-10).

The scribes and Pharisees gladly honored the tombs of the prophets by erecting monuments to them (vs. 29). This was a way of clearing themselves of the crimes committed by their ancestors! But this attempt at justification gives evidence that they have the blood of murderers in their veins; for it was precisely against such self -justification that the prophets never ceased to raise their voice.

Verse 32 is particularly serious. Jesus makes it clear that the Pharisees are not going to be long in crowning the work of their fathers. They will kill him as their fathers have killed the prophets. The serpent is traditionally a figure of the Devil; it crawls in the dust and attacks cunningly.

Jesus has charged us not to judge (see Matthew 5:22; Matthew 7:1). Nevertheless, he accuses the Pharisees of being blind people, fools (Matthew 23:17), a race of vipers (Matthew 23:33). Once again this passage sets forth the consciousness which Jesus has of his sovereign authority. He is the King and the Judge of men. He at the same time reads their hearts and lays them bare. God speaks by his mouth and gives to his words the terrible accent of a last warning.

Verses 34-35 present some difficulties. Who is the "I"? It can hardly be Jesus; it is rather God himself. The parallel passage in Luke (Luke 11:49) puts this saying into the mouth of "the Wisdom of God." Does this refer to one of the Wisdom books which is now lost? Or does it refer to God himself, reciting a summary of the crimes committed by Israel? The end of verse 34 which speaks of some who will be scourged in the synagogues seems to echo the persecutions undergone by the Primitive Church. Finally, the description of the murder of "Zechariah" calls to mind 2 Chronicles 24:17-21, although the description "son of Barachiah" seems to refer to the prophet Zechariah (see Zechariah 1:1-2).

The important thing, however, is not the answer to these problems. The history of the People of God has a tragic aspect which the Bible strongly underlines. The natural man is in rebellion against God; he is a murderer from the beginning (see Genesis 4:1-10). The Israel according to the flesh stands against the Israel according to faith in every age. It was because Abel was "righteous" in the eyes of God that Cain could not endure his presence (see Genesis 4:1-10; 1 John 3:12). It was because Zechariah was "righteous" and spoke in the power of the Spirit that he was stoned (see 2 Chronicles 24:20-21). Hence, the murder of the only Son will be the logical conclusion, the culminating point, of all the murders of history. The revolt of man against God will reach as zenith in "this generation" (vs. 36). Jesus is the Innocent One, The Righteous One par excellence, of whom all the others were only annunciatory signs; their murder, so to speak, is included in his own.

The judgment which Jesus has just pronounced wrings from him a cry whose poignant accent strongly contrasts with what has one before (vss. 37-39) . All his love for the Holy City, the object of all his appeals and promises, bursts forth in the lament: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets . . . How often would have gathered your children together . . ." This expression implies repeated appeals of which the first three Gospels give only a few echoes. Historic truth at this point seems to be more accurately reflected in the Gospel according to John, which shows Jesus going up to Jerusalem on several occasions, notably at the time of the great feasts, to exercise his ministry there (see John 2:13; John 5:1; John 7:14; John 10:22-23; John 12:12). This alone can explain the saying, "How often would I ... and you would not!" The image gathering under the "wings" is used several times in the Old Testament to express the maternal solicitude of God (see Deuteronomy 2:10-11; Psalms 36:7; Psalms 91:4).

Salvation has been proclaimed to Jerusalem, and Jerusalem has refused the grace offered. It must therefore experience, at last for a time, what Zechariah prophesied: "Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has forsaken you" (2 Chronicles 24:20). The "house" which is "forsaken and desolate" may designate the Temple or the city, or it may refer symbolically to the entire country.

This discourse nevertheless concludes on a positive note (vs. 9): Jerusalem will see her rejected King again when he comes in his glory. All will acclaim him on that day as the One sent by the Lord. The words are the same as those used at the Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:9).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 23". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-23.html.
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