Matthew 23: 1-36 Woe to the Blind Hypocrites

James Tissot, Woe Unto You Scribes and Pharisees

Matthew 23: 1-36

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hellas yourselves.

16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ 19 How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and whoever swears by the sanctuary, 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 the one who is seated upon it.

23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,so that the outside also may become clean.

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of 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 Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.

I am taking the majority of this chapter as a long unit both because this is a section of Matthew that many modern Christians are uncomfortable with, especially looking back at the way Christians, when they became the dominant religion in many areas, treated their Jewish neighbors. The paradox of the way Matthew has been read is that while it is the most Jewish of the gospels, it also has passages that have been read to paint Judaism as a whole in a judgmental and harsh light. The language of Matthew 23 would be very familiar to those who have spent any time studying the prophets in particular and the Hebrew Scriptures in general, but since most Christians have little familiarity with how to read the scriptures we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters we misunderstand Matthew, the scriptures, Christianity and Judaism.

If you’ve read through these reflections on Matthew, you will not be surprised that judgment is a part of the coming kingdom of heaven for those who resist it and prevent others from hearing about or accepting its approach. Matthew is an extremely gifted scribe who is able to pull from a wide range of the scriptures (the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament) as he is attempting to narrate the story and teachings of Jesus, but in a world where copies of the scriptures were both rare and controlled by those in religious authority the Pharisees and scribes would be the ones with both access to these scriptures and the ability to proclaim them to the people. The Hebrew scriptures in the law, narrative and prophets is very hard on rulers and those with religious authority because they are the ones who will shape the actions of the people because they have access to these sacred writings that reveal God’s will for the society they are to construct.

One way to read this section is to allow it to be a mirror to compare one’s own practices to. Jesus is speaking to his disciples and the crowds, not primarily the Pharisees (as they are represented in Matthew) here. As Anna Case-Winters can state:

As we read these sharp edged texts today we are tempted to let them rest in the past as a condemnation of a particular subset of the Pharisees. We locate ourselves among the righteous and know that Jesus is talking not about “us” but about “them.” What if, instead, we took the texts as an occasion to examine our own religious life and practice to see if the things Jesus speaks so heatedly against are to be found there? Those who are religious leaders might look particularly closely at what is condemned here. These texts are surely a cautionary tale instructive for religious leaders and all “would-be” followers of Jesus. (Case-Winters 2015, 263)

The Pharisees and scribes become an example of those who do not practice what they preach, who focus on the wrong things, who are judged here because they in positions of power have judged or misled others. Throughout Matthew the followers of Christ have been pointed towards a completeness, a wholeness, in how they embody the law mercifully in both inside and outside. The reinterpretation of the commandments in the sermon on the mount is designed to create a community which can be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill and a light to the nations. In our modern, individualistic readings of Matthew we may find it hard to reconcile the rigorous obedience of Matthew with mercy and forgiveness but that point to the ways our readings have become more like the Pharisees and less like Jesus as Matthew presents him. For Matthew, mercy informs what this obedience looks like and transforms this from a project of individualistic perfection to a community where the needs of one’s neighbor are central and righteousness is not practice for the approval of others in the community or society but before one’s heavenly Father.

It is also important to realize that these texts, as difficult as they can be to hear, are also spoken with the desire that the hearers will change their course. While Matthew may believe it is unlikely that the Pharisees and the scribes will repent and change their ways, at the right time the seed of this difficult word may take root even among these who are resisting this proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. It is also important to realize that these Pharisees represented to many hearers a compelling alternative to the practices of these early Christians. They did occupy positions of influence and authority and their practices, while easily discernable to the observer, provided a piety which could be observed and practiced. Jesus has always called for practicing something deeper than piety, practicing righteousness. The wearing of phylacteries or fringes on one’s clothing are not lifted up as wrong, it is the practice of enlarging the phylacteries (which carry a copy of Deuteronomy 6:4-9) or lengthening one’s tassels[1] to be noticed by others. It is the desire to be noticed and acclaimed by others based on places of honor, honorific greetings, or specific titles which form the basis for the actions of these Pharisees Matthew portrays which form a contrast to the relations as ‘brothers and sisters.’[2] All the disciples of Jesus stand in the same relationship as siblings of the one heavenly Father, and are all those who are taught by Christ. They are the opposite of the characterization of these Pharisees who seek positions of honor and power and, as throughout the gospel, the greatest are servants, and the humble ones are lifted up.

As we look at the seven woes, we encounter themes that have been present before in the gospel. The first woe sets the stage for why Jesus is so hard on the Pharisees and scribes, they are actively doing harm to others by denying them entrance to the kingdom of heaven. They are so opposed to what Jesus is doing in proclaiming and enacting the kingdom’s presence that they impede and actively work to convert others to their way of reading scripture. Their work to create converts who share their certainty and makes these new Pharisees children of Gehenna[3] who continue to work against the children of heaven. While followers of Christ are not to swear on anything (5:33-37), Jesus criticizes these Pharisees who are willing to delineate between which oaths are binding and which oaths are not based on what is sworn upon. This practice of delineating which oaths are binding may go back to Number 30 which deals with oaths made by women, which can be overruled by men in Numbers, but if this is based on actual practices it would be an innovation which would make the taking of certain oaths meaningless. For Jesus’ disciple their words and their faithfulness to those words, whether under oath or not, are central to being a community of truth.

Ultimately the practices, while not wrong, place the focus on the wrong place. Slavish obedience to weighing out a tithe of spices that detracts from the weightier demands of justice, mercy and faith misses the mark, as does washing the outside of cups or making beautiful tombs without changing what is inside the individuals.

Jesus’ accusation of the Pharisees and scribes is that they are both blind and hypocrites. As in 15:14 their blindness is dangerous because they are the blind leading others who are blind to fall into a pit. Hypocrite is a word used more by Matthew than any other gospel, and it is a word which originates talking about stage actors who pretend to be something they are not. To Jesus, the Pharisees are those who act like they are righteous and yet it is a role they play rather than a reality they inhabit. They continue the resistance to the servants of God who have been sent again and again to God’s people, and yet they are in a position where others watch their actions to understand what righteousness looks like. To Jesus their actions and their resistance are not only dangers to themselves but to the others looking for leaders that point them to God. As those who may control access to the scriptures and who occupy positions of power they are judged more harshly.

There is a long tradition of warnings in the scriptures about the cost of being unfaithful. They may be toward the people in general like the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28, or they may be directed specifically at leaders like Ezekiel 34 and many other places. The language may be harsh and polemical, but it is also to try to open the possibility of repentance. Sometimes it is the language of a people who have been broken by the movement of foreign empires crying out in pain to God, like Jeremiah 46-51, and asking for God’s judgment on the nations. Here, Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition, like those sent before, to Jerusalem and Israel crying out to the people about leaders who have failed to embody the coming kingdom of heaven and have resisted its messenger. It is a plea for the people to hear even when their leaders have been deaf. Still today it is a call to reexamine our own practices of righteousness and to examine if we have been blind guides and hypocrites who are a danger not only to ourselves but those who rely on us to understand God’s will.

[1] In Matthew Jesus wears tassels on his clothing which is noted in the story of healing the woman with a flow of blood in 9:20 (NRSV translates this same word as fringe)

[2] What the NRSV and others translate as ‘students’ is the Greek adelphos which is brothers, which can be expanded to ‘brothers and sisters’ since women would be assumed to be a part of the community.

[3] The translation of Gehenna as ‘hell’ places a lot of baggage around this term that would not have been there at the time of Jesus’ ministry. See my discussion on Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell

2 thoughts on “Matthew 23: 1-36 Woe to the Blind Hypocrites

  1. Pingback: Matthew 26:17-30 The Covenant Meal | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew | Sign of the Rose

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