As we reach Matthew 23, Jesus is no longer taking questions from the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Israel. He isn’t asking them questions, either. He begins to directly address their sinful behavior and the destruction they have wreaked on the people of Israel.
It is noteworthy that His first comments are not directed to the scribes and Pharisees. His first statements are directed to the crowd. Jesus does not take the religious leaders aside and rebuke them privately or calmly. He warns the people who the religious leaders are trying to lead. (I’m fairly certain that there are implications of this for modern religious leaders who need rebuking. Uncomfortable implications.) The primary warning to the crowd is that they should not become like their leaders.
He tells the crowd that their teachers are saying admirable things, but that their lives are not worth following (v. 3). He then goes on to present the right approach to the Kingdom of Heaven: service and sacrifice. The “woes” that follow highlight specific instances of the destructive lives of the religious leaders of the day and the conclusion of the chapter is a lament over Jerusalem, the city that has been kept from Him by these same leaders.
Rather than break down just one verse, take the passage of woes into focus. Jesus draws out specific problems with the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees. The general form of each woe works like this: you know what you should do, but you have created a loophole and destroyed the worth of what you are doing.
Take Matthew 23:16 as an example. The religious leaders knew they should keep their vows, but cut themselves a loophole: vowing by the Temple did not really count. You had to vow by the gold. Now, I have no historical evidence to consult, but I wonder whether or not it was common knowledge that they cut such a division among their vows? In other words, did the people who heard them make loud and proud vows by the Temple or the altar realize that they were meaningless words?
Perhaps the crowds did know this, but I have my suspicions that they did not.
In all, what the scribes and Pharisees had done was build requirements for others while easing their own lifestyle.
Where do we start with this, in practice? First things first: the Kingdom does not belong to any earthly religious leader. Not by a long shot, not though they be a committee, a coalition, a convention, or a council. The Kingdom belongs to only One, and He makes the decisions (v. 10 is the clearest).
Second, what constraints do we who are “spiritual” put on others? What boundaries do we put between those who are away from God and knowing Him? In some cases, we create a legalism that does not save but certainly makes people behave like good folks. The problem being that then their trust goes into their works, not their Savior. We gather those who will give and fund ministries faithfully, even fanatically, but have we taught justice and mercy? Do we reach out to a business owner for a large donation without considering the impact on the workers who helped the profits to be there?
Third, we need to consider the effect of our behavior on those around us. Everyone in Jerusalem was not guilty of killing the prophets and wise men and scribes Jesus speaks of in verse 34. Yet everyone faced judgment for following the leaders who did. If we lead, let us bear in mind that blocking people from God has consequences and learn to get out of the way. If you are not a leader in that sense, realize this: through the Word of God, you can know God personally and directly. Do so.
A few nerdy-points:
1. Matthew 23:35 looks to us English-speakers like Jesus is naming prophets from “A-to-Z” with the reference to Abel and Zechariah. That’s quaint and not exactly accurate. Instead, consider the divisions of the Jewish Scriptures, that Genesis is first (where Abel is murdered) and 2 Chronicles (where Zechariah is murdered) is last. It’s a first-to-last mention, and it works as “A-to-Z” in English, but it’s more likely a reference to the whole of Jewish Canon, what we call the Old Testament.
2. While I hesitate to say that we shouldn’t take something literally, I think there is a cultural gap between 23:9 and now, and that one can call someone on earth “father.” Typically, I would suggest that your “father” is either clear on your birth certificate or clear in your heart if he’s not on the paper. I think we have a case here where Jesus is reminding them not to seek or demand titles, but to focus on honoring God.
3. Remember that Matthew 23:39 is stated after the Triumphal Entry. “See” here is about perception and engagement with the Messianic work of Jesus—this was the last time, in Matthew’s recording, that Jesus freely stood in the midst of the crowd and taught them.
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