corner graphic   Hi,    
ver. 2.0.19.02.16
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to classic.studylight.org/

Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Matthew 23

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-39

Chapter 23

SCRIBES AND PHARISEES (Matthew 23:1-39)

If a man is characteristically and temperamentally an irritable, ill-tempered and irascible creature, notoriously given to uncontrolled outbursts of passionate anger, his anger is neither effective nor impressive. Nobody pays any attention to the anger of a bad-tempered man. But when a person who is characteristically meek and lowly, gentle and loving, suddenly erupts into blazing wrath, even the most thoughtless person is shocked into taking thought. That is why the anger of Jesus is so awe-inspiring a sight. It is seldom in literature that we find so unsparing and sustained an indictment as we find in this chapter when the wrath of Jesus is directed against the Scribes and Pharisees. Before we begin to study the chapter in detail, it will be well to see briefly what the Scribes and Pharisees stood for.

The Jews had a deep and lasting sense of the continuity of their religion; and we can see best what the Pharisees and Scribes stood for by seeing where they came into the scheme of Jewish religion. The Jews had a saying, "Moses received the Law and delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua to the elders; and the elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue." AH Jewish religion is based first on the Ten Commandments and then on the Pentateuch, the Law.

The history of the Jews was designed to make them a people of the Law. As every nation has, they had their dream of greatness. But the experiences of history had made that dream take a special direction. They had been conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and Jerusalem had been left desolate. It was clear that they could not be preeminent in political power. But although political power was an obvious impossibility, they none the less possessed the Law, and to them the Law was the very word of God, the greatest and most precious possession in the world.

There came a day in their history when that preeminence of the Law was, as it were, publicly admitted; there came what one can only call a deliberate act of decision, whereby the people of Israel became in the most unique sense the people of the Law. Under Ezra and Nehemiah the people were allowed to come back to Jerusalem, and to rebuild their shattered city, and to take up their national life again. When that happened, there came a day when Ezra, the Scribe, took the book of the Law, and read it to them, and there happened something that was nothing less than a national dedication of a people to the keeping of the Law (Nehemiah 8:1-8).

From that day the study of the Law became the greatest of all professions; and that study of the Law was committed to the men of the Great Synagogue, the Scribes.

We have already seen how the great principles of the Law were broken up into thousands upon thousands of little rules and regulations (see section on Matthew 5:17-20). We have seen, for instance, how the Law said that a man must not work on the Sabbath day, and how the Scribes laboured to define work, how they laid it down how many paces a man might walk on the Sabbath, how heavy a burden he might carry, the things he might and might not do. By the time this scribal interpretation of the Law was finished, it took more than fifty volumes to hold the mass of regulations which resulted.

The return of the people to Jerusalem and the first dedication of the Law took place about 450 B.C. But it is not till long after that that the Pharisees emerge. About 175 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria made a deliberate attempt to stamp out the Jewish religion and to introduce Greek religion and Greek customs and practices. It was then that the Pharisees arose as a separate sect. The name means The Separated Ones; and they were the men who dedicated their whole life to the careful and meticulous observance of every rule and regulation which the Scribes had worked out. In face of the threat directed against it, they determined to spend their whole lives in one long observance of Judaism in its most elaborate and ceremonial and legal form. They were men who accepted the ever-increasing number of religious rules and regulations extracted from the Law.

There were never very many of them; at most there were not more than six thousand of them; for the plain fact was that, if a man was going to accept and carry out every little regulation of the Law, he would have time for nothing else; he had to withdraw himself, to separate himself, from ordinary life in order to keep the Law.

The Pharisees then were two things. First, they were dedicated legalists; religion to them was the observance of every detail of the Law. But second--and this is never to be forgotten--they were men in desperate earnest about their religion, for no one would have accepted the impossibly demanding task of living a life like that unless he had been in the most deadly earnest. They could, therefore, develop at one and the same time all the faults of legalism and all the virtues of complete self-dedication. A Pharisee might either be a desiccated or arrogant legalist, or a man of burning devotion to God.

To say this is not to pass a particularly Christian verdict on the Pharisees, for the Jews themselves passed that very verdict. The Talmud distinguishes seven different kinds of Pharisee.

(i) There was the Shoulder Pharisee. He was meticulous in his observance of the Law; but he wore his good deeds upon his shoulder. He was out for a reputation for purity and goodness. True, he obeyed the Law, but he did so in order to be seen of men.

(ii) There was the Wait-a-little Pharisee. He was the Pharisee who could always produce an entirely valid excuse for putting off a good deed. He professed the creed of the strictest Pharisees but he could always find an excuse for allowing practice to lag behind. He spoke, but he did not do.

(iii) There was the Bruised or Bleeding Pharisee. The Talmud speaks of the plague of self-afflicting Pharisees. These Pharisees received their name for this reason. Women had a very low status in Palestine. No really strict orthodox teacher would be seen talking to a woman in public, even if that woman was his own wife or sister. These Pharisees went even further; they would not even allow themselves to look at a woman on the street. In order to avoid doing so they would shut their eyes, and so bump into walls and buildings and obstructions. They thus bruised and wounded themselves, and their wounds and bruises gained them a special reputation for exceeding piety.

(iv) There was the Pharisee who was variously described as the Pestle and Mortar Pharisee, or the Hump-backed Pharisee, or the Tumbling Pharisee. Such men walked in such ostentatious humility that they were bent like a pestle in a mortar or like a hunch-back. They were so humble that they would not even lift their feet from the ground and so tripped over every obstruction they met. Their humility was a self-advertising ostentation.

(v) There was the Ever-reckoning or Compounding Pharisee. This kind of Pharisee was for ever reckoning up his good deeds; he was for ever striking a balance sheet between himself and God, and he believed that every good deed he did put God a little further in his debt. To him religion was always to be reckoned in terms of a profit and loss account.

(vi) There was the Timid or Fearing Pharisee. He was always in dread of divine punishment. He was, therefore, always cleansing the outside of the cup and the platter, so that he might seem to be good. He saw religion in terms of judgment and life in terms of a terror-stricken evasion of this judgment.

(vii) Finally, there was the God-fearing Pharisee; he was the Pharisee who really and truly loved God and who found his delight in obedience to the Law of God, however difficult that it might be.

That was the Jew's own classification of the Pharisees; and it is to be noted that there were six bad types to one good one. There would be not a few listening to Jesus' denunciation of the Pharisees who agreed with every word of it.

Making Religion A Burden (Matthew 23:1-4)

23:1-4 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The Scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses's seat. Therefore do and observe everything they tell you; but do not act as they act; for they speak, but they do not do. They bind burdens that are heavy and hard to bear, and place them on men's shoulders; but they themselves refuse to lift a finger to remove them."

Here we see the lineaments of the Pharisees already beginning to appear. Here we see the Jewish conviction of the continuity of the faith. God gave the Law to Moses; Moses handed it to Joshua; Joshua transmitted it to the elders; the elders passed it down to the prophets; and the prophets gave it to the Scribes and Pharisees.

It must not for a moment be thought that Jesus is commending the Scribes and Pharisees with all their rules and regulations. What he is saying is this, "In so far as these Scribes and Pharisees have taught you the great principles of the Law which Moses received from God, you must obey them." When we were studying Matthew 5:17-20 we saw what these principles were. The whole of the Ten Commandments are based on two great principles. They are based on reverence, reverence for God, for God's name, for God's day, for the parents God has given to us. They are based on respect, respect for a man's life, for his possessions, for his personality, for his good name, for oneself. These principles are eternal; and, in so far as the Scribes and Pharisees teach reverence for God and respect for men, their teaching is eternally binding and eternally valid.

But their whole outlook on religion had one fundamental effect. It made it a thing of thousands upon thousands of rules and regulations; and therefore it made it an intolerable burden. Here is the test of any presentation of religion. Does it make it wings to lift a man up, or a deadweight to drag him down? Does it make it a joy or a depression? Is a man helped by his religion or is he haunted by it? Does it carry him, or has he to carry it? Whenever religion becomes a depressing affair of burdens and prohibitions, it ceases to be true religion.

Nor would the Pharisees allow the slightest relaxation. Their whole self-confessed purpose was to "build a fence around the Law." Not one regulation would they relax or remove. Whenever religion becomes a burden, it ceases to be true religion.

The Religion Of Ostentation (Matthew 23:5-12)

23:5-12 They perform all their actions to be seen by men. They broaden their phylacteries; they wear outsize tassels. They love the highest places at meals, and the front seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the market-place, and to be called Rabbi by men. You must not be called Rabbi; for you have only one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one upon earth father; you have one Father--your Father in Heaven. Nor must you be called leaders; you have one leader--Christ. He who is greatest among you will be your servant. Anyone who will exalt himself will be humbled; and whoever will humble himself will be exalted."

The religion of the Pharisees became almost inevitably a religion of ostentation. If religion consists in obeying countless rules and regulations, it becomes easy for a man to see to it that everyone is aware how well he fulfils the regulations, and how perfect is his piety. Jesus selects certain actions and customs in which the Pharisees showed their ostentation.

They made broad their phylacteries. It is said of the commandments of God in Exodus 13:9 : "It shall be to you as a sign on your hand, and a memorial between your eyes." The same saying is repeated, "It shall be as a mark on your hand, or frontlets between your eyes" (Exodus 13:16; compare Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18). In order to fulfil these commandments the Jew wore at prayer, and still wears, what are called tephillin or phylacteries. They are worn on every day except the Sabbath and special holy days. They are like little leather boxes, strapped one on the wrist and one on the forehead. The one on the wrist is a little leather box of one compartment, and inside it there is a parchment roll with the following four passages of scripture written on it--Exodus 13:1-10; Exodus 13:11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The one worn on the forehead is the same except that in it there are four little compartments, and in each compartment there is a little scroll inscribed with one of these four passages. The Pharisees, in order to draw attention to himself, not only wore phylacteries, but wore specially big ones, so that he might demonstrate his exemplary obedience to the Law and his exemplary piety.

They wear outsize tassels; the tassels are in Greek kraspeda (Greek #2899) and in Hebrew tsiytsith (Hebrew #6734). In Numbers 15:37-41 and in Deuteronomy 22:12 we read that God commanded his people to make fringes on the borders of their garments, so that when they looked on them they might remember the commandments of God. These fringes were like tassels worn on the four comers of the outer garment. Later they were worn on the inner garment, and today they are perpetuated in the tassels of the prayer-shawl which the devout Jew wears at prayer. It was easy to make these tassels of specially large size so that they became an ostentatious display of piety, worn, not to remind a man of the commandments, but to draw attention to himself.

Further, the Pharisees liked to be given the principal places at meals, on the left and on the right of the host. They liked the front seats in the synagogues. In Palestine the back seats were occupied by the children and the most unimportant people; the further forward the seat, the greater the honour. The most honoured seats of all were the seats of the elders, which faced the congregation. If a man was seated there, everyone would see that he was present and he could conduct himself throughout the service with a pose of piety which the congregation could not fail to notice. Still further., the Pharisee liked to be addressed as Rabbi and to be treated with the greatest respect. They claimed, in point of fact, greater respect than that which was given to parents, for, they said, a man's parents give him ordinary, physical life, but a man's teacher gives him eternal life. They even liked to be called father as Elisha called Elijah (2 Kings 2:12) and as the fathers of the faith were known.

Jesus insists that the Christian should remember that he has one teacher only--and that teacher is Christ; and only one Father in the faith--and that Father is God.

The whole design of the Pharisees was to dress and act in such a way as to draw attention to themselves; the whole design of the Christian should be to obliterate himself, so that if men see his good deeds, they may glorify not him, but his Father in Heaven. Any religion which produces ostentation in action and pride in the heart is a false religion.

Shutting The Door (Matthew 23:13)

23:13 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you shut the door to the Kingdom of Heaven in the face of men! You yourselves are not going into it; nor do you allow those who are trying to get into it to enter it."

Matthew 23:13-26 form the most terrible and the most sustained denunciation in the New Testament. Here we hear what A. T. Robertson called "the rolling thunder of Christ's wrath." As Plummer has written, these woes are "like thunder in their unanswerable severity, and like lightning in their unsparing exposure.. . . They illuminate while they strike."

Here Jesus directs a series of seven woes against the Scribes and Pharisees. The Revised Standard Version begins every one of them: "Woe to you!" The Greek word for woe is ouai (Greek #3759); it is hard to translate for it includes not only wrath, but also sorrow. There is righteous anger here, but it is the anger of the heart of love, broken by the stubborn blindness of men. There is not only an air of savage denunciation; there is also an atmosphere of poignant tragedy.

The word hypocrite occurs here again and again. Originally the Greek word hupokrites (Greek #5273) meant one who answers; it then came to be specially connected with the statement and answer, the dialogue, of the stage; and it is the regular Greek word for an actor. It then came to mean an actor in the worse sense of the term, a pretender, one who acts a part, one who wears a mask to cover his true feelings, one who puts on an external show while inwardly his thoughts and feelings are very different.

To Jesus the Scribes and Pharisees were men who were acting a part. What he meant was this. Their whole idea of religion consisted in outward observances, the wearing of elaborate phylacteries and tassels, the meticulous observance of the rules and regulations of the Law. But in their hearts there was bitterness and envy and pride and arrogance. To Jesus these Scribes and Pharisees were men who, under a mask of elaborate godliness, concealed hearts in which the most godless feelings and emotions held sway. And that accusation holds good in greater or lesser degree of any man who lives life on the assumption that religion consists in external observances and external acts.

There is an unwritten saying of Jesus which says, "The key of the Kingdom they hid." His condemnation of these Scribes and Pharisees is that they are not only failing to enter the Kingdom themselves, they shut the door on the faces of those who seek to enter. What did he mean by this accusation?

We have already seen (Matthew 6:10) that the best way to think of the Kingdom is to think of it as a society on earth where God's will is as perfectly done as it is in heaven. To be a citizen of the Kingdom, and to do God's will, are one and the same thing. The Pharisees believed that to do God's will was to observe their thousands of petty rules and regulations; and nothing could be further from that Kingdom whose basic idea is love. When people tried to find entry into the Kingdom the Pharisees presented them with these rules and regulations, which was as good as shutting the door in their faces.

The Pharisees preferred their ideas of religion to God's idea of religion. They had forgotten the basic truth that, if a man would teach others, he must himself first listen to God. The gravest danger which any teacher or preacher encounters is that he should erect his own prejudices into universal principles and substitute his own ideas for the truth of God. When he does that he is not a guide, but a barrier, to the Kingdom, for, misled himself, he misleads others.

Missionaries Of Evil (Matthew 23:15)

23:15 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, for you range over the sea and the dry land to make one proselyte, and, when that happens, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves!"

A strange feature of the ancient world was the repulsion and attraction which Judaism exercised over men at one and the same time. There was no more hated people than the Jews. Their separatism and their isolation and their contempt of other nations gained them hostility. It was, in fact, believed that a basic part of their religion was an oath that they would never under any circumstances give help to a Gentile, even to the extent of giving him directions if he asked the way. Their observance of the Sabbath gained them a reputation for laziness; their refusal of swine's flesh gained them mockery, even to the extent of the rumour that they worshipped the pig as their god. Anti-semitism was a real and universal force in the ancient world.

And yet there was an attraction. The idea of one God came as a wonderful thing to a world which believed in a multitude of gods. Jewish ethical purity and standards of morality had a fascination in a world steeped in immorality, especially for women. The result was that many were attracted to Judaism.

Their attraction was on two levels. There were those who were called the god-fearers. These accepted the conception of one God; they accepted the Jewish moral law; but they took no part in the ceremonial law and did not become circumcised. Such people existed in large numbers, and were to be found listening and worshipping in every synagogue, and indeed provided Paul with his most fruitful field for evangelization. They are, for instance, the devout Greeks of Thessalonica (Acts 17:4).

It was the aim of the Pharisees to turn these god-fearers into proselytes; the word proselyte is an English transliteration of a Greek word proselutos (Greek #4339), which means one who has approached or drawn near. The proselyte was the full convert who had accepted the ceremonial law and circumcision and who had become in the fullest sense a Jew. As so often happens, "the most converted were the most perverted." A convert often becomes the most fanatical devotee of his new religion; and many of these proselytes were more fanatically devoted to the Jewish Law than even the Jews themselves.

Jesus accused these Pharisees of being missionaries of evil. It was true that very few became proselytes, but those who did went the whole way. The sin of the Pharisees was that they were not really seeking to lead men to God, they were seeking to lead them to Pharisaism. One of the gravest dangers which any missionary runs is that he should try to convert people to a sect rather than to a religion, and that he should be more concerned in bringing people to a Church than to Jesus Christ.

Premanand has certain things to say about this sectarianism which so often disfigures so-called Christianity: "I speak as a Christian, God is my Father, the Church is my Mother. Christian is my name; Catholic is my surname. Catholic, because we belong to nothing less than the Church Universal. So do we need any other names? Why go on to add Anglican, Episcopalian, Protestant, Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, and so on, and so on? These terms are divisive, sectarian, narrow. They shrivel up one's soul."

It was not to God the Pharisees sought to lead men; it was to their own sect of Pharisaism. That in fact was their sin. And is that sin even yet gone from the world, when it would still be insisted in certain quarters that a man must leave one Church and become a member of another before he can be allowed a place at the Table of the Lord? The greatest of all heresies is the sinful conviction that any Church has a monopoly of God or of his truth, or that any Church is the only gateway to God's Kingdom.

The Science Of Evasion (Matthew 23:16-22)

23:16-22 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees! Blind guides! You who say, 'If any one swears by the Temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the Temple is bound by his oath.' Foolish ones and blind! Which is the greater? The gold? Or the Temple which hallows the gold? You say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift that is on it, he is bound by his oath.' Blind ones! Which is greater? The gift? Or the altar which hallows the gift? He who swears by the altar, swears by it and all that is on it. He who swears by the Temple, swears by it, and by him who inhabits it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God, and by him who sits upon it."

We have already seen that in matters of oaths the Jewish legalists were masters of evasion (Matthew 5:33-37). The general principle of evasion was this. To the Jew an oath was absolutely binding, so long as it was a binding oath. Broadly speaking, a binding oath was an oath which definitely and without equivocation employed the name of God; such an oath must be kept, no matter what the cost. Any other oath might be legitimately broken. The idea was that, if God's name was actually used, then God was introduced as a partner into the transaction, and to break the oath was not only to break faith with men but to insult God.

The science of evasion had been brought to a high degree. It is most probable that in this passage Jesus is presenting a caricature of Jewish legalistic methods. He is saying, "You have brought evasion to such a fine art that it is possible to regard an oath by the Temple as not binding, while an oath by the gold of the Temple is binding; and an oath by the altar as not binding, while an oath by the gift on the altar is binding." This is rather to be regarded as a reductio ad absurdum of Jewish methods than as a literal description.

The idea behind the passage is just this. The whole idea of treating oaths in this way, the whole conception of a kind of technique of evasion, is born of a fundamental deceitfulness. The truly religious man will never make a promise with the deliberate intention of evading it; he will never, as he makes it, provide himself with a series of escape routes, which he may use if he finds his promise hard to keep.

We need not with conscious superiority condemn the Pharisaic science of evasion. The time is not yet ended when a man seeks to evade some duty on a technicality or calls in the strict letter of the law to avoid doing what the spirit of the law clearly means he ought to do.

For Jesus the binding principle was twofold. God hears every word we speak and God sees every intention of our hearts. In view of that the fine art of evasion is one to which a Christian should be foreign. The technique of evasion may suit the sharp practice of the world; but never the open honesty of the Christian mind.

The Lost Sense Of Proportion (Matthew 23:23-24)

23:23-24 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint, and dill, and cummin, and let go the weightier matters of the Law--justice and mercy and fidelity. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others. Blind guides who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!"

The tithe was an essential part of Jewish religious regulations. "You shall tithe all the yield of your seed, which comes forth from the field year by year" (Deuteronomy 14:22). "All the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the trees is the Lord's; it is holy to the Lord" (Leviticus 27:30). This tithe was specially for the support of the Levites, whose task it was to do the material work of the Temple. The things which had to be tithed were further defined by the Law--"Everything which is eatable, and is preserved, and has its nourishment from the soil, is liable to be tithed." It is laid down: "Of dill one must tithe the seeds, the leaves and the stalks." So, then, it was laid down that every man must lay aside one-tenth of his produce for God.

The point of Jesus' saying is this. It was universally accepted that tithes of the main crops must be given. But mint and dill and cummin are herbs of the kitchen garden and would not be grown in any quantity; a man would have only a little patch of them. All three were used in cooking, and dill and cummin had medicinal uses. To tithe them was to tithe an infinitesimally small crop, maybe not much more than the produce of one plant. Only those who were superlatively meticulous would tithe the single plants of the kitchen garden.

That is precisely what the Pharisees were like. They were so absolutely meticulous about tithes that they would tithe even one clump of mint; and yet these same men could be guilty of injustice; could be hard and arrogant and cruel, forgetting the claims of mercy; could take oaths and pledges and promises with the deliberate intention of evading them, forgetting fidelity. In other words, many of them kept the trifles of the Law and forgot the things which really matter.

That spirit is not dead; it never will be until Christ rules in the hearts of men. There is many a man who wears the right clothes to church, carefully hands in his offering to the Church, adopts the right attitude at prayer, is never absent from the celebration of the sacrament, and who is not doing an honest day's work and is irritable and bad-tempered and mean with his money. There are women who are full of good works and who serve on all kinds of committees, and whose children are lonely for them at night. There is nothing easier than to observe all the outward actions of religion and yet be completely irreligious.

There is nothing more necessary than a sense of proportion to save us from confusing religious observances with real devotion.

Jesus uses a vivid illustration. In Matthew 23:24 a curious thing has happened in the King James Version. It should not be to strain at a gnat, but to strain out a gnat as in the Revised Standard Version. Originally that mistake was simply a misprint but it has been perpetuated for centuries. In point of fact the older versions--Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Geneva Bible--all correctly have to strain out a gnat The picture is this: A gnat was an insect and therefore unclean; and so was a camel. In order to avoid the risk of drinking anything unclean, wine was strained through muslin gauze so that any possible impurity might be strained out of it. This is a humorous picture which must have raised a laugh, of a man carefully straining his wine through gauze to avoid swallowing a microscopic insect and yet cheerfully swallowing a camel. It is the picture of a man who has completely lost his sense of proportion.

The Real Cleanness (Matthew 23:25-26)

23:25-26 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of rapacity and lust. Blind Pharisee! cleanse the inside of the cup and the plate first, that the outside of it also may be clean."

The idea of uncleanness is continually arising in the Jewish Law. It must be remembered that this uncleanness was not physical uncleanness. An unclean vessel was not in our sense of the term a dirty vessel. For a person to be ceremonially unclean meant that he could not enter the Temple or the synagogue; he was debarred from the worship of God. A man was unclean if, for instance, he touched a dead body, or came into contact with a Gentile. A woman was unclean if she had a haemorrhage, even if that haemorrhage was perfectly normal and healthy. If a person who was himself unclean touched any vessel, that vessel became unclean; and, thereafter, any other person who touched or handled the vessel became in turn unclean. It was, therefore, of paramount importance to have vessels cleansed; and the law for cleansing them is fantastically complicated. We can quote only certain basic examples of it.

An earthen vessel which is hollow becomes unclean only on the inside and not on the outside; and it can be cleansed only by being broken. The following cannot become unclean at all--a flat plate without a rim, an open coal-shovel, a grid-iron with holes in it for parching grains of wheat. On the other hand, a plate with a rim, or an earthen spice-box, or a writing-case can become unclean. Of vessels made of leather, bone, wood and glass, flat ones do not become unclean; deep ones do. If they are broken, they become clean. Any metal vessel which is at once smooth and hollow can become unclean; but a door, a bolt, a lock, a hinge, a knocker cannot become unclean. If a thing is made of wood and metal, then the wood can become unclean, but the metal cannot. These regulations seem to us fantastic, and yet these are the regulations the Pharisees meticulously kept.

The food or drink inside a vessel might have been obtained by cheating or extortion or theft; it might be luxurious and gluttonous; that did not matter, so long as the vessel itself was ceremonially clean. Here is another example of fussing about trifles and letting the weightier matters go.

Grotesque as the whole thing may seem, it can happen yet. A church can be torn in two about the colour of a carpet, or a pulpit-fall, or about the shape or metal of the cups to be used in the Sacrament. The last thing that men and women seem to learn in matters of religion is a relative sense of values; and the tragedy is that it is so often magnification of matters of no importance which wreck the peace.

Disguised Decay (Matthew 23:27-28)

23:27-28 "Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees! for you are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of dead men, and of all corruption. So you, too, outwardly look righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."

Here again is a picture which any Jew would understand. One of the commonest places for tombs was by the wayside. We have already seen that anyone who touched a dead body became unclean (Numbers 19:16). Therefore, anyone who came into contact with a tomb automatically became unclean. At one time in particular the roads of Palestine were crowded with pilgrims--at the time of the Passover Feast. For a man to become unclean on his way to the Passover Feast would be a disaster, for that meant he would be debarred from sharing in it. It was then Jewish practice in the month of Adar to whitewash all wayside tombs, so that no pilgrims might accidentally come into contact with one of them and be rendered unclean.

So, as a man journeyed the roads of Palestine on a spring day, these tombs would glint white, and almost lovely, in the sunshine; but within they were full of bones and bodies whose touch would defile. That, said Jesus, was a precise picture of what the Pharisees were. Their outward actions were the actions of intensely religious men; their inward hearts were foul and putrid with sin.

It can still happen. As Shakespeare had it, a man may smile and smile and be a villain. A man may walk with bowed head and reverent steps and folded hands in the posture of humility, and all the time be looking down with cold contempt on those whom he regards as sinners. His very humility may be the pose of pride; and, as he walks so humbly, he may be thinking with relish of the picture of piety which he presents to those who are watching him. There is nothing harder than for a good man not to know that he is good; and once he knows he is good, his goodness is gone, however he may appear to men from the outside.

The Taint Of Murder (Matthew 23:29-36)

23:29-36 Alas for you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you erect the tombs of the prophets, and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in the murder of the prophets.' Thus you witness against yourselves that you are the sons of those who slew the prophets. Fill up the measure of your fathers. Serpents, brood of vipers, how are you to escape being condemned to hell fire? For this reason, look you, I send you the prophets and the wise men and the scribes. Some of them you will kill and crucify; and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and pursue them with persecution from city to city, that on you there may fall the responsibility for all the righteous blood shed upon the earth from the blood of Abel, the righteous, to the blood of Zacharias, the son of Barachios, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar. This is the truth I tell you--the responsibility for all these crimes shall fall on this generation."

Jesus is charging the Jews that the taint of murder is in their history and that that taint has not even yet worked itself out. The Scribes and Pharisees tend the tombs of the martyrs and beautify their memorials, and claim that, if they had lived in the old days, they would not have slain the prophets and the men of God. But that is precisely what they would have done, and precisely what they are going to do.

Jesus' charge is that the history of Israel is the history of the murder of the men of God. He says that the righteous men from Abel to Zacharias were murdered. Why are these two chosen? The murder of Abel by Cain everyone knows; but the murder of Zacharias is not nearly so well known. The story is told in a grim little cameo in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22. It happened in the days of Joash. Zacharias rebuked the nation for their sin, and Joash stirred up the people to stone him to death in the very Temple court; and Zacharias died saying, "May the Lord see and avenge!" (Zacharias is called the son of Barachios, whereas, in fact, he was the son of Jehoiada, no doubt a slip of the gospel writer in retelling the story.)

Why should Zacharias be chosen? In the Hebrew Bible Genesis is the first book, as it is in ours; but, unlike our order of the books, 2 Chronicles is the last in the Hebrew Bible. We could say that the murder of Abel is the first in the Bible story, and the murder of Zacharias the last. From beginning to end, the history of Israel is the rejection, and often the slaughter, of the men of God.

Jesus is quite clear that the murder taint is still there. He knows that now he must die, and that in the days to come his messengers will be persecuted and ill-treated and rejected and slain.

Here indeed is tragedy; the nation which God chose and loved had turned their hands against him; and the day of reckoning was to come.

It makes us think. When history judges us, will its verdict be that we were the hinderers or the helpers of God? That is a question which every individual, and every nation, must answer.

The Rejection Of Love's Appeal (Matthew 23:37-39)

23:37-39 "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killer of the prophets, stoner of those sent to you, how often have I wished to gather your children together, as a bird gathers her nestlings under her wings--and you refused. Look you, your house is left to you desolate, for I tell you from now you will not see me until you will say, 'Blessed in the name of the Lord is he that comes.'"

Here is all the poignant tragedy of rejected love. Here Jesus speaks, not so much as the stern judge of all the earth, as the lover of the souls of men.

There is one curious light this passage throws on the life of Jesus which we may note in the passing. According to the Synoptic Gospels Jesus was never in Jerusalem after his public ministry began, until he came to this last Passover Feast. We can see here how much the gospel story leaves out, for Jesus could not have said what he says here unless he had paid repeated visits to Jerusalem and issued to the people repeated appeals. A passage like this shows us that in the gospels we have the merest sketch and outline of the life of Jesus.

This passage shows us four great truths.

(i) It shows us the patience of God. Jerusalem had killed the prophets and stoned the messengers of God; yet God did not cast her off; and in the end he sent his Son. There is a limitless patience in the love of God which bears with men's sinning and will not cast them off.

(ii) It shows us the appeal of Jesus. Jesus speaks as the lover. He will not force an entry; the only weapon he can use is the appeal of love. He stands with outstretched hands of appeal, an appeal which men have the awful responsibility of being able to accept or to refuse.

(iii) It shows us the deliberation of the sin of man. Men looked on Christ in all the splendour of his appeal--and refused him. There is no handle on the outside of the door of the human heart; it must be opened from the inside; and sin is the open-eyed deliberate refusal of the appeal of God in Jesus Christ.

(iv) It shows us the consequences of rejecting Christ. Only forty years were to pass and in A.D. 70 Jerusalem would be a heap of ruins. That disaster was the direct consequence of the rejection of Jesus Christ. Had the Jews accepted the Christian way of love and abandoned the way of power politics, Rome would never have descended on them with its avenging might. It is the fact of history--even in time--that the nation which rejects God is doomed to disaster.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 23:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/matthew-23.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, February 16th, 2019
the Fifth Week after Epiphany
ADVERTISEMENT
Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
ADVERTISEMENT
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology