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(1) To the multitude.—Now, as in Matthew 15:10, but here more fully and emphatically, our Lord not only reproves the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, but warns the multitude against them. He appeals, as it were, to the unperverted conscience of the people, as against the perversions of their guides. In some points, as, e.g., in Matthew 23:16-21, it presents a striking parallel to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37). Our Lord closes His public teaching, as He began, by a protest against that false casuistry which had substituted the traditions of men for the commandments of God.
(2) The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.—The words were probably spoken of their collective action as represented in the Sanhedrin, rather than of their individual work as interpreters of the Law. As such, they claimed to be the authoritative exponents of the Law, and our Lord recognises (unless we suppose a latent protest in His words, like that which is veiled in the “full well ye reject” of Mark 7:9) their official claim to reverence.
(3) All therefore whatsoever . . .—Followed, as the words are, by repeated protests against special and grave errors in the teaching of the Pharisees, it is obvious that they must be received with an implied limitation. So far as they really sit in Moses’ seat, and set forth his teaching—as, e.g., the scribe had done whose answer has been just recorded—they were to be followed with all obedience. That which was wanting was the life, without which even the highest maxims of morality became but the common-places of rhetorical declamation. It was one thing to “draw fine pictures of virtue,” and another to bring thought and word and deed into conformity with them.
(4) Heavy burdens.—The thought was involved in our Lord’s call to the “heavy laden,” in the words that spoke of His own “burden” as “light” (Matthew 11:28; Matthew 11:30). Here it finds distinct expression. That it appealed to the witness which men’s hearts were bearing, secretly or openly, we see from St. Peter’s confession in Acts 15:10.
They themselves will not move . . .—The rigorous precepts, the high-flown morality were for others, not themselves. Professing to guide, they neither helped nor sympathised with the troubles of those they taught. (Comp. Romans 2:17-23.)
(5) To be seen of men.—As with a clear insight into the root-evil of Pharisaism, and of all kindred forms of the religious life, our Lord fixes, as before in Matthew 6:1-18, on the love of man’s applause as that which vitiated the highest ethical teaching and the most rigorous outward holiness. The fact, which we learn from John 12:42-43, that many “among the chief rulers” were in their hearts convinced of His claims, and yet were afraid to confess Him, gives a special emphasis to the rebuke. They may have been among those who listened to it with the consciousness that He spake of them.
Phylacteries.—The Greek word (phylacterion) from which the English is derived signifies “safe-guard or preservative,” and was probably applied under the idea that the phylacteries were charms or amulets against the evil eye or the power of evil spirits. This was the common meaning of the word in later Greek, and it is hardly likely to have risen among the Hellenistic Jews to the higher sense which has sometimes been ascribed to it, of being a means to keep men in mind of the obligations of the Law. Singularly enough, it is not used by the LXX. translators for the “frontlets” of Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18 and the only place in the Old Testament where it is found is for the “cushions” of Ezekiel 13:18. The Hebrew word in common use from our Lord’s time onward has been tephillin, or Prayers. The things so named were worn by well-nigh all Jews as soon as they became Children of the Law, i.e., at thirteen. They consisted of a small box containing the four passages in which frontlets are mentioned (Exodus 13:2-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-22), written on four slips of vellum for the phylactery of the head, and on one for that of the arm. This is fastened by a loop to thin leather straps, which are twisted in the one case round the arm, with the box on the heart, in the other, round the head, with the box on the brow. They were worn commonly during the act of prayer (hence the Hebrew name), and by those who made a show of perpetual devotion and study of the Law, during the whole day. The Pharisees, in their ostentatious show of piety, made either the box or the straps wider than the common size, and wore them as they walked to and fro in the streets, or prayed standing (Matthew 6:5), that men might see and admire them.
The borders of their garments.—The word is the same as the “hem” of the garment (Matthew 9:20) worn by our Lord. The practice rested on Numbers 15:37-41, which enjoined a “ribband” or “thread” of blue (the colour symbolical of heaven) to be put into the fringe or tassels of the outer cloak or plaid. The other threads were white, and the number of threads 613, as coinciding with the number of precepts in the Law, as counted by the scribes. The fringes in question were worn, as we see, by our Lord (see Notes on Matthew 9:20; Matthew 14:36), and probably by the disciples. It was reserved for the Pharisees to make them so conspicuous as to attract men’s notice.
(6) The uppermost rooms.—Better, the first places, the word “room,” which had that meaning at the time when the English version was made, having now become identical with “chamber.” Strictly speaking, they would be the first places, nearest to the host, on the couches or ottomans (as we have learnt to call them from their modern Eastern use) on which the guests reclined, these being assigned (as in the case of “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” in John 13:23) to the most favoured guests.
The chief seats in the synagogues.—These were at the upper or Jerusalem end of the synagogue (corresponding to the east end of most Christian churches), where was the ark, or chest that contained the Law. These were given, either by common consent or by the elders of the synagogue, to those who were most conspicuous for their devotion to the Law, and as such, were coveted as a mark of religious reputation.
(7) Greetings in the markets.—The greetings referred to were more than the familiar “Peace with thee,” and involved the language of formal reverence (comp. Note on Luke 10:4) paid to those whom men delighted to honour.
Rabbi, Rabbi.—The title, which properly meant a “great” or “chief” one, as in Rab-Mag (“the chief priest,” Jeremiah 39:3), Rabsaris (“the chief eunuch,” 2 Kings 18:17), had come to be applied, in the days of Hillel and Shammai, to the teachers or “masters” of the Law, and, as such, was given to the scribes who devoted themselves to that work. In Rabban (said to have been first given to Simeon, the son of Hillel) and Rabboni (John 20:16) we have forms which were supposed to imply a yet greater degree of reverence.
(8) Be not ye called Rabbi.—The teaching of our Lord was not without its foreshadowings in that of the better scribes, and a precept of Shemaiah, the predecessor of Hillel, lays down the rule that “men should love the work, but hate the Rabbi-ship.”
One is your Master.—The word, as found in the better MSS., is used in its old sense as “teacher.” He was, as the disciples called Him, the Rabbi to whom they were to look for guidance. They were not to seek the title for themselves as a mark of honour. As they did their work as “teachers” (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11), they were to remember Who was teaching them. The received text of the Greek gives the word which means “guide,” as in Matthew 23:10.
Even Christ.—The words are wanting in the best MSS., and have apparently crept into the text from a marginal explanatory note, completing the sense after the pattern of Matthew 23:10.
All ye are brethren.—The words would seem to come more naturally at the close of the next verse, and are so placed in some MSS. There is, however, a preponderance of authority in favour of this position, nor is the use of the name here without significance. The fact that men are disciples of the same Teacher constitutes in itself a bond of brotherhood.
(9) Call no man your father.—This also, under its Hebrew form of Abba, was one of the titles in which the scribes delighted. In its true use it embodied the thought that the relation of scholars and teachers was filial on the one side, paternal on the other; but precisely because it expressed so noble an idea was its merely conventional use full of danger. The history of the ecclesiastical titles of Christendom offers in this respect a singular parallel to that of the titles of Judaism. In Abbot (derived from Abba=Father), in Papa and Pope (which have risen from their application to every priest, till they culminate in the Pontifex summus of the Church of Home), in our “Father in God,” as applied to Bishops, we find examples of the use of like language, liable to the same abuse. It would, of course, be a slavish literalism to see in our Lord’s words an absolute prohibition of these and like words in ecclesiastical or civil life. What was meant was to warn men against so recognising, in any case, the fatherhood of men as to forget the Fatherhood of God. Even the teacher and apostle, who is a father to others, needs to remember that he is as a “little child” in the relation to God. (Comp. St. Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 4:15.)
(10) Neither be ye called masters.—The word is not the same as in Matthew 23:8, and signifies “guide,” or “leader;” the “director” of conscience rather than the teacher. (Comp. Romans 2:19.)
(11) He that is greatest among you.—Literally, the greater of you. The words admit of a two-fold meaning. Either (1), as in Mark 9:35, they assert a law of retribution—the man who seeks to be greatest shall be the servant of all; or (2) they point out the other law, of which our Lord’s own life was the highest illustration—that he who is really greatest will show his greatness, not in asserting it, but in a life of ministration. The latter interpretation seems to give on the whole the best meaning.
(12) Whosoever shall exalt himself.—The precept seems to have been one which our Lord desired specially to imprint on the hearts of the disciples. It had been spoken at least twice before, as in Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14. The echoes of it in James 4:10, 1 Peter 5:6, show that the impression had been made.
(13) Woe unto you.—We enter in these verses on the sternest words of condemnation that ever came from our Lord’s lips; but it may be questioned whether our English “Woe unto you” does not exclude too entirely the element of sorrow, as well as indignation, of which the Greek interjection (as in Mark 13:17) is at least capable. Woe for you is, perhaps, a better rendering.
Hypocrites.—See Note on Matthew 6:2.
Ye shut up the kingdom . . .—The words reproduce what had been said before as to “the key of knowledge” (Luke 11:52), the symbol which was given to each scribe on his admission to his office. Our Lord’s charge against them is that the only use they made of the key was to lock the door. They did not enter into the inner meaning of Law or Prophets; they excluded (with a possible reference to their putting out of the synagogue those who believed in Jesus, John 9:22; John 12:42) those who were so entering into the higher life and the higher teaching of the Kingdom. (Comp. Galatians 4:17.)
(14) Ye devour widows’ houses.—The avarice thus described may have attained its end either (1) by using the advantages which they possessed, as the jurists and notaries of the time, to press unjust claims against wealthy widows, or to become their heirs, or (2) by leading devout women, under the show of piety, to bestow on them their estates or houses. To minister to the maintenance of a scribe was, they taught, the best use of wealth. The “long prayer” refers probably to the well-known Eighteen Prayers, which formed the standard of the Pharisee’s devotion. The whole verse, it may be noted, is wanting in many MSS., and may have been inserted here from Mark 12:40 or Luke 20:47.
(15) To make one proselyte.—The zeal of the earlier Pharisees had showed itself in a propagandism which reminds us rather of the spread of the religion of Mahomet than of that of Christ. John Hyrcanus, the last of the Maccabean priest-rulers, had offered the Idumeans the alternative of death, exile, or circumcision (Jos. Ant. xiii. 9, § 3). When the government of Rome rendered such measures impossible, they resorted to all the arts of persuasion, and exulted when they succeeded in enrolling a heathen convert as a member of their party. But the proselytes thus made were too often a scandal and proverb of reproach. There was no real conversion, and those who were most active in the work of proselytising were, for the most part, blind leaders of the blind. The vices of the Jew were engrafted on the vices of the heathen. The ties of duty and natural affection were ruthlessly snapped asunder. The popular Jewish feeling about them was like that of the popular Christian feeling about a converted Jew. Proselytes were regarded as the leprosy of Israel, hindering the coming of the Messiah. It became a proverb that no one should trust a proselyte, even to the twenty-fourth generation. Our Lord was, in part at least, expressing the judgment of the better Jews when He taught that the proselyte thus made was “two-fold more the child of hell”—i.e., of Gehenna—than his masters.
(16) Whosoever shall swear by the temple.—On the general teaching of the Pharisees as to oaths, see Notes on Matthew 5:33-37. It is not easy to trace the currents of thought that run through a corrupt casuistry, but probably the line of reasoning that led to this distinction was that the “gold of the Temple”—not the gold used in its structural ornamentation, but that which in coin or bullion was part of the Corban, or sacred treasure (Matthew 15:5)—had received a more special consecration than the fabric, and involved, therefore, a higher obligation, when used as a formula jurandi, than the Temple or the altar. Something of the same feeling is seen in the popular casuistry which makes the binding force of an oath depend on “kissing the Book;” or that of mediæval Christendom, which saw in the relics of a saint that which was more sacred than the Gospels. The principle involved in our Lord’s teaching goes further than its immediate application, and sweeps away the arbitrary distinction of different degrees of sanctity in the several parts of the same structure. Here the line of reasoning is, as in Matthew 5:33-37, that the Temple includes the altar, that the altar includes the gift, that the heaven includes the Throne, and that thus every oath-formula runs up, explicitly or implicitly, into the great thought of God.
(23) Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin.—The language of Deuteronomy 12:17 seems to recognise only corn, wine, and oil, among the produce of the earth, as subject to the law of tithes. The Pharisee, in his minute scrupulosity (based, it may be, on the more general language of Leviticus 27:30), made a point of gathering the tenth sprig of every garden herb, and presenting it to the priest. So far as this was done at the bidding of an imperfectly illumined conscience our Lord does not blame it. It was not, like the teaching as to oaths and the Corban, a direct perversion of the Law. What He did censure was the substitution of the lower for the higher. With the three examples of the “infinitely little” He contrasts the three ethical obligations that were infinitely great, “judgment, mercy, and faith.” The word translated “mint” means literally the “sweet-smelling,” the “fragrant.”
(24) Strain at a gnat.—Better, as in Tyndale’s and other earlier versions, strain out. It is sometimes said that the present rendering of the Authorised version is but the perpetuation of a printer’s blunder; but of this there is scarcely sufficient evidence, nor is it probable in itself. In the Greek both nouns have the emphasis of the article, “the gnat—the camel.” The scrupulous care described in the first clause of the proverbial saying was literally practised by devout Jews (as it is now by the Buddhists of Ceylon), in accordance with Leviticus 11:23; Leviticus 11:42. In the second clause, the camel appears, not only, as in Matthew 19:24, as the type of vastness, but as being among the unclean beasts of which the Israelites might not eat (Leviticus 11:4).
(25) The outside of the cup and of the platter.—The latter word in the Greek indicates what we should call a “side-dish,” as distinct from the “charger” of Matthew 14:11. The “outside” includes the inner surface. (Comp., as regards the practice, Mark 7:4.)
Are full of extortion and excess.—The two words point (1) to the source from which the viands and the wine came—the cup and the platter were filled with, or out of the proceeds of, extortion; (2) that to which they tended—they overflowed with unrestrained self-indulgence.
(26) That the outside of them may be clean also.—The implied premise is that “uncleanness” in its ethical sense was altogether distinct from the outward uncleanness with which the Pharisees identified it. If the contents of the cup were pure in their source and in their use, they made the outside “clean,” irrespective of any process of surface purification.
(27) Ye are like unto whited sepulchres.—Contact with a sepulchre brought with it ceremonial uncleanness, and all burial-places were accordingly white-washed once a year, on the 15th day of the month Adar—i.e., about the beginning of March—that passers-by might be warned by them, as they were of the approach of a leper by his cry, “Unclean, unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45). The word translated “whited,” means literally, “smeared with lime powder”—i.e., “whitewashed,” in the modern technical sense of the word. It should be noticed that the similitude in Luke 11:44 is drawn from the graves that were not whitened, or from which the whitewash had been worn away, and over which men passed without knowing of their contact with corruption. Some have thought, indeed, that this passage also refers to graves which had lost the coat of whitewash, and were “beautiful with grass and flowers.” It seems hardly likely, however, that the perfect participle would be used to describe such a state of things, and it is more probable, looking to the date above given, that our Lord pointed to some tombs that were shining in their new whiteness.
(28) Even so ye also . . .—A like image meets us in the words in which one of the Maccabean princes, Alexander Jannæus, warned his wife on his death-bed to beware of “men who were painted Pharisees, expecting the reward of Phinehas, while their works were the works of Zimri.”
Iniquity.—Better, lawlessness—a reckless disregard of the very Law of which they professed to be the interpreters.
(29) Ye build the tombs . . .—Four conspicuous monuments of this kind are seen to the present day at the base of the Mount of Olives, in the so-called Valley of Jehoshaphat, the architecture of which, with its mixture of debased Doric and Egyptian, leads archæologists to assign them to the period of the Herodian dynasty. These may, therefore, well have been the very sepulchres of which our Lord spoke, and to which, it may be, He pointed. They bear at present the names of Zechariah, Absalom, Jehoshaphat, and St. James; but there is no evidence that these were given to them when they were built, and the narratives of earlier travellers vary in reporting them. It may be noticed, however, that of these four names, Zechariah is the only one that belonged to a prophet, and the reference to the death of a martyr-prophet of that name in Matthew 23:35, makes it probable that the name may have been, as it were, suggested by the monument on which the Pharisees were lavishing their wealth and their skill at the very time when they were about to imbrue their hands in the blood of One who was, even in the judgment of many of their own class, both a “prophet” and a “righteous” man.
Garnish.—Better, adorn—as, e.g., with columns, cornices, paintings, or bas-reliefs. Even these acts, natural and legitimate in themselves, were part of the “hypocrisy” or “unreality” of the Pharisees. They did not understand, and therefore could not rightly honour, the life of a prophet or just man. They might have learnt something from the saying of a teacher of their own in the Jerusalem Talmud, that “there is no need to adorn the sepulchres of the righteous, for their words are their monuments.” In somewhat of the same strain wrote the Roman historian: “As the faces of men are frail and perishable, so are the works of art that represent their faces; but the form of their character is eternal, and this we can retain in memory, and set forth to others, not by external matter and skill of art, but by our own character and acts” (Tacitus, Agricola, c. 46).
(30) If we had been in the days . . .—There is no necessity for assuming that the Pharisees did not mean what they said. It was simply an instance of the unconscious hypocrisy of which every generation has more or less been guilty, when it has condemned the wrong-doing of the past—its bigotry, or luxury, or greed—and then has yielded to the same sins itself.
(31) Ye be witnesses unto yourselves.—Their words were true in another sense than that in which they had spoken them. They were reproducing in their deeds the very lineaments of those fathers whom they condemned.
(32) Fill ye up then . . .—The English fails to give the pathetic abruptness of the original: And ye—fill ye up the measure of your fathers. The thought implied is that which we find in Genesis 15:16, and of which the history of the world offers but too many illustrations. Each generation, as it passes, adds something to the ever-accumulating mass of evil. At last the penalty falls, as though the long-suffering of God had been waiting till the appointed limit had been reached, and the measure of iniquity was at last full.
(33) Ye generation of vipers.—Better, as in Matthew 3:7, brood, or progeny of vipers. The word of rebuke which had come before from the lips of the Baptist, comes now, with even more intense keenness, from those of the Christ.
How can ye escape?—Better—to maintain the parallelism with the Baptist’s words, which was, we can hardly doubt, designed—How should ye flee from?
(34) Behold, I send unto you prophets.—In the parallel passage of Luke 11:49 these words are introduced by the statement, “Therefore said the wisdom of God,” which has led some to see in them a quotation from some prophetic writing then current (see Note there). The words are, in any case, remarkable as including “scribes” no less than “prophets” among the ministers of the New Covenant. (See Note on Matthew 13:52.)
Shall ye scourge in your synagogues.—See Note on Matthew 10:17.
(35) The blood of Zacharias son of Barachias.—A very memorable martyrdom is recorded in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, in which a prophet, named Zechariah, was stoned “in the court of the house of the Lord, at the commandment of the king.” That Zacharias was, however, the son of Jehoiada; and the only “Zechariah the son of Barachias” in the Old Testament, is the minor prophet whose writings occupy the last place but one among the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Of his death we know nothing, and it is not probable, had he been slain in the manner here described, that it would have passed unrecorded. The death of the son of Jehoiada, on the other hand, is not only recorded, as above in 2 Chronicles 24:0, but had become the subject of popular legends. The blood of the prophet, it was said in the Talmud, would not dry up. It was still bubbling up when Nebuzaradan, the Chaldean commander (Jeremiah 39:9) took the Temple. No sacrifices availed to stay it, not even the blood of thousands of slaughtered priests. Wild as the story is, it shows, as does the so-called tomb of Zacharias, the impression which that death had made on the minds of men, and explains why it was chosen by our Lord as a representative example. The substitution of Barachias for Jehoiada may be accounted for as the mistake of a transcriber, led by the association of the two names, like that of Jeremy for Zechariah in Matthew 27:9 (where see Note). In the Sinaitic MS. the words “son of Barachiah” are omitted, but this betrays the hand of a corrector cutting the knot of the difficulty. The assumptions (1) that Jehoiada may have borne Barachiah as a second name, (2) or that he may have had a son of that name, and been really the grandfather of the martyr, are obviously hypotheses invented for the occasion, without a shadow of evidence. Singularly enough, Josephus (Wars, iv. 5, § 4) recounts the murder of a “Zecharias, the son of Baruch,” i.e., Barachiah, as perpetrated in the Temple by the Zealots just before the destruction of Jerusalem. It is possible that this also may not have been without its weight in so linking the two names together in men’s minds as to mislead the memory as to the parentage of the older prophet. The list of conjectures is not complete unless we add that one of the Apocryphal Gospels (The Protevangelion of James, chap. 16) records the death of Zacharias, the father of the Baptist, as slain by Herod in the Temple, and near the altar, and that some have supposed that he was the son of Barachias referred to.
Between the temple and the altar—i.e., between the sanctuary (the word is the same as in Matthew 26:61; John 2:19)—the Holy of Holies—and the altar of burnt offerings that stood outside it.
(36) All these things shall come upon this generation.—The words carry on the thought of the measure that is gradually being filled up. Men make the guilt of past ages their own, reproduce its atrocities, identify themselves with it; and so, what seems at first an arbitrary decree, visiting on the children the sins of the fathers, becomes in such cases a righteous judgment. If they repent, they cut off the terrible entail of sin and punishment; but if they harden themselves in their evil, they inherit the delayed punishment of their father’s sins as well as of their own.
(37) Jerusalem, Jerusalem.—The lamentation had been uttered once before (Luke 13:34-35), and must, we may believe, have been present to our Lord’s mind when He “beheld the city and wept over it” (Luke 19:41), as He halted on the brow of Olivet.
It should be noted that the Hebrew form of Jerusalem (Ἱερουσαλὴμ instead of Ἱεροσόλυμα) occurs here only in St. Matthew, as though the very syllables had impressed themselves on the minds of men.
Thou that killest the prophets.—The words are in the present tense, as embracing the past and even the future. As with a sad prescience our Lord speaks of the sufferings which were in store for His messengers, and of which the deaths of Stephen (Acts 7:60) and of James (Acts 12:2) were representative instances. That the persecution in each case took a wider range, was in the nature of the case inevitable. It is distinctly stated, indeed, that it did so in both instances (Acts 8:1; Acts 12:1), and is implied in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, where the “prophets” who suffered are clearly Christian prophets, and probably in James 5:10.
Even as a hen gathereth her chickens.—The words reproduce (if we follow the English version), under an image of singular tenderness, the similitude of Deuteronomy 32:11, the care of the hen for her chickens taking the place of that of the eagle for her nestlings. Possibly, however, the contrast between the two images lies in the English rather than the Greek, where we have the generic term, “as a bird gathereth her brood.” The words “how often” may be noted as implying (though they occur in the Gospels that confine themselves to our Lord’s Galilean ministry) a yearning pity for Jerusalem, such as we naturally associate with the thought of His ministry in that city.
Ye would not.—No words could more emphatically state man’s fatal gift of freedom, as shown in the power of his will to frustrate the love and pity, and therefore the will, even of the Almighty.
(38) Your house.—The word “desolate” is omitted in some of the best MSS. The words “your house” may refer either generally to the whole polity of Israel, or more specifically to the “house” in which they gloried, the Temple, which was the joy of their hearts. It had been the house of God, but He, as represented by His Son, was now leaving it for ever. It was their house now, not His. We must remember that the words were spoken as our Lord was “departing from the Temple” (Matthew 24:1), never to reappear there.
(39) Till ye shall say.—There is obviously a reference to the fact that the words quoted from Psalms 118:26, had been uttered by the crowd but a few days before on His solemn entry into Jerusalem. Not till those words should be uttered once again—not in a momentary burst of excitement, not with feigned Hosannas, but in spirit and in truth—would they look on Him as they looked now. There can be little doubt that our Lord points to the second Advent, and to the welcome that will then be given Him by all the true Israel of God. For that generation, and for the outward Israel as such, the abandonment was final.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 23". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13