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Matthew 23:2 . Sit in Moses’ seat. The sanhedrim had seventy one chairs of gold, or rather gilt with gold. The council which sat at Alexandria had also chairs of gold. The highpriest was the president: he sat in the middle, with thirty five chairs on his right hand, and thirty five on his left. The number had its origin from the seventy elders consecrated by Moses. Whether our Lord meant to say that the scribes and pharisees were fairly put into power, or that they had usurped authority, is doubtful. Galatinus is of the latter opinion: yet the Lord would have them obeyed, and gave them all due reverence, as a judicial court, though he afterwards exposed their religious pretensions with just severity. Let all ministers, at proper seasons, learn of their Master how to address obdurate and incorrigible men.
Matthew 23:5 . They make broad their phylacteries. Almost every jew to the present day has a phylactery, curiously made of leather or parchment, and worn on the left arm. The passages of the law usually written are such as the following. Exodus 13:3-10; Exodus 23:11-16. Deuteronomy 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 9:13-21. Some wore them on their foreheads, covered in part by turbans. The word is untranslated, and the admonition of Moses is good. The point reproved by our Saviour, is a vain and ostentatious parade of piety.
Matthew 23:8 . Be ye not called rabbi, my master, as the next words explain; for one is your Master, even Christ. No title is given, except that of scribes, to Nehemiah and Ezra, who came from Babylon. The title had its origin in the Hebrew schools, where we find rab and rabbam. Our Saviour does not reprehend a scholar for saying, my master, but the ambition of such as aimed at that distinction in religious matters. Every professor in the sciences has a name expressive of the nature of his official engagements, and this is plainly a matter of convenience. The clergy also at the reformation were distinguished by being called “Clerks.” The papists were the first that called their aged fathers “Reverend,” and hence it has become general to this day, as a term of courtesy, to distinguish a man’s profession.
Matthew 23:15 . Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte. The proselytes to judaism were of two orders. The first were circumcised, and might enter the court of the Israelites; the second were proselytes of the gate, baptized, but not circumcised. The whole of these amounted, in our Saviour’s time, to about one fifth of the Hebrew nation. They are here indicated to be still immoral in their lives.
Matthew 23:23 . Judgment, mercy, and faith. The best way of acquainting ourselves with the meaning and difference of these three terms, will be from the observations of Maimonides, who in More Nevoc, part 3. chap. 53, says, they are most accurately distinguished among the Hebrews. The first signifies justice, or equity in judging. The second is the highest degree of mercy, or bounty. The third denotes that virtue of honesty in all kinds, which by the law of God is due from us to our brethren, whether by way of strict justice or of charity. Thus when John the baptist acquaints all the different kinds of men who came to him, what was their righteousness, the prescription he gives to the multitude is, to communicate to him that hath not. Now the whole difference of this from the second is, that a man performs all acts of charity which the law requires, as often as occasion presents itself; but in the other, the merciful man seeks out for opportunities, and performs more than the law requires, which Christ therefore calls perfection. Now to the first of those in Maimonides, the two former are exactly agreeable, judgment being clearly answerable to the first, and mercy to the second. All the difficulty lies in the third, or faith, which at first sight may appear probable to be equivalent to righteousness; for the Hebrew word which is directly translated faith, very often means righteousness and truth. So that it is not improbable that faith here, understood for righteousness, should not be rendered faith but fidelity. But if we extend our observations somewhat farther, it will appear that there is no room for these probabilities, the express words of Luke, in setting down this passage, enforcing another interpretation. Luke’s words are, “Ye tithe mint, and rue, and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God.” Whereas by judgment must be understood all the duties of justice and charity to our neighbours; so the love of God, which comprehends all the duties of the first table, is set down as directly answerable to faith, which must therefore of necessity be the believing in God, as faith is the foundation of our love to him, according to the apostle. 1 Timothy 1:5. The end of the commandment is charity, out of a pure heart, and of faith unfeigned; the love of God, and of our neighbour.
Matthew 23:24 . Which strain at a gnat, passing your wine through a lawn, and swallow a camel. You tithe garden herbs; but for gifts, and corban, excuse a son from supporting his aged parents. This is to swallow a camel, a keen proverb, cutting like a razor.
Matthew 23:33 . The damnation of hell. Literally, “the judgment of Gehenna,” or of hell fire.
Matthew 23:35 . The blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias. The gospel of the Nazarenes reads, son of Jehoiada, which confirms the exposition given of 2 Chronicles 24:20. Our Saviour’s declaration is, that the jews who murdered the christians, should have the heaviest share of punishment, with all those who have shed the blood of his saints, in the unquenchable fire of hell.
Matthew 23:37 . As a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings. This, the tenderest sentiment of nature, intimates that Christ had repeated all the efforts of the ancient prophets to save and retrieve his country from ruin, but that the obduracy of their hearts, and their blindness as a priesthood, had frustrated the gracious efforts of love. Hence they perished in the sins of their fathers, as stated in the last chapter of the book of Chronicles.
Our divine Master, and inspirer of the prophets, now closes his ministry to the jews. He does it with all the majesty peculiar to his character as Lord and Judge. He does it in language which a humble minister in any case scarcely dares to use. He had opened his ministry with eight beatitudes: now he closes it with eight denunciations of woe against the incorrigible and unbelieving nation. He does it with full strokes against their reigning sins, and clears his soul of the blood of men, who, after the resurrection of Lazarus, had agreed to take away his life. Oh blind guides, perverting the law to professional interests, you could not foresee that your lives, and those of your children, must go for his life. Those blind guides neither entered the kingdom of heaven themselves, nor allowed the people to do so. Yet for gain they sent out emissaries to persuade the gentiles to be circumcised, and to send offerings to the temple. The papists at the reformation acted the same wily part, employing every art and every terror to obstruct the conversion of sinners to God. How blind, to say that an oath by the temple was nothing, while an oath by the gold of the temple made a man a debtor to pay his vows. Surely the temple, and its altar, hallowed every gift. To complete all, and fill up their measure, those hardened men decorated the sepulchres of ancient martyrs, while seeking to martyr the Saviour and his servants!
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Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Matthew 23". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany