Denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, and lamentation over Jerusalem which followed their guidance to her own destruction. (Peculiar to St. Matthew.)
Then spake Jesus. Some small portion of this discourse, the close of our Lord's public teaching, is found in Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:45-47 (comp. also Luke 11:1-54., 13.). It is here addressed to the multitude, and to his disciples, and seems to have been designed to comfort the former under the difficulty of having accredited teachers who were proved to have misunderstood Scripture, and were incapable of interpreting it aright. He willed to show how far they were to follow these instructors, and where it was necessary to draw a line beyond which they were not to be obeyed. Some modern critics have suggested that this discourse was not spoken at this time, but that St. Matthew has here collected into one body certain sayings of our Lord uttered at different times and places. It is far more natural to suppose that St. Matthew's statement of the occasion of this discourse is historically true, and that Christ here repeated some parts of the censure he had already, in the course of his ministry, found it necessary to pronounce. The unity of this utterance in form and essence, its logical sequence and climactic character, prove that it was delivered at one time, and was intended to form the Lord's farewell address to the wayward people who would not come unto him that they might have life. The discourse may be divided into three parts.
The moral character of the scribes and Pharisees, and warning to Christ's disciples.
The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses'seat. In the seat of the great judge and lawgiver. This is stated as an undoubted fact ( ἐκα ìθισαν), with no idea of blame attached. Literally, sat on the seat of Moses from time immemorial. These (meaning not individuals, but the collective body) are the authorized expounders and teachers of the Law; their position is assured; they are not to be displaced. The scribes were the party chiefly denoted; they were of the Pharisaical sect; hence the addition, "and the Pharisees," by which is intimated, not that these latter, qua Pharisees, had any teaching office, but that the former shared their religious opinions. The Sadducees seem to have had no popular influence, and were never recognized as leaders. The Levitical priests never appear in the Gospels as teachers or expositors of the Mosaic system; this function of theirs had devolved upon scribes and lawyers.
All therefore. It is because of their official authority as appointed teachers and expositors of the Law that Christ gives the following injunction. That observe and do. Many manuscripts and versions invert the order of the verbs, reading, do and observe. The received text seems most logical. Observe; τηρεῖτε, present imperative, continue to observe as a rule of conduct. Do; ποιη ìσατε, aorist, do immediately, whenever the occasion arises. All that they taught or commanded out of the Law, or in due accordance therewith, was to be observed and obeyed. The statement is made in general terms, but was conditional and restricted by other considerations. It was only their official injunctions, derived immediately from Scripture, not their glosses, evasions, and interpretations, that were to be regarded with respect. The Lord had already taken occasion to warn against these errors (see Matthew 16:6, Matthew 16:11, Matthew 16:12, etc.). As inheritors of the authority of Moses, and speaking ex cathedra, they were so far worthy of respect. This principle laid down, Christ proceeds to denounce their evil practices. After their works. You must distinguish between their preaching and their practice; the latter is to be shunned with all care. The scribes are never accused of corrupting the sacred text, which, indeed, was scrupulously guarded, and kept pure and unaltered. It was their treatment of the doctrines thereof that was censured. Our Lord shows their evil example in two particulars—their principle was "words, not deeds" (Matthew 23:4), and ostentation in religion (Matthew 23:5-7). They say, and do not. They enunciated the Law, they enjoined obedience to it in the minutest particulars, and yet they themselves continually, in the most important points (Matthew 23:23), infringed, neglected, evaded it. St. Paul, himself a strict Pharisee, denounces in stern language such inconsistent professors (Romans 2:21-23).
Bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne; δυσβα ìστακτα: importabilia (Vulgate). The last epithet, which is very uncommon (Luke 11:46), is omitted by some manuscripts and versions, but it is probably genuine here. The burdens are the minute regulations and prescriptions, the vexatious restrictions, the innumerable traditional observances with which these teachers had garbled and defaced the written Law. We have noticed some of these glosses in the matter of the sabbath and ceremonial purification; and these are only specimens of a system which extended to every relation of life, and to all details of religious practice, binding one rule to another, enforcing useless and absurd minutiae, till the burden became insupportable. Alford considers that not human traditions and observances are signified by the "burdens," but the severity of the Law, the weighty duties inculcated therein, which they enforce on others, but do not observe. It may, however, well be doubted whether Christ would ever have termed the legitimate rites and ceremonies of the Law unbearable burdens, though their rigorous enforcement by men who regarded only the letter, while they had lost the spirit, would naturally deserve censure. (If the epithet is not genuine, of course this remark does not apply.) What Christ denounced was not the Law itself, however severe and grievous to human nature, or even immemorial tradition, but the false inferences and deductions therefrom, leading to injunctions insupportable and impracticable. Will not move them with one of their fingers; with their finger. This does not imply (and it would not be true) that the rabbis themselves were all hypocrites, and broke or evaded the Law with impunity. We know that they scrupulously attended to all outward observances. What is meant is that they take no trouble to lighten ( κινῆσαι, "to move away"), to make these burdens easier by explanation or relaxation, or to proportion them to the strength of the disciple. They impose them with all their crushing weight and severity upon others, and uncompromisingly demand obedience to these unscriptural regulations, putting "a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear" (Acts 15:10; Galatians 5:1). Contrast with this the Christian's service: "My yoke is easy," says Christ, "and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:1-30 :33).
For to be seen of men. The second bad principle in their religion was ostentation and vanity. Acts done professedly in the honour of God were animated by self-seeking and ambition. They never penetrated beyond externalism. See this spirit reproved in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 6:1, Matthew 6:2, etc.). "They loved the glory of men more than the glory of God" (John 12:43). Christ then gives proofs of this spirit of ostentation in religion and in private life. Phylacteries; φυλακτη ìρια: literally, preservatives; equivalent to "amulets;" the translation of the Hebrew word tephillin, "prayer fillets." These were either strips of parchment or small cubes covered with leather, on or in which were written four sections of the Law, viz. Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 11:13-21. They were worn fastened either to the forehead, or inside the left arm, so as to be near the heart. Their use arose from a literal and superstitious interpretation of Exodus 13:9; Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18. Their dimensions were defined by rabbinical rules, but the extra pious formalists of the day set these at naught, and increased the breadth of the strips or of the bands by which they were fastened, in order to draw attention to their religiousness and their strict attention to the least observances of the Law. These phylacteries are still in use among the Jews. Thus in a 'Class Book for Jewish Youth' we read, "Every boy, three months before he attains the age of thirteen, commences to make use of the tephillin, which must be worn at least during the time of the morning prayers. The ordinance of the tephillin is one of the signs of the covenant existing between the Almighty and ourselves, that we may continually bear in mind the miracles God wrought for our forefathers." Enlarge the borders of their garments; τα Ì κρα ìσπεδα τῶν ἱματι ìων αὐτῶν, the fringes of their outer garments. The best manuscripts have merely their fringes. So the Vulgate, magnificant fimbrias. These fringes or tassels (zizith, zizijoth) were fastened to the corners of the garments, in accordance with Numbers 15:38-41, and were composed of white and blue threads. They were intended to remind the wearers of the commandments of the Lord, and were regarded as peculiarly sacred (see Matthew 9:20). Christ condemns the ostentatious enlargement of these fringes as a badge of extraordinary piety and obedience. We quote again from the Jewish 'Class. Book:' "Every male of the Jewish nation must wear a garment [not usually an undergarment] made with four corners, having fringes fixed at each corner. These fringes are called tsetsis, or, memorial fringes. In the synagogue, during the morning prayers, a scarf with fringes attached to it is worn, which is called tollece, 'scarf or veil.' These memorial fringes typically point out the six hundred and thirteen precepts contained in the volume of the sacred Law. They are also intended to remind us of the goodness of the Almighty in having delivered our forefathers from the slavery in Egypt."
The uppermost rooms; τη Ìν πρωτοκλισι ìαν: primos recubitus; chief place (Luke 14:7). The custom of reclining on cushions set in horseshoe fashion at three sides of the table was now prevalent, the old custom of squatting round a low table, as at present practised in the East, having been long abandoned. The place of honour is said to have been at the upper end of the right side, the president being placed, not in the centre of that end of the table which faced the opening, but at the side. The most honoured guest would be at his right hand (but see on Matthew 26:23). There was often much manoeuvring to obtain this post, and many petty squabbles about precedence arose on every festal occasion (see Luke 14:1, Luke 14:7, etc.). The chief seats in the synagogues. The usual arrangement of the synagogue is given by Dr. Edersheim. It was built of stone, with an entrance generally on the south, and so arranged that the worshippers might direct their prayers towards Jerusalem. In the centre was placed the lectern of the reader; the women's gallery was at the north end. "The inside plan is generally that of two double colonnades, which seem to have formed the body of the synagogue, the aisles east and west being probably used as passages. At the south end, facing north, is a movable ark, containing the sacred rolls of the Law and the prophets. Right before the ark, and facing the people, are the seats of honour, for the rulers of the synagogue and the honourable." These were the places for which the Pharisees contended, thinking more of gaining these, where they could sit enthroned in the sight of the congregation, than of the Divine worship which nominally they came to offer (comp. James 2:2, James 2:3).
Greetings in the markets. They loved to be denoted as superiors by respectful salutations in public places. To be called Rabbi, Rabbi; "My Master" (compare the French Monsieur, used not only vocatively, but absolutely); the term addressed by scholars to their teacher, and repeated for ostentation's sake, of course implying superiority in those thus called. Christ himself was thus addressed by those who desired to denote his authority and preeminence (Matthew 22:16, Matthew 22:24, Matthew 22:36; comp. John 1:38). These greetings and salutations were enjoined on scholars and inferiors, under pain of ecclesiastical censure and loss of salvation.
Be not ye called Rabbi. After stating the customs of the Pharisees, Christ proceeds (Matthew 23:8-12) to give his own disciples a lesson in humility. The pronoun is emphatic, "But ye, be not ye called." They are not to be eager for such distinctions, indicative of spiritual superiority. The prohibition must be understood in the spirit, and not in the letter. Our Lord does not forbid respect for teachers or different grades in his Church (see 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11-13); that which he censures is the inordinate grasping at such personal distinctions, the greedy ambition which loves the empty title, and takes any means to obtain it. One is your Master, even Christ. The received text gives εἷς γα ìρ ἐστιν ὑμῶν ὁκαθηγητη ìς ὁΧριστο ìς. Many good manuscripts read διδα ìσκαλος, Teacher (so Revised Version) instead of καθηγητη ìς, Leader, [and omit ὁχριστο ìς. Both these variations seem reasonable and warranted. "Leader" has probably been introduced from Matthew 23:10, where it occurs naturally; it is out of place here, where, for the sake of concinnity, "Teacher" is required in both parts of the sentence. And it is unlikely that Jesus should hero expressly mention himself. He is speaking now of their heavenly Father; to himself he refers in Matthew 23:10. In support of the allusion to the Father, Bengel cites Matthew 16:17; John 6:45; Acts 10:28, etc. The Vulgate has, Unus est enim Magister vester; and yet Roman Catholic commentators interpret the clause of Christ, in spite of the purposed indefiniteness of the expression. Jesus points to the inspiration of the Father or the Holy Spirit as that which teaches his disciples. They were to follow no earthly rabbi, but the heavenly Teacher. All ye are brethren. And therefore, so far, equal. They were disciples of our Lord, and to them appertained equality and fraternity.
Your father. This was the title given to eminent teachers and founders of schools, to whom the people were taught to look up rather than to God. It was also addressed to prophets (2 Kings 2:12; 2 Kings 6:21). In Matthew 23:8 Christ said, "be not called;" here he uses the active, "call not," as if he would intimate that his followers must not give this honoured title to any doctor out of complaisance, or flattery, or affectation. Upon the earth. In contradistinction to heaven, where our true Father dwells. They were to follow no earthly school. They had natural lathers and spiritual fathers, but the authority of all comes from God; it is delegated, not essential; and good teachers would make men look to God, and not to themselves, as the source of power and truth.
Neither be ye called masters; καθηγηται ì: leaders, guides. This is just what the Pharisees claimed to be (see Matthew 23:16 and Romans 2:19,, Romans 2:20). One is your master ( καθηγητη ìς, Leader), even [the] Christ. Hero Jesus announces himself, not only as their Teacher, but as the Messiah, their Ruler and Guide. He is censuring that sectarian spirit which began in the primitive Church, when one said," I am of Paul; another, I of Apollos," etc. (1 Corinthians 1:12), and has continued to this day in the division of the one body into innumerable sects and, parties, ranged under various leaders, and generally bearing their founder's name. "What then is Apollos? and what is Paul? Ministers through whom ye believed; and each as the Lord gave to him" (1 Corinthians 3:5). How mournful to think that Christ's great prayer for unity (John 17:1-26.) is still unfulfilled, frustrated or delayed by man's self-will!
But he that is greatest … your servant; δια ìκονος: minister (see Matthew 20:26, Matthew 20:27). It was there said to the apostles alone; here it is spoken more publicly to emphasize the contrast between Christian humility and Pharisaical pride and vanity.
Whosever shall exalt himself shall be abased ( ταπεινωθη ìσεται, shall be humbled); and he that shall humble ( ταπεινω ìσει) himself shall be exalted. It is not clear why the rendering of the verb is not uniform in this verse. The antithesis certainly requires it. The gnome, so often repeated (see references), seems to be, as it has been called, "an axiom in the kingdom of God." It is indeed a universal law in God's dealings with men. Olshausen quotes a saying! of Hillel to the same purport, "My humility is my exaltation, and my exaltation is my humility." The first clause was prophetic of the speedy overthrow of the haughty Pharisees; the second is grandly illustrated in the example of Christ, who humbled himself to the death of the cross, and is now highly exalted; who "for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising shame, and hath sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2). St. Peter draws the lesson, "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time" (1 Peter 5:5, 1 Peter 5:6).
Eight woes pronounced on the Pharisees for their conduct and teaching. (Comp. Luke 11:42-52.)
Some authorities transpose Matthew 23:13 and Matthew 23:14—a variation attributable to the circumstance that the commencing clauses are the same. As Christ inaugurated his public teaching by pronouncing eight benedictions in the sermon on the mount, so here he closes his ministry by imprecating or prophesying eight woes on the perverse and unbelieving Pharisees. In Lange's commentary there is proposed a scheme of antithesis between the benedictions and the woes, but it is not very successful, being often forced and unnatural; and it is better to regard the contrast in a general view, and not to attempt to press it in particulars. Jesus here pours forth his righteous anger on those whose obstinate infidelity was about to bring ruin on the Jewish city and nation. Woe unto you! (Matthew 11:21). These terrible "woes" are not only evoked by indignation, and pronounced as a solemn judgment, they are also expressive of the profoundest pity, and are prophetic of the future. They have, indeed, a twofold reference—they refer first to temporal judgments and visitations, now ready to fall; and secondly to the retribution in the eternal world. That the meek and lowly Jesus should utter such awful denunciations shows how greatly he was moved how he left nothing untried to turn these hard hearts to introspection and repentance. Scribes and Pharisees (see on Matthew 23:2), hypocrites (Matthew 6:2). Christ uses this word seven times in these denunciations. It is applied to the Pharisees as deceiving themselves and others, under the mask of godliness hiding polluted hearts, persuading themselves that formal externalism was real piety and devotion, and practically teaching this fatal delusion. Ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; ἐ ìμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρω ìπων: before men; ante homines (Vulgate. This is the first woe—against perverse obstructiveness. They prevent men from accepting Christ, and so entering God's kingdom, by their false interpretation of Scripture, by not allowing that it testified of Christ, and by making the path impassable for the poor and ignorant. And this is done "in the face of men," when they are, as it were, thronging round and wishing to enter. "Ye have taken away the key of knowledge," he says, in another place (Luke 11:52). Neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. The kingdom of heaven is here metaphorically regarded as a banqueting hall, where are celebrated the espousals of Christ and his Church. The Pharisees watched the access thereto. They stood at the door to bar all entrance. If any showed signs of yielding to honest conviction, they sternly forbade them to proceed; they repelled them with violence, as by excommunication (John 9:22, John 9:34), or by calumniating the Teacher (Matthew 9:34, etc.). There was many a time when 34, people were ready to acknowledge Christ and to follow him as Messiah. A word from their authorized leaders would have turned the scale in his favour; but that word was never spoken. The weight of authority was always placed on the opposite side, and naught but prejudice, animosity, and slander befell the cause of Jesus.
Second woe—against rapacity and hypocrisy. There is some doubt about the genuineness of this verse, and our Revisers have expunged it from their text, relegating it to the margin. It is omitted by א, B, D, L, Z, some copies of the Vulgate and some versions; on the other hand, it is found in E, F, G, H, K, M, and other later uncials, and in the received Vulgate and Syriac Versions. Critics reject it as a supposed interpolation from Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47. At any rate, whether spoken now or at another time, it is undoubtedly an utterance of Christ, and to be received with all reverence. Ye devour widows' houses. Women who have lost their natural protector become their prey. To these they attach themselves, winning them over by flattery and fraud, and persuading them to assist them with their substance to the ruin of their fortunes. God had always defended the cause of widows, and had urged his people to deal gently and mercifully with them (see Deuteronomy 10:18; Deuteronomy 27:19; Psalms 68:5; Isaiah 1:17; Luke 18:3-7). This woe is followed in St. Luke by the episode of the widow's mite (Luke 20:47; Luke 21:1-4). And for a pretence make long prayer; or, and that, making long prayers for a pretence. They put on an appearance of extraordinary devotion, that they might more easily secure the favour of the widows; or else they exacted large sums of money, engaging to offer continual prayers for the donors (compare St. Paul's words in 2 Timothy 3:6). Thus these hypocrites made a gain of godliness at the expense of the most helpless members of the community. Greater ( περισσο ìτερον, more abundant) damnation. No condemnation in this world or the next can be more justly awarded than to him who adds hypocrisy to covetousness, and makes religion a cloke for cruel rapacity. The comparative may refer to "the lengthened hypocritical prayers which went before" (Lange).
Third woe—against evil proselytizing. Ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte. The word προση ìλυτος is used in the Septuagint to signify "a stranger" or "sojourner" (Exodus 12:48, Exodus 12:49, etc.), and at this time was applied to a convert to Judaism (Acts 2:10; Acts 6:5), whether circumcised, "a proselyte of righteousness;" or uncircumcised, "a proselyte of the gate." To compass sea and land is a proverbial expression, denoting the employment of every means, the exercise of the utmost effort. One might have thought that, in its proud isolation and exclusiveness, Judaism would not have exposed itself to this reproach. But what says Josephus? In more than one passage of his histories he testifies to the zealous propagation of the Jewish religion, and in some cases the enforcement of circumcision on vanquished enemies (see 'Ant.,' Matthew 18:3. 5; Matthew 20:2. 4; 'Bell. Jud.,' Matthew 2:17. 10; 'Vita,' § 23). Tacitus ('Hist.,' Matthew 5:5) gives a most unfavourable account of the numerous converts which Hebrews made throughout the Roman provinces; and St. Augustine ('De Civit.,' Hebrews 6:11) quotes Seneca saying, "Cum interim usque eo sceleratissimae gentis consuetudo convaluit, ut per omnes jam terras recepta sit, victi victoribus leges dederunt" (Edersheim). For similar testimony, we may refer to Horace, 'Sat.,' 1.4. 142, 143; and Juvenal, 'Sat.,' 6.541, etc. But it was not proselytizing in itself that the Lord censured. As possessing revelation and the only true religion in the world, the Jews might well have deemed it their business to enlighten the gross darkness of heathenism, and to endeavour to shed abroad the pure light which was confided to their care to tend and cherish. That they were not expressly commanded to do this, and that little blessing attended their efforts in this direction, was dependent upon the transitory and imperfect character of the old covenant, and the many evils which would be consequent upon association with alien peoples. In making converts, the Pharisees sought rather to secure outward conformity than inward piety, change of external religion than change of heart. There was no love of souls, no burning zeal for the honour of God, in their proselytism. They were prompted only by selfish and base motives—vain glory, party spirit, covetousness; and if they converted men to their own opinions, with their false tenets, gross externalism, and practical immorality, they had far better have left them in their irresponsible ignorance. When he is made; when he is become a proselyte. Twofold more the child of hell; a son of Gehenna; i.e. worthy of hell fire. So we have 2 Samuel 12:5, "a son of death;" John 17:12, "the son of perdition". The converts became doubly the children of hell because, seeing the iniquities of their teachers, they learned an evil lesson from them, "engrafted the vices of the Jews on the vices of the heathen," distrusted all goodness, discarded their old religion and disbelieved the new, making utter shipwreck of their moral life. "Ita natura comparati sumus," says an old commentator, "ut vitia potius quam virtutes imitemur, et in rebus malis a discipulis magistri facile superentur."
Fourth woe—against evasive distinctions in oaths. Ye blind guides. They were by profession leaders and guides, and yet by their literalism and externalism they lost the true significance of the Scriptures which they taught, and the ritual of which they were the exponents. The Lord repeats the epithet "blind "(Matthew 23:17, Matthew 23:19, Matthew 23:24). Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing. Our Lord seems to refer more especially to oaths connected with vows, of which he had already spoken (Matthew 15:5, Matthew 15:6). The arbitrary distinction between oaths was indeed an instance of moral blindness. An oath by the temple was not binding; it might be broken or evaded with impunity. By the gold of the temple—i.e. by the sacred treasure and ornaments therein—he is a debtor ( ὀφει ìλει); he is bound by his oath. The casuistry employed by the Jews in this matter was well known, and had become proverbial among the heathen. F.M. quotes Martial, 11:94—
"Ecce negas, jurasque mihi per templa Tonantis,
'Non credo: jura, verpe, per Anchialum.'"
"Anchialum" is equivalent to am chai aloh, "as God liveth," the Jew (verpus, "circumcised") being bound by no oath but one that contained some letters of the Divine name or some attribute of God.
Ye fools. Jesus adds to "blind" the epithet "fools," which implies not only the irrationality and absurdity of their practice, but also its moral delinquency, the fool in sapiential language being the sinner. The temple that sanctifieth the gold. Our Lord shows the absurdity of this sophistical distinction. It was because the temple was the place of God's presence that what was therein was consecrated. The gold was nothing without the temple; the temple, the originally holy, is superior to the gold, the derivatively holy, and an oath that calls the temple to witness is surely obligatory.
By the altar. The great altar of burnt offerings, according to the Mosaic ritual, was consecrated and dedicated with most remarkable solemnities, as the centre of sacrificial worship (see Exodus 29:36, etc.; Exodus 30:28,Exodus 30:29; Numbers 7:10, etc.). The gift that is upon it. The victim, which, as being offered by themselves, was counted more worthy than the altar of God which sanctified the gift. This is, indeed, an instance of sight blinded by self-righteousness. He is guilty; ὀφει ìλει: he is a debtor, as Matthew 23:16. Others see here the principle that the validity of oaths was differentiated by the nearness to the Person of God of the things by which they were taken. This, too, opened up large opportunities of evasion.
Our Lord repeats the unanswerable argument of Matthew 23:17. That sanctifieth the gift., Exodus 29:37. "It shall be an altar most holy; whatsoever toucheth the altar shall be holy" (comp. Ezekiel 41:22). The offering is one with the altar.
Sweareth by it, etc. One can see what an inveterate evil our Lord was denouncing, when he takes such pains to point out its absurdities, which seem to us self-evident. The oath by the altar involves the notion of the victim as well as the altar; one cannot be separated from the other; and, of course, implies him to whom the offering is made.
By him that dwelleth therein. In fact, it comes to this: to swear by temple or altar is to swear by God—an oath most solemn, which may not be evaded. "That dwelleth" is in some manuscripts the aorist participle, κατοικη ìσαντι, implying that God once for all took up his abode in the temple, and filled it with his ineffable presence (see Kings Matthew 8:13; Psalms 132:14). From such passages we learn that God sanctifies things and places to be devoted to his service, and to be accounted by men holy and separated from all common uses. The Authorized Version translates the received text, κατοικοῦντι, which has good authority, the past participle being, perhaps, a correction by some scribe who thought that the day of Judaism was past when Christ spoke.
By heaven. The Talmndists affirm that an oath "by heaven" or "by earth" was not binding, on the ground, probably, that these were mere creatures. Christ again dissipates such sophistries. To swear by the creature is virtually to swear by the Creator. A brute, inanimate thing cannot be witness to an oath; he alone can be appealed to who owns all. Thus we "kiss the book," calling God to witness our words. Christ had already given a lesson to his followers on this subject in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:34-37). He inculcates true reverence, that fear and awe of God's dignity and God's presence which constrains a man to avoid all profaneness and carelessness in regard to things that are concerned with God.
Matthew 23:23, Matthew 23:24
Fifth woe—against scrupulosity in trifles and neglect of weighty duties (Luke 11:42). Ye pay tithe of ( ἀποδεκατοῦτε, ye tithe) mint and anise and cummin. Practically, the law of tithe was enforced only in the case of the produce mentioned in Deuteronomy 14:23—corn, wine, and oil—but the Pharisees, in their overstrained scrupulosity, applied the law of Le 27:30 ("all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's") to the smallest pot herbs, even to their leaves and stalks. "Mint" ( ἡδυ ìοσμον). Of this well known plant several species grow in Palestine; it was one of the ingredients of the sauce of bitter herbs eaten at the Paschal feast (Exodus 12:8), and was hung up in the synagogue for its fragrance. "Anise" ( ἀ ìνηθον) is known to us as "dill," and is much used in medicine and for seasoning. "Cummin" ( κυ ìμινον) (Isaiah 28:25, Isaiah 28:27), an umbelliferous plant, with seeds something like caraways, and used, like them, as a condiment and medicine. Have emitted the weightier matters of the Law. The Pharisees were very far from treating important duties with the same scrupulosity which they observed in little matters. Christ particularizes these weighty duties: Judgment, (and) mercy, and faith. Three are named, in contrast to the three petty observances mentioned above. Christ seems to refer to the words of Micah 6:8, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (see also Hosea 12:6; Zechariah 7:9, Zechariah 7:10). Worthless are all outward observances when the moral precepts are neglected. "Judgment" ( τη Ìν κρι ìσιν) means acting equitably to one's neighbour, hurting nobody by word or deed; as in Jeremiah 5:1 a man is sought "that exerciseth justice.'" Such impartiality is specially enjoined in the Law (Deuteronomy 16:19, etc.). "Mercy," loving kindness in conduct, often taught in the Pentateuch, as in the case of the widow, the stranger, and the debtor, and very different from the feeling of those who "devour widows' houses." "Faith" may mean fidelity to promises: "He that sweareth unto his neighbour and disappointeth him not, though it were to his own hindrance" (Psalms 15:4); but it is more probably taken as that belief in God without which it is not possible to please him, and which should underlie and influence all moral action (Hebrews 11:6). These ( ταῦτα)… the other ( ἐκεῖνα). "These last" are judgment, mercy, and faith; these it was your duty to have done. "The other" refers to the tithing mentioned above. Christ does not censure this attention to minutiae. He would teach conformity to regulations made by competent authority, or conscientiously felt to be binding, even though not distinctly enjoined in Scripture (see Jeremiah 5:2, Jeremiah 5:3); his blame is reserved for that expenditure of zeal on trifles which stood in the place of, or left no strength for, higher duties. It was a very elastic conscience which tithed a pot herb and neglected judgment. Strain at a gnat; διαλι ìζοντες το Ìν κω ìνωπα. "At" is supposed to be a misprint for "out." Thus Revised Version, and early English versions, which strain out the gnat; Vulgate, excolantes culicem. Alford thinks the present reading was an intentional alteration, meaning "strain (out the wine) at (the occurrence of) a gnat"—which seems more ingenious than probable. If "at" be retained, it must be taken as expressive of the fastidiousness which had to make a strong effort to overcome its distaste at this little insect. The wine, before drinking, was carefully strained through linen to avoid the accidental violation of Le Jeremiah 11:20, Jeremiah 11:23, etc.; Jeremiah 17:10-14, by swallowing an unclean insect. The practice, which was in some sense a religious act, is found among the Buddhists in Hindostan and Ceylon, either to avoid pollution or to obviate the danger of taking life, which their code forbids. A (the) camel. The gnat and the camel, which were alike unclean, stand at the extremities of the scale of comparative size. Our Lord uses a proverbial expression to denote the inconsistency which would avoid the smallest ceremonial defilement, but would take no account of the gravest moral pollution.
The sixth woe—against merely external purification (Mark 7:4; Luke 11:39). Ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter. Thus the Lord typically denotes the Pharisees' external ceremonialism, their legal purity. They looked, so to speak, to the cleanliness of the outside of the cup that contained their drink, and the platter that held their food. Such cleansing would, of course, have no effect on the drink or meat itself. They are full of ( γε ìμουσιν ἐξ, are full from) extortion and excess ( ἀκρασι ìας). For this last word the manuscripts offer many variations, arising, probably, from its uucommoness. It seems, however, to be genuine. But we find it altered into "unrighteousness," "impurity," Vulgate, immunditia, "intemperance," "covetousness," "wickedness." The vessels are conceived as filled with contents acquired by violence and used without self-control.
Thou blind Pharisee. The address is in the singular number, to give vividness and personal effect, and the epithet accentuates the absurdity censured. Cleanse first that which is within. They must learn to reverse their practice. If you wanted to have your food pure, you would clean the inside of your vessel more carefully than the outside. The external purity should proceed from and be a token of the internal. So in the case of the moral agent, the ceremonial purity is a mockery and hypocrisy unless it be accompanied by holiness of the heart. That the outside of them may be clean also. However fair to see, the man is not pure unless his soul is clean; he cannot be called pure while the higher part of his being is soiled and foul with sin. And inward saintliness cannot be hidden; it shines forth in the countenance; it is known by speech and action; it sheds sunshine wherever it gees. "Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life" (Proverbs 4:23).
Matthew 23:27, Matthew 23:28
Seventh woe—against another form of the same hypocrisy (Luke 11:44). Whited ( κεκονιαμε ìνοις) sepulchres. Once a year, about the fifteenth of the month Adar, the Jews used to whitewash the tombs and the places where corpses were buried, partly out of respect for the dead, but chiefly in order to make them conspicuous, and thus to obviate the risk of persons incautiously contracting ceremonial defilement by touching or walking over them (Numbers 19:16). To such sepulchres our Lord compares these Pharisees, because their outwardly fair show concealed rottenness within (comp. Acts 23:3). Indeed, it might be said that their seeming exceptional purity was a warning of internal corruption, a sign post to point to hidden defilement. Obtrusive religiousness, emphatic scrupulosity, are marks of pride and self-righteousness, utterly alien from real devotion and holiness.
Eighth woe—against hypocritical honour paid to departed worthies (Luke 11:47).
Ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous; or, adorn the monuments of the just. In the last woe Christ had spoken of sepulchres; he speaks of them here again, giving an unexpected view of the seeming honours paid to departed saints. The sumptuous mausoleums and tombs found e.g. round Jerusalem, and bearing the names of celebrated men (such as Zechariah, Absalom, Jehoshaphat), sufficiently attest the practice of the Jews in this matter. But the Pharisees' motives in acting thus were not pure; they were not influenced by respect for the prophets or repentance for national sins, but by pride, hypocrisy, and self-sufficiency. The present was a great age for building; witness Herod's magnificent undertakings; and probably many gorgeous tombs in honour of ancient worthies were now erected or renovated.
And say. They boasted that they were better than their fathers; they disavowed their crimes, and endeavoured, by honouring the prophets' graves, to deliver themselves from the guilt of those who persecuted them. Fair show, with no reality! They professed to venerate the dead, but would not receive the living; they reverenced Abraham and Moses, but were about to murder the Christ to whom patriarch and prophet bore witness. Commentators quote the old adage, herein exemplified, "Sit licet divus, dummodo non vivus." The only practical way of delivering themselves from the guilt of their forefathers was by hearkening to those who now preached the gospel of salvation—the very last thing which they were purposed to do.
Ye be witnesses unto yourselves. By busying yourselves about adorning the tombs of the prophets slain by your ancestors, you show your descent and the spirit which animates you. Ye are the children; ye are sons. They were true sons of their fathers, inheriting their murderous instincts, following their steps. Like father, like son. They inherited and put in practice the same false principles which led their ancestors astray.
Fill ye up then; και Ì ὑμεῖς πληρω ìσατε: do ye also (as well as they) fill up. An imperative, expressive of Divine irony, containing virtually a prophecy. Complete your evil work, finish that which your fathers began (comp. John 13:27). The measure. There is a certain limit to iniquity; when this is reached, punishment falls. The metaphor is derived from a full cup, which a single drop more will make overflow. This added drop would be the death of Christ and the persecution of his followers. Then vengeance must follow (comp. Genesis 15:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:16).
Declaration of the sentence on these Pharisees and their generation.
Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers; γεννη ìματα ἐχιδνῶν: offspring of vipers. Our Lord repeats the Baptist's denunciation (Matthew 3:7). They were of devilish nature, inherited from their very birth the disposition and character of Satan. So Christ said on another occasion, "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father it is your will to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and stood not in the truth" (John 8:44). How can ye escape? πῶς φυ ìγητε; the deliberative conjunctive, How shall ye escape? Quo mode fugietis? (Vulgate). There is no emphasis on "can" in the Authorized Version. What hope is there now of your repentance? Can anything soften the hardness of your hearts? The Baptist had spoken more hopefully, "Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" But now the day of grace is past; the sin against the Holy Ghost is committed; there remaineth only the fearful looking for of judgment. The damnation of hell; literally, the judgment of Gehenna; judicio Gehennae (Vulgate); i.e. the sentence that condemns to eternal death (Matthew 5:22). The phrase is common in the rabbinical writings (see Lightfoot). "Before sinning, we ought to fear lest it be the filling up; after sinning, we should trust in a truly Christian hope that it is not, and repent. This is the only means to escape the damnation of hell; but how rare is this grace after a pharisaical life!" (Quesnel). Hypocrisy is a bar to repentance.
Wherefore; δια Ì τοῦτο. Because ye are resolved on imitating your forefathers' iniquities, you will also reject the messengers that are sent to you, and shall suffer righteous condemnation. I send ( ἐγω Ì ἀποστε ìλλω) unto you. The sending had already begun. In the parallel passage of St. Luke (Luke 11:49) we read, "Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send." Christ is the Wisdom of God, and by his own authority gives mission to his messengers. "As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you" (John 20:21), he says to his apostles; and to such he is referring in the words which follow. Prophets. The apostles were of like character, inspiration, and influence as the prophets under the old dispensation, and succeeded in their place as exponents of God's will and heralds of the covenant. Wise men. Men full of the Holy Ghost and heavenly wisdom. Scribes. Not in the then Jewish sense, but instructors in the new law of life, the law of Christ's religion (Matthew 13:52). All the means of teaching and edification employed aforetime were abundantly and more effectually supplied under the gospel. St. Luke has, "prophets and apostles." Kill; as Stephen (Acts 7:59), James (Acts 12:2). Crucify; as Peter (John 21:18, John 21:19; 2 Peter 1:14); Simeon (Eusebius, 'Hist. Eccl.,' 3:32); and probably Andrew. Scourge (see Acts 5:40; Acts 22:19, Acts 26:11; 2 Corinthians 11:24, 2 Corinthians 11:25). Persecuted (see Acts 13:50; Acts 14:5, Acts 14:6, Acts 14:19, Acts 14:20; Acts 26:11; and compare Christ's prediction, Matthew 10:17, Matthew 10:18). The passage in the Second (Fourth) Book of Esdras 1:32, which is strikingly parallel to our Lord's denunciation, may possibly be a Christian interpolation, "I sent unto you my servants the prophets, whom ye have taken and slain, and torn their bodies in pieces, whose blood I will require of your hands, saith the Lord."
That upon you may come ( ὁ ìπως ἐ ìλθῃ). This phrase does not express a simple consequence, neither can it mean "in such a way that"—explanations which have been given by some commentators to avoid a seeming difficulty in the final sense; but it is to be translated, as usually, in order that, ut veniat. God, foreseeing the issues of their evil heart, puts in their way occasions which will aid his vengeance and accelerate the time of their punishment. He lets them work out their own destruction by committing an unpardonable sin. He does not force them into this course of conduct; they can resist the opportunity if they will; but he knows they will not do so, and the visitation becomes judgment. To have a man's blood upon one's head is to be held guilty of the crime of murder, and to be liable to make the required atonement for it. So in their blind fury, taking the punishment on themselves, the Jews a little later cried, "His blood been us, and on our children!" (Matthew 27:25). Righteous blood. So in the Old Testament we often find such expressions as "innocent blood" (2 Kings 21:16; 2 Kings 24:4; Jeremiah 26:15); "blood of the just" (Lamentations 4:13); comp. Revelation 6:10 and Revelation 18:24, where it is written that in Babylon "was found the blood of prophets, and of saints, and of all them that were slain upon the earth." Righteous Abel. The first of the murdered, the prototype of the death of Christ and of all good men who have died for truth, religion, and justice (Genesis 4:8; 1 John 3:12). The catalogue of such is long and terrible. Our Lord assigns a period to its dimensions, commencing with the first death mentioned in the Bible, and ending with the murder of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple ( τοῦ ναοῦ, the sanctuary) and the altar. Our Lord is speaking of a past event well known to his hearers; but who this Zacharias was is much disputed. Origen mentions a tradition, otherwise entirely unsupported, that Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, was the son of Barachiah, and was murdered in the temple. But the story looks as if it was made to relieve the difficulty of identification; neither, as far as we know, was he a prophet. Zechariah, the minor prophet, was the son of Berechiah; but we read nothing of his being slain in the temple or elsewhere. It is true that Josephus ('Bell. Jud.,' 4.5. 4) tells how a "Zacharias, son of Baruch," an honourable man, was slain by the zealots in the temple. But this murder took place A.D. 68, and our Lord could not number it among past crimes, or speak of it as an event familiar to those who heard him. The only other prophet of this name in the Bible is one mentioned in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22, as stoned by the people at the command of Joash, in the court of the house of the Lord. "And when he died," it is added, "he said, The Lord look upon it, and require it." This makes his case correspond to that of Abel, the voice of whose blood cried unto God from the ground. He is also the last prophet whose death is recorded in the Old Testament, and the guilt of whose murder, the Jews say, was not purged till the temple was burned under Nebuchadnezzar. It seems to be a kind of proverbial saying which the Lord here uses, equivalent to "from the first murdered saint to the last," taking the arrangement of the Hebrew canon of Scripture, and regarding the Books of Chronicles as the conclusion of Jewish history. This (though it would exclude the murder of other prophets, e.g. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.) would all be plain enough and quite appropriate to the context were it not that the Zechariah thus referred to was the son of Jehoiada, not of Barachias. But there are two solutions of this difficulty suggested; and, allowing either of these, we may confidently assert that the above-named prophet is the personage intended.
An these things. All the crimes committed by their forefathers shall be visited upon this generation by the destruction of the Jewish city and polity, which took place within forty years from this time. The blood of the past was required from the Jews of the present time, because they and their evil ancestors were of one family, and were to be dealt with as a whole. In spite of the teaching of history and example, in spite of the warnings of Christ and his apostles, they were bent on repeating the acts of their forefathers, and that in an aggravated form and against increased light and knowledge. The punishment here announced is the temporal award. Christ here says nothing of the final judgment.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Pathetic iteration! As he approached the city on another occasion Christ had used the same words (Luke 13:34, Luke 13:35); he repeats them now as he takes his final farewell He speaks with Divine tenderness, yet with poignant sorrow, knowing that this last appeal will be in vain. It has been remarked that, whereas St. Matthew elsewhere names the capital city, the theocratic centre, Hierosolyma, which is the Greek equivalent, he here calls it Hierousalem, which is Hebrew, as though, while recording the words used by Jesus, he desired to reproduce the actual sound of the Saviour's affecting address. Killest...stonest. Such is thy wont, thy evil practice. So Christ says elsewhere, "It cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem" (Luke 13:33). "Stonest" was particularly appropriate after the reference to Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:20). Sent unto thee. The received Greek is, sent unto it or her ( προ Ìς αὐτη ìν), though some manuscripts and the Vulgate give "thee." But the change of persons is not uncommon. Alford quotes Luke 1:45; Luke 13:34; Revelation 18:24. How often! Some would confine Christ's allusion to his own mission in Judaea, and the efforts made by him to win disciples; but it surely applies to all the doings and visitations of God towards Israel during the whole course of their history, which showed his gracious desire that all should be saved, if they only had willed with him. He hereby asserts himself as one with the God of the Old Testament. Christ's ministry in Jerusalem and Judaea is mentioned by St. John. Gathered … wings. A tender similitude, which is found in the Old Testament and in classic authors. It implies love, care, and protection. Thus the psalmist prays, "Hide me under the shadow of thy wings;" "In the shadow of thy wings will I take refuge, until these calamities be overpast" (Psalms 17:8; Psalms 57:1); comp. Deuteronomy 32:11; Isaiah 31:5, etc. So Euripides, 'Herc. Fur.,' 72—
"The children whom I cherish 'neath my wings,
As a bird cowering o'er her youthful brood."
The metaphor is peculiarly appropriate at the time, when, as Lange puts it, the Roman eagles were hovering near, and there was no hope of safety but under the Lord's wings. And ye would not. Unmoved by warning and chastisement, impenetrable to long suffering love, ungrateful for mercies, the Jews repulsed all efforts for their amendment, and blindly pursued the course of ruin. It was always in their power to turn if they willed, but they wilfully resisted grace, and must suffer accordingly (comp. Isaiah 30:15).
Your house. The temple or Jerusalem, no longer God's habitation. This betokens not only Christ's solemn departure from the sacred precincts; but the withdrawal of God's Spirit from the Jewish Church and nation. Unto you. Henceforward ye shall have it all to yourselves; my Father and I forsake it; we give it up altogether to you. Desolate. The word is omitted by some few uncials, but retained by א, C, D, etc., most cursives, the Vulgate, etc. The protecting wing is withdrawn, the Divine presence removed, and the house is indeed deserted ( ἐ ìρημος); (comp. Psalms 59:1-17 :25; Jeremiah 12:7).
Ye shall not see me henceforth. Christ explains the denunciation just given. In a few days he will be separated from them by death and burial; and, though he appeared to certain chosen witnesses after his resurrection, he was seen no more by the people (Acts 10:41); their house was deserted. Some take the word "see" in the sense of know, recognize; but it seems rather weak to say, "Ye shall not know me till ye acknowledge me as Messiah," as the knowing and acknowledging are practically identical or simultaneous. Till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord! The words which had greeted his triumphal entry a few days before (Matthew 21:9). The clause, "till ye shall say," does not shut the door of hope forever; it looks forward to a happier prospect. The time intended is that when Israel shall repent of its rejection of the Messiah, and in bitter contrition look on him whom it pierced, owning and receiving Jesus with glad "Hosannahs!" Then shall they behold him coming in power and glory, and shall regain their old position as beloved of God (see Hosea 3:4, Hosea 3:5; Zechariah 12:10). Then "all Israel shall be saved" (Romans 11:26). Thus this terrible chapter, so dark and menacing, closes with a glow of hope and a promise, indefinite but certain, of final restoration.
The scribes and Pharisees.
I. THEIR CHARACTER.
1. Their position. "They sit in Moses'seat." The scribes were the recognized teachers of the Law. The Pharisees exercised the greatest influence in the council and among the nation at large. Moses sat to judge the people (Exodus 18:18); now the scribes taught and expounded the Law. Therefore the Lord enjoined obedience to their precepts. But we must mark the word "therefore." They were to be obeyed because they sat in Moses'seat—as the successors, in some sense, to his authority, as the expounders of his Law. So far they were to be obeyed; but not, the Lord himself elsewhere cautions us, in their misinterpretations, in their contrivances for evading the plain meaning of the Law, in their many quibbles and their endless distinctions. We see here that the Lord bids us obey constituted authorities in all things lawful. Those who are set over us may not always be orthodox in their opinions; their characters may not always command our respect; but the very fact that they are set over us makes it our duty to treat them with respect and to obey their directions, whenever such obedience is not inconsistent with our duty to God. Submission to our superiors, even if they are unworthy of their position, is an exercise of humility, and agreeable to the will of God; for "the powers that be are ordained of God: whosoever therefore resisted the power, resisteth the ordinance of God." We observe that the Lord does not here condemn the priests. They do not seem, as a body, to have taken a prominent place in the opposition to his teaching. The chief priests, who were Sadducees, did so. But we are told, early in the history of the Acts of the Apostles, that "a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith." "The priests' lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the Law at his mouth." But in our Lord's time a separation had been made between the duties of the teacher and the priest. The scribes taught the people; the priests ministered in the temple. The scribes, puffed up with their minute knowledge of the letter of the Law, were intensely antagonistic to the holy Teacher who brought out its spiritual meaning. The priests, excepting always their Sadducean leaders, do not seem to have been so hostile. They were occupied with their temple ministrations; they were, as a body, not recognized as public teachers, and were probably not so influential as the scribes, not brought so prominently before the eyes of the people. The Lord came to fulfil the Law. He attended the great festivals; he bade the leper whom he healed to show himself to the priest, and offer the gift which Moses commanded. He did not interfere with the ministrations of the priests, nor does he here censure their life and conduct. The chief priests were hostile to him, probably because he exercised authority in the temple which they regarded as their own domain, and diminished their revenues by expelling the traffickers from the sacred precincts. The scribes opposed the Lord, so did the chief priests; in both cases from selfish motives. Let us beware of selfishness, and fight against it. It poisons the very life of the soul; it sets men against the Lord; it leads them to say in their hearts, "Not thy will, but mine be done."
2. Their conduct.
II. THE CONTRAST.
1. The disciples of Christ must not seek for titles of honour. "Be not ye called Rabbi," the Lord said. There is one Teacher, one Father, one Master. The Lord's people must not seek for distinctions, for pre-eminence; they are all brethren. We are not to take the words literally. To do so would be to follow the Pharisees. They were slaves of the letter; the Lord's lessons are spiritual. St. Peter speaks of Mark as his son; so does St. Paul of Timothy and Titus; he describes himself as the spiritual father of his Corinthian converts (1 Corinthians 4:15). St. John addresses some to whom he writes as "fathers" (1 John 2:13). In the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 13:7, Hebrews 13:17) we are bidden to obey them that have the rule over us, where the Greek verb is that from which the word rendered "master" in verse 10 is derived. But Christian men are not to seek after these and such-like titles; they are not to set store by them. If they come to us in the course of God's providence, we may accept them. To reject them might be no true humility, but only the affectation of it. The difficult lesson is to be humble in heart, in lowliness of mind to esteem others better than ourselves.
2. They must be truly humble. The greatest, the most advanced Christians, will readily consent to be last of all and servants of all; forevery advance in holiness brings us nearer to him who took upon him the form of a servant, and came not to be ministered unto, but to minister. It is a first principle in Christ's religion that "whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased, and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted." The Lord uses these words again and again (Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14). His apostles echo them (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). The Lord Jesus had taught the blessedness of humility in the first of the Beatitudes. He illustrated his lesson in his own holy character, in the meekness and lowliness of his life. But the lesson is very high and difficult, hard for human nature to learn. Therefore it is enforced constantly in Holy Scripture, that this frequent repetition may help us to feel its deep importance, and urge us to cultivate that precious grace of lowliness without which we can make no real progress in the narrow way that leadeth unto life. The Pharisees exalted themselves. They loved sounding titles, high place, the praise of men. The Christian must learn of Christ to abase himself. Self-exaltation leads to spiritual ruin; for "God resisteth the proud."
1. Obey in all things lawful those who are set over you, not only the good and gentle, but also the froward.
2. Better to do and say not, than, like the Pharisees, to say and do not.
3. Flee from the love of display; it poisons the life of the soul.
4. Pray earnestly for constant growth in humility.
Condemnation of their hypocrisy.
I. THE EIGHT WOES.
1. The first. The reiterated "Woe unto you!" is an expression of holy indignation. Christ, the righteous Judge, denounces the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He knew the hardness, the impenitence of their hearts, and in his awful justice he pronounces their condemnation. Yet those very woes are also utterances of holy sorrow. The word is thrice rendered "alas!" in Revelation 18:1-24. (see also Matthew 24:19). The Lord grieves over the sinners (see verse 37) while he condemns them. The woe must come upon the impenitent; the Lord knew it in his Divine foreknowledge; he foretells it now. His words are stern, very terrible; but it is the sternness of holy love. He cared for the souls of those scribes and Pharisees; he had wept over them as he drew near to the city two days before; he closes this awful denunciation of the Divine wrath with the most touching outburst of grief. He spoke in tones of warning, if so be that even now these hard-hearted men might learn to know the terrors of the Lord, might repent and be saved. "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" The awful words come again and again, like the refrain of a dirge of intense sadness. It was this hypocrisy that was killing their souls. God requireth truth in the inward parts; he searcheth the hearts; he knoweth all things; he is the God of truth; he hateth falsehood. These men were acting a part; their whole life was a lie; they eared only for the appearance of piety; they had no wish to be really holy. They said their prayers; they did not wish to have the things for which they prayed; they did not even try to live as they prayed. They read their Bibles; they pretended to honour them and to believe in them; they had no real faith; they made no attempt at all to regulate their lives according to God's Holy Word. Nothing is more hateful in God's sight than hypocrisy; it is unbelief; the hypocrite does not really believe in God's omniscience, that he readeth the hearts of men. Hypocrisy is an acted lie, and it is the devil who is the father of lies. God loveth truth. These hypocrites, the Lord said, shut up the kingdom of heaven against men. The kingdom of heaven was the Christian Church which the Lord had come to establish upon earth. There were multitudes willing to listen to the gospel of the kingdom, ready to enter in. But the Pharisees closed the way; they brought all their great influence to bear upon the work of obstruction. They would not enter into the kingdom themselves; they were like the guests first bidden in the parable of the marriage supper. And they hindered them that were entering in, who were on the point of becoming Christ's disciples. When the people were amazed at his mighty works, and said, "Is not this the Son of David?" the Pharisees interfered with their envious and malicious suggestions, and dared to attribute the miracles of the blessed Saviour to the agency of Satan. They agreed that if any man did confess that he was the Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. So they shut up the kingdom of heaven against men. They set themselves in direct opposition to the gracious will of God, to the Saviour's work of love, opposing him now, as afterwards they opposed his apostles—"forbidding us," says St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 2:16), "to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost." Upon those who fight against God, who hinder the work of his servants, who try to check the progress of the gospel, the woe must come, the heavy wrath of God must surely fall upon them.
2. The second woe. Revelation 18:14 has apparently been inserted here from Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47, where it is certainly genuine. The scribes were like those false teachers described by St. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:6. They made a profit of their reputation for knowledge and sanctity, imposing upon weak women. They were not what the Lord bade his apostles to be, fishers of men's souls, but they fished for their money. They made long prayers, but their prayers were mere acting; they were addressed in reality not to God, but to men, to those widows and others whose favour they sought for filthy lucre's sake. Therefore, the Lord said, they should receive greater condemnation. They were not only hypocrites; they were covetous, dishonest. The condemnation of the hypocrite would fall upon them, and the condemnation of the thief. The affectation of piety for the sake of selfish gain is awful guilt in the sight of the all-holy Lord. We were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ. That tremendous ransom ought to give depth, reality, zeal, to our religion. It is grievous sin to substitute earthly motives for that one only Christian motive, grateful love for our Redeemer.
3. The third woe. The Pharisees were not without zeal; they had zeal enough; they were fanatics; they would compass sea and land to make a single proselyte. But their zeal was party zeal. Party spirit had taken the place of religion in their hearts; they would work hard for their party; they would not deny themselves to please God. Their missionary zeal, such as it was, brought no glory to Almighty God, saved no souls. The proselyte, once made, became twofold more the child of hell than his teachers, more bigoted, more devoted to party, narrower and more exclusive, prouder of the privileges of Judaism than even those who had been born Jews. They should have been children of the kingdom; alas! they were children of hell; for there is no place in the kingdom of heaven for hypocrites, but only for the true worshippers, who worship God in spirit and in truth. The devil is the father of lies; those whose worship is a lie must have their place with him.
4. The fourth woe. They were blind guides, fools and blind. They professed to be teachers; they despised the untaught. "This people," they said, "who knoweth not the Law are cursed" (John 7:49). But they were ignorant themselves; they did not understand the very ritual which they prized so highly. Their teaching was full of puerile and false distinctions. An oath by the temple, they said, was not binding, neither an oath by the altar; but he was a debtor who swore by the gold of the temple or by the gift that lay upon the altar. They who taught such untruth, such folly, were fools and blind indeed. They did not understand the order of consecration; the gold was sacred only because it belonged to the temple, which was the house of God; the gift was sacred only because it was offered upon the altar, which was the table of the Lord. The gold derived its sacredness from the temple, the gift from the altar. The Lord recognizes the reverence which is due to consecrated things and places. We may find God everywhere; we may worship him everywhere, not only at Jerusalem or on Mount Gerizim; but in the present limitations and conditions of our human nature it is necessary for us that special places should be dedicated to his service, and associated in our thoughts with his presence and his worship. The sacredness of things or places is derived entirely from that association with God's presence and service. Then to swear by them—by the altar, or by the temple, or by heaven his dwelling place, is to swear by him whose presence alone giveth consecration even to the heavens. Every oath is in reality an appeal to God; the omission of his name does not avoid the awfulness of reference to him. Then the Lord's disciples may not swear, save under those solemn circumstances when an oath is required by the magistrate and sanctioned by Holy Scripture. No evasions, no pitiful distinctions, like those of the scribes, no substitution of less sacred words, can make the ordinary use of oaths lawful, or even harmless.
5. The fifth woe. Their religion consisted in small outward observances; it had no inner truth; they affected a scrupulous conscientiousness in things infinitely little, while they omitted the weightier matters of the Law. Scrupulous exactness in the payment of tithes and in Levitical purifications were the distinguishing characteristics of the Pharisaic fraternity. It was well enough to pay the insignificant tithe on common garden herbs; but ostentatious carefulness about this and such-like trifles, combined with carelessness about the great inner realities of personal religion, showed the hollow hypocrisy of their lives. They would strain out the gnat, the small ritual offence, and swallow the camel, the huge uncleanness of soul-defiling sin. Judgment, mercy, and faith were the weightier matters of the Law, unspeakably more important than the details of outward ordinances. To do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, were, the prophets said, better than thousands of burnt offerings. The Lord Jesus Christ enforces the teaching of the Law and of the prophets. Obedience in small things is right; obedience in great things is necessary for salvation. The exactest ritual and the strictest orthodoxy are of no value without justice and mercy and faith. "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ." This is the precious fruit—the fruit of the Spirit; without this, the husk, the rind, are worthless.
6. The sixth woe. The Pharisees were especially scrupulous in avoiding all occasion of Levitical defilement; they heeded not the uncleanness of their hearts. It profits little to cleanse the outside of a cup or platter, if the inside is filthy and pollutes the food. A fair outside may hide the evil heart from the sight of men, but the eye of God sees through; to that all-seeing eye the wicked soul lies open in awful clearness. The Pharisees were blind. Be our prayer, "Lord, that I may receive my sight." We want to see the condition of our souls, to know the whole truth, the whole sad wretched truth. Then we shall begin with that which most needs cleansing—the inside, the inner life of thought and feeling and motive. God desireth truth there. "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." If that is clean, made white in the blood of the Lamb, the outward life will be clean also. "Blessed are the pure in heart." But the outward show of purity without the inner truth is vain, worthless, contemptible.
7. The seventh woe. They were like the sepulchres around Jerusalem, which, according to Jewish custom, had been whitened a month ago, and still looked bright and clean in the sunlight; within they were full of all uncleanness; their very whiteness was a warning, that men might avoid defilement. So was it with the Pharisees; they made a great show of religion; but that outward show, like the whiteness of the sepulchres, spoke of inward corruption. The true man is humble in heart; he knows his own shortcomings; he makes no display of religion; he walks humbly with his God. Much talk, much show, is an evil sign; it is often an index of an unclean, unconverted heart.
8. The eighth woe. They built and garnished the tombs of the prophets and the righteous. The Lord may possibly have pointed to some of the conspicuous sepulchres which lay before him on the Mount of Olives. They condemned their fathers' crimes; but they owned that they were the children of them which killed the prophets. And, the Lord said, they were like their fathers, they had inherited their fathers'spirit. They would have slain the prophets, had they lived in their time, as now they were about to slay the Christ of God. They honoured the prophets in the distance; they would have hated them in the present. Stier quotes a striking passage from the Berlenberger Bibel: "Ask in Moses times, 'Who are the good people?' They will be Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; but not Moses,—he should be stoned. Ask in Samuel's times, 'Who are the good people?' They will be Moses and Joshua, but not Samuel. Ask in the times of Christ, and they will be all the former prophets with Samuel, but not Christ and his apostles." May the Lord save us from this spirit of unworthy jealousy, and teach us to honour goodness, not only in the remote distance, which is easy, but in immediate proximity to us, which is sometimes, alas for our miserable selfishness! very hard indeed. "Charity envieth not:" follow after charity.
1. Christ is an awful Judge, as well as a most loving Saviour. Take we heed unto ourselves.
2. His wrath must fall on those who oppose his blessed work. Let us help it with all our might.
3. Christ hates hypocrisy. Seek above all things to be real.
4. Party spirit is a poor substitute for true religion. Seek to save souls.
5. Is your outward life blameless? It is well. But it is a small thing in comparison with the infinite preciousness of purity of heart.
Prophecy of their future.
I. THEIR CONTINUANCE IN THE SINS OF THEIR FATHERS.
1. Prediction of their treatment of Christ's disciples. They would fill up the measure of their fathers; the Lord knew it in his Divine foreknowledge. They were still what John the Baptist had once called them—serpents, "a generation of vipers." How were such as they to escape from the condemnation of Gehenna? For hypocrisy hardens the heart. The state of the hypocrite is hopeless, perhaps, beyond that of most other sinners; self-satisfied as he is, he will not repent and come to Christ. "Wherefore," the Lord said, "I send unto you prophets." Mark the majestic "I send;" it asserts his authority, his equality in the truth of his Divine nature with God the Father. Mark the solemn "wherefore;" it contains a depth of inscrutable meaning—meaning full of mercy on the one side, full of awful mystery on the other. He would send his messengers unto them. Then even now he cared for their souls, even now he sought to save them. But he knew in his Divine omniscience how they would treat his servants; they would persecute them, and scourge them in their synagogues; some they would kill and crucify. The mission of the apostles would increase the guilt of the Jews; the good tidings of salvation would be to them, not life, but death. The Divine foreknowledge is not inconsistent with human free will. The Pharisees had the power to choose or to reject the Saviour. He would not have mocked them with the offer of an unattainable salvation, an inaccessible heaven. Yet he knew that they would reject him, for he was God, infinite in knowledge as in all other Divine attributes. That knowledge did not destroy their free agency; it did not remove their guilt. Here is one of those deep mysteries which human thought cannot penetrate; hereafter it shall be revealed.
2. The consequence to themselves. On them would come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth. It must be so; for they had inherited the guilt of their ancestors, and that accumulated inheritance of evil had hardened their hearts into very stone. It must be so; for it was in the course of God's awful justice. As he hardened the heart of Pharaoh, who first hardened his own heart; so now he sent his messengers to the hardened Pharisees, that upon them might come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth. It is the ordinance of God, the law of that human nature which is his work, that wilful sin wilfully persevered in should lead on to guilt deeper yet. It would be so in the case of these hard-hearted Jews. Their obstinate unbelief would soon lead to a crime greater than any which the world, wicked as it was, had seen from the very beginning. That awful crime would fill up the measure of the long catalogue of deeds of blood. It would all fall upon that generation, from the first murder that ever was to the last recorded in the Hebrew canon; for all the accumulated blood guiltiness of mankind would be summed up in the tremendous guilt of those who were so soon about to cry, "His blood be on us, and on our children!" "Verily I say unto you, All these things must come upon this generation." We feel it must be so. We hear the dread sentence, and we bow in silent awe before the judgment of God. And yet we know and feel that Christ cared even for those hard-hearted sinners, and would have saved them in his tender pity. But, alas! they would not come to him, that they might have life.
II. THE LAMENT OVER JERUSALEM.
1. The Lord's love. The stern language of most awful condemnation changes. We hear the tenderest accents of Divine pity, the sad wailing of disappointed love. The Lord had wept over Jerusalem. Now again his sacred heart yearns with mighty compassion for the city which he loved so well tie sorrows over the whole city, not only for the scribes and Pharisees whose hypocrisy he had denounced; his glance takes in the whole population, the poor and ignorant as well as the rich and learned; the deceived as well as the deceivers. His glance takes in all times, not only the present rejection of his grace, the awful guilt that was close at hand; but also their past offences, their past refusals of his offered mercies. Again and again he had wished to gather them together into his little flock, into his holy Church; again and again during his ministry upon earth, again and again before his incarnation, when he sent his warnings from heaven, he would have gathered them together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings. A most touching simile, expressive of yearning affection, of tender solicitude, expressive too of the Lord's power and knowledge, wide-reaching in its range, all-embracing in its individual tenderness. Jerusalem, with its great population, was as a brood of chickens in his sight; he knew all, he cared for all; he would have sheltered all under his wings. But alas! they would not. He wished to gather them together; they did not wish to be gathered under the shelter of the Saviour's love. The Lord clearly asserts the great mystery of man's free will. He willeth that all men should be saved; but he doth not force the will of man. He would draw us to himself by the constraining attraction of love. He does not use his almighty power to compel our obedience. Enforced obedience is without value; enforced love is not love; the very phrase is a contradiction in terms, for love is essentially free and spontaneous. He calls us, he invites us; he warns, he threatens, he chastens; he manifests his love, that the sight of that great love may kindle tire flame of love in our unloving hearts; he came down from heaven for us men and for our salvation; he, the eternal Son of God, became a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; he gave himself to die in the mysterious depth of his exceeding great love; he declares his love by the unanswerable eloquence of the cross. But he leaves us free. Man was made in the image of God. The human will is a sacred thing; it must not be forced, or moral distinctions are lost, and love is annihilated and holiness is impossible. We know it is so, though we cannot solve the perplexing mystery. Let us try to yield up our will to him; to pray the deep holy prayer which he prayed in his agony, "Father, not my will, but thine be done."
2. The consequence of the rejection of his love. "Your house is left unto you desolate." The Lord is about to depart from the temple. It is no longer what it had been—the house of God. He calls it "your house." It had been long without the ark, without the Shechinah; now it would be without the presence of Christ, without the favour of God. It was left desolate—left to them; for God was leaving the temple, the city, the nation. Tacitus and Josephus tell us that, before the fall of Jerusalem, the awful voice of departing Deity was heard, "Let us depart hence." Christ was leaving the temple now. "Ye shall not see me henceforth," he said, "till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord." They would see him, indeed, once again in his sufferings on the cross. They would see, and yet not see, for their eyes were holden. Yet these last words were words of mercy and hope. He looked on through the ages, through the long period of Israel's unbelief and banishment, to the great restoration that is to come, when they shall look on him whom they have pierced, and mourn for him; "and so all Israel shall be saved" (Romans 11:26).
1. As a man lives, so, as a rule, he will die. "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth."
2. Sin leads on to sin, guilt to yet deeper guilt. Take heed betimes.
3. The Lord weeps over the hard hearted. "There is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth." May he soften our hearts and give us true repentance!
HOMILIES BY W.F. ADENEY
The faults of the scribes and Pharisees were not confined to their own private lives. Not only were they formal and unreal themselves, and blameworthy on that account; they were harsh and tyrannical in their treatment of the people. They showed their sanctity in constructing an artificial standard of holiness for other persons to follow. This is a not uncommon fault of professional religionists, and it leads to the imposition of needless burdens of many forms.
I. THE CREATION OF NEEDLESS BURDENS.
1. Their character. These burdens are of various kinds.
2. Their origin. These needless burdens were not imposed by God. He is reasonable and merciful. We must look lower for their origin.
II. THE CREATION OF NEEDLESS BURDENS. This is one of Christ's happy works.
1. The grounds of the removal of them.
2. The method of their removal.
Our Lord does not wish to see the distinctions of Judaism, which had become so odious in his day, repeated in Christianity. He does not desire the dogmatism of the rabbis to be copied by the Christian teachers, or the authority of the rulers to be transferred to the Christian pastors. He does not want his people to think that they can best show their humility by losing their self-respect and cringing before ecclesiastical superiors. In opposition to all such tendencies, he enunciates his principles of Christian equality.
I. THE NATURE OF CHRISTIAN EQUALITY. Christianity is essentially democratic. Jesus Christ was a Man of the people, the greatest Tribune of the people the world has ever seen. He took the side of the oppressed against their oppressors, that of the "dim multitude," not that of the privileged few. His aim in this matter was to bring about a condition of brotherhood. There is a measure of inequality which no arrangements of men can set aside. One man is not always as good as another. People differ enormously in character, in ability, in energy. Therefore absolute equality is impossible. It is impossible according to the constitution of nature, and it is doubly impossible in face of the great variation of human conduct. But there is an equality to be striven for. The equality of Christian brotherhood is to be observed among Christians. Christ's words do not directly apply to the larger society of mankind. This equality should involve an equivalent in religious privileges which are meant to be freely offered to all. It should discourage any artificial distinctions.
II. THE GROUNDS OF CHRISTIAN EQUALITY.
1. The Fatherhood of God. We have one Father in heaven, and undue deference to men in religion obscures the honour due to God.
2. The Lordship of Christ. This is the specifically Christian principle, while the former one is a general religious principle. The Church is not a republic; it is a kingdom with Christ as its Head. Christians are bound to see that they put no one in the place of Christ. He has direct dealings with each of his people. He wants no grand vizier, no local satrap, no intermediate lord. He is the Master of each individual Christian, and every one can go to him personally for instructions.
III. THE VIOLATION OF CHRISTIAN EQUALITY. The words of Christ are ominous of coming dangers. They have a profound significance in the light of subsequent events. It is wonderful that their plain meaning should have been so egregiously disregarded as to permit of the construction of a monstrous ecclesiastical hierarchy in one direction and the creation of a system of dogmatic orthodoxy in another. Forgetting Christ and the privilege of closest relationship with him, Christian people have bowed their necks to the tyranny of various ecclesiastical masters and theological fathers. Order requires the appointment of officers in the Church, and truth demands respect for knowledge and for the capacity to teach. But it is a mistake, a wrong to God and Christ, to show such deference to human authorities as shall be false to Christian liberty.—W.F.A.
The woe of the hypocrites.
A most important part of the work of Christ was to expose the utterly false and worthless character of the venerated religious leaders of his day. It was a thankless task, one that brought odium on the head of its Author. A weaker man would have shrunk from it, and a less sensitive man might have enjoyed the humiliation it inflicted on his enemies. But Jesus was neither cowardly nor censorious. Therefore he rebuked the venerated religionists, and yet we know the necessity of doing so must have been most repulsive to him.
I. THE CHARACTER OF THE HYPOCRITES.
1. Speciously religious. There was an appearance of sanctity in the Pharisees and a pretence of orthodoxy in the scribes that won for both a reputation of religious superiority. The world has never been without persons of brilliant external appearances in religion, and these persons have always had "their reward" (Matthew 6:2).
2. Inwardly false. Our Lord saw that the religion was unreal, that it was only worn as a garment for show. This is the characteristic of the hypocrite. He is more than a pretender; he is consciously false to his pretences; he is a living lie.
3. Acting a part. The hypocrite is an actor. He dresses his character and poses so as to win the admiration of other people. His very course in life is planned and carried out with a theatrical intention. This intention is the explanation of the glaring contradiction between the mask and the real countenance.
II. THE WICKEDNESS OF THE HYPOCRITES. This is twofold.
1. The hindrance of others. The scribes and Pharisees prevented simpler people from entering the kingdom of heaven. This they did partly by confusing their minds with false notions, and partly by discouraging their efforts in setting before them vexatious precepts and needless, impossible requirements. It is a mark of hypocrisy to represent religion as a very difficult attainment, and to lay claim to superior sanctity by the easy method of setting up a high, or rather a false and unattainable, standard for other people.
2. Their own failure. These hypocrites behaved like the dog in the manger. Their harshness to other people did not help their own cause. No one enters the kingdom of heaven by keeping other people out of it. Religious selfishness is doomed to disappointment.
III. THE DOOM OF THE HYPOCRITES.
1. Its exposure. For a time these people live in honour, and their skilful arts of deception seem to secure them against any discovery of their hollow and unreal characters. But this calm security cannot last long. Even if it is maintained till the end of the present life, it must vanish like smoke in the great apocalypse of the future judgment. God knows all from the beginning, and if he does not at once reveal the wicked falsehood, it cannot be because this ever imposes upon him. In his own time he will unveil it.
2. Its punishment. God hates lies, and he is angry against those who put stumbling blocks in the way of children and humble persons (Matthew 18:6, Matthew 18:7). The hypocrites who are guilty of both of these faults are doubly culpable in the sight of Heaven. Their condemnation is just.—W.F.A.
The gnat and the camel.
It was characteristic of the scribes and Pharisees to strain out the gnat and yet to swallow the camel. They would be very careful in avoiding minute formal improprieties, while they committed great sins without compunction.
I. THE EVIL HAUNT. This is seen in many forms today.
1. In moral conduct. People are found to be very scrupulous about points of politeness, and very negligent of real kindness. They will not offend an acquaintance with a harsh phrase, and yet they will ruin him if they can outwit him in a business transaction. There are persons of strict Puritanism, who forbid even innocent forms of amusement for their children, and yet who are self-indulgent, ill-tempered, uncharitable, and covetous. Such people swallow many a huge camel, while sedulously straining the gnats out of their children's cup of pleasure.
2. In religious observances. The greatest care is taken for the correct observance of ritual, while the spirit of devotion is neglected; a rigid standard of orthodoxy is insisted on, but living faith is neglected; a punctual performance of Church ordinances is accompanied by a total disregard for the will of God and the obligations of obedience.
II. THE SOURCE OF THIS HABIT.
1. Hypocrisy. This was the source in the case of the scribes and Pharisees, as our Lord himself indicated. It is easier to attend to minutiae of conduct than to be right in the great fundamental principles; to rectify these a resolution, a regeneration of character, is required; but to set the superficial details in a certain state of decency and order involves no such serious change. Moreover, the little superficial points are obvious to all people, and, like Chinese puzzles, challenge admiration on account of their very minuteness.
2. Small-mindedness. In some cases there may be no conscious hypocrisy. But a littleness of thinking and acting has dwarfed the whole area of observation. The small soul is able to see the gnat, but it cannot even perceive the existence of the camel. It is so busy with the fussy trivialities on which it prides itself, that it has no power left to attend to weightier matters.
III. THE CURE OF THE HABIT.
1. By the revelation of its existence. When the foolish thing is done in all simplicity and good faith, it only needs to be seen to be rejected. When it is the fruit of sheer hypocrisy, the exposure of it will, of course, make it clear that the performance will no longer win the plaudits of the crowd; and then, as there will be no motive to continue in it, the actor will lay his part aside. But this does not imply a real cure. For that we must go further.
2. By the gift of a larger life. We are all of us more or less cramped by our own pettiness, and just in proportion as we are self-centred and self-contained shall we give attention to small things. We want to be lifted out of ourselves, we need the awakening of our higher spiritual powers. It is the object of Christ to effect this grand change. When he takes possession of the soul he sets all things in their true light. Then we can strive for great objects, fight great sins, win great victories, and forget the gnats in the magnitude of the camels.—W.F.A.
Building the tombs of the prophets.
In the rather vulgar architectural restoration which went on during the days of the Herods, it might often be seen that old, venerated, but ruinous tombs were being rebuilt and decorated afresh. The process was significant of behaviour which is often repeated in other places and in other ages.
I. GOOD MEN, ILL TREATED DURING THEIR LIFETIME, ARE HONOURED AFTER THEIR DEATH. The world venerates its own martyrs. In course of time, it comes to lavish extravagant honours on the men whom it treated as the very scum of the earth during their lifetime. Most conspicuous has this been in the case of Jesus Christ himself—despised, rejected, insulted, crucified while on earth, yet now at least respected, even by those who have not learnt to love him. No doubt this admits of explanation. There are characters which men do not quickly understand or appreciate. A life is not complete until it is finished, and the whole meaning of it cannot be read until we can see it as a whole. A great man is in advance of his age, and only the later age, which has been in some measure educated up to him by the very influence of his life and teaching, is in a position to comprehend him. But while all this is natural, it is not the less unfortunate. What is the use of honours heaped on the grave of the silent dead? The laurels we pile on their tombs cannot bring joy to those who are no longer with us. There is a grim irony in the common custom of waiting for their death before recognizing the merits of the best men. The applause that, bursts out so rapturously after they have left the stage is of no comfort to them now. It would have been better to have shown them more kindness during their lifetime. In homelier regions much heartbreaking might be spared, and many bitter regrets avoided, if we would take care to show the affection and forbearance for our dear ones in their lifetime which we shall vainly yearn to render them when it is too late.
II. THEY WHO HONOUR THE DEAD MAY BE UNGENEROUS TO THE LIVING. The Jews venerated their ancient prophets, and yet they persecuted contemporary prophets. The very qualities which made the great dead so glorious in their eyes were seen in John the Baptist and Jesus, only to be treated with contempt or even with anger. In the Christian Church it has been the fashion to look back with semi-adoration on "the Fathers;" but possibly men as good and great have been living in our own day. Descendants of the Puritans, who were the champions of freedom a century or two ago, have been most repressive towards those who have inherited the liberty-loving spirit of the Puritans. But in commemorating the deeds of Christian heroism of the past, we condemn ourselves if we will not give every encouragement to the true heroes of the present. Now it must never be forgotten that the prophets were unpopular in their day; that they protested against prevalent beliefs and fashionable practices; that they denounced the sins of social and religious leaders. The disposition to honour such men should justify itself by allowing a larger liberty to the advanced thinkers and the earnest reformers of our own times.—W.F.A.
The lament over Jerusalem.
These are among the most touching words ever uttered by our Lord. They reveal his strong patriotism, his deep human affection, the greatness of the salvation he brought, and at the same time the frustration of the hopes which these things naturally raise, owing to the stubborn self-will of the Jews. Here is a lesson for all time.
I. THE GUILTY CITY.
1. No city was more privileged. Jerusalem was the favoured city of a favoured land. David, the great singer, celebrated her praises; David, the great king, raised her fortunes. But better than royal fame was her religious glory. Great prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, taught in her streets. More than once signal Divine providences helped her in direst necessity. Here was the temple of the Divine Presence. Finally the city was honoured by the coming of Christ.
2. No city was more sinful. When account is taken of her privileges, Jerusalem excels in guilt as she excels in favour. The most favoured people prove to be the most ungrateful and rebellious. She murders her best friends. She crowns her guilt by delivering her Christ up to death.
II. THE PITYING SAVIOUR. Jesus is grieved and loth to think of the doom of the wicked city.
1. It was his own city. Not his native city, but the capital of his land, and the royal city, to which he came as King (Jeremiah 21:4, Jeremiah 21:5). Jesus was a patriot.
2. It was the city of God. Its ruin was like the ruin of God's own daughter. They who have once known God touch the heart of Christ with peculiar compassion when they lose their happy privilege.
3. It was a doomed city. Already with prophetic eye Jesus saw the Roman legions compassing it about. It lay as the prey ready for the eagle. The heart of Jesus grieves over the sinner's doom.
III. THE WONDERFUL SALVATION. By a homely and yet most touching illustration Jesus tells what he has longed to do for the city in its peril.
1. He comes to save. This is his great mission, and his salvation begins with "the house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24).
2. He is able to save. Jesus speaks with the utmost confidence. He can save a whole city; nay, we know he can save a whole world. No doubt, if Jerusalem had accepted Christ and his teaching, the mad revolt which called down the vengeance of Rome would have been prevented. But in his deeper work, as our Lord has redeemed many of the worst profligates, he has shown himself able to save all men.
3. He offers to save. The pathos of this wonderful utterance of Jesus lies in his own heartfelt desire and its disappointment. With long suffering patience he repeats his often-rejected offer. He stands at the door, and knocks.
IV. THE FINAL DOOM. The house is to be left desolate at last.
1. There is an end to the opportunity for escape. This has lasted long. Many were the occasions when Jesus would have welcomed the people of Jerusalem, and have extended to them his saving grace. But at last the end has come. The day of grace must be followed by the day of judgment.
2. Even Christ's desire to save may be frustrated. It is not enough to know that he yearns to save. Men may be lost now, as Jerusalem was lost.
3. Obstinate rejection of Christ will lead to ruin. Man's will may thus frustrate Christ's desire. Note: It was not for stoning the prophets, but for rejecting Christ's salvation, that Jerusalem was ultimately doomed. Christ can save from the worst sin; but none can be saved who wilfully reject him.—W.F.A.
HOMILIES BY MARCUS DODS
Pharisees and Sadducees.
The Pharisees first appear under this name in Jewish history about the year B.C. 160. There had been Separatists, or Puritans, as far back as the Captivity, but it was alter the return to Palestine that events gave an impulse to the Separatist idea so strong as to consolidate what might otherwise have remained a tendency. The Jews had learned the value of commerce, and it was found impossible, in dealing with foreign merchants, to observe the minute regulations prescribed by the more zealous. The minority, who even pretended to this, were obliged to become Separatists, not only from the Gentiles, but from their own less scrupulous coreligionists. Hence their frequent connection with the scribes. There had always been scribes in Israel, men who could draw state or legal documents. But after the influence of Ezra had stimulated, if it had not created, a desire to know the Law, synagogues were to be found in every town. And a synagogue implied a copy of the Law and a person who could read it. The scribes therefore necessarily became a profession, with just such a curriculum for pupils and candidates as distinguish professions among ourselves. It was inevitable that they should acquire great influence among the people. For in their best days they were the guardians of the Law, and strove unceasingly to make it supreme over every act of every person. Not only did the scribe discharge all the functions of a modern lawyer, but he was appealed to in all circumstances where the application of the law might seem obscure. They were both the makers of the law and its administrators, and they did not scruple, sitting apart; from active life, to enforce on men engaged in it all the wire drawn and fantastic distinctions which their minds, imbecile with attention to the letter of the Law and with unpractical pedantry, could contrive. It was this inconsiderate exercise of their authority which provoked our Lord's rebuke. But burdensome as was the teaching of the scribes, two causes operated to make them the most popular members of the community.
1. To them was committed the key of the kingdom of heaven; they had power to bind and loose—they alone could give a man assurance that he had actually attained to the righteousness required by the Law.
2. The people were at one with them in their grand aim to give the Law absolute sway over the life of every Jew. The Pharisees who did live as the scribes enjoined, were in the eyes of the people the true Israel, the pattern Jews. The scribes and Pharisees, then, though not identical, were closely related, so closely that our Lord subjects them to one common rebuke. The Zealots, who repudiated any king but Jehovah, and refused to pay tribute to Caesar, were the natural result of Pharisaic teaching. And indeed the Pharisees did themselves refuse to swear allegiance to Herod. They may be looked on, therefore, as the national party. Their influence was not solely and throughout evil, for to them and to the scribes was due the knowledge of the Law to which our Lord so often appealed. But the grave defects of their teaching, and its ruinous influences on the religious character, are so distinctly enounced in the Gospels that they need not be dwelt on. The origin of the Sadducees explains their position in the state. It is generally agreed that they take their name from Zadok, who was elevated to the high priesthood by Solomon. It was the same line which inherited the office after the Exile, and through all the changes in the Hebrew state the high priests maintained great influence, and in our Lord's time we find them still sitting as presidents in the highest court, the Sanhedrin. Still, also, there were grouped round them the Sadducees! It was to this party that men of wealth, men in office, and men of pure priestly descent, attached themselves, although many of the priests leant more to the Pharisees. They lived in luxury, and their morality was not high. At the same time, whether from envy of the popularity of the Pharisees, or from common sense, they resisted the Pharisaic additions to the Law. Thus they refused to accept the doctrine of the resurrection, not being able to find it in the Books of Moses. They are rarely mentioned in the Gospels, because they were mostly in Jerusalem, and their ideas had found no acceptance with the people. From the leaven of Pharisaism, or ultra-legalism, three mischievous results follow.
1. The minute regulations which are extended to the whole of life leave no room for conscience to exercise itself, and accordingly it pines and dies.
2. Minute observances obtain a magnified importance.
3. The bare performance of the duty enjoined is reckoned everything, while the state of heart is overlooked. We shall escape the leaven of the Pharisee if we learn to pay more attention to the heart than to the conduct; if we have so true a delight in pleasing the Lord that we do not consider what men think of us. The leaven of the Sadducees is perhaps even more certainly fatal to true religion. The Pharisee has sincerity, though it is quite superficial; he has zeal, though misdirected; but the Sadducee has neither. He is all for this world, and, save to forward him in it, religion is an encumbrance. His heart is not gladdened with any loving thoughts of God, nor his spirit refreshed by fellowship with the unseen world. If we escape these influences we shall do what few have done. For all men are under the temptation either to make too much of the observances of religion or to make them a mere form. Worldliness deadens a man's spirit to spiritual impressions, and gradually saps his faith till he ceases to believe in anything but the palpable world with which he has now to do. On the other hand, if the leaven of the Pharisee prevails to the extent of making us fear God more than we love him, and do by constraint what we ought to do because we delight in it, we are in as unwholesome a state as the Sadducee we reprobate.—D.
HOMILIES BY J.A. MACDONALD
Ethics of authority.
After Jesus had put the Jewish sectaries to silence, he addressed his disciples and the people, who had witnessed his encounters, as to how they should deport themselves in respect to the scribes and Pharisees.
I. SECULAR AUTHORITY SHOULD BE RESPECTED.
1. Jewish magistrates were to be obeyed.
2. Pagan rulers are to be obeyed.
II. THE EXAMPLE OF EVIL RULERS MUST BE AVOIDED.
1. As inconsistent teachers.
2. As inconsistent workers.
3. As examples of pride and ostentation.
III. CHRIST MUST BE EXALTED EVERMORE.
1. By refusing the arrogance of his enemies.
2. By cultivating true humility.
3. Christ will abase the proud, and exalt the humble.
The credit of the Church.
The Church of God is a unity throughout the ages. It is more proper to speak of the Christian dispensation of the Church than of the Christian Church as opposed to the Jewish. This unity exists, not only through the ages, but also throughout the universe. While its headquarters are in heaven, there has ever been a visible representation upon the earth. This is sometimes called "the Church;" in the Gospels it is distinguished as "the kingdom of heaven." In this sense we now speak of it. Note, then—
I. THAT THE CHURCH IS TROUBLED BY THE INTRUSION OF HYPOCRITES.
1. They enter it for selfish ends.
2. In it they are obstructive to good.
(a) In Jacob's departing sceptre of Judah.
(b) In Moses' Prophet.
(c) In Daniel's weeks. They shut their eyes.
(a) They were hindered by their example (see John 7:48).
(b) By their doctrine, in cavilling against Christ (see Matthew 12:24; John 9:16).
(c) By their authority, in the threat of excommunication (see John 9:22).
(d) Therefore only the violent could force an entrance into the kingdom (see Matthew 11:12; Luke 16:16).
3. They promoted evil.
(a) Hypocrisy is itself the offspring of hell, for it originates with the "father of lies."
(b) "Twofold more." The Hellenist Jews, who were mostly proselytes, were the bitterest enemies of the apostles (see Acts 13:45; Acts 14:2, Acts 14:19; Acts 17:5; Acts 18:6). Truth falsified is worse than simple falsity. Half-truths are the most vicious lies.
(c) The proselytes were trained by the Pharisees in wicked sophistry, which palliated vice and substituted ceremony for piety. They were also taught to practise evil with less remorse and greater subtlety than they had been accustomed to in their former condition.
II. THAT IT IS UNFAIRLY CHARGED WITH THEIR VICES.
1. Unbelief seeks to fasten their scandal upon it.
2. But this is manifestly unfair.
III. GOD WILL VINDICATE THE CREDIT OF HIS CHURCH.
1. By separating the hypocrites from it.
2. By dooming them to perdition.
(a) There are degrees of damnation
(b) Pretences of religion will aggravate the torments of the lost.
(c) The gospel curses are the sorer (cf. Hebrews 10:29).
Who can entreat for him against whom the great Intercessor pleads? A "woe" from Christ has no remedy. No such wrath as that of the Lamb! "Three woes are made to look very dreadful (Rev 8:13-9:12); but here are eight woes, in opposition to the eight Beatitudes (Matthew 5:4)" (Henry).
3. By rebuking their accomplices. The open sinner is an accomplice with the very hypocrite he affects to scorn, in rejecting and crucifying the Just One. All sinners will have "their portion with the hypocrites" (see Matthew 24:51).—J.A.M.
From the doings of the scribes and Pharisees the Lord passes to their teaching; and he commences with their refinement in respect to oaths. There is no reference here to judicial swearing, or deposing upon oath before a magistrate in the interests of public justice. The whole argument goes to show that the swearing here referred to is the voluntary and gratuitous.
I. SWEARING ORIGINATES IN FALSEHOOD.
1. Simple assertion, is the sufficient bond of a true man.
2. More than affirmation is from an evil source.
II. IT TENDS TO EQUIVOCATION.
1. The Pharisees invented evasive distinctions.
2. These distinctions were false in fact.
3. They are demoralizing.
III. IT INJURES REVERENCE.
1. It is a breach of the commandments.
2. It is a violation of the gospel law.
IV. IT DECEIVES AND ENSNARES.
1. The guides are blind.
2. But God is not deceived.
Matthew 23:23, Matthew 23:24
Our Lord proceeds to pronounce upon the hypocrite the woe of his other evils. Note—
I. THE LAW HAS ITS "WEIGHTIER MATTERS."
1. These are its moral precepts.
(a) Justice in principle.
(b) Justice in practice.
(a) Faith in the sense of creed, or truth in belief. A true creed is of great importance.
(b) Faith in the sense of sincerity, in opposition to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Those called hypocrites are otherwise described as unbelievers (cf. Matthew 24:51; Luke 12:46; 1 Timothy 4:2, 1 Timothy 4:3).
(c) Faith in the sense of fidelity or faithfulness, viz. to God first, then also to man (cf. Micah 6:8; Luke 11:42).
2. Its ceremonies are for the sake of its morals.
II. THE HYPOCRITE INVERTS GOD'S ORDER.
1. He is punctilious to trifles.
2. He misses important things.
Our Lord continues to denounce woes against hypocrites, both for what they do and for what they are. The relation between doing and being is constant. These things are written for our learning.
I. THE HYPOCRITE IS WOEFULLY GUILTY.
1. He is guilty of heart wickedness.
"Nature, like a beauteous wall,
Doth oft close in pollution."
2. He is guilty of deceiving others.
(a) Unconverted men must be hypocrites to be endured. Society would be intolerable but for its veneer.
(b) The children of nature are readily deceived in a world of hypocrites. Their pride and self-conceit leads them to credit themselves with virtues; and the Pharisee deceives them.
(c) But that religious persons should "believe in human nature" only shows how successfully the hypocrite may even "deceive the very elect."
(d) The believers in human nature are liable to trust in it instead of Christ for their salvation, and perish in their delusion.
3. He is guilty of insulting God.
II. THE HYPOCRITE IS CRIMINALLY BLIND.
1. God requires truth in the heart.
(a) In the provision of the atonement.
(b) In the gift of the Holy Spirit.
(c) Through faith the righteousness of the Law may not only become "imputed to us," but also "fulfilled in us."
2. The hypocrite imposes upon himself.
Judgment and mercy.
We come now to the eighth and last of this series of woes denounced by Christ against the wicked, which stands in striking contrast to the eighth and last of the Beatitudes (cf. Matthew 5:10-12). Note—
I. THAT INSTEAD OF THE FATHERS COME UP THE CHILDREN OF THE WICKED.
1. The fathers of the wicked were the persecutors of the good.
(a) Rulers are generally what the people will have them. "Like people. like priest" (cf. Isaiah 24:2; Jeremiah 5:30, Jeremiah 5:31; Hosea 4:9).
(b) So contrariwise, people are demoralized by their rulers.
2. The children of wickedness confess while they denounce their fathers.
II. THAT THE SINS OF AGES MAY BE VISITED UPON A SINGLE GENERATION.
1. Judgment is provoked by persistent impenitence.
2. Its severity follows in the wake of mercy.
III. THAT A CHRISTLESS HORSE IS A WOEFUL DESOLATION.
1. So it proved in the days of the fathers.
2. So it proved in the days of their children.
3. The children of wickedness are not exclusively Jewish.
IV. THAT THE LONG SUFFERING OF CHRIST IS SALVATION.
1. The Jews will yet see Christ in his glory.
2. They will all acknowledge him then.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
The sin of inconsistency.
"For they say, and do not." To our Lord the supreme offence was contradiction between saying and doing, appearance and fact, outside and inside, show and reality. A man who is himself consciously sincere is always keen to detect, quick to revolt against, insincerity in others. But if inconsistency is mischievous in any man, it is doubly mischievous in religious teachers, and in persons occupying prominent positions of influence. Probably the reference of our Lord to "scribes and Pharisees" is intended to limit his denunciation to particular classes of Pharisees—those who were learned in the Law, and professed to teach the Law. It really means "those Pharisees who were also scribes." And when Jesus adds the word "hypocrites," he really limits his denunciation to such as were hypocrites.
I. INCONSISTENCY IS THE PERIL OF OFFICIALS. Whatever is done regularly as a duty is in danger of being done perfunctorily. The heart may go with the act at first, but the constancy and the outwardness soon involve the failing of heart interest, and presently the heart is occupied with one thing and the hands with another; and even the desire for harmony between the interests of heart and hand can easily be lost. This is the common peril of all officials—priests, clergy, statesmen, teachers, secretaries; and the peril is never so great as in cases of religion. Cases of open inconsistency may happily be infrequent in the Christian ministry, but the fear of inconsistency should always be present to the mind of those who hold office, and make them watchful and zealous concerning their own integrity. A teacher never has his true power unless heart and hand go well together.
II. INCONSISTENCY IS THE PERIL OF DISCIPLES. Our Lord was anxious concerning the influence of the model teachers of his day on the men who were to teach his truth after he ascended. So his words are intended to be a solemn warning to them. What scribes said was more worthy and more important than what they did. What our Lord's disciples were and did was always much more important than what they said. To do Christ's work in the world, our words must always precisely utter our hearts. But show the danger of overstating religious feeling and experience, and so weakening our force by the suggestion of inconsistency.
III. INCONSISTENCY IS THE PERIL OF THE PEOPLE. For if they see it in their teachers, they readily take up the idea that it is permissible in themselves, and so Christ's truth is dishonoured and his service misconceived.—R.T.
The fascination of human praise.
"All their works they do for to be seen of men." It is right for us to desire acceptance and favour with our fellow men. The desire for human praise is a proper incentive and inspiration, which no moralist can afford to underestimate. But in relation to it, we must apply the ever-working law of Christian moderation. The love of praise very readily becomes an absorbing mania, and, like all manias, it implies mental and moral deterioration. A man may come to live for praise, and make a life aim of getting his fellows' admiration. If he does, he will drift ever downward, until he even tries to get praise for the cut of his garments, the grace of his bow, and the politeness of his speech. He will even be pleased when ignorant street people gape at his phylacteries and the wide borders of his garments; and everywhere he will be asserting himself, and pushing into the chief places; making himself disagreeable by trying to make himself admirable.
I. HUMAN PRAISE AS AN INSPIRATION. It is not the highest and best inspiration. It is only an inspiration. The loyal-hearted and high-toned man seeks Divine acceptance. "Study to show thyself approved unto God." But men can help others by kindly approvals. And the hope of gaining approval does worthily influence grown men as well as young children. Show
II. HUMAN PRAISE AS A SNARE. In the case of these scribes we see that it made them untrue to themselves. They soon found out what men stared at and admired, and then set themselves to provide it, heedless as to whether it expressed their real selves or not. Human praise cultivates vanity, a meaner vice than pride. Vanity differs from pride partly in this—the proud man generally has something to be proud about; the vain man is vain concerning just himself, and wants flattery, yearns for it, lives on it, will demean himself if only he can get it, feeds his vanity on praise, and never minds though the praise is worthless in its insincerity.—R.T.
The equality of believers.
"And all ye are brethren." The kindliness and mutual helpfulness of brotherhood are not prominent in our Lord's mind at this time. He was rather thinking of the equality of the brothers in one family. All are sons. No one of them is any more than a son. No one of them has any rights over his brother. The variety of gifts, talents, and dispositions in no way affects the equal rights of the brotherhood. All who push themselves into chief places, bid for special greetings, or claim to be masters—if they presume to call themselves Christ's disciples—sin against the equality of the Christian brotherhood.
I. THE EQUALITY OF THE BROTHERHOOD IS BASED ON THE COMMON SONSHIP. If our standing in Christ depended on the Divine recognition of peculiarities in us; or if we gained it upon superior merit or upon special endeavour, there might be orders and gradations in the Christian discipleship. But brothers are just born into families; they are brothers because they are sons, and for no other reason; the bond uniting them is the common family life. So we are born of God; made sons apart from all effort of our own; quickened with a Divine life whose operations we cannot control. And we are all quickened and saved and made sons in just the same way. Rich or poor, there is for all the one "laver of regeneration." We are brothers because we are sons; and as we are nothing but sons, so we are nothing but brothers.
II. THE EQUALITY OF THE BROTHERHOOD ADMITS OF VARIETIES IN ABILITY. The diversity of character and of gifts in a family is the subject of constant remark. It is a commonplace. But noble natures never make such diversity a reason for claiming superiority. The most talented members are often the most brotherly. The family bond is not affected by personal peculiarities. There are diversifies of gifts in God's redeemed family. We always go wrong when, on account of some gift, we assert ourselves and break the brotherhood.
III. THE EQUALITY OF THE BROTHERHOOD IS SEEN IN MUTUAL SERVICE. It is not that some one member is served by the rest, but that each is ready to serve the other. Each holds his gift at the command of the other. True, a brother's gift may put him in some office; but he is there to serve, not to rule. This idea is preserved, in idea at least, in every section of Christ's Church. The highest offices are never other than brotherly places of service. Our ministers are our brethren.—R.T.
Greatness finding expression in service.
This setting of truth was repeated by our Lord again and again, and variously illustrated by parable and by example (as in our Lord's washing the disciples' feet). He must have been much impressed by the unreadiness to serve which distinguished the prominent religionists of his days. The Pharisee class was always scheming to get—to get wealth, to get praise, to get credit. He never saw them giving, or trying to do anything for anybody. They were always standing on their dignity. They loved "salutations in the market places," everybody paying special deference to these learned and holy men. Even the little boys pulling off their turbans, and bowing low as the great man passed. It was in the mind of Christ to set a complete contrast to all this before the people; and he would have his disciples continue his example. But it should be clearly shown that our Lord's example was in no sense put on; it was the natural and proper expression of his principles and spirit.
I. A MAN IS IN NO SENSE GREAT WHO THINKS CHIEFLY ABOUT HIMSELF. This is what Christ teaches. This is not what the world teaches. If a man is to "get on," the world says he must take care of "number one." Christ says he may get on, that way, but he will never get up. The inspiration is low which a man gives himself. The old-world idea of greatness was summed up in the ideas of position and achievement. In connection with our text, set out before you a self-centred Pharisee, and say whether that man is, in any sense at all, great. What can you admire in him? No doubt he thinks himself great; but is he? Evidently Christ has raised our standard of judgment, and we find we only despise the man whose life circles round himself.
II. A MAN IS GREAT WHO THINKS CHIEFLY ABOUT WHAT HE CAN DO FOR OTHERS. Christ has recovered "ministry," and ennobled it forever. Recovered it, because:
1. It was God's primal idea for the human race. When he made man male and female, he established the law of mutual service. When he made parents and children, he glorified the law of mutual service, and lifted motherhood into the first human place. When he permitted sickness, trouble, and poverty in his world, he called for a brotherhood of sympathizing service.
2. It was man's mischief making to interfere with God's dignity of service. This man did when, in his wilfulness, he organized society, built cities, made offices, and set one man above another. Then everybody soon began to think what advantage he could get over his brother, instead of what he could do to serve him.—R.T.
The woe of the hypocrite.
The word "woe" is repeated again and again in this chapter, and yet the reader of it fails to realize what the woe denounced precisely was. The suggestive word is left by Christ. It is enough to tell these men that they are surely heaping up woe for themselves in the latter day. Some hint of the coming woe may be given in the closing verses of the chapter, which indicate a time of sorest humiliation, of hopeless ruin. Jewish literature gives quite as bad a picture of them as Jesus did. "Fear not true Pharisees, but greatly fear painted Pharisees," said a Jewish ruler to his wife, when he was dying. "The supreme tribunal," said another, "will duly punish hypocrites who wrap their talliths around them to appear—what they are not—true Pharisees."
I. WHAT THINGS WERE HEAPING UP WOE FOR THESE HYPOCRITES. Our Lord marks several things in which their hypocrisy was especially manifest.
1. Their professing to be spiritual teachers, yet keeping the people from receiving spiritual truth (Matthew 23:13).
2. They joined devout prayers for desolate widows with a grasping covetousness that seized the widows' property and ruined them.
3. They made proselytes, so to say, to righteousness, but compelled them to be as bitter, base, and uncharitable as themselves.
4. They made foolish distinctions, which they took care did not hinder themselves.
5. They appeared to be most delicately scrupulous, but in their conduct they allowed the grossest and most abominable licence.
6. They were supremely anxious about the look of things; they were wickedly indifferent about the real condition of things.
7. They wanted men to admire them in public, but they dare not let any one see their private lives. It is easy enough to see that, for such men, a revealing day must come, and, when it came, it would prove humiliation and woe indeed. It is woe for such men to be found out. It was a beginning of woe for Jesus thus to show them up before the people, and make them objects of scorn and detestation.
II. WHAT PERSONS SUFFERED WOE BECAUSE OF THE HYPOCRITE. For the religious hypocrite is a woe-maker. And this point may be opened out with some treshness. Every religiously insincere man:
1. Makes woe for himself. He has no enemy like himself.
2. He makes woe for the religious community to which he belongs. He prays against their prayers; he brings disgrace on them when he is found out.
3. He makes woe for society, which learns, by his failure, the misery of mutual mistrust.
4. He even brings dishonour on the name and cause of God.—R.T.
The peril of making proselytes.
The term "proselytes" is used, and not "converts" or "disciples." it is employed when the idea to be conveyed is "persuasion" to accept some particular opinion or hobby, or to join some particular system or party. "Conversion" suggests an inward change and renewal; "proselyting" suggests outward association with a party. "Conversion" is full of hope; "proselyting" is full of peril. The word was used by the Jews for persons who had been heathen, but had accepted Judaism, and they distinguished between
I. THE PERIL OF MAKING PROSELYTES FOR THOSE WHO MAKE THEM. Open such points as these:
1. A man must exaggerate sectarian differences before he can try to win proselytes to an opinion.
2. A man must make more of the outward form than the inward spirit.
3. A man is only too likely to use bad means in gaining such an end.
4. A man who makes proselytes honours himself rather than God.
5. And such a man is only too likely to be deceived in the result he attains.
II. THE PERIL OF MAKING PROSELYTES FOR THOSE WHO ARE MADE. Open these points:
1. Men may be overpressed to accept opinions on which they have really formed no judgment.
2. Perverts notoriously exaggerate the formalities of the new creed they adopt, and become bitterest partisans.—R.T.
The scruples of the formalist.
"Strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel." The proverbial character of this sentence is manifest, but the precise form is disputed. Trench thinks "straining out a gnat" is better; and he suggests reference to the scrupulous anxiety shown in drinking water. A traveller in North Africa reports that a Moorish soldier who accompanied him, when he drank, always unfolded the end of his turban, and placed it over the mouth of his bota, drinking through the muslin, to strain out the gnats, whose larvae swarm in the water of that country. The "camel" is only used in the proverb as the representative of something big. The Hindoo proverbial saying is, "Swallowing an elephant, and being choked with a flea." Reference must be kept to the class of persons that may be regarded as represented by hypocritical Pharisees.
I. HE WHO PRESERVES THE SPIRIT CAN ADAPT THE FORMS. No man may say that the forms of religion are unimportant. They have their place, and only need to be kept in their right place. But life comes before expression of life; and spirit comes before form. Being "born from above" is more important than any religious rite., even the most sacred. Only the man who has the spirit can bear right relations to the forms. He will use them. He will not be mastered by them. He understands that forms were made for him, and he was not made for the forms. They must, therefore, be adjusted to him and to his needs. To him all forms are servants. Authority in the forms of religion may be voluntarily recognized; but a man's own quickened life is the supreme authority to him.
II. HE WHO UNDULY ESTIMATES THE FORM WILL SOON BE ENSLAVED BY THE FORM. The student of human nature, who considers the sense-conditions under which we are set, will argue that it must always be so. He who observes Christian life, or skilfully reads personal experience, will declare that it is so. Once let religious forms and ceremonies control conduct, break bounds of the restraint of soul life, and they will run as does loosened fire; they will overlay the spiritual feeling; they will absorb all the powers; and become supreme interests; and when the spirit is thus overlaid, the result too often follows which we see in these Pharisees—exaggerated scruples about exact and minute forms going along with a demoralizing indifference to moral purity.—R.T.
Appearance and reality.
"Ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity." This is the revelation, not of a mere observer of men, but of a Divine Heart searcher, a Divine Thought reader.
I. MAN JUDGES BY THE OUTWARD APPEARANCE, AND MAKES MISTAKES. When Samuel saw the handsome eldest son of Jesse, he said, "Surely the Lord's anointed is before him." But he was reproved. "The Lord seeth not as man sooth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).
1. Man can only judge by the help of appearances, because he cannot read the heart.
2. Man is disposed to judge of religion by appearances, because he is daily judging everything in this way.
3. Man is always liable to make mistakes, because appearances often accidentally, and more often intentionally, fail to present realities. The peril of trusting to appearances may be illustrated by the way in which goods are dressed up to attract sale. The same thing is found in religious spheres. Credit is gained by the show of piety; and the hypocrite is ever over-anxious about his external observances. Our Lord's figure of the cup is common to every age; his figure of the "whited sepulchres" belongs to the East. Sepulchres were whited so that Jews might not unconsciously walk over them, seeing that this involved ceremonial defilement. The outsides of burial places were whitewashed once a year. It is not enough to see a man's devoutness at church. See him at home. See him in business. See him in private prayer. See him as God sees him.
II. GOD JUDGES BY THE INWARD REALITY, AND MAKES NO MISTAKE. He looks inside the cup. He knows what is inside the sepulchre. He reads the secret life of the fastidiously devout Pharisees. He finds David right hearted, and chooses him rather than his handsome brother. St. Paul intimates that the Christian man should be so absolutely sincere and true, that he could readily stand out in the sunshine, and let it look him through and through, and round and round. See how the good man comes altogether to prefer the Divine appraisement, and to say, "Search me, O God, and know my heart." Impress that when the man is heart right with God, he is properly anxious about his appearance before men. He wants that to tell, as fully as possible, the truth of his inner life.—R.T.
Revised Version, "Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell?" margin, "Gehenna." It is neither right nor wise to attempt any mitigations or modifications of this intensely severe sentence. Let the words stand precisely as we find them; and let the sentence be the sternest, severest, intensest sentence that ever passed the Divine lips of our blessed Lord. Capable of being misunderstood and misrepresented, they are capable also of most rational and most reasonable explanation. All we have to do is to inquire whether the persons referred to, and the circumstances under which the words were uttered, would justify a noble-minded man in speaking so intensely. If they would. then Jesus is justified.
I. THESE DENUNCIATIONS, READ IN THE LIGHT OF THE PERSONS DENOUNCED. Explain that they would have been unsuitable for the Pharisees as a class. They would have been over-intense if applied to the formalist and hypocritical sections of the Pharisee class. But they are strictly appropriate to those few men who, for months past, had been resisting every witness that favoured Christ's claim; had been plotting, dodging, scheming, to destroy Christ; had come fawning upon him, with malice, hatred, and all uncharitableness in their hearts. Defeated in argument, they would not admit defeat. Humiliated by our Lord s answers, they were still bent on effecting their shameless purpose. What did such men deserve? What was left to be done with them? They had to be shown up, as men are shown up when withering denunciations are heaped upon them, under which they cower, conscience smitten. Jesus was doing the best thing possible for those wretched men, by these holy enunciations, the mere form of which must be judged by Eastern, not Western, models.
II. THESE DENUNCIATIONS, READ IN THE LIGHT OF THE PERSON DENOUNCING. Those who so readily accuse Christ of over-severity would be the very first and loudest in accusing him of moral weakness, inability to recognize or respond to sin, if such instances of severity had not been recorded. The true man, the Divine man, feels adequately in response to every situation; and we may unhesitatingly affirm that this was a time to be sublimely indignant, and that burning words of wrath—terrible as these—were the fitting thing for the occasion.—R.T.
Lost opportunities become judgments.
One writer observes that converts to Judaism were said to come "under the wings of the Shechinah." This familiar metaphor may have suggested to our Lord's mind the figure of the hen and her brood. "Many times by his prophets Christ called the children of Jerusalem to himself—the true Shechinah—through whom the glory of the latter house was greater than that of the former." Whedon well says, "The beautiful tenderness of this verse shows that the warnings of the previous verses are the language, not of human anger, but of terrible Divine justice." It is quite probable that our Lord's visits to Jerusalem, and his prolonged labours in that city, are not fully detailed in the Gospels. He may refer to his own efforts to win the people to full allegiance to Jehovah, as represented in his own mission. Jerusalem had its opportunities. They were multiplied until it seemed almost overweighted with privilege. Those opportunities had been neglected and despised again and again, and now they were growing into heavy, overwhelming judgments.
I. OUR OPPORTUNITIES ARE PROVISIONS OF THE DIVINE MERCY. We say of those who try us beyond endurance, "Well, we will give him one more chance." And we think this a great sign of our pitifulness and mercy. Then what was God's mercy in patiently bearing with his wayward people, and renewing their chance, their opportunity, age. after age? Trace the opportunities by following the line of prophets, special Divine messengers, up to the mission of John, and then of the Lord Jesus. The figure of the text is a specially tender one, viewed in the light of Eastern associations. Birds of prey abound, and chickens are in momentary danger, and hens have to be keenly watchful. But what can a hen do, if her chickens are wilful, and will not respond to her call?
II. OUR OPPORTUNITIES DESPISED MUST TURN INTO DIVINE JUDGMENTS. God's dealings with us must have issues. We cannot play with them as we like. If God acts in mercy, he does not forego his claim. But it may be also shown that the treatment of our opportunities becomes a revelation of our character, and it reveals bad things. God's judgments really come on character, and on acts only because they reveal character. Jerusalem sinners thoroughly needed and deserved their judgment.—R.T.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Matthew 23". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany