Seven woes – Part One (Matt 23:13-24)

This week we’ve seen Jesus take aim at the Pharisees for being hypocrites: they added their own rules and regulations to God’s law, which had become for them a source of status and power. What’s more, they made the symbols of their obedience (like phylacteries and tassels) stand out so that the rest of the people would treat them with honour. They were using religious observance to enhance their status.

Now this was bad enough, but the real hypocrisy hasn’t yet been exposed. In this next section, Jesus pronounces seven “woes” on the Pharisees – for becoming so focused on their own system of rules and behaviours that they were misleading the rest of the people, and neglecting the essence of the law itself!

Here, Jesus stops talking about the Pharisees, and starts talking to them. (Although rhetorically, it’s still primarily for the benefit of the disciples and the crowd; it warns them not to follow the Pharisees by pointing out their hypocrisy, casting a judgement on them in absentia.)

Matthew 23:13 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

How did the Pharisees shut the door of the kingdom of heaven to others? Their focus on the outward appearance of holiness rather than a right heart probably had something to do with it – practising it themselves and modelling it for Israel. And related to this – and even more significant – was their rejection of the Messiah (Jesus) and the kingdom values he proclaimed (transformation of the heart rather than external behaviours).

Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

The Pharisees were active in promoting their brand of religion to others, but they were drawing them into an empty religion which had rejected its own Messiah.

This stands as a reminder to us: in our desire to make disciples, ensure that we are making disciples of Jesus – not a religious system formed from our own practices and prejudices that entrenches us as the gatekeepers. We’ve seen this happen often enough in the past as well-meaning missionaries have ended up bringing Western culture to “the ends of the earth” masquerading as the gospel. Converts can end up striving to act white and “civilised” (by Western definitions) in their desire to please God, rather than the heart-change that God wants. It can happen in our suburban churches, too, as we create a Christian culture that people need to embrace if they want to be accepted. That’s not what Jesus was about.

Having begun by condemning the impact of the Pharisees’ teaching on others, Jesus moves to their hypocrisy in regard to legalistic obedience – how they tried to “get around” obeying the law when it suited them:

Matthew 23:16-23 Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

This portrays the Pharisees a bit like schoolchildren who promise with their fingers crossed behind their back. Or like politicians who invent phrases like “non-core promises.” They had developed a convoluted reasoning as to how binding your oath was depending on what you swore by. The logic apparently went: the gold of the temple and a gift on the altar had been dedicated to God himself with an oath formula, so swearing by them is binding; but the temple and altar itself, despite being holy objects, were not proper objects of oaths. (See David Garland, The Intention of Matthew 23, p.135.)

Here, Jesus shows the silliness of their argument by pointing out an internal inconsistency in their logic: just how does a gift become dedicated to God? By being offered on the altar! And what makes the gold in the temple – and the temple itself – holy? God, who (symbolically) dwells in the temple. So if you want to play those sorts of games, says Jesus, at least get the logic right!

The point behind it, however, is broader than just childish legalism: it’s the state of the heart which tries to invent such convoluted (il)logic in order to avoid keeping their word. Their legalism has long since ceased being a hedge to help them keep God’s law; it’s now become a way of avoiding the heart of God’s law.

The critique continues:

Matthew 23:23-24 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

The Pharisees were scrupulous about the little stuff that didn’t matter as much: even to the point of tithing their spices! Yet they ignored the big stuff: acting justly and mercifully toward others. The juxtaposition of “mint, dill, and cumin” with “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” brings out the absurdity of their practice. I may be merciless, but I tithed my dill…

Jesus brings the point home quite graphically in verse 24: you strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. A dead insect in your drink would contaminate it, making it ritually impure, not to mention the setup for plenty of amusing “Rabbi, there’s a fly in my soup” jokes. Some Jews would try to strain a fly out before it died and contaminated it. The Pharisees were stricter: only animals smaller than a lentil (for example, a gnat) could be strained out. So Jesus gives us the absurd image of them straining out a gnat (gamla in Aramaic) yet happily swallowing another unclean animal, a camel (qalma). It’s both a cute wordplay in Aramaic, and a devastating critique of people who are scrupulous in the small stuff, yet “swallow major violations of the law” (Witherington, Matthew, p.431).

Over the years I’ve seen people get quite worked up on the little stuff – whether it be requiring a jacket for those who lead communion, or the positioning of the artificial plants in the “sanctuary,” or the insistence on a particular bible translation, or…this list could go on for several paragraphs, so I’ll stop at the rhetorically-recommended three… But those same people will happily tolerate gossip and bullying, turn a blind eye to the neglect of minorities in the church, or ignore even the most basic of measures to fulfil the biblical mandate to care for the poor.

This passage demands that we take stock: what are the gnats we’re focusing on? What camels are we so used to digesting that we don’t even notice?

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