So far in Matthew 23 we’ve seen Jesus take aim at the Pharisees for their hypocrisy:
- Adding their own extra regulations to God’s law, making them the focus – and imposing them on others.
- Using this to enhance their own status as lawmakers and interpreters for others.
- Stopping others from entering the kingdom by (1) their focus on outward behaviour rather than inward transformation; and (2) rejecting Jesus, the Messiah.
- Getting hung up on the small stuff – like tithing their spices – while ignoring the main themes of the law, like justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Today, Jesus continues with the last three of his seven woes: announcements of judgement against the Pharisees:
Matthew 23:25-26 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
The Pharisees were into the ritual cleansing of things, including the stuff they ate and drank from. We see this in Mark’s explanation:
Mark 7:3-4 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
Jesus says that they wash the outside, but don’t notice the gunk on the inside. (Much like when my kids unstack the dishwasher, only looking at the outside to see if things were cleaned – until they go to pour themselves a drink the next time.) Except the gunk isn’t foodscraps or general dishwasher gunge, but greed and self-indulgence. Suggesting that Jesus had a very strange dishwasher, or that he’d jumped out of the metaphor in the second half of the verse. The point is: they were worrying about the externals, and neglecting the heart. But if you cleanse your heart, the externals will follow.
Matthew 23:27-28 Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
This is basically the same point. He calls them “whitewashed tombs,” which is a pretty harsh insult in Jewish culture. Dead bodies were unclean, and contact with them would make you ritually unclean for seven days and require a sacrifice at the end of it – see Numbers 19:16. (Of all the things that made someone unclean, this was the poster-child: early in Jesus’ lifetime, the Samaritans sabotaged the temple during Passover by sneaking in at night and defiling it with dead bodies.) So the Jews often whitewashed tombs so you could see them even at night, and avoid them. Calling them “whitewashed tombs” was a particularly jarring insult – the equivalent today might be something like “you chocolate-coated turd.”
I won’t rehash last Friday’s application about external behaviours vs internal attitude, because I’m sure you get the point. Just pause here, again to reflect on the question: is there any aspect of my life which may give Jesus cause to call me a “whitewashed tomb”?
Matthew 23:29-32 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
This is the longest of the seven woes, and the most significant. Their hypocrisy here is seen in how they honour Israel’s prophets – yet reject God’s greatest messenger, Jesus. (In a way, this prefigures Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, where he details Israel’s history of consistently rejecting God’s messengers, culminating in their rejection and crucifixion of the Messiah.) Although they like to think they wouldn’t have rejected God’s messengers, their rejection of Jesus shows they’re true “sons” of their ancestors. In a few short days, they’ll have his blood on their hands.
Echoing the words found earlier in Matthew’s Gospel from the most recently martyred of God’s messengers (John the Baptist, in Matt 3:7-8), Jesus concludes:
Matthew 23:33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
These seven woes – in particular, the final one – are essentially the plotline of the entire Gospel. Jesus came with the offer of the kingdom, but the Jewish leadership refused to enter it, and stopped many others going in. Their status as God’s gatekeepers was threatened, so they opted to remain in control over the present system, rather than yielding to God’s Messiah and the new age he was bringing in. They stuck with an outward appearance of faithfulness to God, rather than the heart-transformation Jesus was offering. And so, in the end, they did what Israel had done for centuries: they killed the messenger (echoing the parable of the wicked tenants from the previous chapter, Matt 22:1-14).
For that, they will be judged – culminating in the destruction of the temple 40 years later. But we’ll get to that tomorrow…