Today, we begin a short series in Matthew chapter 23. It’s the start of Jesus’ fifth and final block of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. (Is that significant? Probably. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as “Moses 2.0” – you might remember his first block of teaching was up on a mountain, just like Moses – and Moses was traditionally held to be the author of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.) And in this chapter, the whole “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” stereotype gets blown up, as Jesus straps on an ammo belt full of home truths and trains his guns on the Pharisees, as he becomes… The Sermonator.
Yesterday (Matt 23:1-4), we saw how the Pharisees added their own extra rules and regulations to the law. It started off with good intentions, building a hedge around the law to stop people getting anywhere near breaking one of God’s laws. But then they started to impose them on others. To judge themselves and others on how well they observed their man-made regulations. This made them the self-appointed gatekeepers of righteous behaviour, and made others dependent on them for “rulings” on what was right behaviour. In short, it gained them status. Which is what Jesus takes them to task over in the next verse:
Matthew 23:5-8 Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
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!
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:
In our final installment of Matthew 23, Jesus tells of the judgement that was to come on the Pharisees – and, indeed, all of Jerusalem – because they rejected the offer of God’s kingdom, and they rejected Jesus, God’s Messiah.
Matthew 23:34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.