Notes Matthew chapter 23
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
The Denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees 23:1-36
23:1. Jesus’ conversations with His opponents were now at an end (cf. Matt 22:46). Now He spoke about them, turning to the people and the disciples, but clearly the Pharisees were still near at hand, for a great deal of the speech is directed straight at them (vv. 13-33).
2. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees. Not all the Pharisees were teachers of the law, i.e., theologians, only their leaders. The party of the Pharisees counted few supporters, generally speaking. Josephus (Ant. XVII,ii,4) estimates their numbers in Palestine at the time of Herod the Great to be about 6000 out of a population of half a million.
sit in Moses’ seat. The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, i.e., they are recognized as the successors of Moses and therefore as the possessors of the traditional teaching authority. This is not a special revelation of the Lord Jesus but is in conformity with the teachings of Jewish tradition in Mishna, Aboth 1.1: ‘Moses received the law from Sinai and committed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets; and the prophets committed it to the men of the Great Synagogue’ (a body of 120 members which arose during the exile under Ezra). In this way the authority to teach came to the Pharisees and the scribes (cf. Mishnah, Aboth ch. 1).
3. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. V.3a forms a formal transition from v. 2 to v. 3b. For this reason it is not only a conclusion to v. 2 (‘So’) but also an introduction to v. 3b (‘But’). This intermediate position is in agreement with the content of the verse. V.3a does not contain a message in itself, as though Jesus confirms the scribes’ interpretation of the law (the ‘halacha’) without any restriction (in contrast to vv. 13 ff; Matt 5:21 ff; 15:1 ff). The first part of the verse is rhetorical and formulated in an exaggerated way (and meant ironically), to focus attention by means of a paradoxical overstatement on what follows, that is, the pointed condemnation of the scribes’ practice. It is clear that their way of life also gave the lie to their teaching (cf. Matt 7:16 ff; 12:33-35).
4. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders. The religious leaders are here compared to donkey-drivers who burden the animal unmercifully. They tie bundles of the law together into weighty packages and lay them on men’s shoulders, while they themselves do not lay a finger on the packages, let alone carry one on their own neck.
5. Everything they do is done for men to see. Jesus here repeats His complaint against the scribes and Pharisees from Matt 6:1-2,5,16: they do their works so as to be seen and honoured by men.
They make their phylacteries wide. Pre-Christian Judaism determined from a literal exposition of Exod 13:16; Deut 6:8 and 11:8 that little ‘boxes’ should be applied to the inner side of the left upper arm and the forehead during daily prayer, boxes containing pieces of parchment on which were written the texts cited (Exod 13:1-10; 11-16; Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21). The boxes were fastened on with ribbons which went from the left upper arm to the forearm and from the forehead round the skull to a knot in the neck. In this way the provisions of Deut 11:18 were carried out literally (materially). Hellenistic Judaism apparently thought of an amulet, in accordance with the Greek word (phulaktrion = ‘means of protection’ against demonic influences).
the tassels on their garments long; The tassels on the four sides of the cloak, which was made from a foursquare piece of material, served as a reminder of God’s commandments (Num 15:37- 41). Even Jesus wore such tassels on His cloak (Matt 9:20; Luke 8:44).
The Pharisees and scribes had increased the size of their prayer ribbons and the tassels, which is not laid down in the halaka (the normative exposition of the law), to exhibit their piety.
6-7. they love the place of honour. After the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, Jesus attacks their love of honour. They liked to have the principal places at feasts and to occupy the places of honour in the synagogues. In the synagogue the elders sat in the front, facing the people.
they love to be greeted. They also wanted to be greeted publicly, for the less important person must greet the more important first (SB, I, 380-385). They also liked to be addressed by the title: ‘rabbi'(= my master).
8. But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’. The Pharisees’ love of being honoured is also to be seen in their cherished use of titles (v. 7b). Jesus warns His disciples against this practice in the following verses (vv. 8-12). They must not let themselves be called rabbi, for one is their Master, the Christ so often addressed as Rabbi. And they are all brothers, which emphasises their similarity to each other.
9. do not call anyone on earth ‘father’. Jesus is not speaking of natural fathers here, i.e., about the father-child relationship, but about the Jewish custom of calling eminent teachers from the past father. The word ‘father’ speaks of honour and authority. It is connected to the authority of tradition. Jesus forbids His disciples to have such authoritative teachers and traditions. There is only one Father, God, Who is in heaven. Only He has sovereign authority and can issue orders which are binding.
10. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’. The Greek word for ‘teacher’ (kathgts) means ‘a guide, one who shows the way; a leader, a conductor’ in the first place, and ‘a teacher’ in the second place (LSJ s.v.). In contrast to v. 8 where a ‘rabbi’ (teacher) is mentioned, we must here think of the first meaning: leader, conductor, guide.
Jesus warns His disciples against desiring honour as leaders and rulers.
11. The greatest among you will be your servant. It is obvious that Jesus is not rejecting teaching (v. 8) and leading (v. 10) in itself, but rather the desire for power and honour, which expresses itself in taking pride in titles. This is why He repeats the words of Matt 20:26-27: the way to greatness is not paved with honour, but with a serving disposition.
12. Whoever tries to exalt himself will be humbled, and vice versa, i.e., by God. A man’s position is dependant on God and not on his own efforts.
Jesus spoke this word on several different occasions (see also Luke 14:11 and 18:14). We find expressions parallel in content in other places: Matt 11:23; 18:4; Luke 16:15; Rom 12:16; 1 Tim 6:17; Jas 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6.
13. Woe to you. Here begins Jesus’ eightfold ‘woe’ to the scribes and Pharisees. The various woes may be regarded as a counterpart to the Beatitudes with which He had begun His teaching (Matt 5:3 ff). ‘Woe to you’ is not only a threatening complaint but also an exceptional cry of grief. This manner of speaking is already to be found in the prophets (Isa 5:8 ff; 10:1, 5; Hab 2:6 ff).
You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. The Pharisees and scribes will not enter the Kingdom of God themselves (cf. Matt 21:28-32) and also prevent others from entering through their false teachings and hypocritical piety, whereas as teachers they ought to open the door for the people.
[14. You devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. The scribes and Pharisees are here reproached with disregarding the commandment of Exod 22:22 (cf. Isa 1:17, 23; 10:2). Here we shall have to think of the custom that a husband in his will nominated a scribe, who performed juridical function at the same time, to take care of the welfare and property of his wife (cf. Mishnah, Gittin 52a,b in SB III,567-569). This was of course a paid service and sometimes considerable abuse was made of this position of trust. In addition to this, they uttered long prayers in public for appearance’s sake, as if they were under an inward compulsion. Such a prayer is an abomination to God (Prov 28:9).
For these practices the scribes, being teachers, will be judged more severely (cf. Jas 3:1) than the other Jews, because they ought to have known better (cf. Matt 10:15; 11:22, 24; Luke 12:47-48).
[This verse is missing in some of the oldest manuscripts.]
15. You travel over land and sea to win a single convert. Judaism was attractive to many people at this time. Monotheism (the concept of one God) appealed to many people in a world where many gods were worshipped. There are two groups of people related to Judaism in different ways. Firstly there are those who are ‘devout’ (Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26) or who ‘feared God’ (Acts 16:14; 18:7), who were required to keep the Sabbath and the dietary restrictions; then there are proselytes, such as are mentioned in our text. A proselyte had come to complete conversion. He was initiated into Judaism by circumcision, baptism and a sacrifice in thezk Temple, and was obliged to keep the whole law (Gal. 5:3), but he also had the same privileges as those who were born Jews.
you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. Through the great step which had to be taken these proselytes were often more radical and extreme than the Pharisees themselves. Jesus speaks of ‘twice as much’, twice as bad.
16-19. Instead of being guides for the blind, the scribes and Pharisees were blind guides (cf. Matt 15:14). Jesus calls them ‘blind fools’.
Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? Two oaths were recognised: the ‘binding’ and the ‘not binding’. A promise made to the Lord was binding. They appealed to Gen 24:3 and Exod 22:10-11 (SB I, 330-331) for grounds. Swearing by the Temple and the altar was also binding (SB I, 931). But the custom had arisen of making extremely subtle distinctions. For example, when swearing by the Torah one might mention the parchment of the Torah (which was not binding) and therefore the term of swearing by the words of the Torah was used (SB I, 931-932). In a similar way swearing by the Temple was specified as swearing by the gold (the golden decorations of the temple) of the temple, and swearing by the altar was specified as swearing by the sacrifice on the altar, whereby the first locution was at the same time a non-binding (meaningless) oath. Jesus objects strongly to such subtle distinctions: Ye fools and blind, which is greater, the gold or the temple which sanctifies it, the gift or the altar which sanctifies the gift?’ (vv. 17,19).
20-22. Jesus does not only claim that temple and gold, altar and sacrifices are inseparable, but also that in every case swearing by God is concerned, which is binding. In these verses (especially v. 22), of which the sequence (altar – temple – heaven) forms a climax, Jesus links up with what He had told His disciples about swearing in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:34-36). The problem is not whether it is permitted to swear or not. Jesus is not giving instruction here to His disciples, but combats Pharisaism and demonstrates what is absurd in Pharisaistical casuistry.
23. You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. According to Lev 27:30, 32 and Deut 14:22-23 tithes were to be paid on the produce of the land (corn, oil, new wine and fruits) and on cattle. In their zeal the Pharisees had extended the commandment to include the smallest fruits of the soil and garden herbs, such as mint, dill and cumin. We read in the Old Testament that tithes were to be paid as sustenance for the priests, the Levites (Num 18:20 ff) and the poor (Deut 14:28 ff; 26:12 ff). you have neglected the more important matters of the law. Jesus is not criticising the payment of tithes in itself (‘without neglecting the former’) but exaggerated punctiliousness in little things like tithing garden herbs, while the most important things in the law, loving one’s neighbour with righteousness, mercy and in truth (cf. Micah 6:8; Zech 7:9) were neglected.
justice, mercy and faithfulness. The Greek word for ‘justice’, krisis, does not mean judgment here, but like mercy and faithfulness indicates an attitude towards one’s neighbour and means righteousness (Bauer, s.v.; cf. Matt 12:18,20).
24. You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Sifting for gnats means passing wine through a sieve with a view to removing the gnats. Both the gnat and the camel were unclean animals. See Lev 11:4 -camel- and Lev 11:41 -creeping things- which in Jewish tradition included insects (SB I, 934). The gnat is an example of the smallest of the unclean animals, the camel of the largest.
The most particular among the Jews strained wine and other liquids so as not to swallow an unclean animal or something similar by accident. But you devour camels, says Jesus picturesquely. The smallest thing was given exaggerated attention among them, while they disregarded the greatest (v. 23).
25. You clean the outside of the cup and dish. Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites because their outward behaviour was not consonant with their inward disposition. They were like people who washed only the outside of the cup, while the inside remained dirty.
but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. The dirt consisted of extortion and excess. The Greek word for ‘self-indulgence’ (akrasia) literally means ‘lack of selfcontrol’ (cf. 1 Cor 7:5), ‘unbridled covetousness’.
26. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup. Jesus now passes over into the singular. This gives His words a more individual ring. In contrast to the outward appearance of legalism adopted by the Pharisees, Jesus teaches that the heart must be cleansed first, and the good fruits will follow automatically (Matt 7:16-20; 15:18-20)
27. You are like whitewashed tombs. In the month of Adar, the month before the Passover, graves were whitewashed so that pilgrims would not defile themselves accidentally (Num 19:16, 18; cf. Luke 11:44). In this way graves were beautifuly clean on the outside, but were filled with the bones of the dead and all sorts of uncleanliness.
28. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous. The Pharisees were like these graves. Their outward appearance was irreproachable, but their hearts were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. In general, people saw only the exterior, which seemed righteous, but Jesus looked at the heart. These Pharisees comprise the pole completely opposite to the true believers, the pure in heart (cf. Matt 5:8).
29. You build tombs for the prophets. It was not unusual for memorials to be erected in Palestine (cf. 1 Macc 13:37 ff; Acts 2:29; SB I, 938). It often took place to obtain forgiveness for murdering a prophet. But Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees for honouring the prophets and righteous men in their graves, while like their fathers they rejected the word brought to them by these messengers.
30. In their words too they exalt the prophets and disapprove of their fathers’ attitude. But although they openly separate themselves from what their fathers did, they did the same themselves to John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles (cf. v 34).
This form of unconscious hypocrisy is found in every generation in one form or another. One judges the past as if one is completely above the sins committed then.
31. you testify against yourselves. But Jesus says in other words: By erecting monuments in atonement (v. 29) and in your words (‘our forefathers’, v. 30) you are witnessing of yourselves that the blood of murderers passes through your veins. For this reason you will do the same as they (v. 34; cf. Acts 7:52).
32. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! Here we have a rhetorical use of the imperative: Fill it up then. In content it is no different from the indicative ‘you will fill up’. God has set bounds to sin (cf. Gen 15:16). When the measure of sin is full, the judgment will begin (vv. 34-36), cf. 1 Thess 2:15-16.
33. Jesus calls the Pharisees serpents and the children of vipers (cf. commentary on Matt 3:7; 12:34) and says that they will not escape condemnation to Gehenna (= ‘the lake of fire’, Rev 20:11-15).
34. Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Jesus here speaks as divine Wisdom and identifies Himself entirely with her (Prov 9:3; Luke 11:49, 51b). Those sent are the disciples, who are mentioned in their ministry as wise men and teachers (Matt 13:52) and in particular as prophets (Matt 10:41). They are set in the line of the Old Testament prophets (vv. 29-33; cf. Matt 5:12) and like them will be persecuted.
The Jews will kill and crucify some of them, flog others in their synagogues (cf. Matt 10:17) or drive them from town to town (cf. Matt 10:23).
35. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth. By killing these latest prophets the Pharisees will fill up the measure of sin (v. 32), and then all the righteous blood that has been spilt will come upon them (cf. Isa 26:21; Ez. 24:7, 8), i.e., the judgment of God will be upon them (cf. Matt 27:25).
Zechariah son of Barakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. The Zacharias mentioned here may be the Zechariah named in 2 Chron 24:21, or the well-known prophet (Zech 1:1). Only the former was killed in the forecourt of the temple, but the latter was the son of Berekiah. Because Luke (11:51) does not mention the father’s name, it is likely that this explanation was added by a copyist as the gospel of Matthew was handed down and that the two Zecharias have been switched. This confusion is also to be found in Jewish sources (SB I, 940).
By naming Abel from Gen 4 and Zechariah from 2 Chron 24 Jesus mentions the first and the last murder in the Scriptures, for 2 Chronicles is the last book in the Hebrew Bible, the Tenach. In speaking this way Jesus is using the same kind of expression as ‘from Genesis to Revelations’.
36. I tell you the truth. With these words Jesus strengthens and clarifies the previous verse: these judgments shall come upon this generation. Barely 40 years later, in 70 A.D., Jerusalem was laid waste (see commentary on v. 38).
Jesus’ Lament Over Jerusalem 23:37-39
37. While Jesus is announcing the judgment, He is also moved with compassion, as appears from His words ‘how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings’.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. As often occurred in Judaism, Jesus too speaks of Jerusalem as the mother of Israel and of the Israelites as her children.
I have longed to gather. ‘Gathering’ into the Kingdom of God (in the OT the picture of a bird’s wings indicated God’s protection, Deut 32:11-12; Ruth 2:12) reminds us of an Old Testament promise for the last days (Ps 102:22; 106:47; cf. Matt 24:31).
you were not willing. The Jews have only themselves to blame for the judgment that has been pronounced. Although Jesus invited them continually, they did not want to accept.
38. your house is left to you desolate. Jesus now passes sentence. House may indicate the temple, but also the city. Further, the Greek word for ‘is left’ (aphietai) can mean both ‘abandoned to the enemy’ and ‘deserted by God’. These different meanings, however, are closely related to each other, and the one merges into the other. If God gives up the temple as His dwelling-place, then He deserts the city. This entails the consequence that divine protection will be removed from the Jewish people (leading to the dispersal of the people) and that Jerusalem will be abandoned to the enemy (destruction of Jerusalem 70 A.D.).
39. You will not see me again. Jesus links His departure (His death), by the word ‘for’, to the absence of God from the temple. This means that Jesus’ death is related to the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of a disastrous time for Israel. but this time of judgment for the Jewish people is not final.
until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ There is an ‘until’. There is hope for Israel as a people. They too will participate in the blessings of the Messianic Kingdom when Jesus returns and they will greet their Messiah with the words from Ps 118:26 (cf. Rom 11:15, 25-32).