Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

167. Beware! (Matt. 23:1-12; Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:45-47; 21:1, 2)*

The great throng was still round Jesus in the temple court. Now, however, in solemn warning, he addressed himself to his disciples. But the multitude listened and drank in every word.

Matthew's record (the whole of ch.23) has all the appearance of being an assemblage of separate denunciations pronounced by Jesus against the Pharisees (cp. Lk. 11 :39-25 13:34,35; 14:11; 18:14), now brought together, as being all on the same theme, according to Matthew's method. But even making allowances for this, most of these 39 verses are readily seen to belong to the present occasion. The chapter is in three parts:

  1. v.2-12: spoken to disciples and the crowd.
  2. v.13-33: seven woes against the Pharisees.
  3. v.30-39: an apostrophe to the nation and Jerusalem.
Good Precept

The Lord's ministry had now come to a crisis. The rulers were united in their hostility and their firm resolve to get rid of him. He on his part was resolved to expose and denounce them. He went for their pride, avarice, and hypocrisy, as being more readily observable by the people.

"The scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses' seat" (that is, long ago they appropriated to themselves his authority and the administration of his Law). Perhaps also by that past tense Jesus implied that, whereas formerly they said and did, now they only said (Lk.14 :5 provides an example). "All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do." Here the text is ambiguous. Instead of imperatives, it could read: "ye observe and do,"-their normal attitude of deference towards them. Those who find it impossible to believe that Jesus would encourage his disciples to follow Pharisaic precepts of the sort which are given such a merciless trouncing in the same chapter naturally prefer this reading.

But the imperative form of the verbs is not as outrageous as it may seem. For then Jesus can be seen to be re-affirming the precept of Deuteronomy: "And thou shalt observe to do according to all that they (the priests and Levites of the sanctuary) shall teach thee" (Dt.17 :11).

Thus Jesus laid it down specially for all Jewish believers that they were to continue to live according to the religious regimen prescribed by the leaders of the people, even though il might involve them in acceptance of formalities and ceremonies for which in Christ they had now lost enthusiasm.

Bad example

"But" Jesus added very weightily, "do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not."

The authority of these men in the nation was almost unbelievable. Even the Sadducees, who held the reins of power, were constrained to follow Pharisee principles in administering the Law; otherwise, they knew right well, the people would not tolerate them. Josephus wrote about them: "Whatsoever they (the people) do about divine worship, prayers, and sacrifices, they perform according to their (the Pharisees'1 direction." And, although himself a Pharisee, he did not hesitate to comment about them: "They valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers, and made men believe they were highly favoured by God, by whom this set of women (influential women at Herod's court) were inveigled" (Ant.18.1.3; 17.2.4). And the Mishnah actually has this: "It is more punishable to act against the words of the scribes than against those of Scripture"!

The Lord's indictment was forthright and biting: "They bind heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers." Mt.23:4 and 1111:46 together present a complete sequence; touch with a finger, move, lift, lay on the shoulder, carry. They constrained people to take on these burdens but themselves would not attempt even the first (contrast Mt.ll :28-30, ls.53 :6). It may be that Jesus meant "move them" in the sense of "remove them" (s.w. Rev.2:5; 6:14), by pointing a finger at the text of Moses' law and its true meaning.

What a contrast with Moses whose seat they claimed to occupy; for he, seated upon a rock, held both hands unto heaven "until the going down of the sun," that Israel might vanquish their enemies by the power of God (Ex.17:12).

The "burdens" Jesus referred to were doubtless the fantastic complex of absurd rules and ritual which Pharisee ingenuity and scrupulosity had added to Moses' Law (Acts 15 :10,28). But the words also recall David's lament: "Mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as an heavy burden they are too heavy for me" (Ps.38 :4). There was little hope or comfort in the Pharisaic system apart from the gratification of a spirit of self-righteousness. The Lord now cited six examples (v.5-7) of the W of behaviour, characteristic of the Pharisees, which must never be seen in his followers. The life of religious ostentation cloaking avarice and hypocrisy was exposed and forbidden.

Phylacteries, fringes

"They make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments." These phylacteries—the word means a guard or protection—were a device for the literal fulfilment of a commandment which was clearly intended figuratively: "And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes" (Dt. 6:8). The four passages in the Law where these words come (Ex.13 :3-10, 11-16; Dt.6 :4-9; 11 :13-31) were written out on tiny pieces of parchment which were then rolled up tightly and enclosed in a small container. This, fastened to the forehead or the left arm by a leather strap, was worn (and still is) by religious Jews at the time of daily prayer. But Pharisees wore them continually as an open demonstration of their superior holiness. They even succeeded in "proving" by their own queer method of Bible interpretation that God Himself wears phylacteries! They even went so far as to describe God as a heavenly Rabbi not only wearing phylacteries, but also studying the Law for three hours a day, and keeping its rules.

And similarly with the fringes on the borders of their robes. The Law required that these should be of blue as an easy reminder to every Israelite that, wearing the livery of heaven, he was under obligation to keep the law, given him from heaven, with unflagging self-dedication (Num.15 :38). But the Pharisees turned dedication into ostentation. They made the fringes of their garments long, past all necessity or reason, so that the common people might take note and infer the surpassing holiness of the wearers. Always they were intent on being "seen of men" (cp. Mt.6:1,2,5,16).

More than this, they had succeeded in establishing a tradition that at any banquet (Lk.14 :7) or synagogue service the places of prominence and importance were theirs by right. It was all part of the spiritual stranglehold they had taken on the nation.

"Father, Master, Teacher"

From all the rest of the people they encouraged, nay, demanded deference and veneration. In street and market place they greeted each other with great ostentation, and were happy to be saluted by the common folk with a reverence suited to their dignity as the spiritual aristocracy of the nation. And to be hailed: "Rabbi, Rabbi" was music in their ears, and all the more so since—so far as can be ascertained—this was a title of honour fairly recently introduced.

"But", warned Jesus in solemn tones, "be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Teacher, and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters, for one is your Master, even Christ."

In this fundamentally important triad it is possible that the short explanatory phrases: "which is in heaven", and "even Christ" are Matthew's parenthetical explanations. Certainly there is no other occasion in the gospels when Jesus openly proclaimed himself as "the Christ."

Then why no similar explanation about the "Teacher"? Probably because, whilst the disciples already knew Jesus as Master (or Guide) and God in heaven as Father, they had not yet learned of the Holy Spirit as the appointed Teacher (Jn.14 :26) of the ecclesias of Christ. (The Father—Son—Holy Spirit triad, not a tri-unity in the ecclesiastical sense, is a common theme in the New Testament; e.q. Mt.28 :19; Ac. 2 :33; 5 :30-32; 15 :8-11; 1Cor. 6:11,14; 12:4-6; 2Cor.13 :14; 2Thess.2 :13,14; 1Pet.l :2; Jude 20,21; Rev. 1:4-5)

Remembering this warning, the early church discouraged adulation of its leaders. The title Rabbi means literally "my great one." But, said Jesus: "He that is greatest among you shall be your servant." The apostles remembered this. "Stand up; I myself also am a man," said Peter to Cornelius. "Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos?" asked Paul in self-depreciation (1 Cor.3 :5). But as apostasy set in, this wholesome principle was let go. At a very early epoch (see, for example, the Epistles of Ignatius) special reverence for bishops was expected and required of the faithful. Nor has the ecclesia of the last days altogether escaped this danger.

Praying and Preying

The Pharisee is also detectable in another respect: "For a pretence they make long prayers," said Jesus in scorn. He might well be angry that these poseurs should make Almighty God serve the turn of their own vanity. They had, for example, no less that twenty-six forms of benediction to be said when washing. For such there will be, not merely condemnation but, greater condemnation. Jesus never used more censorious language. The lesson had better be learned by this generation, even though the need is not yet so urgent.

Yet another indictment was that these Pharisees "devoured widows' houses" (cp. Ex. 20:22). Battening on the piety of wealthy women devotees has ever been one ot the most rewarding activities of professional religiosity. The sister-in-law of Herod the Great paid out immense sums to cover the fines of thousands of Pharisees who refused to take an oath of loyalty to Caesar. Far worse than this was the way in which these men wheedled gifts out of their followers and coaxed them into leaving them fat legacies for "holy" purposes, such as (see context) long pretentious prayers on behalf of those who subsidised them-like so many Catholics paying priests to say masses. Or, the words may mean that dying men were persuaded to leave their property to the Pharisees instead of for the subsistence of their widows.

Self-denying Poverty

Even as he spoke, there in the temple court Jesus was presented with an impressive illustration of the exact opposite to that grasping hypocrisy which he had just denounced. To receive the gifts of the pious the temple had thirteen large trumpet-shaped collection boxes each labelled for some holy purpose. Jesus was near enough to see a poor widow cast a mite, the smallest coin there was, into one of "trumpets", and then another mite into one of the others. The rabbis had laid down that no donation must be less that two mites.

The warm praise of Jesus was not to be restrained. Others contributed much more than she, but they gave "out of their superfluity'-il was money they did not need; they could well spare it. But this wonderful woman gave her all! How easily she could have reasoned: "My two mites will add nothing to the greater glory of God. And since this is all I have, surely I am justified in not contributing at all." Instead her gift was clearly given out of a most exceptional faith that though she thus left herself without means of subsistence God would not fail her. It may be taken as certain that this faith, in God's eyes the most precious commodity in all the world, had its due reward—from His Providence. But, more than this, the phrase: "this poor widow", indicated that she was still present, listening to the Lord's discourse, and thus had the satisfaction of hearing his commendation of her. What a contrast, both in motive and outcome, with the self-centred ostentation of the Pharisees!

Note: Mt. 23:l-12

And all ye are brethren. This phrase seems to be required also at the end of v.9: "One is your Father (and all ye are brethren)."
Call no man your father. Saul of Tarsus was taught to be "zealous of the traditions of the fathers" (Gal.l :14) ; '•; Note that here, "Be not ye called" does not occur, because of the small danger of such a creeping abuse in the early church.
The greatest. .. your servant. And nationally too: Ez. 21:26.

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