9 December 2011

Matthew 23:27-39

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house to left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'" (vv. 37-39)


The first part of today's passage completes a series of "Woes" lamenting the flawed approach to religion of the most respected Jewish teachers. (The first part was in yesterday's passage). Ritual purity was one aspect of their approach, so tombs and decorative bone-containers were whitewashed at festival times when the city was crowded so that people would not inadvertently touch them and become defiled. This whitewashing illustrates the idea that a person's outward behaviour may be quite inconsistent with what they are like on the inside.

Verses 29-36 takes up the love at that time of building splendid monuments to dead heroes rather than paying careful attention to their message. The scribes and Pharisees fail to take seriously the fact that many prophets were persecuted and killed by authority figures like themselves, and to recognise that they are cast in the same mould. Abel is the first martyr in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 4:6-10) and Zechariah the last (2 Chronicles 24:20-22) in that Chronicles is the last book in the Jewish ordering of the Old Testament. In both cases the biblical reports emphasise that the murder incurs a guilt that must ultimately be satisfied.

From verse 34 onwards Jesus develops the idea that the Jewish rebellion against God's true messengers will reach its climax, and incur such a retribution, within the generation he is addressing. Compare 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, and note that within forty years the Jewish rebellion led to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple and the effective end of the Pharisaic form of the Jewish faith.

Jews did not practise crucifixion, so the reference in verse 34 shows how the fate of Jesus, whom the gospels portray as knowing he will be crucified, is bound up with that of the Jewish religion. The real grief Jesus feels over Jerusalem's impending fate is expressed in the sad lament at the end of this passage, and which prepares the way for a fuller treatment in the next chapter of the judgement which is coming.

Some had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem with the words that end this passage (see Matthew 21:9); the whole verse expresses the fact that Jesus's earthly ministry is now over and may appear to have failed, but "from now on" (a better translation than "again" (v. 39)) he will only be known by those who are able to welcome him as the Messiah or servant king he truly is.

To Ponder

How far are we any better than our ancestors? Have we learned from the errors of past generations or are we usually inclined to repeat them?

In what ways do you find yourself tempted to hide what you are really like from yourself and from others?

What might the words of Jesus in verse 37 have to say to the Palestinians and Israelis who live in the divided Jerusalem of today?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

Stephen Mosedale is a recently retired Methodist minister now living in Devon. He is enjoying the freedom that gives, whenever mood and weather dictsate, to walk on Dartmoor, photograph varied and ever-changing seascapes, or grow vegetables in the garden.