Thursday

08 December 2011

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them." (v. 13)

Background

Following straight on from yesterday's passage Jesus continues to speak to his disciples and other followers about the problem with the approach to religion adopted by the scribes and Pharisees, who were generally recognised to be the most committed religious Jews. Today's passage contains the first five of seven illustrations of the problem, all but one (verse 16) of which are prefaced with the sentence, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!". There is no need to suppose that Jesus' choice of this dramatic way of expressing himself means that there is a significant group of scribes and Pharisees present in the crowd; he is being critical of their religious system rather than eager to have a go at them!

"Hypocrite" is a favourite word on the lips of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel. We use the word to refer to conscious insincerity, but the Greek term originally meant an actor, so one who pretends to be other than who he is, and Jesus has already (verses 5-7) referred to the Pharisees' love of acting a part or playing to an audience. But even if the Pharisees were not deliberately insincere, inconsistency is certainly at issue in many of the cameos in this passage.

"Woe" can mean "Alas for" (eg Matthew 24:19), or can be close to an act of cursing (eg Matthew 11:21); in Matthew 18:7 Jesus uses it in both senses in close proximity. The form of speech is typical of prophets pronouncing condemnation, and Luke's Gospel uses it as the opposite of the beatitudes or blessings that Jesus pronounces on this disciples (Luke 6:20-26).

The first of the "woes" (v. 13) expresses the general difficulty with Pharisaic religion, and the rest are then specific examples. The meaning is that the scribal teaching and ways of expounding Scripture manage to obscure the real issues of belief and conduct, not only for the ordinary people but for these teachers and experts themselves.

In verses 16-22 Jesus uses straight logic to undermine the curious approach of the Pharisees as to whether or not an oath should be considered binding. Verses 23-24 then provide an excellent example of their attention to minutiae: taking care to make an offering of one tenth of even the tiny quantities of herbs that are harvested, whilst overlooking the major importance of right relationships with others. The final verses (verses 25-26) refer to a longstanding but ultimately petty debate among rabbis as to the relative importance of the inside and outside of ritual utensils as regards ceremonial purity; Jesus sees this as an illustration of a mistaken emphasis on external appearance rather than internal moral purity.

To Ponder

What trivial issues may distract today's Christians from what really matters? And what are the issues for you?

Which commonly presented interpretations of particular biblical passages do you think risk preventing people from entering the kingdom of heaven?

If you are someone who sincerely desires to please God, what are you inclined to see as the stumbling blocks, and what might be the much more important issues you are overlooking?

Bible notes author: The Revd Dr Stephen Mosedale

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