Thursday 08 December 2011

Bible Book:

"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)

Matthew 23:13-26 Thursday 8 December 2011


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

"Hypocrite" is a favourite word on the lips of Jesus in Matthew'sGospel. We use the word to refer to conscious insincerity, but theGreek term originally meant an actor, so one who pretends to beother than who he is, and Jesus has already (verses 5-7) referredto 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 thispassage.

"Woe" can mean "Alas for" (eg Matthew24:19), or can be close to an act of cursing (eg Matthew11:21); in Matthew 18:7 Jesus uses it in both sensesin close proximity. The form of speech is typical of prophetspronouncing condemnation, and Luke's Gospel uses it as the oppositeof the beatitudes or blessings that Jesus pronounces on thisdisciples (Luke 6:20-26).

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

In verses 16-22 Jesus uses straight logic to undermine the curiousapproach of the Pharisees as to whether or not an oath should beconsidered binding. Verses 23-24 then provide an excellent exampleof their attention to minutiae: taking care to make an offering ofone tenth of even the tiny quantities of herbs that are harvested,whilst overlooking the major importance of right relationships withothers. The final verses (verses 25-26) refer to a longstanding butultimately petty debate among rabbis as to the relative importanceof the inside and outside of ritual utensils as regards ceremonialpurity; Jesus sees this as an illustration of a mistaken emphasison external appearance rather than internal moral purity.

To Ponder

What trivial issues may distract today'sChristians from what really matters? And what are the issues foryou?

Which commonly presented interpretations ofparticular biblical passages do you think risk preventing peoplefrom entering the kingdom ofheaven?

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

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