Friday, December 14, 2012

Sermon on the Backs of the Pharisees

In the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus explained that He was not the son of David. That seemed a bit strange, given that the prophesies required the Messiah to be of David's lineage, that the Apostles claimed the contrary, and later He Himself claimed to be an offspring of David. Mark and Luke recorded how Jesus praised a poor widow who gave everything she had to the Temple. But before that praise, Mark and Luke show Jesus rebuking the Teachers of the Law a little bit. Matthew took that theme of condemnation, and ran with it...

Sermon on the Backs of the Pharisees
Matthew was great at aggregation. In writing his Gospel, he understood that it would be much more convenient or impressive to have the teachings of Jesus which had no significant background story to be grouped into one cohesive package, as opposed to being scattered throughout the various tales and anecdotes. Thus, the Sermon on the Mount was born. But besides those teachings, another common thread of snippets could be found in the stories of Jesus; that of condemnation of particular groups of the religious elite. So Matthew compiled another "sermon" of sorts.

Matthew 23 is an entire chapter primarily devoted to the condemnation of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law (a.k.a. Scribes). Luke 11:37-54 is somewhat of a parallel, containing much of the same material, but not all of it and in a different order, and at a much earlier point in Jesus' timeline. Let us quickly step through this rant.

One of the most interesting parts is the very beginning, which is material unique to Matthew. Jesus was speaking to the crowds and His disciples (Matthew 23:1). In Matthew 23:2-3, He opened with:
"The Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." NIV
This is both interesting and frightening, because Jesus is effectively suggesting that you must submit to authority, regardless of whether or not that authority is good. This is a consistent message throughout the Bible, from David refusing to harm the anointed King Saul despite the evil he had done (1 Samuel 24:6-10) and killing the guy who killed King Saul (2 Samuel 1:1-16), to Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-21 stating that God has put the authorities in power, and so they must be obeyed.

In Matthew 23:4, Jesus then laments how They (Pharisees and Teachers of the Law) burden the people. Luke 11:45-46 parallels this, but is targeted to "experts in the Law."

In Matthew 23:5-7, we see that They love ostentatious displays, the various forms of respect they get due to Their position, and being called "Rabbi." Luke 11:43 says some of the same things, as do the later, more synchronized passages of Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:45-47, but Mark and Luke lack a reference to the honorable title of "Rabbi." This is interesting, because next we see...

In Matthew 23:8-10, oddly unique to Matthew, and contradictory to the Catholic church, Jesus instructed to call no man a "Rabbi," Master, or Father, because that role belongs to God. And only Jesus Himself should be called Teacher. (You probably started transgressing this command in elementary school.)

Tapping into that theme of humility (not claiming lofty titles), in Matthew 23:11-12 we see Jesus saying that you should be a humble servant if you want to be exalted. Essentially the same message is also found in Ezekiel 21:26, Matthew 18:3-5, Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 9:35, Mark 10:42-45, Luke 1:52, Luke 9:46-48, Luke 14:11, and Luke 22:24-27. Strangely, it is nowhere within the Gospel of John.

In Matthew 23:13, Jesus said that They do not enter the Kingdom of God, and They prevent others from doing so. In the parallel of Luke 11:52, Luke was a better editor. He had in mind the Elect, and so he slightly relaxed the language, in that the "experts in the Law" only hinder people entering the Kingdom, as opposed to preventing them from doing so.

Depending on what Bible version you have, you may or may not see Matthew 23:14, where Jesus condemned Them to severe punishment for being unmerciful to widows and making ostentatious prayers. Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 have essentially the same content, but some manuscripts lack this line within Matthew.

In Matthew 23:15, Jesus said They work hard to find any religious convert, but then make him twice the "son of Hell" that They are. This is interesting on many levels. Judaism does not have an explicit call for the form of evangelism described here. There was no "Great Commission" for the Jews. However, that is not to say that God did not expect converts. God expected that, if the Jews actually obeyed His Law, other nations would be both impressed by the wisdom of God and somewhat jealous of the blessings the Jews were receiving from Him, and therefore would become interested in learning His ways (Deuteronomy 4:5-8, Psalm 67:1-2, Isaiah 2:3, Micah 4:2).

Besides the evangelism aspect, the "son of Hell" is also an interesting point to ponder. In a previous study, we discussed how there are many who think that references to Hell (Gehenna in the Greek) are to a valley full of tombs and/or trash, and so the reference of that valley was similar to saying "your path leads to death" or "do not throw your life away." However, with the "son of Hell," the "son" carries with it a certain metaphorical weight in the sense of being like its "father," whatever that father is, like what we see in John 8:44. So is this equivalent to saying a "son of trash," a "son of death," or perhaps a "son of the Devil"? Unfortunately, this is unique to Matthew, so we have no other references to help us.

Moving on, in Matthew 23:16-22, Jesus complained that They have Their system of meaningful swearing backwards, because they place the things that can be taken (gold, offerings, etc.) at a higher value than what is more permanent (the altar, the Temple, etc.) That makes sense if you are looking at overall significance, but if you are swearing by something as a guarantee that you will fulfill that oath, it makes more sense to do so by something you can actually lose if you fail to deliver on your promise. This is again unique to Matthew.

In Matthew 23:23-24, Jesus lamented that They focus on the minute details of the Law, but not the more important parts of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. There are no specifics here; just these general charges. It is difficult to know how they were not providing justice. As for faithfulness, Deuteronomy 11:13 is the closest reference to faithfulness within the Law, where it instructs to faithfully obey the Law. As for mercy though, there is none in the Law, literally. The only reference to mercy within the commands of the Law is found in Deuteronomy 7:2, and that says to "show them no mercy." Perhaps this is why Luke (who was a better editor) said that the Pharisees were ignoring "justice and the love of God" instead in his parallel in Luke 11:42.

In Matthew 23:25-28, Jesus accused Them of being hypocrites of cleanliness, giving themselves a clean appearance on the outside, but being greedy, wicked, and unclean on the inside. Luke 11:39-41 is a partial parallel of this section, but has Jesus saying that the Pharisees should give what they have to the poor, and then everything will be clean for them. In a loosely related parallel to the Matthew 23:27-28 reference of whitewashed graves, in Luke 11:44 the Pharisees are called unmarked graves. And while we are on the subject of graves...

Matthew 23:29-36 is the ultimate crescendo of condemnation. Jesus accused Them of being like Their forefathers who killed the prior prophets, despite the fact that They build tombs to honor those same prophets. Just to prove it, Jesus will send Them prophets who They too will kill.

You may ask: "Why is Jesus purposefully sending people to be slaughtered?" You and I know that is a morally repugnant idea, but Jesus thought that would be the ideal way to condemn Them. In Matthew 23:35, we see that They will take the blame for all sorts of injustice, including that which They held no responsibility for:
"And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the Temple and the altar." NIV
Luke 11:47-51 is the parallel to this passage, and it carries the same overreaching assessment of blame. This is hardly perfect justice, and not what should be expected or accepted of a perfect God.

This mean-spirited chapter closes out in Matthew 23:37-39 with Jesus generally lamenting Jerusalem's rejection of God, as well as a prophesy of His return when they will have repented. In a different area, the parallel of Luke 13:34-35 has these exact same words, supporting the idea that this lamentable anecdote was just a scrap of a recorded saying without any immediate context, which needed to be fit into the Gospel wherever it seemed appropriate to the author.

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