Matthew 23 1-36: THE SEVEN WOES

(1) Introduction Read Mt23 1to36.

I found it difficult to deal with the seven woes Jesus pronounced on the Pharisees. It is a long passage - so very different from the Beatitudes, for example. It is not an uplifting or hopeful part of Christ's teaching. I am afraid too, that I am beginning to experience some decline in my mental powers which may become increasingly apparent from now on.

William Barclay writes a very illuminating introduction to the Scribes and Pharisees in his commentary on Matthew. The Pharisees emerged as a distinct sect from about 175 B.C.when Antiochus Epiphanes conquered Judea and tried to stamp out the Jewish religion and replace it with Greek religion. In reaction to this, the Pharisees set about, not only keeping the Law as laid down in the Pentateuch, but also the innumerable regulations that stemmed from the efforts of the Scribes to interpret the Law. For instance, there weree a great many definitions of what constituted work - activities that should not be carried out on the Sabbath.

By the time of Jesus the Scribes had produced 50 volumes of rules based on the Law that the Pharisees tried to live by.

This obsession with every jot and tittle of the Law made the Pharisees very legalistic. They acquired virtue by sticking to the rules and condemned others whose devotion to every nit-picking regulation was less than enthusiastic. However, Barclay points out that some of the Pharisees had a consuming devotion to God. They really did see obedience to the Law as expression of their love for God. Nicodemus was a Pharisee - and so, too, was Saul of Tarsus.

Having said this, there is a terrible warning in Matthew 23 for intensely religious people. There is no group Jesus subjected to more scathing criticism than the Pharisees.

(2) Two underlying failings.

The Pharisees:

(a) Made life a misery for others.

Jesus said of them, "Do not do what they do for they do not practice what they preach. They tie heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them."

There is no doubt that we live in a legalistic age. Our politicians have in he last 30 or so years produced innumerable regulations. Not only is this the case but the cost of ensuring these regulations are implemented is born by the party subjected to them. So, for example, several years ago now many small slaughterhouses were put out of business because they had to bear the cost of putting into practice health and safety rules.

Recently, I received a directive from our trustees saying that we had by law to have our church premises inspected for asbestos. I phoned up our Local Authority to ask if they had a list of reputable inspectors. They could not help! I had to search around with no guidance for a firm to undertake the work. In the end I suspect we were ripped off.

It is easy to make rules for others to keep and then to charge them for the ensuing inspection.

(b) Were obsessed with their status.

Their obsession was shown by:

  • The clothes they wore. "They made their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long." Phylacteries were boxes containing verses of Scripture which were strapped to the forehead and wrist. The tassels were blue and attached to the four corners of their robes.

  • Where they expected to sit. The Pharisees sought "places of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues."

  • How they expected to be addressed. "They love to have men call them 'Rabbi.'"

    Love of status is evident in all walks of life. Politicians get worked up about the make of their ministerial car. They expect a high value model to reflect their status.

    I am afraid to say love of status is evident in the church. For instance:

  • I don't like the way clergymen and women in the Church of England dress up in gorgeous gowns like medieval princes to enhance their dignity. Jesus did not wear distinctive clothes. Judas had to identify him with a kiss! Such was Paul's destitution at times that he was dressed in little more than rags.

  • Some nonconformist ministers mount very high pulpits. I fear they rather overdo it. They certainly occupy a prominent position. Perhaps, they should remember that Jesus sat on the hillside or in a boat to teach.

  • There are all those names by which clergymen are addressed. In the New Testament there were only three offices: apostle, elder and deacon. There are no references to: reverend, right reverend or very right reverend. Certainly, no one is addressed, "Your Grace."

    I am very much opposed to these names. In this respect I am no hypocrite. I didn't expect my pupils at school to address me as, 'Sir'. I have only ever been called, Mr Reed, John or JR.

    Jesus emphasises yet again at this juncture the best way to acquire status with God. It is to abandon seeking status with men. We are advised to seek not earthly glory but, rather, a heavenly reputation through humble service.

    (3) The Seven Woes.

    Jesus found the Pharisees lacking on seven counts. They:

    (a) Made pleasing God impossible.

    Jesus said: "You shut the Kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to."

    The Pharisees did not enter the kingdom of heaven because they lacked the basic entry qualifications. They were not poor in spirit; they were not humble hearted. Jesus summed up their attitude in the parable of the, 'Pharisee and Publican'. The Pharisee's prayer in the temple was one of self-congratulation: He stood up and prayed: "God, I thank you that I am not like other men - robbers, evildoers, adulterers - or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." See exposition on Luke18v9to14.

    In my boyhood there were chapel goers who resembled the Pharisee in Jesus' parable. They were neither believers themselves nor did they encourage other to make a commitment to Christ. A few years ago I met Ray at the garage in Whepstead we both frequented. He gave me a lift back to Bury St Edmunds. Ray reminisced about his uncle Perce who lived in my home village of Brockley. On Sundays Perce put on his best suit and attended morning service at the local Baptist chapel. For the rest of the day he sat about and gossiped. One Sunday, when Ray's parents were visiting, he played outside with a ball. Uncle Perce spotted him, grabbed him by the ear and gave his head a good shaking. "We don't play games on the Sabbath," said Perce. Fifty years later Ray confided in me, "He put me off Christianity for life."

    There is no doubt that some of we chapel goers have put young people off becoming Christians by adopting a legalistic attitude to what is appropriate behaviour and what is not.

    In my opinion the attitude of some conservative evangelicals to the Scriptures has deterred young people from becoming Christians. The claim by fundamentalists that the bible is inerrant is unreasonable. What is the best explanation for Matthew calling Zechariah the son of Barakiah when the Zechariah murdered between the temple and the altar was the son of Jehoiada? The Zechariah who was son of Barakiah was the author of the prophecy of Zechariah. See Mt23v35, 2Chron24v17to22 and Zech1v1. The simplest and best explanation for the discrepancvy is that Matthew made a mistake. I believe the Scriptures were inspired by God but they were written by men. Adam and Eve were God breathed - but this did not prevent them making a mistake! Every Christian is indwelt by God's Spirit; we are God breathed; but this does not preclude us from erring.

    (b) Encouraged fanaticism.

    Jesus said, "Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are."

    By the time of Jesus many Gentiles had been drawn to Judaism with its one true God and moral imperatives. They attended the Jewish synagogues and proved very responsive to the gospel Paul later proclaimed.

    The Pharisees set out to persuade the God-fearing Gentiles to become circumcised and to adopt the ceremonial law. They were not so much leading men to God as trying to lead men to Pharisaism. The Pharisees were promoting a sect within Judaism. Sadly, as is often the case, the converts to the sect of Pharisaism became its most fanatical adherents. This did not qualify them for God's approval but for his rejection.

    It is still the case that in most denominations there is a faction for whom the denominational distinctives are more important than anything else. I belong to an association of churches that holds to Calvinistic, 'Articles of Faith.' There have always been a tiny minority of pastors who promote these Articles - hoping to win support for them. Converts fo Calvinism tend to be the most fanatical adherents to the 'Articles of Faith'. They have no time for Christians like myself. They even go so far as to insist that Christian fellowship between churches and individuals is only possible between those who subscribe to the Articles in their entirety.

    Fierce defenders of doctrinal distinctives have moved a long way from the position of the apostle John who wrote: "Yet to all who received him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision, or a husbands will, but born of God. Jn1v12.

    (c) Were guilty of sharp practice.

    Jesus said, "Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath. Your blind fools! Which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred .... and so on.'"

    It seems likely that Pharisees made a list of oaths that were binding and another list of oaths that were not binding. So, anyone in the know could make a promise backed by an impressive oath that was non-binding. This would allow a person not in the know to be deceived and taken for a ride.

    The Pharisees who produced these lists were aiding and abetting sharp practice; they were on the side of the dishonest and deceitful. Perhaps, they made their lists available to dodgy business men - for a fee. Little wonder Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides. They were blind to best practice: business dealings where a man's word was his bond.

    Today, there is plenty of sharp practice. When we take out an insurance policy we are advised to read the small print. Why is it small? It is small to deter people from reading it!

    Recently I asked builders for a quote for work that needed doing at our chapel. I verbally agreed to accept the quote of one company only to find when the paper work arrived that VAT had not been included in the quote.

    A Christian should never be party to any form of sharp practice. It is just another form of dishonesty and dishonouring to God.

    (d) Got their priorities wrong.

    Jesus said, "Woe to you teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices - mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy and faithfulness. .... You blind guides! You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel."

    The Pharisees were meticulous about tithing the small patches of herbs that grew in their gardens but overlooked the importance of fair play, kindness and integrity. See Mic6v8. Jesus said ironically that they strained their wine and drinking water lest they inadvertently swallow an unclean insect but ended up swallowing an unclean camel. The Pharisees had lost all sense of proportion.

    We can see a shocking example of this in the temple where Levites scrupulously inspected sacrificial animals for minor blemishes and disqualified such from being offered as sacrifices. The temple authorities had unblemished stock for sale at inflated prices. Officialdom also insisted that Roman currency should be exchanged for temple currency to make any purchases on sacred premises. The rate of exchange greatly favoured the temple! Poor people could be ripped off twice. The religious authorities were acting unfairly, unkindly and untrustworthily.

    Another example occurred in the harvest field. The disciples were hungry and so plucked some ripe ears of corn, rubbed out the grain in their hands and blew away the chaff. The Pharisees accused the disciples of breaking the law by working on the Sabbath: reaping, threshing and winnowing!

    When I was a young Christian an incident occurred that I have never forgotten. I was cornered by two pious gentlemen who asked my opinion of the, 'New English Bible.' I said that I found it easier to understand and would consult it to prepare messages. Following this admission I was subject to a barrage of abuse: What did I know; I had no experience to draw on; I was a typical college boy, Satan was leading me astray and so on.

    The viciousness of the attack was out of all proportion to anything I had done amiss. The two men had no love for me; they were intent on putting me in my place - and did so very unkindly.

    (e) Were obsessed with keepin up appearances.

    Jesus said: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence. First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean."

    If someone who was ceremonially unclean came into contact with a rimmed plate or a glass goblet they would make these articles ceremonially unclean. So, the Pharisees made sure these items were ceremonially clean by washing the outside of them with water. However, if the plate contained meat crawling with maggots and the goblet a dead cockroach - drowned in dregs of wine, it was a waste of time cleansing the outside of the vessels. The outside of the plate and cup might be clean but inside that was far from the case.

    Jesus said that this is how the Pharisees were. Outwardly they gave the impression of being holy: praying on street corners, whitening their faces to indicate prolonged fasting, ostentatiously throwing coins in the temple collecting boxes, walking past women with their heads bowed lest they should lust after them. Inwardly it was another matter. Inwardly they were greedy - devouring widow's houses; inwardly they were proud - congratulating themselves that they were not as other men; inwardly they were judgmental - condemning Jesus for being the friend of publicans and sinners.

    Things have not changed! A man or woman can attend a church service and give the impression of being utterly devout. A man might carry a big bible, wear a suit of sombre colour and impeccable cut, bow his head reverently for prayer, listen raptly to the sermon, punctuate the message with heartfelt, 'Amens', and congratulate the preacher for proclaiming the truth. Yet, such a person may be a dyed in the wool hypocrite: a tight-fisted employer, a bullying husband, a controlling father and an ultra-critical member of the church - always stirring up trouble.

    (f) Were masters of disguise.

    Jesus said:"You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones in everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

    This condemnation of the Pharisees is very much like the preceeding one. A whitewashed tomb, gleaming in the morning sunshine, might look attractive but there is nothing pleasing about the tomb's contents.

    The Pharisees were nowhere near as good as they looked; far from it! They may have made pious pronouncements but at heart they were concerned only about themselves and what people thought of them.

    Today whitewash is liberally applied at the funeral of a non-believer. The virtues of the unbeliever are dealt with at length. The impression is given that God must welcome such a virtuous soul with open arms and that heaven will be all the better for his or her arrival. The deceased is welcomed into Paradise there to await being reunited with his loved ones.

    Nothing is said at funerals of this sort about what Jesus requires of us. We do not hear his words: "Deny yourself, take up the cross and follow me." Little is made of Paul's words to the Ephesians: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works so that no one may boast. Eph2v8and9.

    (g) Shared the failing of their forebears.

    Jesus said: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of prophets ...... .' I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town .... .

    The scribes and Pharisees honoured the tombs of prophets martyred in the past. They claimed that if they had lived then their behaviour would have been very different. There is no way they would have been party to murdering the men of God. Yet, when in their lifetime, God sent teachers and preachers, they were persecuted as brutally as in the past.

    Jesus seems to be teaching that human nature does not change. Abel was murdered at the beginning of recorded history because his brother Cain was jealous of him. Zechariah the priest was murdered at the end of recorded history because he rebuked King Joash for turning from God to idols. Joash did not like what Zechariah said to him. He couldn't stand being shown up as a godless monarch and as such rejected by God. So he engineered the murder of a faithful priest. See 2Chron24v17to22.

    People hate being shown up. Jesus showed up the Jewish leaders and paid for it with his life. Such was the murderous hatred in the hearts of the members of the Sanhedrin at what Stephen accused them of, that they covered their ears, rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Acts7v51to59.

    Human nature does not change. If you show someone up in the field of politics, medicine, education, social care and business you must expect to be vilified. Your reputation might be trashed - even if you are not actually murdered. It is sad to witness Premier League football managers attempting to protect their reputation at the expense of others. Some of the comments about referees, for example, are murderous in tone.

    The church is not exempt from criticism in this respect. John Wesley showed up the Church of England's lack of commitment to evangelism in the 18th century with the result a needless division occurred and Methodism was born. Then, later, in the 19th century William Booth's methods were rejected by the Methodists and another, separate, organisation - the Salvation Army was the result.

    Today there are rival factions in the Church of England. It doesn't pay the opponents of women priests, abortion and gay marriage to express themselves too forcefully. If they do it is likely they will be derided as anti-feminist, homophobic bigots. An attempt will be made to destroy the reputation of arch conservatives and ultra zealous evangelicals.

    Christians cannot afford to be complacent. It was religious men who engineered the crucifixion of the Lord of glory - the darling of the Father's heart. Pharisaism remains the greatest danger to the well being of the church.