Saturday, September 28, 2013

Woe to you - Matthew 23:13-36

Like our last study, personal questions will be a significant portion of our exploration of today's passage, but we'll also look at some elements of Jewish culture to deepen our understanding.  Also note that today we reach the end of the long interchange between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders.

Today we cover the passage known as the "Eight Woes," filled with the phrase, "Woe to you..."  So before we dive into Scripture, let's define that phrase really quickly.
  • The word "woe" itself means distress, lamentation, grief, anguish, etc.
  • So, "woe to you" isn't exactly an act of cursing the "you."
  • Rather, in this context, the recipients (hypocritical religious elite) will experience that woe because of the implied curse because of their evil acts that Jesus lists out.

13 "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.

Under the Old Covenant, the Mosaic Law and sacrifices and festivals and all that were the way to serve God, but salvation (because Christ's death reaches both backward and forward in time) was still based on faith, a heart genuinely striving after God (see Romans 4).  Since these religious leaders were only interested in bringing glory to themselves, they had no true relationship with God.  But the situation was far worse in that these religious leaders were teaching common Jews legalistic principles instead of God's true intent in His Law, preventing them from coming to truly know the Lord for themselves and understand what it meant to really follow Him.  False teachers are extremely influential -which is why the Church is instructed to be constantly on watch for them, so no one is sucked in (see 2 Peter 2:1-3 and Romans 16:17-18,for example).

Are you diligent to keep false teachers' words out of your ears and eyes, checking all teachings against the Bible?  Do you also try to protect weaker Christians around you from false teaching's influence?

14 ["Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]

We've talked about how to handle bracketed verses before (verses found in some early manuscripts but not others), but if you are new here or need a refresher, click this post and scroll down to the blue sub-header that reads, "What about That Verse in Brackets?"  Based on my opinion on the bracketing issue, this verse qualifies as genuine Scripture.

Here, the religious elite were taking advantage of the people they were supposed to be taking care of, and engaging in religious activity just for the sake of appearing holy to others.  (For more on the issue of public prayer, look at Matthew 6:1-6.)

But what's the deal with the "greater condemnation"?  As I talked about in this post on Matthew 11 (under the sub-heading, "Speaking of the Judgment"), it's not a matter of different circles of hell like in Dante's Inferno; it seems more along the lines of those people having far more shame since they, as God's very own Israel, had far more opportunities to truly know Him than people of other nations had.

15 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves."

FYI, a proselyte was Gentile convert to Judaism.  So basically, these religious elite were going on "mission trips."  Obviously, the few Jews who really did love Gentiles enough to go tell them about the One True God were amazing people, but the religious elite referenced here were doing it for all the wrong reasons - for their own glory.  That may seem like an odd manifestation of glory-seeking, but a missionary I know has told me that some missionaries have actually gotten saved for real on mission trips (perhaps they went because it's seen as simply a noble thing to do, or a related motivation) - so this still goes on today.

But since most of these scribes and Pharisees never came into genuine relationship with God, they taught the converts the same false teachings they themselves lived by.  Think of it kind of like Mormons going on mission trips today.

16 "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.'
17 "You fools and blind men!  Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?
18 "And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.'
19 "You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering?
20 "Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it.
21 "And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it.
22 "And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.

There are a lot of little details here that may seem confusing, but the basic principle is actually quite simple:
  • In Jewish culture, people often swore to do certain things in the service of God - like abstain from something for a set time, or give Him a certain percentage of their income.
  • In the Old Testament, keeping your vows is treated as extremely serious (Deuteronomy 23:21-23, for example).
  • But the religious elite decided to make up all sorts of little "word game" rules to let people get out of their vows.
  • Obviously, this was an affront to God.
Have there been times when you've known that God wanted you to do something, but you tried to justify your way out of it?

23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.
24 "You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!

The religious leaders were also big on counting tiny seeds and flecks of herbs to tithe the set percentage - because such time-consuming acts were seen as very religious.  But they totally ignored the big-picture commands like loving others, which cannot be quantified and are not as noticed - and are actually much harder to do, when you really think about it.

Modern examples include spending (say) 2 hours in prayer and Bible study each day - but that clutters your schedule so much that you don't have time to show God's love to your elderly neighbor by helping her with yard-work.  Or having rigid rules of exactly how many inches below your collarbone or above your knee the clothes you buy can go - but not dealing with your pride or judgmentalism.

Does this principle "click" with your life in any way?

25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.
26 "You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.
27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like white-washed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.
28 "So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Jesus Himself interprets His symbols and sums it all up in verse 28, so I won't spend much time here, except to prompt:

Are there things you do to look religious when other people are watching, but that are the exact opposite of what you truly are like on the inside?  (For example, putting lots of money in the offering plate, but refusing to lend a family member money so they can make their rent.)

29 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous,
30 and say, 'If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'
31 "So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.
32 "Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers.
33 "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?
34 "Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in synagogues, and persecute from city to city,
35 so that upon you may fall the guilt of all righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.
36 "Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation."

Wow, there's a lot of information in this passage!  I think I'll focus on two main points:

First:  While there are many, many ways God uses the persecution of His saints for His glory (you can check out the "Persecution" tab under "Studies by Topic" on the left, if you're interested in studying this out deeper), in this passage, the focus seems to be to give the persecutors even more chances to repent through the testimony of the martyrs, and to heap more shame on them when they reject it (as we discussed above).  God doesn't waste the suffering and death of His martyrs - He offers mercy to the persecutors, but if they refuse to accept it, His justice will prevail for the martyrs (see Revelation 6:9-11).

Second:  We as humans always talk big, claiming we would have acted nobly during some time period where radical social change led to conflict.  But a major point I see in this passage is that, while we may think times have changed and we're not faced with that same decision today, we really are facing the same choices - so if we say we would have acted a certain way, why aren't we???
  • "If I were alive during the Holocaust, I would have done whatever I could to help save the Jews!"  Unborn babies created by God are being slaughtered everyday - are you standing up to help save them?
  • "If I lived around the time of the Civil War, I would have helped free the slaves!"  Slavery still exists in the world today - what are you doing to put a stop to that?
  • "If I lived during the Protestant Reformation, I would have been willing to die for my faith!"  (Not picking on Catholics here; I've just heard this line a lot.)  Well, today, right here and now, are you willing to bear shame and be socially ostracized, and risk your job and your grades and your family for your faith?
  • "If I lived in Jesus's day, I would not have been ashamed to minister to the outcasts and sinners right alongside Him!"  Today, are you showing God's love to homosexuals, and the homeless, and people who annoy you, and people seen as "weird" - not worrying what people will think of you for spending time with them?
I say these just as much as a challenge to myself as to you guys.  We need to take it seriously.  We need to actually do what Jesus would do, instead of throwing around the cliché acronym without putting any thought into how to put it into practice.

Image credit: "The Sermon of the Beatitudes" by James Tissot.  Wikipedia.  Public domain in the United States. 

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