Matthew 23:1-36

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. But 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. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.”

This is a difficult passage to read in one sitting. Not just because it’s so long, but because of the string of harsh and unrelenting denunciations it contains. Denunciations that have fed the fires of anti-Semitism for centuries.

It’s important to keep in mind that this passage was likely written for a small, fledgling community of Christians who were caught up in the chaos of the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem. They likely felt vulnerable, powerless, and on the defensive. They were not alone in feeling that way. One of the outcomes of the Roman oppression was that first century Jews were bereft of their Temple which was destroyed by the Romans. In response, they may have tried to preserve their threatened identity by defining themselves more deliberately, perhaps excluding those who still thought of themselves as Jewish but were considered beyond the mainstream.

Matthew’s community of Christians may have been one of those groups that were excluded. In response, Matthew narrates scenes where Jesus goes after the Pharisees, the main group of Jewish leaders who remained active after the loss of the Temple. In doing so, Matthew is trying to keep his flock together, trying to justify their decision to cast their lot with this minority Jewish group that would soon come to be called Christians.

With this bit of background, we can perhaps understand what role this passage, and others like it, played. We can understand how a small religious minority, vulnerable and powerless, would try to comfort itself and bolster its faith. In many ways, the struggle of early Christians to differentiate their beliefs from their Jewish neighbors and cousins and defend the choices they’ve made is like a sibling rivalry. And as most of us know, sibling rivalries can get pretty intense, sometimes even turn ugly.

But Christianity is no longer a minority religion. It’s no longer on the defensive. It no longer lacks power. Given those changes, we must guard against reading this passage as an accurate description of the Pharisees or, even worse, the Jewish religion. Further, we must oppose any effort to use passages like this to countenance and support discrimination. Finally, we must pray. We must pray that all God’s children be united, if not in belief at least in respect for one another. We believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection testified to God’s great love for all the world, and it’s important that we live that belief, especially when reading a difficult passage like this one.

Prayer: Dear God, forgive us when we try to use the story of Jesus to protect ourselves or harm others. Forgive us when we fall short of your desire to love and serve all. Equip and empower us to bear witness to your love, grace, and mercy. And encourage us to look out especially for the vulnerable. In Jesus’ name, Amen.