THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
JESUS’ LAST WEEK IN JERUSALEM
Lesson 22, Chapter 22:15-23:39
The Prophet-King Teaches the People of Jerusalem
You have called us to love You with all our heart, soul and mind and to love the other children of Your human family as we love ourselves. The true depth of our interior life is measured by our faithfulness to the law of love of God and love of neighbor. Give us the generosity of heart to love as Jesus loved and the willingness to risk persecution and ridicule in extending Your unconditional love to others. Please send Your Holy Spirit to guide us, Lord, in today’s lesson as we study Jesus’ teachings during His last week in Jerusalem. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Our hearts are for God, for He has made them, and only in him will our desire for eternal happiness be fulfilled … All other upright and noble loves “which go to form our life here on earth according to the specific vocation each one has received “are ordered to and fed by this our one great Love: Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Francis Fernandez, In Conversation with God, vol. II, page 99
The Gospel of John establishes the countdown to Jesus’ last Passover from His dinner with friends in Bethany six days before the Passover sacrifice (Jn 12:1) in what most Bible scholars believe was the spring of the year 30 AD.1) The day after the supper at Bethany Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on the foal of an ass in fulfillment of prophecy (Zech 9:9). It is the event Christians celebrate as Palm (Passion) Sunday. Therefore, the dinner at Bethany the day before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was on a Saturday; it was a Sabbath meal that Jesus shared with His friends. Six days from the Saturday in Bethany, as the ancients counted with no zero place-value and with Saturday counting as day #1, identifies the sixth day, the day of the Passover sacrifice, as the Thursday of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. According to the Gospel of John and in agreement with the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Passover sacrifice the year of Jesus’ death and resurrection was on a Thursday, the day before He was crucified.
The Countdown to the Passion
- Day #1: Saturday, the 9th of Nisan ~ Six days before the Passover Jesus attends a dinner in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus and is anointed by Mary of Bethany (Jn 12:1-8).
- Day #2: Sunday, the 10th of Nisan ~ The next day Jesus rode into Jerusalem (Mt 21:1-11; Mk 11:1-11; Lk 19:28-40; Jn 12:12-15). He cleansed the Temple a second time and healed the blind and the lame (Mt 21:10-17; Lk 19:45-46).
- Day #3: Monday, the 11th of Nisan ~ Jesus cursed the fig tree (Mt 21:18-19; Mk 11:12-14), cleansed the Temple a third time (Mk 11:15-19) and taught in the Temple (Mt 21:23).
- Day #4: Tuesday, the 12th of Nisan ~ The disciples commented on the withered fig tree (Mk 11:20) and Jesus teaches at the Temple (Mk 11:27; 12:1).
- Day #5: Wednesday, the 13th of Nisan ~ Jesus’ last day teaching at the Temple (Mk 13:1) in which He declares the “hour” of His glory has come (Jn 12:22). Wednesday is two days before the Passover on Thursday (counting as the ancients counted = Wednesday is day #1 and Thursday is day #2), and the religious authorities plan Jesus’ death (Mt 26:1-5). Jesus has a meal in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper where He is anointed a third time (Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:1, 3-9). Judas betrays Jesus (Mt 26:14-16; Mk 14:10-11; Lk 22:3-6)
- Day #6: Thursday, the 14th of Nisan ~ It is the day of the Passover sacrifice that will take place at the Temple at noon. Jesus sends Peter and John into the city to make sure the preparations for the sacred meal at sundown (the beginning of the 15th of Nisan) are made (Mt 26:17-19; Mk 14:12-16; Lk 22:7-13)
During the three years of Jesus’ ministry, He was anointed three times according to the Gospels. The three anointings may have symbolized the three holy offices Jesus fulfilled as God’s supreme Prophet, High Priest, and Davidic King; each office required the rite of anointing (CCC 436):
- Anointing # 1: Early in Jesus’ ministry an unnamed sinful woman at the home of the Simon, a wealthy Pharisee (who was disrespectful to Jesus), anointed His feet with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair (Lk 7:36-50).
- Anointing #2: Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped His feet with her hair on Saturday, Nisan the 9th at a dinner in her home (Jn 12:1-7). The next day on the 10th of Nisan, the day the sacrificial lambs or kids were to be chosen (Exodus 12:3), Jesus rode into Jerusalem “the sacrificial Lamb of God, there for all to see and judge His perfection (Jn 12:12-15).
- Anointing #3: An unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ head at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany two days before the Passover. As the ancients counted this is Wednesday, Nisan the 13th (Matthew 26:1-16: Mark 14:1-11).
Note: the Hebrew month Abib (Ex 12:1-2; 13:4) was called Nisan (Neh 2:1; Est 3:7) after the return from the Babylonian exile. In the Gospels the day of the Passover sacrifice is also called the “first day of Unleavened Bread” (Mk 14:12) or “the feast of Unleavened Bread called the Passover” (Lk 11:1). In the 1st century AD the two holy festivals of Passover and the week long celebration of Unleavened Bread were celebrated as one 8 day-long feast. St. John’s Gospel only refers to the entire 8 day period as “Passover;” the same designation is found in the Jewish Talmud, tractate Mishnah: Pesahim (2nd century AD) and is also the modern custom in Rabbinic Judaism.
Jesus spent each night on the Mt. of Olives with the Apostles (sometimes in the village of Bethany), and He continued to come into Jerusalem to teach at the Temple each day (Mt 21:17; 26:6; Mk 11:11; 14:26; Lk 21:37;22:39).2)> As Jesus continued to teach, the enmity of the religious authorities grew: They watched him closely and sent agents pretending to be righteous who were to trap in speech in order to hand him over to the authority and power of the governor (Lk 20:19-20). Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, left his residence in Caesarea Maritima (a port city on the Mediterranean) and came to Jerusalem during the pilgrim feasts, a time when incidents of rebellion against Roman rule were more likely to occur. The following teachings occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem.
All day long he would be in the Temple teaching, but would spend the night in the open on the hill called the Mount of Olives. And from early morning the people thronged to him in the Temple to listen to him.
During the first days of Jesus’ teaching ministry in Jerusalem, He had two confrontations with the men who claimed political and religious leadership of the covenant people, the chief priests (descendants of Aaron, the ordained ministers of the Temple), the scribes/elders (many of whom were Levites, the lesser ministers descended from the tribe of Levi) and the Pharisees who were the most powerful political and religious group (Mt 21:15-16; 23-26). He answered their challenges to His authority in three parables (Mt 21:28-22:14). Unable to refute Jesus’ teaching, the Pharisees withdrew to regroup.
In Matthew 22:15-45, as Jesus continues to teach in the Temple area, three different groups of adversaries challenge Him: The Pharisees/scribes, the Sadducees, and the Herodians. The first challenge concerns the Jews’ duty to pay taxes to their Roman overlords (Mt 22:15-22) and will be followed by three controversies concerning the correct interpretation of Scripture:
- The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead (Mt 22:23-33)
- The greatest commandment of the Law (Mt 22:34-40)
- The meaning of Psalms 110:1 concerning David’s lord (Mt 22:41-45)
As Jesus taught in the Temple, the Pharisees challenged Jesus again, but this time they joined forces with the Herodians, the supporters of Rome’s vassal rulers, the descendants of Herod the Great.3)
Matthew 22:15-22 ~ Paying the Roman Tax
15 Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. 16 They send their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. 17 Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax [kensos] to Caesar or not?’ 18 Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin [denarius]. 20 He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” 21 They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away. [..] = literal translation (IBGE vol. IV, page 66). The verb pagideuo in verse 15 means “to set a snare or trap” and appears only in this passage in the New Testament. The denarius was a Roman coin that was worth a day’s pay for a common laborer.
The Pharisees and Herodians are unlikely allies. The Pharisees, according to Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) who identified himself as a Pharisee, were the religious/political group that was most influential with the people. They were known for their scrupulous observance of Jewish religious practices and their authoritative interpretations of Jewish law (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.5.9, 10.6; Life 38). The Pharisees were not enamored with Roman rule and as a group had refused to take the oaths of allegiance to Rome and to King Herod (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.2.4). The Herodians, on the other hand, were Greek culture Jews who cooperated with and even admired the Romans. They were not known as faithful observers of the Law.
Notice the same Pharisees that had challenged Jesus earlier didn’t return with this challenge; they sent their disciples who one assumes had not been present earlier, perhaps the strategy was that their disciples would not be recognized by Jesus. Their representatives begin by attempting to flatter Jesus “their flattery and their plot to trap Jesus underscore their malice and wickedness.
Question: What is ironic about the way they attempt to flatter Jesus in verse 16?
Answer: What is ironic is that for once, even though they are insincere, their statements concerning Jesus are true.
Question: What is their question?
Answer: They are asking Jesus if it is “lawful,” meaning acceptable according to God, to pay the Roman poll tax.
The Greek word kensos is census in Latin. When Herod the Great’s son Archelaus was deposed by the Romans in 6 AD, the Romans imposed direct rule by a Roman governor over Judea and began to impose an annual poll or head tax of a Roman denarius on all the men, women, and slaves from age twelve/fourteen to age sixty-five. In Jesus’ day the Roman denarius bore the image of the emperor Tiberius (ruled 14-37 AD) and the Latin inscription Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus Pontiflex Maximus ““Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest” (Harrington, Gospel of Matthew, page 310). Tiberius was the adopted son of the previous emperor, Augustus (Octavian), who was worshipped as a god since his death in 14 AD. Payment of the tax had to be in the Roman coinage because it represented the people’s subservience to Roman rule.
Question: What is the trap they intended to set for Jesus? It was a two way trap depending on Jesus’ answer.
Answer: If Jesus condemns the tax, He is encouraging the people to reject Rome’s authority over Judea and the Jews and could be arrested by the Romans for encouraging insurrection. If however, He agrees that the tax bearing the image of the Roman emperor who claims to be the son of a god should be paid to the Romans, He will be taking a position contrary to the feelings of the majority of the common people who see the claim that Augustus is a god as a sacrilege and who follow Jesus because they are looking to Him as the liberator-Messiah who will free them from the Romans.
Question: The joining of the forces of these two groups (the Pharisees and Herodians) to “trap” Jesus may be an application of the old adage, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but considering the trap they intended to set, why was it expedient for the Pharisees to include the Herodians?
Answer: The Pharisees did not support the Roman tax, but the Herodians did. If Jesus condemned the Roman tax, who better than the Herodian allies to make the charge to the Roman governor that Jesus was undermining obedience to Roman rule.
Matthew 22:18-21 ~ Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin [denarius]. 20 He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” 21 They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Their flattering language did not deceive Jesus. He accuses the group of hypocrisy, using the Greek word. The Greek word hupokrites, means “an actor who plays a part”; there is no equivalent for this word in Hebrew or Aramaic (Aramaic is the common language Jesus is speaking). Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” fourteen times in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 6:2, 5,16; 15:7; 16:3; 22:18; 23:13, 14, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51).
Question: How does Jesus reverse the trap?
Answer: Since the tax had to be paid with Roman coinage that bore the image of Caesar, the coins belonged to Caesar. Paying the denarius was simply giving back to Caesar what was his.
But in addition to telling His adversaries “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” He also says “and to God what belongs to God.” This statement left the Pharisees without an answer and 22 When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.
Question: What is the significance of Jesus’ last statement that one must repay “to God what belongs to God” in relation to Jesus’ question about “image” that religious Jews, including the Pharisees, would not have missed and which caused them to go away “amazed”?SeeGenesis 1:27.
Question: While the Roman coin bears the image of the Roman emperor, the emperor was created by God and bears the image of his Creator. Therefore, the emperor is subject to God’s sovereignty over his life.
Matthew 22:23-33 ~ A Question about the Resurrection of the Dead
23 On that day Sadducees approached him, saying that there is no resurrection. They put this question to him, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died and, having no descendants, left his wife to his brother. 26 The same happened with the second and the third, through all seven. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28Now at the resurrection of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had been married to her.” 29 Jesus said to them in reply, “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. 31 And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 32 I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
Jesus has confounded the Pharisees and the Herodians, and now the Sadducees try to test Him. The Sadducees were the religious/political party that was for the most part composed of the chief priests. St. Matthew records opposition by the Sadducees in 3:7 (questioning St. John the Baptist) and 16:1-4 (in league with the Pharisees to test Jesus). The Sadducees were the main opponents of the Pharisees:
- The Sadducees did not believe in a physical resurrection of the dead like the Pharisees (Lk 20:27; Acts 23:8; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:16).
- The Sadducees only observed the precepts of the written Law in the Torah/Pentateuch (five books of Moses), unlike the Pharisees who accepted other books as Sacred Scripture and also followed the oral Law (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.5.9; 13.10.6; 18:16).
- The Sadducees counted among their supporters the wealthy and the aristocracy (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.10.6).
Matthew 22:23-24 ~ 23 On that day Sadducees approached him, saying that there is no resurrection. They put this question to him, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’
To present their argument against the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees bring up the statute concerning marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. In the Latin Vulgate this statute came to be known as “levirate marriage,” since the word levir is the husband’s brother in Latin. According to the Law, a man was forbidden to marry his brother’s wife if she had borne children to his brother, but an exception was made if the brother died without an heir. In that case, it was his closest kinsman’s obligation to marry the widow and give his deceased kinsman an heir (see the Book of Ruth).
To press their belief in the absurdity of a physical resurrection, the Sadducees allude to the passage in Deuteronomy 25:1-5 and then propose an extreme hypothetical case of a woman who married in turn seven times to brothers. At the conclusion of their story, they ask whose wife she will be in the resurrection.4)
Jesus gives them a shockingly strong rebuke (remember these are chief priests of the ministerial priesthood). He says to them: 29 … “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. The “power of God” refers to the resurrection of the dead. Jesus then instructs them in reverse order, telling them they do not understand the resurrection (22:30) nor do they understand the Pentateuch “the Torah of Moses (22:31-32). The Sadducees, who considered themselves to be the authoritative interpreters of the Torah of Moses and the “shepherds of Israel,” must have been highly insulted.
Matthew 22:30 ~ At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.
Resurrected life will be very different from life on earth “since life is eternal there is no longer any need to produce more generations of the living and therefore, there is no longer any need for marriage (see Cor 15:35-40).
Matthew 22:31-32 ~ And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 32 I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
Knowing that the Sadducees did not consider anything but the Torah of Moses to be Spirit inspired Scripture, Jesus uses the Torah to prove their improper understanding of the resurrection of the dead. For other O.T. passages about the resurrection see Is 25:8; 26:19; Ps 73:24-25; and Dan 12:1-3.
Question: What text from the Torah does He use as a proof-text for their misunderstanding of Scripture and the resurrection? Notice Jesus says what was said to you [plural] by God, referring to the children of Israel.
Answer: Jesus refers to what God told Moses to tell the children of Israel concerning the identity of the God who sent Moses to liberate His people in Exodus 3:15-16 from the Torah/Pentateuch.
Question: What is Jesus’ point if referring to this passage?
Answer: Jesus’ point is that since God continues a personal relationship with the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob after their physical death, there must be a form of life for them in the future.
Jesus has shown that the Sadducees do not understand the meaning of resurrected life nor do they understand that the Torah of Moses contains evidence for belief in the resurrection. Jesus is “coming against the shepherds of Israel” as prophesied in Ezekiel 34:10.
Matthew 22:33 ~ When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.
The Jewish crowds are astonished at the authority of Jesus’ teaching and His ability to confound their religious leaders. Unlike the religious leaders who refuse to acknowledge Jesus authority, the crowds respond favorably.
Matthew 22:34-40 ~ The Greatest Commandment
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them [a scholar of the law] tested him by asking, 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and the first commandment. 39 The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
The Pharisees come as a group to test Jesus again. They select one of their members, a scribe who was an expert on the Law, to ask Jesus another question. However, St. Mark tells us this scholar was impressed by Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees in defense of the resurrection (Mk 12:28).
The scribe asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment from among what will later be numbered as 613 articles of the Law. According to secular literature of the time, all the commandments were to be treated with equal devotion, but Jesus summed up the commandments of the Law in two sentences, answering what is both the greatest commandment and the second greatest. His answer is from two passages from the Torah. The first and greatest commandment is the Greek version of the Shema, the Old Covenant profession of faith from Deuteronomy 6:5, summing up one’s relationship with God, The second is from Leviticus 19:18b and is the summary of the commandments concerning one’s relationship with one’s fellow man/woman. In quoting these passages, Jesus is summing up the entire law upon which, He says, the Torah and the books of the Prophets are based (Mt 22:40):
- Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength (Dt 6:5).
- Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD (Lev 19:18).
St. Mark tells us that the scribe praised Jesus’ answer and the scribe’s response, which showed his correct understanding of Scripture, prompted Jesus to commend him saying You are not far from the kingdom of God(see Mk 12:28-34). This is an example of a Pharisee who was swayed by Jesus’ teaching. Not all Pharisees remained hostile to Jesus. The Pharisee Nicodemus (Jn 3:1; 19:39) and others will become a Jewish-Christians (Acts 15:5).
Matthew 22:41-46 ~ Jesus Questions the Pharisees about the Messiah
41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus questioned them, 42 saying, “What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They replied, “David’s.” 43 He said to them, How then, does David, inspired by the Spirit, call him lord,’ saying: 44 The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your feet.”? 45 If David calls him lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
This is the third in the series of debates over the correct interpretation of Scripture. Jesus turns the tables on the group of Pharisees and asks them a question, quoting from Psalms 110:1. The promised Messiah was identified in the Scriptures as the son of David (see Is 11:1, 10; Jer 23:5; Ez 34:23-24). David spoke in a “spirit of prophecy” about the Messiah in Psalms 110:1 in which God addresses the newly crowned Messianic king. Jesus quotes the passage from the Greek Septuagint translation in which the Hebrew word for “footstool” has been replaced with the Greek word “feet.” The Greek translation of the Old Testament was the most popular translation in Jesus time since very few Jews outside of the clergy spoke Hebrew. The common language, as noted, was Aramaic.
Jesus’ argument referring to Psalms 110:1 hangs on what David meant by the second word “Lord.” In the Greek translation the same word kyriosis used for both Yahweh and the king = lord. Jesus’ point is if David is the speaker in Psalms 110:1 quoting what God has revealed to him and the second “Lord” is someone superior to David, then “Son of David” is not an adequate representation of who is being talked about since David’s son could not be superior to him. Therefore, that person who is the second “Lord” must be the “Son of God” “45 If David calls him lord,’ how can he be his son?” Jesus confounded them with His question and His logic and No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Chapter 23 ~ Jesus Denounces the Scribes and Pharisees in a Covenant Lawsuit:
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Now will I judge between the fat and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and butt all the weak sheep with you horns until you have driven them out, I will save my sheep so that they may no longer be despoiled, and I will judge between one sheep and another. I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd.
The Pharisees and scribes had sought to discredit Jesus with the crowds. Now, as Jesus continuing to teach in the Temple, He turned to address the people and His disciples as He discredits those who consider themselves “shepherds of Israel” but mislead the people concerning Jesus their Messiah and the coming of His Kingdom.
In Matthew 14:12 Jesus’ disciples were concerned about the increasing hostility of the Pharisees and warned Jesus that the Pharisees were offended by Jesus’ teachings. The disciples knew the power of the Pharisees; they were the most influential religious and political group among the Jews and to incur their enmity was not just unwise, it was dangerous. Jesus’ did not calm their fears, instead He said: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides [of the blind]. If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit.” In this next exchange, Jesus “uproots” the Pharisees by exercising His authority as God’s supreme prophet in calling a covenant lawsuit against the failed “shepherds” of the covenant, as prophesied by the prophet Ezekiel: Thus says the Lord God: I swear I am coming against these shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep so that they may no longer pasture themselves. I will save my sheep, that they may no longer be food for their mouths (see Ez 34:10).
The covenants God forms contain blessings for covenant obedience and covenant judgments for covenant failures (see the covenant blessings in Dt 28:1-14 and warnings of curse judgments in Dt 27:15-26 and in 28:15-69). When the people and their leaders fail to heed God’s patient call to repentance issued through His holy prophet, the prophet, as God’s prosecuting attorney, announced covenant judgments through the formal declaration of a covenant lawsuit, called a riv in Hebrew: For this will be Yahweh’s day of vengeance, the year of retribution in Zion’s lawsuit [riv] (Is 34:8). Some examples in Scripture are found in:
In Hosea 4:1 the prophet says: Israelites, hear what Yahweh says, for Yahweh indicts (literally brings a riv/rib’, covenant lawsuit to) the citizens of the country: there is no loyalty, no faithful love, no knowledge of God in the country… In Matthew 21:43-46 Jesus issued His first warning of a covenant lawsuit when speaking to the Priests, scribes and other leaders of the people at the Temple: I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.… the chief priests and the scribes realized he was speaking about them… Covenant lawsuits are often presented in a series of “woe/judgments.” The word in both the Hebrew and the Greek is an expression of grief. See for example the woe/judgments in Isaiah 5:8, 11, 18, 20, 21, and 22, and those inHabakkuk 2:6, 9, 12, 15, and 19.
Jesus gave the blessings of the New Covenant in the seven/eight Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12; seven or eight depending on how one counts them). The malice of the Pharisees and scribes and their efforts to mislead the people concerning Jesus’ true identity as the promised Prophet-Messiah now results in Jesus (in His role as God’s Supreme Prophet) issuing a covenant lawsuit in a series of seven/eight “woe/judgments” against the Scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23:13-33; seven without verse 14 which does not appear in all MSS; see footnote 6).
Notice that Jesus uses the Greek word “hypocrites/hypocricy” seven times in His “woe” judgments (hypocrites in verses 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29 and the word hypocrisy once in verse 28). He also repeatedly accuses them of being “blind guides” (verses 16 and 24) and being “blind” (verses 17, 19 and 26). In Matthew 15:12 when the disciples were concerned that the Pharisees took offense at his teaching Jesus told them: “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit” (Mt 15:13-14). The “pit” is an allusion to the Hell of the damned into which the “blind,” those who refuse to “see” the true identity of the Messiah and to heed His call to salvation, are likely to fall into Hell because they blindly fall away from God.
It is important to note that Jesus’ indictment is not against the children of Israel, the Old Covenant Church. His indictment is against the failed shepherds (Ez 34:10), the most influential of which were the Pharisees and scribes who are hindering the gathering of the scattered sheep of Israel in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom (Ez 34:5-6, 10, 21 and Mt 9:36). Jesus’ lawsuit is divided into three parts:
- Denouncement of the practices of the leaders of the people
- The seven woe/judgments against the leadership
- Prophecy of the coming judgment
Some Bible scholars consider this section the beginning of Jesus’ fifth and final discourse in the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew 23:1-12 ~ Jesus Affirms the Teaching Authority of the Old Covenant Church but Denounces their Practices
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. 5 All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. 6 They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, 7 greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation Rabbi.’ 8 As for you, do not be called Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. 10 Do not be called, Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
The “chair of Moses” in verse 2 refers to the teaching and ruling authority the Pharisees and scribes held over the people in the local Jewish synagogues. The teaching authority in the Temple belonged to the chief priests. Josephus wrote that the power of the Pharisees was so great that they were even able to change some liturgical practices in the Temple, like the reciting of the Ten Commandments by the chief priests in the Chamber of Hewn Stone and later, after Jesus’ Resurrection, changing the day of the week the feasts of Firstfruits and Weeks/Pentecost were celebrated so they no longer fell on the first day of the week, our Sunday (Antiquities of the Jews, 13.8.4).5)
Question: Jesus upholds the authority of the people’s religious leaders as the successors of Moses, but what warning does He give the people?
Answer: Do what they say but do not do what they do because they do not practice what they preach.
Question: What are some of Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees and scribes?
- The Pharisees’ misinterpretation of the Law has made the Law a burden to the people.
- Their excessive show of piety is only a sham to put them in a good light.
- They delight in being honored and singled out for praise, putting themselves above the common people.
Matthew 23:5 ~ All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
The phylacteries (the Greek word for tefillin in Hebrew) were small leather boxes containing Scripture passages that were fastened with leather straps to the arm and forehead of a Jewish man during prayer time. The man wore the arm straps on either the right or left arm and hand. For a left handed person the straps were wrapped on the right arm and hand, and for the right handed person, they were worn on the left arm and hand (Ex 13:9, 16; Dt 6:8; 11:18). Like the tassels that were to be worn on the four corners of the outer cloak (Num 15:37-39; Dt 22:12) they were signs that identified Jewish men as the people of God. In obedience to the Law, Jesus wore the tassels on His outer garment (Mt 9:20; 14:36). Women were not required to wear either tefillin or tassels.
In verses 8-10 Jesus advised the people not to single out their religious leaders for excessive titles of honor and praise that would make them equal to God the Father and the Messiah. He does not mean to literally call no one father or teacher. That would mean one couldn’t refer to the head of one’s family who is one’s male progenitor as “father.” Jesus even referred to Abraham as “father Abraham” (Lk 16:24). But men who have those titles should not be held as equal in authority to God or the Messiah (speaking of Himself). It is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching to His disciples on the practice of humility in serving God (Mt 18:1-5; 19:30; 20:16, 25-28).
Matthew 23:13-32 ~ The Seven-part Curse Judgment against the Scribes and Pharisees
In Scripture the word “woe” (ouai in Greek and howy or owy in Hebrew) is used three different ways:
- As an expression of grief as in mourning the dead or as an expression of grief over some disaster. Sometimes it is translated as “alas” in this context (for example see 1 Kng 13:30 or Jer 22:18).
- As an exclamation signaling an important announcement by God or His prophet that is sometimes translated as Ah! (for example see Is 17:12 and Jer 47:6).
- As an expression of impending judgment by God, especially in the context of a covenant lawsuit by announcing that the curses of the covenant were about to be put into effect (for example see Is 5:8-22; Amos 5:18; Hab 2:6-19).
In Matthew 23:1-32 Jesus uses the expression in the third way to denounce the scribes and Pharisees who are the most influential leaders of the covenant people for hypocrisy and violation of the spirit of God’s covenant with Israel.
# 1: 13″Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You lock the kingdom of heaven before human beings. You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.” 14 not in all MSS6)
In this judgment Jesus’ accuses the scribes and Pharisees of hindering God’s plan for humanity and shutting themselves and others out of heaven by rejecting Jesus’ Gospel message of salvation.
#2: 15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You traverse sea and land to make one convert, and when that happens, you make him a child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves.”
In the first century AD many Pharisees conducted missionary efforts among the Gentiles. The word “convert” is literally proselytosin the Greek, which literally means “one who has come over;” a Gentile proselyte who has rejected paganism and entered Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, submitting to circumcision and the other requirements of covenant obedience.
Question: What is Jesus’ criticism of their treatment of proselytes?
Answer: Instead of properly channeling the convert’s zeal for their adopted faith in the right teaching of the Law, what should have been a zeal for righteousness becomes a zeal that will condemn the convert to eternal damnation through false teaching.7)
#3: 16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, If one swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gold of the temple, one is obligated.’ 17 Blind fools, which is greater, the gold, or the temple that made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, If one swears by the altar, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated.’ 19You blind ones, which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 One who swears by the altar swears by it and all that is upon it; 21 one who swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it; 22 one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who is seated on it.”
To “swear by the Temple” is a euphemism for swearing by the Divine Name “the only place where the Divine Name was uttered in the daily Tamid sacrifice of the morning and afternoon liturgy: In the sanctuary they would pronounce the divine name as it is written, and in the provinces, by an epithet(Mishnah: Tamid, 7:2F).
In an attempt at piety and to avoid profane use of the Divine Name, the leadership forbade the use of the Divine Name in oath swearing but permitted swearing by objects (Mishnah: Nedarim, 1:1). Jesus’ argument is that any real oath requires the intention to appeal to God and not to an object.
#4: 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. [But] these you should have done, without neglecting the others. 24 Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!”
Question: According the Law, what produce was required in payment of the one-tenth annual tithe to Yahweh and His House (Sanctuary/Temple)? See Lev 27:30-33; Dt 14:22-23.
Answer: The one-tenth of the produce included grain, wine, oil, fruits and animals from the herds and flocks.
However, the Pharisees and scribes expanded the requirement to include everything produced on the land of Israel including herbs and spices. This was not God’s intention nor were tithes to be collected on a Sabbath or Jubilee year when the land was to lay fallow. This is another example of purposely misinterpreting the Law and then neglecting what was important.
Question: What three important things does Jesus list that they have neglected in the spirit of the Law?
Answer: They have neglected justice/judgment, mercy and fidelity.
24 Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!”
A camel was an unclean animal (Lev 11:4; Dt 14:7) which the covenant people were forbidden to eat (Lev 11:8, 46-47). Jesus is using hyperbole to make His point that the Pharisees and scribes, who claim to be the most religiously observant of the covenant people were failing in the adherence to the spirit of the Law.
#5: 25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.”
He condemns these men as being more concerned with the appearance of religious purity than with interior holiness as prescribed by God in Leviticus 11:44; 19:2 and 20:7.
#6: 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like white washed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. 28 Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.”
Question: What visual image does Jesus apply to His teaching on interior holiness compared to the lives of the Pharisees and scribes?
Answer: A whitewashed tomb may look “clean” on the outside, but inside the tomb there is corruption and death. On the outside these men appear righteous, but their souls are corrupted by hypocrisy and sinful acts.
It was the custom for the Jews to whitewash tombs so a religious Jew might not come upon one by accident and inadvertently become ritual impure by coming in contact with what was contaminated by death (Num 5:2-3; 19:11-12).
#7: 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, 30 and you say, If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood,’ 31 Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; 32 now fill up what your ancestors measured out!
Jesus accused these men of pretending to honor the prophets by building tombs to memorize them and by claiming that they are better than their ancestors because they will never be guilty of killing God’s righteous prophet.
Question: How have these men come to bear witness against themselves that they will behave the same way as their ancestors. What is ironic about Jesus’ condemnation of these men for this failure; what is His ironic challenge to them?
Answer: In their confrontations with Jesus and their refusal to accept His teaching, they have shown themselves to be like their ancestors who rejected God’s prophets. It is ironic that, like their ancestors, they will kill Jesus, God’s supreme prophet. Jesus actually challenges them to kill Him in verse 32!
Matthew 23:33-36 ~ Coming Judgment
33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna? 34 Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that there may come upon you all the righteous blood shed upon earth, from the righteous blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Amen, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
Both St. John the Baptist and Jesus have called these men a “brood of vipers,” the wicked children of the big serpent, Satan (Mt 3:7;12:34). This is the third time the phrase is applied to them (also see Rev 12:9).
The answer to Jesus’ rhetorical question in verse 33 is that they cannot flee the coming judgment.
Question: Who are the prophets, wise men and scribes that Jesus will send? What will happen to them? See the end of the Beatitudes in Mt 5:11-12 and Acts of Apostles.
Answer: They are His Apostles, disciples, and teachers of the New Covenant faith. They will be persecuted and killed like the Old Testament prophets for the sake of Jesus’ Kingdom.
Question: What will be the result of the persecution of Jesus’ servants?
Answer: Those who persecute the New Covenant servants of Christ will bring God’s judgment and punishment upon their generation for the death and suffering of all God’s holy prophets throughout salvation history.
Question: Was Jesus’ prophecy fulfilled?
Answer: The religious leaders of the Old Covenant persecuted and killed Christians. They arrested Sts. Peter and John and murdered St. Stephen and St. James Zebedee. St. Paul was one of those sent by the Jewish Sanhedrin to arrest Christians before his conversion. In 66 AD the Jews revolted against Rome. The Romans send four legions of Roman soldiers into the Galilee and Judea. The Temple was burned to the ground in 70 AD and the nation was utterly destroyed with the majority of the survivors sold into slavery throughout the Roman world.
Matthew 23:37-39 ~ Jesus’ Lament over Jerusalem
37 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling! 38Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate. 39 I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”
Question: What is the “house” of Jerusalem that will be left abandoned and desolate?
Answer: The Jerusalem Temple that was destroyed in 70 AD and never rebuilt.
Question: Who are the “blessed” who see Jesus when/if they say/believe verse 26 from Psalms 118? Notice that verses 26-27 in Psalms 118 have a liturgical context: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the LORD’s house. The LORD is God and has given us light. Join in procession with leafy branches up to the horns of the altar.
Answer: In the Catholic Mass, the faithful speak these words prior to the Eucharistic procession to the altar. Then, the blessed “see” Christ who has “come” to us in the Eucharist and who is present among His people.
From the earliest years of the Church, Christians have spoken of the Eucharist as the parousia of Christ. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans on the 9th of Ab in 70 AD. It was the same day that the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 587/6 BC. Like the Babylonian conquest, many Jews were either killed or sold into slavery and exile into the Gentile nations.
Jesus’ seven-part condemnation of the leaders of the Old Covenant people should stand as a warning for all generations of Christian leaders. We should all humbly ask the Holy Spirit to protect us in positions of leadership from such prideful and arrogant abuses. Our true vocation in holy orders, in marriage, in service as teachers or Eucharistic ministers, etc. is one of service and humility so that we might claim a greater heavenly reward.
Questions for group discussion: What do you understand about God’s promise of the bodily resurrection of the dead?
1. When do you profess this belief at every Sunday Mass?
2. How would you defend your belief in the resurrection to someone who questioned God’s promise of a resurrection that rejoins body and soul?
See the Old Testament passages in Is 25:8; 26:19; Ps 73:24-25; Dan 12:1-3; the New Testament passages in Lk 14:14; Jn 5:29;11:24-25; Acts 17:32, 23:6; 24:15, 21; Rom 1:4; 6:5; 1 Cor 15:12-24, 42-43;Phil 3:10-11; 1 Thes 4:16-17; Heb 6:2; 11:35. For N.T. passages concerning Jesus’ Resurrection that prefigures our resurrection see Mt 27:53; Acts 1:22; 2:31;4:2, 33; 17:18; Rom 6:5; Phil 3:10-11; 1 Pt 1:3; 3:21 and the Catechism references in CCC 349, 366, 556, 988-1013, 1038, 1524 and 2301.
3. Revelation 20:5-6 speaks of the “first resurrection;” what is the “first resurrection” and what then is the “second resurrection”? What is the first death and what the “second death” that is mentioned in Rev 2:11. See Jn 3:3 and 5; Rev 20:6-15; 21:8 and CCC 720, 782, 1215, 1225. Hint: the Fathers of the Church had a saying concerning these events: “Born once, die twice; born twice, die once.”
1. This date is based on St. Luke’s testimony that St. John the Baptist ministry began in the 15th year of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (Lk 3:1, 23). Tiberius succeeded Caesar Augustus in 14 AD. If the Syrian method of calculating the year is a reign is being followed, then Tiberius’ 15th year is from September/October 27 AD to September/October 28 AD. According to St. John’s Gospel, Jesus’ ministry spanned three Passovers. If His first Passover was in the spring of 28 AD then the third and last Passover occurred in the spring of 30 AD.
3. The term “Herodians” is found in Matthew 22:16 and at least twice in Mark (Mk 3:6; 12:13 and in 8:15 in some MSS). The term identifies the supporters of the rule and policies of Roman’s vassal rulers Herod Antipas (ruled the Galilee and Perea) and Herod Philip (ruled Batanea, Trachonitis, and Aurantis) at this time. The Herodian, like the rulers they supported, callrf themselves “Jews” but were not religious Jews in the sense that they strictly followed Mosaic Law. They supported Roman supremacy (therefore they supported the Roman tax) and embraced Greek cultural practices, many of the customs of which were abhorrent to most Jews.
4. Some commentators have suggested that the Sadducees may also have had Sarah from the Book of Tobit in mind. She was married to and outlived seven different men (Tobit 3:8; 6:14). The Sadducees didn’t accept Tobit as Spirit inspired Scripture, but they may have also been trying to discredit the Book of Tobit.
5. According to Lev 23:11, 15-16, the Feast of Firstfruits was to always fall on the day after the holy Sabbath (Saturday) of the week of Unleavened Bread which was from Nisan 15-21. John’s Gospel identified the Sabbath if Jesus’ Resurrection as a “holy/high Sabbath” (Jn 19:31) Then, the next feast, the Feast of Weeks (called Pentecost which in Greek means 50th day in Jesus’ time) was to be celebrated 7 weeks later on the 50th day. As the ancients counted, this feast also fell on the first of the week (on a Sunday) until the day for Firstfruits was changed to Nisan the 16th. With the change, the feasts no longer fell on a Sunday every year as God intended but fell on different days of the week each year. The Jewish sect of Kararites (who claim to be the descendants of the Sadducees) and the Samaritans still keep these feasts according to Leviticus 23 “Firstfruits on the Sunday of the week of Unleavened Bread and Pentecost 50 days later on a Sunday, as Christians still celebrate Pentecost today.
6. Some MSS add a verse after either verse 12 or 14: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. Because of this you will receive a very severe condemnation. This verse is almost identical to Mk 12:40 and may be a scribal addition in some MSS.
7. The word Gehenna is derived from Hebrew ge-hinnon, which means “the valley of Hinnon.” Located on the west and south of Jerusalem, the valley was the place where the garbage from the city was burned continually, hence, it became a visual image for the place of eternal fire and judgment. It was also historically a place of great evil where some of the kings of Judah engaged in forbidden rituals including human sacrifice (2 Chr 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:31; 32:35). For some of Jesus’ teachings on Gehenna as a place/state of eternal punishment see Mt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 13:42, 50 (not named as Gehenna in 42 and 50 but as the “fiery furnace”); 18:9; 23:33; 25:41 (“eternal fire”); Mk 9:43, 45, 47; Lk 12:5. It is not the same place/state as the grave/netherworld which is Hades in Greek and Sheol in Hebrew. Also see CCC 633 and 1033-37.