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MATTHEW - Chapter 23

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Matthew 23

Supplemental Commentary:

I.  PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS   3-25 (continued)

6.  Last Ministry at Jerusalem  21-25 (continued)

23, 1-12:  Hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Partial parallels in Mark 12, 38-40 and Luke 20, 45-47.  This whole chapter of the First Gospel consists of a powerful denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees.  About half of these words of Christ are not recorded elsewhere, the remainder occur in the Third Gospel as spoken under different circumstances.  No doubt our Lord could have repeated these sayings on various occasions, but it seems probable that Matthew has at least in part incorporated into this discourse certain sayings that were spoken on another occasion (cf. Luke 11).  However, some of these sayings seem more suitable here than they do in Luke (cf. 37 ff).

1.  This first section of the discourse (1-12) is addressed directly to the crowds and to his disciples; the second section (13-36) is spoken directly to the Scribes and Pharisees, while the concluding paragraph (37-39) is an apostrophe to all Jerusalem.    2.  This may be understood literally, for there was a certain seat in the synagogue known as the chair of Moses; but it is more probably meant in the figurative sense, "they have taught in the name of Moses."  In Matthew this whole discourse is directed against both the Scribes and the Pharisees considered as one group, but in the corresponding passages in Mark and Luke some sayings are against the Scribes alone, and other sayings against the Pharisees alone.  While most of the Scribes were also Pharisees, only a small portion of the Pharisees were Scribes.

3.  The usual interpretation of this passage is that our Lord recognizes the Scribes and Pharisees as the legitimate interpreters of the Law.

4.  Cf. the same words in Luke 11, 46.  The teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees were an unbearable yoke (cf. Acts 15, 10 and contrast Matt. 11, 30).  With one finger . . . to move them: they themselves do not make the slightest effort to bear this burdensome yoke.    5-7.  On the ostentation and vanity of the Pharisees, cf. 6, 2.5.16; and the parallel passages in Mark 12, 38 f and Luke 20, 46.    5.  On the phylacteries see the foot-note to the text.  On the tassels see Commentary on 9, 20.    6.  Almost the same words in Luke 11, 43; cf. also Luke 14, 7.    8 f.  Christians are forbidden the use of titles for the mere purpose of ostentation; see foot-note to the text.  All you are brothers: in the Apostolic age "brother" and "sister" were the only titles used among Christians, including the Apostles themselves  (cf. Acts 9, 17; 21, 20; 2 Cor. 1, 1; 2 Pet. 3, 15; Apoc. 1, 9).  The expression "the brethren" was synonymous with "the Christians."    10.  Cf. John 13, 13.    11.  The same words in 20, 26.    12.  The same words in Luke 14, 11; 18, 14.

23, 13-39:  Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees.    13.  Cf. the similar words of Luke 11, 52 against the "lawyers," i.e., Scribes.  This may be understood in the specific sense that the Scribes and Pharisees refuse to accept the teaching of Christ and so enter His kingdom, or more probably, as in Luke, in the general sense of eternal salvation.  It is bad enough that they themselves will lose their souls, but much worse that by their false teaching, "by taking away the key of knowledge" (Luke) , they prevent others from entering heaven.    14.  This verse is probably not authentic in Matthew but an adaptation of Mark 12, 40 and Luke 20, 47, made by some copyist, possibly for the purpose of having "eight Woes" to correspond with the "eight Beatitudes."  See Commentary on Mark 12, 40.    15.  From the Greek word which is here translated as convert we have the English word "proselyte," which is used especially in the sense of a convert from paganism to Judaism.  This missionary zeal of the Scribes and Pharisees was not in itself wrong, but these hypocrites, as Christ calls them in each of the "Woes," were animated less by a desire of promoting God's glory and the good of souls than by the desire of self-aggrandizement and of boasting of the increase of their sect (cf. Gal. 6, 13).  Since they lacked the true motive in making converts, their disciples imitated the worst features of the teachings and practice of their masters and became more wicked even than they.

16-22.  A severe condemnation of the Pharisees' casuistry about oaths which encouraged dishonesty.  Cf. the similar teaching of Christ on oaths in 5, 33-37.  The gold of the temple probably means "the gold that is offered to the temple," for this expression is treated here as entirely parallel with the gift that is upon the altar.  Such gifts were "Corban" (cf. Mark 7, 11), and therefore the Scribes taught that to swear by them was to swear the inviolable "Corban oath" (see Commentary on 15, 5), but to swear merely by the temple or the altar had no binding force.  Christ shows what blind fools the Scribes were in making such a distinction, for the temple and the altar are more important than the gifts which they, or rather God through them, sanctifies.  Therefore all these oaths have a special relation to God and hence are all binding.

23.  Similar words in Luke 11, 42.  The Law commanded that tithes, i.e., the tenth part, of all the produce of the fields should be offered each year to the temple (cf. Deut. 14, 22).  To show their zeal for this law, the Pharisees gave tithes even of the little garden herbs that were used as condiments.  (The anise mentioned here is really the dill plant.)  In itself this was not wrong---"they should not leave these things undone."  Christ did not approve of the violation of even the least law (cf. 5, 19).  But even though every law of God is, in a sense, important (cf. Jas. 2, 10), some laws are far more important than others.  The hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees consisted in this, that they pretended to be very scrupulous about these minute prescriptions, while they flagrantly violated the far more important laws of God that concerned right judgment, i.e., justice in general, and mercy and faith, i.e., fidelity to pacts and promises.  Christ calls these the weightier matters of the Law.  This may mean: (a) that He is alluding to the rabbinical distinction between "heavy" and "light" precepts, or as moral theologians would say, those which bind under grave or under venial sin; (b) "the basic principles of moral law"; (c) "the more burdensome precepts of the Law," for, while it is comparatively easy to give tithes on such inexpensive things as condiments, it is far more difficult to be consistently just, kind and faithful to one's neighbors.

24.  A proverbial saying, probably with no allusion intended to the law against eating unclean animals and insects (cf. Lev. 11, 4.20.23).  The Pharisees, like all false moralists, lost sight of the just proportion that exists between more important precepts (the camel) and less important ones (the gnat).    25 f.  Similar words in Luke 11, 39 f.  Our Lord is not referring directly here to the rabbinical traditions on the washing of cups and dishes (cf. Mark 7, 4b).  The outside of the cup and the dish is a metaphor for the externals of religion and morality, in regard to which the Pharisees were immaculate.  Within: i.e., inside the cup and dish; the continuation of the same metaphor, signifying that interiorly the Pharisees are full of wickedness, despite their pretense of external piety and virtue.  They refers directly to the cup and the dish.  Uncleanness represents one of the various words found here in the Greek manuscripts; the best manuscripts read "intemperance"---the same word which is well translated "lack of self-control" in 1 Cor. 7, 5.  The externals of virtue should not be despised (that the outside too may be clean), but the interior dispositions are far more important (clean first the inside).

27 f.  Christ continues the same thought by using the striking metaphor of the whited sepulchers.  Lest the numerous strangers in Jerusalem at the Passover might become defiled by contact with tombs that they might not recognize as such, shortly before that feast (therefore at the very time while Christ was saying this) these tombs were whitewashed, not in order to beautify them but in order to warn strangers of the uncleanness within.  The biting wit of our Lord's saying consisted in this, that while the Pharisees "whitewashed" themselves by their external pretense of piety (cf. "thou whitewashed wall" in Acts 23, 3), this very "whitewashing" betrayed them, and showed them, as it did the sepulchers, to be full of uncleanness within.  In Luke 11, 44 the figure is somewhat different: there the Pharisees are portrayed as successful in their hypocrisy and defiling men who come in contact with them.    29-32.  Substantially the same thought is expressed in Luke 11, 47 f.  The Jews at the time of Christ had built or repaired the monuments and reputed tombs of the prophets near Jerusalem.  They pretended thereby to honor the prophets and to atone for the guilt of their forefathers who rejected and persecuted them.  But Christ says that this in itself (Thus) reveals their evil conscience.  For in spirit they were the worthy descendants of the murderers of the prophets.  It was as if they were the accomplices of their ancestors and said to them, "You kill the prophets and we will bury them for you."  Through their hatred of Jesus they showed themselves to be even worse than their ancestors.  Therefore Christ says, "You fill up the measure of your fathers," i.e., "You supply what is wanting to the fullness of the wickedness of your ancestors; or perhaps the thought is, "You exhaust God's longanimity by adding to the sins of your fathers" (transition to the following thought).

33-36.  The punishment that is to come upon these persecutors of God's prophets.    33.  Cf. 3, 7; 12, 34.  The judgment of hell: the condemnation to eternal punishment.    34-36.  Parallel in Luke 11, 49-51.  Jesus, like the prophets of old, speaks in God's name, or rather as God Himself.  Therefore in Luke the words of 34 f are attributed to divine Wisdom, but this is probably not to be understood as a quotation from some otherwise unknown prophetic writing.    34.  The Apostles and teachers of the New Dispensation are given the titles of God's ambassadors of the Old Dispensation.  There may be a reference to the three main periods in Hebrew literature: that of the Prophets, that of the wise men, i.e., the writers of the "wisdom" literature, and that of the Scribes of the two or three centuries immediately before the time of Christ.  Persecute from town to town: cf. 10, 23.    35. That upon you may come all the just blood: i.e., the responsibility for these deaths; cf. the similar phrase in 27, 25; Apoc. 18, 24.  For the sense in which this generation also shared in the guilt of the preceding generation, cf. 31 f.  From the blood of Abel the just to the blood of Zacharias: i.e., from the first to the last murder mentioned in the Old Testament (cf. Gen. 4, 8; 2 Par. 24, 21 f).  According to the order of the present Hebrew Bible the Books of Paralipomenon or Chronicles are at the very end; from the words of Christ it would seem that this order was already established in His time.  There can be but little doubt that Christ is referring to the murder of Zacharias the son of Jojada, who was stoned "in the court of the house of the Lord" (2 Par. 24, 21).  These was a Zacharias the son of Barachias in the days of Isaias (cf. Isa. 8, 2), and the second last of the Minor Prophets was also called Zacharias the son of Barachias (cf. Zach. 1, 1); but there is no reason to believe that either of these men was slain in the temple.  It would be contrary to Christ's divinity and to the inerrancy of the Evangelist to admit that either of them made the mistake of confusing one Zacharias with another.  The words the son of Barachias apparently formed part of the original Greek translation of the First Gospel, for almost all extant manuscripts contain them.  If these words were also in the original Aramaic Gospel of St. Matthew, they may be explained by assuming that Jojada was known also as Barachias, or that Barachias was one of his ancestors.  St. Jerome tells us that the Aramaic "Gospel of the Nazarenes" (cf. Introduction), read "Zacharias the son of Jojada," in the Aramaic "Zachariah Bar Jodae."  If this does not represent a later correction of the apparent error, we may perhaps explain the error of the Greek as due to the translator who mistook "Barjodae" for "Barachias."    36.  This generation is here to be understood of those then living, for Christ is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem.

37-39.  The thought of the punishment that is soon to be inflicted upon the Holy City wrings from the Savior this touching cry of compassion.  Luke 13, 34 f records almost the very same words of Christ, but in a far less appropriate context.  Here these words, spoken right in Jerusalem, form a  magnificent conclusion to His ineffectual ministry in that city.    37.  How often refers directly to Christ's previous visits to Jerusalem, as recorded in the Fourth Gospel; but it may possibly be understood also in the sense that Christ is speaking here as God and referring to the numerous graces granted to the Holy City since the time of David.    38.  These words are from Jer. 22, 5.  Cf. also Jer. 12, 7; 3 Kgs. 9, 7 f.  Your house may refer either to the temple or to the political power of Jerusalem.    39.  A prediction of Israel's rejection until Christ's Second Coming when He will be welcomed by the people in the words of Ps. 117, 26.  But this passage probably implies also the final conversion of Israel (cf. Rom. 11, 25-29).  For the meaning of Ps. 117, 26 see Commentary on 21, 9.

Confraternity Bible:

Hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees  1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, 2* saying, "The Scribes and the Pharisees have sat on the chair of Moses.  3 All things, therefore, that they command you, observe and do.  But do not act according to their works; for they talk but do nothing.  4* And they bind together heavy and oppressive burdens, and lay them on men's shoulders; but not with one finger of their own do they choose to move them.  5* In fact, all their works they do in order to be seen by men; for they widen their phylacteries, and enlarge their tassels, 6 and love the first places at suppers and the front seats in the synagogues, 7* and greetings in the market place, and to be called by men 'Rabbi.'  8* But do not you be called 'Rabbi'; for one is your Master, and all you are brothers.  9* And call no one on earth your father; for one is your Father, who is in heaven.  10* Neither be called masters; for one only is your Master, the Christ.  11* He who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  12 And whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.

Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees  13 "But woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men.  For you yourselves do not go in, nor do you allow those going in to enter.

14* ["Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you devour the houses of widows, praying long prayers.  For this you shall receive a greater judgment.]

15 "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you traverse sea and land to make one convert; and when he has become one, you make him twofold more a son of hell than yourselves.

16* "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound.'  17* You blind fools! for which is greater, the gold, or the temple which sanctifies the gold?  18* 'And whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is upon it, he is bound.'  19* Blind ones! for which is greater, the gift, or the altar which sanctifies the gift?  20* Therefore he who swears by the altar swears by it, and by all things that are on it; 21* and he who swears by the temple swears by it, and by him who dwells in it.  22* And he who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God, and by him who sits upon it.

23* "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you pay tithes on mint and anise and cummin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the Law, right judgment and mercy and faith.  These things you ought to have done, while not leaving the others undone.  24* Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but swallow the camel!

25* "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but within they are full of robbery and uncleanness.  26* Thou blind Pharisee! clean first the inside of the cup and of the dish, that the outside too may be clean.

27* "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you are like whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones and of all uncleanness.  28* So you also outwardly appear just to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

29 "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! you who build the sepulchres of the prophets, and adorn the tombs of the just, 30 and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been their accomplices in the blood of the prophets.'  31* Thus you are witnesses against yourselves that you are the sons of those who killed the prophets.

32* "You also fill up the measure of your fathers.  33* Serpents, brood of vipers, how are you to escape the judgment of hell?  34* Therefore, behold, I send you prophets, and wise men, and scribes; and some of them you will put to death, and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from town to town; 35* that upon you may come all the just blood that has been shed on the earth, from the blood of Abel the just unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar.  36* Amen I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

37* "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! thou who killest the prophets, and stonest those who are sent to thee!  How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but thou wouldst not!  38* Behold, your house is left to you desolate.  39* For I say to you, you shall not see me henceforth until you shall say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'"


2: The Jews, including our Lord's disciples, must conform to the Law of Moses for the time being, when it is proclaimed by the Scribes and Pharisees.  The teaching of our Lord elsewhere makes it clear that His disciples need not comply with rabbinic tradition.

4: By their casuistry the Scribes and Pharisees exempt themselves from much that is burdensome to others.

5:  Phylacteries: little boxes containing Scripture texts which were bound to the forehead and left arm when the Jews were saying their prayers.

7: Rabbi: means "my master."

8-11: It would be blameworthy for Christians to give or receive such titles as "master," "father," "doctor," without recognizing that one is "father in Christ," that is, in union with and subordination to our Lord and to the Father.

14: Apparently this verse did not belong to the original Gospel.  It is omitted by the better Greek and some Vulgate manuscripts.

16-22: Our Lord refutes rabbinic distinctions about the formulas of an oath.

23-28: The Pharisees, who were so strict about external observances, were not sufficiently concerned about the inner life.

31-39: Persons are rewarded and punished only for their own actions; but the Pharisees shared in the dispositions of those who killed the prophets.  They would persecute the Apostles and the other messengers of Christ.  They would also associate themselves with the crime which Jerusalem would commit against the Savior.  Their temple would be desolate, abandoned by God.  The Jews would not see Christ henceforth, until they should say, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  It is probably upon this saying that St. Paul (Rom. 11, 31) predicts the conversion of the Jewish nation.