On Jesus’ public denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees
20th Sunday after Trinity – Lectionary Readings: Joshua 3:7-17 • Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 • Matthew 23:1-12
“Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do,
but do not do according to their works; for they say and do not do” (Matthew 23:3 NKJV).
There comes a time when wicked rulers and influence peddlers need to be publically denounced by someone who has the authority to do it. On the long ago day featured in our Gospel reading that time came for the wicked scribes and Pharisees. Their Judge was Jesus the Messiah, who delivered his denunciation with damning fire and force, in the temple, and in the presence of his disciples and a multitude of Jewish worshipers, a few days before his arrest and crucifixion. St. Matthew serves as our court reporter, and our Gospel reading presents us with the introductory part of the denunciation. We will delve into this denunciation in this sermon.
The denunciation reached beyond the scribes and the Pharisees. In its final part all Jerusalem was enveloped by it and the temple itself was declared desolate. “You shall see me no more,” Jesus thundered, “till you say ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ” (Matthew 23:39) Then Jesus left the temple, never to grace it again (24:1).
Justice is one of the weightier matters of the Law, and our Gospel reading serves it up on a full platter. Contemporary Christians, however, especially those who were raised in forms of the faith that prize an unbiblical and soupy sentimentality, may have a hard time imagining the white-hot anger that poured from the Lord’s lips when he denounced the scribes and Pharisees.
But they shouldn’t.
The God who sent the Flood to destroy the wicked in Noah’s day, who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, who visited Pharaoh’s Egypt with ten nation-destroying plagues, who commanded Israel’s invading army to execute every man, woman, and child in unspeakably immoral cities in the Promised Land, who authorized the Assyrians to destroy the northern kingdom (Israel), who mobilized the Babylonians to destroy the temple and take the Jews into exile, who marshaled Roman armies to bring the apostate Jewish temple system to its well deserved and ignominious end in A.D. 70, and who created hell for the punishment of the wicked is not a God who changed His nature when He became incarnate in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.
God is most certainly kind and loving and patient beyond our ability to adequately describe. He so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to redeem as many of Adam’s fallen race as put their trust in Him. But when God has had enough, the fires of his judgment fall. Those fires began to fall on the scribes and Pharisees on Jesus’ last day in the temple.
To the Lord’s denunciation of the wicked, let us now turn.
I. PRELIMINARIES: Setting the Stage
Our Gospel reading, Matthew 23:1-12, serves as something of a preamble to the whole of the Lord’s denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees. As such, it lays the groundwork for the detailed list of condemnations that follow. We will examine this preamble in a moment, but before we do, let’s dispense with some preliminaries that help set the stage for the entire denunciation.
Who the scribes and Pharisees were
First, let’s take a moment to familiarize ourselves with who and what the scribes and Pharisees were.
• The Scribes: Originally, scribes were copyists whose basic task was the copying and passing on of sacred, legal, and historic texts. By the time of Christ, they were part of the bureaucratic machinery of Jewish governance. Their duties might be legal, theological, or educational, or a combination of these things. A scribe might be a priest, a Levite, or a layman. He might be a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Given the Lord’s censure of scribes who, with the Pharisees, sat “in Moses’ seat” (v. 2), the scribes Jesus had in mind were the doctors of the law who served in the government that ruled over the Jewish people.
• The Pharisees: The Pharisees were an influential group of Jewish legalists who called for strict observance of (1) the Law of Moses and (2) the oral traditions that had built up around the Law. They were mostly from the middle class, and boasted many small property owners. The Jewish historian Josephus says the Pharisees numbered around 6,000 people at the time of Christ. This relatively small group, however, exercised considerable influence among the Jews. Those who sat in Moses’ seat were, with their co-conspirators the scribes, rulers over God’s people.
As the Lord made clear a little bit later, the scribes and Pharisees were “serpents” and “a brood of vipers” who were worthy of the “condemnation of hell” (v. 33). The people whom Jesus denounced were not nice people. Nor were they harmless. They were wicked and dangerous.
The temple setting
It is worth repeating that the denunciation took place in the temple, which served as the official seat for the whole Jewish world. Just as Nathan rebuked King David in his palace for his sins in the Bathsheba affair, Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees in the place that served as their principal base of operation.
Recall also the previous challenges that Jesus had met and overcome in the temple that day. The chief priests and elders had confronted him first, demanding to know by what authority he acted (cf. Mt. 21:23—22:14). Then the Pharisees sought to entrap him in the question of paying tax to Caesar (Mt. 22:15-22). Following that, the Sadducees set themselves against him with a foolish question about marriage (Mt. 22:23-33). Finally, the Pharisees came against him with a trick question about the law (Mt. 22:34-46). But Jesus bested each and all, turned the tables on them, and in ways both subtle and profound, condemned them.
So the temple was already a battleground. But Jesus’ denunciation turned it into his judgment hall.
The civic-religious union
The scribes and Pharisees exercised governmental authority that affected all of Jewish life, so Jesus’ words were directed to men who were far more than merely religious leaders. They were civil authorities too. For the Jews, the temple served as home for both church and state, and the leaders of one were also leaders of the other. Jesus’ denunciation was thus aimed at key personnel in “city hall.”
II. The Preamble: Matthew 23:1-12
Because Jesus effectively silenced all the Jewish leaders and influencers before he denounced the scribes and Pharisees, he spoke in the hearing of his disciples and the multitudes without fear of interruption. Many Jewish leaders doubtless heard the denunciation, but were either unable or afraid to do anything but listen to it.
Sitting in Moses’ seat (v. 2)
The scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses seat. Moses’ law was the law of Israel, and was therefore foundational to all Jewish life. “Moses’ seat” thus metaphorically referred to Jewish governance. The Lord’s words thus made clear that the scribes and the Pharisees had effectively taken over the government.
Bad governors (v. 3)
The scribes and Pharisees were bad governors, but governors nonetheless. Their office (Moses’ seat) had legitimacy, and that legitimacy granted the scribes and Pharisees a measure of legitimate authority. Their decrees were to be respected because of it. But they themselves were corrupt, and their actions were not to be emulated.
An overview of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ sins (vv. 4-7)
Jesus next moved to an overview of the scribes’ and Pharisees’ inner motives and public practices.
The scribes & Pharisees were oppressors (v. 4). They bound heavy burdens on men, but didn’t lift a finger to help men carry those burdens. One thinks of the oppressive taxes that today’s politicians levy at city, county, state, and federal levels on behalf of myriad programs that do no good for the population. In wicked regimes, unalleviated oppression is the name of the rulers’ game. So call the first offense “Oppression” and its companion “Uncaring.” The scribes and Pharisees were heartless dictators.
The scribes & Pharisees were prideful and attention seeking (vv. 5-7). The scribes and Pharisees worked to be seen, not to serve. They were prideful, ostentatious, and vainglorious. These things were made obvious by their dress (v. 5), by their special seats at feasts and in synagogues (v. 6), and by their love of being greeted as rabbis in the market place.
One is reminded here of modern day politicians who like photo-ops more than meritorious civic service, and of clergymen who like their uniforms (vestments) more than the Word of God or the people whom they’ve been ordained to serve.
So we see that, in the opening verses of his denunciation, Jesus exposed both the inner nature and public personae of the scribes and Pharisees. He did so by citing both their oppressive misuse of authority and their hypocritical public posturing.
Redirected faith & obedience (vv. 8-10)
At verse 8, Jesus shifted the focus from the scribes and Pharisees to the disciples and multitudes he was addressing. Having thoroughly discredited the scribes and Pharisees with his opening words, he then elevated himself over them and effectively set them aside as irrelevant.
In verse 8, Jesus spelled out the new rule for his kingdom. “But you,” he continued, “do not be called “Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren” (v. 8). With these words Jesus made clear the following three issues: First, exclusive teaching authority in the Church was his. Moreover, it operated out of his kingly office (i.e., he was the Christ, or Messiah) and therefore had sovereign authority. Second, no one in the Church was permitted to arrogate teaching authority to himself, as the scribes and Pharisees had done relative to Moses, whose law they had made ineffective by means of their traditions. Third, under Messiah all men were brethren with equal standing. Whereas the bureaucratic system of the scribes and Pharisees (along with the priests and elders) had effectively created a class system and bureaucracy that stood between the people and God, the Lord’s people were to have no such mediatorial structure between themselves and God. Under Christ, the kingdom isn’t hierarchical. It’s flat.
In verse 9 Jesus commanded his followers to call only God their Father. The scribes and Pharisees sought to exercise an illegal “fatherhood” over the people of God, and Jesus wanted no such thing in his kingdom.
Verse 10 repeats and deepens the command of verse 8. Jesus alone is the Teacher and Messiah. All authority and instruction in the Church derive from him. This is what makes the apostolic content of the New Testament so important: it all derives directly from the Lord Jesus. Those who oppose the rule of Scripture effectively oppose the exclusive and authoritative teaching authority of Christ.
The servant ethos (vv. 11-12)
The last part of the preamble commands a servant ethos among the members of Christ’s Church (v. 11). The greatest must be a servant. The scribes and Pharisees sought greatness for greatness’ sake, and wished to be served by those they deemed their inferiors. Jesus wants nothing like this in his Church.
His final words (in the preamble) contain a warning and a promise. “Whoever exalts himself will be abased,” Jesus warned, but “he who humbles himself,” he promised, “will be exalted” (v. 12.) An object lesson of the warning had just played out in the temple, when Jesus shut the mouths of those who opposed him and publically humiliated them. But these words mostly had believers in mind, and served to reinforce the Lord’s call for humble service in the body that is his Church. Jesus himself was the great example of this, for he was the servant of all.
Summation of the preamble
Following the preamble, the Lord then moved to the pronouncement of eight woes against the scribes and Pharisees. Accompanying the woes were the reasons for them. The preamble thus outlined the case that the Lord was about to make. It also made a clear distinction between his followers and those whose judgment he was about to pronounce.
III. Eight Woes: Matthew 23:13-39
It is no small disappointment to me that our Gospel reading next week will leap over the rest of Matthew 23 and all of Matthew 24. The reason for my disappointment is that both of these portions of the Gospel expand and deepen our understanding of Jesus’ judgments on Jewish apostates and apostasy. Be that as it may, the rest of Matthew 23 spells out the sins of the scribes and Pharisees in the clearest of terms. Let’s look at them in brief.
The sins of the scribes and Pharisees (vv. 13-33)
The scribes and Pharisees robbed widows (v. 14). They proselytized on behalf of evil (v. 15). They were greedy, and masked it with religious subterfuge (vv. 16-22). They majored on minors (tithes of small things) and minored on majors (the weightier matters of the law) (v. 23-24). They were full of extortion and self-indulgence (vv. 25-26). They gave the appearance of righteousness but were corrupt and lawless in their avaricious practices (vv. 27-28). They were guilty of the blood shed by their forebears, whose satanically motivated descendants they were and whose policies and procedures they advanced (vv. 29-34).
For all of these sins, Jesus pronounced woes. Eight sets of sin, eight sets of woe. Christ’s condemnation passed sentence on the scribes and Pharisees and destined them for hell (vv. 33).
They would do worse (vv. 34-36)
Jesus would send his own messengers to these evildoers, and they would be killed, crucified, scourged, and persecuted from city to city. (Remember Paul’s doings before he was saved.) But this would only add to their judgment, for upon them would fall all the righteous blood of many generations. Furthermore, their punishment would take place in their lifetime (v. 36). Their time was short.
Jerusalem (vv. 37-39)
Jerusalem herself had refused to be gathered unto Christ, despite his frequent callings to her. For that reason her temple would be left to her desolate. Only those who received his messengers (i.e., those who came in the “name of the Lord”) would have a hope of salvation.
As the Hebrews writer stated, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). The all-powerful Jesus who denounced the scribes and Pharisees for their myriad sins, and who pronounced their judgment in a series of eight woes, is ever the same. The wicked thrive only for a season. In the end they are judged, first by a pronouncement of condemnation, and then, ultimately, by actual removal. As we face myriad evils in our day, let us rest in this knowledge. But let us also take care to live in obedience to him who is the authoritative Teacher of the Church, Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Amen.