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Tuesday of the Second Week in Lent. The reading for the day is from Gospel of Matthew 23:1-12

Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees by James Tissot

Denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees – Matthew 23:1-36

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,

“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.

Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.

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.

All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.

They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’

As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.

Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven.

Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah.

The greatest among you must be your servant.

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

“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.

“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.

“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.’

Blind fools, which is greater, the gold, or the temple that made the gold sacred?

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.’

You blind ones, which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?

One who swears by the altar swears by it and all that is upon it;

one who swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it;

one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who is seated on it.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. [But] these you should have done, without neglecting the others.

Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!

“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.

Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.

Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding the prophets’ blood.’

Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out!

You serpents, you brood of vipers, how can you flee from the judgment of Gehenna?

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, 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.

Amen, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

The Lament over Jerusalem  - Matthew 23:37-39

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!

Behold, your house will be abandoned, desolate.

I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

This final section of the narrative part of the fifth book of the gospel of Matthew is a denunciation by Jesus of the scribes and the Pharisees. It depends in part on Mark and Q source; but in the main it is peculiar to Matthew.

Matthew 19:1–23:39 is the narrative section of the fifth book of the gospel. The first part (Matthew 19:1–20:34) has for its setting the journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem; the second part (Matthew 21:1–23:39) deals with Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem up to the final great discourse of the gospel (Matthew 24–25).

Matthew follows the Marcan sequence of events, though adding material both special to this gospel and drawn from Q. The second part ends with the denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1–36) followed by Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37–39).

This long and important speech raises a problem for the view that Matthew is structured around five other discourses of Jesus and that this one has no such function in the gospel. However, it is to be noted that this speech lacks the customary concluding formula that follows the five discourses, for example

  • When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, (Matthew 7:28)

When Jesus finished these words” as found in the above verse or a similar formula is used by Matthew to conclude each of the five great discourses of Jesus.

Also this discourse is addressed primarily to the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13–36) while the other discourses are all addressed either exclusively to the disciples, (Matthew 10; 18; 24; 25) or addressed primarily to the disciples (Matthew 5–7; 13).

Consequently, it seems plausible to maintain that the evangelist did not intend to give it the structural importance of the five other discourses, and that, in spite of its being composed of sayings-material, it belongs to the narrative section of this book. In that regard, it is similar to the sayings-material of Matthew 11:7–30.

A different compilation of similar sayings is found in Mark and Luke also.

Denunciation of the Scribes – Mark 12:38–40

In the course of his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets.

They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

Denunciation of the Pharisees and Scholars of the Law – Luke 11:37–52

After he had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home. He entered and reclined at table to eat.

The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.

The Lord said to him, “Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil.

You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside?

But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.

Woe to you Pharisees! You pay tithes of mint and of rue and of every garden herb, but you pay no attention to judgment and to love for God. These you should have done, without overlooking the others.

Woe to you Pharisees! You love the seat of honor in synagogues and greetings in marketplaces.

Woe to you! You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk.”

Then one of the scholars of the law said to him in reply, “Teacher, by saying this you are insulting us too.”

And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.

Woe to you! You build the memorials of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.

Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them and you do the building.

Therefore, the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles; some of them they will kill and persecute’ in order that this generation might be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who died between the altar and the temple building. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be charged with their blood!

Woe to you, scholars of the law! You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter.

The Lament over Jerusalem – Luke 13:34–35

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 brood under her wings, but you were unwilling!

Behold, your house will be abandoned. [But] I tell you, you will not see me until [the time comes when] you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

This denunciation of the Pharisees in Luke 11:45–52 is set by him in the context of Jesus’ dining at the home of a Pharisee. Controversies with or reprimands of Pharisees are regularly set by Luke within the context of Jesus’ eating with Pharisees. See Luke 5:27–39, Luke 7:36–50, Luke 14:1–24.

Pharisees and Sadducees

The Pharisees were marked by devotion to the written and oral law. The scribes, experts in the law, belonged predominantly to this group.

The Sadducees were the priestly aristocratic party, who were centered in Jerusalem. They accepted as scripture only the first five books of the Old Testament, followed only the letter of the law, rejected the oral legal traditions, and were opposed to teachings not found in the Pentateuch, such as the resurrection of the dead.

Matthew links both of these groups together as enemies of Jesus.

  • The Pharisees and Sadducees came and, to test him, asked him to show them a sign from heaven. (Matthew 16:1)
  • Jesus said to them, “Look out, and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:6)
  • “How do you not comprehend that I was not speaking to you about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:11-12)
  • The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with him,b seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” ( Mark 8:11–12)
  • He enjoined them, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” (Mark 8:15).

The threatening words that follow are addressed to the Pharisees and Sadducees rather than to “the crowds” as in

  • He said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (Luke 3:7)

Today’s reading begins with the denunciation of the scribes and the Pharisees by Jesus.

  • “Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.”  (Matthew 23:1-2)

The “chair of Moses”, as referred to by Jesus was an element of Jewish oral Tradition referring to Moses’ teaching authority – the authority inherited by the legitimate teachers of Israel. Any present day Orthodox Jewish rabbi will tell us that he holds (in part) the “Chair of Moses” today.

It has been proved that there was a seat so designated in synagogues. It is recorded in the Midrash Rabbah:

  • “They made for him (Moses) a chair like that of the advocates, in which one sits and yet seems to be standing.” (Exodus Rabbah 43:4)

The particular place in the synagogues where the Jewish leaders used to sit was known metaphorically as the “chair of Moses” or as the “Throne of the Torah”, symbolizing the succession of teachers of Torah down through the ages beginning from Moses.

In saying that the scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses, Jesus alludes to the tradition that recognizes the scribes and the Pharisees as the commentators and teachers of the Law of Moses.

Jesus tells the crowds and his disciples to observe all that the Pharisees teach but admonishes them not to follow their example since they are just blind guides who do not practice what they preach and teach. Jesus further says that the Pharisees are actors who want to be noticed in public places by widening their phylacteries (tefillin), and lengthening their tassels (or tzitzit) in order to earn praise.

The Mosaic law required that phylacteries (tefillin), a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, be worn on the left forearm and the forehead by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers. The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, and the strap wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers; while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. The Torah commands that they should be worn to serve as a “sign” and “remembrance” that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.

Jesus goes on saying that the Pharisees love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and wish to be saluted as ‘Rabbi.‘ literally “my great one,” a title of respect for teachers and leaders. He warns the crowds and the his diciples not to be tempted to seek honours and titles and to avoid being called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Master’. And he adds that whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

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