If the unforgiving servant had a shrunken heart (last week’s lesson), the unjust leaders who condemned Jesus had shrunken souls (today’s lesson). While many Jews received Jesus gladly and became children of God (John 1:12), these “religious leaders” played the role of antagonists in the gospel record and in this text we see evidence of their ugly faith.
Our text is a portion of a significant discourse to the crowds and disciples about the Pharisees and the scribes (Matthew 23:1-12), as well as a series of woes directed toward the Pharisees and scribes (vv. 13-36). Some scholars consider Matthew 23 to be part of the Olivet Discourse (chapters 24 and 25), but since there is a change of geography in Matthew 24:1, it is probably best to treat the chapters separately.
Talk and Walk
The Day of Questions (Tuesday of the Final Week) ended in triumph for Jesus. He had shut down the religious leaders with impeccable logic. Matthew observed, “No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46). People whose talk and walk are in sync live balanced lives full of integrity. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees were out of sync. Their talk did not match their walk.
These popular religious leaders in Jesus’ day sat in Moses’ seat. Archaeology has revealed that synagogues had such a literal chair. This chair was for the special rabbi who gave the instruction from the law. Jesus did not take issue here with the teaching itself evidenced by the phrase, “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” He must have said this remark tongue-in-cheek. He also did not like the content of their teachings at times (Mark 7:8-13). But the larger issue Jesus addressed here was the disconnect between their talk and walk. Very simply, “they do not practice what they preach.”
This disconnect was especially evident in the burdens they imposed on others. Instead of working to liberate people, they burdened people. They weighed people down with rules and regulations claiming that this made them more holy. In reality they were spiritually lazy, not so much as lifting a finger to help people. The rest of the chapter essentially showed how that was done.
Minor and Major
Matthew 23:23, 24
The remainder of Jesus’ teaching at this point does not appear in our printed text. Jesus addressed the religious leaders’ pride (vv. 5-12) and then pronounced seven woes. The word translated woe can be rendered “alas.” It is judgment with tears and should not be understood as anger. It broke the heart of God to pronounce woes on these leaders who hindered others’ spiritual progress (v. 13), who gave themselves to wrongheaded proselytizing (v. 15), and who used religion as legal loopholes to avoid integrity in their speech (vv. 16-22).
God was also brokenhearted about those who majored in minors. Jesus addressed tithing. The religious leaders would tithe the small garden seeds that one could lose in the palm of the hand. Ironically though, these same leaders neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus went on to affirm tithing for that day but not at the expense of more important matters. Jesus called this blind. In fact, he even added humor to his accusation by saying, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” This was a play on words in light of the spelling of gnat and camel in the original language.
Internal and External
Matthew 23:25, 26
The fifth woe of the chapter deals with the inside and the outside of the human soul. Jesus used the metaphor of the cup and dish to illustrate his point. Outwardly they might look clean, but inwardly they were full of greed and self-indulgence. Jesus didn’t oppose outward cleanliness but he did oppose outward cleanliness at the expense of inward cleanliness.
The religious leaders did not exemplify the kind of justice God desired (Micah 6:8). The justice Jesus taught showed a solidarity between talk and walk, minor and major details, and internal attitudes and external activities. The unjust leaders had two obvious problems, both of which are mentioned twice in our printed text. They were blind and hypocritical. Just leaders are those who walk with enlightened eyes and integrity
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
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