Commentary on Matthew 23:13-22
We continue with the attack of Jesus on the mentality of the Scribes and Pharisees, keeping in mind as we mentioned last Saturday that, first, we are dealing more with a state of mind than a blanket condemnation of a whole group of people, and, secondly, that the words are mainly to be heard as providing reflection for our own Christian communities and the way we behave.
Today and for the following two days we read of the seven ‘Woes’ that Jesus hurls against corrupt religious leaders. We have seen already how the number seven is a favourite of Matthew.
The Seven Woes are:
1. You shut up the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces… (v.13)
[You devour the property of widows... (a verse not included in some texts). (v.14)]
2. You travel over land and sea to make a single convert… (v.15)
3. You say, if a man swears by the Temple it has no force… (vv.16-22)
4. You pay your tithe of mint and dill… (vv.23-24)
5. You clean the outside of cup and dish… (vv.25-26)
6. You are like whitewashed tombs… (vv.27-28)
7. You build the sepulchres of the prophets… (vv.29-32)
Today we read the first three Woes.
1, You shut up the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces…v.13
[You devour the property of widows... (not included in some texts). (v.14)]
Jesus accuses the leaders of closing the entrance to the Kingdom, preventing others from going in and not going in themselves either. On the one hand, this can be a reference to their rejection of Jesus who was himself the embodiment of the Kingdom, was preaching the Kingdom and who, by his presence, had made the Kingdom accessible to all who came to him. On the other, it can also mean that they made the observance of the Law impossibly difficult by their complex interpretations of what was and was not allowed.
Whether we are parents, or teachers, or priests or religious, we can also by our behaviour both block people’s access to Jesus and be far from him ourselves also.
Included here is verse 14, left out of some texts, where Jesus accuses the Pharisees of saying long prayers but not hesitating to take money (for the Temple, of course) from widows, the poorest of the poor. Considering that widows were among the most destitute and insecure of people in Jewish society, this was exploitation of the most base kind. A comparison in our own day would be with the ways in which some “televangelists” have been known to rake in money from poor and gullible people who should be receiving rather than giving.
2, You travel over land and sea to make a single convert… (v.15)
While they try to prevent people approaching Jesus, they themselves zealously go to great lengths to make even a single convert, only to make that person even worse than themselves. They do this by corrupting them with false ideas of what true religion is. They fill them ideas about ritual purification and thus create a false sense of security about what really brings about salvation. At this time Jewish proselytisation was very active in the Greek and Roman world.
Parallels can be found in our own days among Christian groups.
3, You say, if a man swears by the Temple it has no force… (vv.16-22)
Here Jesus’ attack is directed at the leaders’ greed and their corruption of religion for material gain. They persuade people to swear by the gold of the temple and make them pay. People are told not to swear by the altar but by the gift they have put there. Which is more holy, Jesus asks, the temple or the gold which the temple makes holy, the altar or the gift which the altar sanctifies? Again, in the name of holiness, the Pharisee-types are exploiting the poor.
Daily we see the abuse of authority and power, whether in the Church, in government, in business leading to all kinds of greed and corruption which undermines the very fabric of societies. Positions of service are turned into instruments of personal gain, often at the expense of the weakest and the most needy. Countries which long ago should have become rich and prosperous and provided with a high quality of life for their people are bankrupt, in every sense of the word, while a small elite live lives of shameless luxury.
The Church, too, can find itself over-concerned with matters of money at the expense of its pastoral mission. A diocese, a parish, a bishop or priest who is rich in a world of poverty and need is a major stumbling block to the hearing of the Gospel.