Monday, October 8, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (VI), Week 41: Jesus authority challenged - Jesus condemns Jewish spirituality (Matt 23:1-39)

Last week I talked about Jesus' riposte, where He basically claims not only to be the Christ but also that the Christ is greater than just a king of Israel. This shut the Jews up and they did not desire to debate Him in public any more.

This week technically speaking is another riposte.

But I could just as well call it, "The speech that got Jesus crucified."

When you read the following passage and you understand its context, you see that this is probably the final straw for the Pharisees. They have opposed Jesus for years, and He has a following. His miracles are undeniable. His teachings are radical, and He has a massive following. His work with Lazarus has led the crowds in Jerusalem to a fever-pitch. And now He is claiming to be the Christ and that the Christ is greater than David.

And in this passage, He is going to claim something even bolder. It was after this, and His prophesy about the Temple's destruction, that Judas and the chief priests agree to a deal to betray Jesus and take Him into captivity. And it is because of what He said last week and this week that the Jews will accuse Him of blasphemy and insurrection against Rome.

So let's get into it. What can a man who has done as much good as Jesus do to finally cause the religious leaders of His day to agree to kill Him?

"Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples, 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you -- but not what they do. For the preach but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.' " (Matt 23:1-7)

Jesus says that the Pharisees should be followed insofar as their religious authority allows, but follow what they teach and not what they do. Jesus again accuses them of hypocrisy. He also here accuses that their interpretation of the Law places a burden on people which cannot be born, and which the Pharisees themselves cannot bear. Their hypocrisy comes from a desire to be noticed and seen as holy and revered.

"But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts hiimself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted". (Matt 23:8-12)

Here, addressing His disciples (cf v.1), He says that they are to avoid the trappings of religious leaders lest they fall into the same hypocrisy. He said not to use terms like 'rabbi' or 'father' or 'teacher' with each other, for we are all taught by the Christ and we are all brothers. None is greater than the next. To seek honor among others will result in dishonor; our role is to attempt to serve one another, not lead. (You have to wonder if the Zebedees, who just a few chapters ago sought a special place in God's kingdom, must feel pretty sheepish right now.)

With all due respect to my brothers swimming the Tiber, this is something that the Roman Catholic Church gets quite wrong. The RCC has even more layers of revered titles than the Jews had whom Jesus condemned: above the laity are brothers (monks and deacons), fathers (priests), bishops, then archbishops, then cardinals, then the Pope. Here Jesus says that such naming conventions separate us one from another. The kingdom of God is not one of a vertical heirarchy, but of a horizontal equality: we are all brothers and sisters of equal standing, learning from the One Christ, the One Father. Jesus warns that separations like this will inevitably lead to hypocrisy and abuse of power; one cannot help but look at medieval Catholicism and agree with such a condemnation.

And now Jesus just flat out goes OFF on the Pharisees:

"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yoursleves nor allow those who would enter to go in.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Woe to you, blind guide, who say, 'If anyone swears by the temple it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.' You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanliness. So you outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."

(Matt 23:13-28)

Seven times Jesus repeats the phrase "Woe to you" about the scribes and Pharisees, bluntly condemning their lifestyles. The seventh I will address below, but first a brief comment on the first six "woes".

We as Christians, particularly those who teach others, must be careful that we do not make the same mistakes:

1. Their teaching keeps both them and their hearers out of God's kingdom. It is the teaching of the Law which condemns its hearers, who are incapable of carrying it out. They fail to teach the reliance on mercy and grace, and thus both they are their listeners are condemned to a life of failing to uphold the Law.

2. They go to great lengths to evangelize and convert, but only result in making the person even more damned, due to #1 above. They are evangelizing, but only to create more followers of the Law, not of grace and mercy.

3. They play games with the Law even when they do teach it, trying to find loopholes to ignore the parts that they do not like while keeping the parts that they like.

4. They tithe (as per the Old Covenant) but miss the more important parts of the Law--to treat people fairly and show love and mercy and faithfulness to God.

5. They care a great deal about their appearance but inside are greedy and self-indulgent. First they need to work on their hearts, and then worry about how they appear to others.

6. They appears beautiful and holy on the outside, but inside are hypocrites and unclean to go before God.

But the seventh is the statement that might just have tipped the scales of the Pharisetical anger; this might just be the thing that caused Judas to betray Jesus and the Pharisees to actually decide to go forward with murder:

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.

Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers."

(Matt 23:29-32)

In this, Jesus says that the Pharisees love to spend time at the tombs of the prophets and say that if they had been there with their 'fathers' (the Jewish leaders of old), they would not have participated in the murder. Jesus says that they would have. He points out that by saying such a thing, the Pharisees identify themselves not with the prophet but the religious leader. They tacitly admit that they are following religious leadership and not the inspired prophets. Thus, Jesus said, they would have been casting stones right alongside the other religious leaders.

But here is where He gets bold--for remember, He is viewed as the modern-day prophet at this time: "Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers."

In other words, "You're one of them, so do what they would have done, and go ahead and kill Me."

Did you ever realize this? Did you ever realize that, just like a modern action star, Jesus stood before the Pharisees and said, "Come and get Me?" That He actually taunted them boldly for their sinful ways, and told them to fulfill their destiny as His killers?


Then He continues:

"You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

O Jerusalem, Jersualem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see Me again, until you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.' "

(Matt 23:33-39)

Have you ever heard anyone (usually someone unfamiliar with the Bible) make the claim that Jesus never said He was God? Yeah, they clearly haven't read this passage.

So just after Jesus claimed that the Pharisees were prophet-killers and told them to go ahead and fulfill their destiny by killing Him, He then goes further. He says that they are condemned to hell (always an awkward thing to say). Then He says, "I send you prophets and wise men..." (v.34). Jesus takes credit for having been the initiator of the sending of prophets. This, combined with His statements about the Christ in last week's passage, make it clear that Jesus is claiming equality with God as the initiator of prophesy; this is why they will kill Him for blasphemy very shortly.

Then He says that the Pharisees are guilty of much bloodshed, and that they will receive the condemnation of God within this generation (v.36)--next week we will see exactly what form this condemnation takes.

Also do not miss the wordplay of Jesus in verse 37: Jerusalem, meaning "City of Peace", is juxtaposed with the killing of prophets. Jesus says, "City of Peace, City of Peace, the city the kills the prophets...".

It is not hard to figure out what the Pharisees did what they did, and conspired to kill Jesus. He undermined their religious teachings for 3 1/2 years. He claimed to be a prophet greater than any of all time, greater even than the King of Israel. He claimed to be the Christ, and to be the source of prophesy. He humiliated them publicly in debates, and then listed their sins for all the Jewish world to see. Then He called them murderers and challenged them to kill Him, saying that God would condemn Jerusalem.

Say what you will about Jesus, but do not write Him off as just a peaceful teacher, some sort of old-timey Ghandi. He was a revolutionary, and not afraid to let His true feelings be shown.