Matthew (Part 33) - The Seven Woes
No more than a breath or two separates chapter 23 from the end of chapter 22. Jesus has silenced his detractors of the religious establishment by not only answering their questions in ways with which they could not argue back but also in asking a question of his own to which they could not, in their state of unbelief, provide an answer. He turns from these false covenant keepers to his disciples and the crowd.
But his first comment gives us pause. He tells 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 they preach, but do not practice” (23:2-3). This seems strange advice, even contrary to what Jesus has said in the past. Why should the disciples avoid the practices of the Pharisees but pay attention and follow the teaching of the Pharisees. Wasn’t their teaching itself perverted?
Perhaps the Greek could shed some light on the issue. Perhaps the English translation is not exactly what the Greek is trying to say. The Greek of verse 3 is as follows:
Pa,nta ou=n o[sa eva.n ei;pwsin u`mi/n poihsate kai.
All therefore whatever as much as speak you do or act and
threi/te kata. de. ta. e;rga auvtw/n
observe or guard or keep, according to but the works their (or his or her)
mh. poiei/te\ le,gousiv ga.r kai. ouv poiou/sin)
not do or act say or teach for and not do or act.
If you are not familiar with Greek, the word order may appear odd. But the greater impression is that the English seems to be faithfully translated. No real question seems to rise from the meaning of the Greek words. So then why does Jesus say to follow what the Pharisees say?
Several interpretations have been suggested.
1. Jesus never condemned their teaching, just their practices.
Surely this is not a satisfactory solution. A brief review of some passages in Matthew certainly shows Christ arguing against their teaching. In Matthew 15, Jesus argues that they “break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition” (15:3). This is more than just practice as Christ points out in verse 4 what God says opposed to in verse 5 what the Pharisees say (or teach). In Matthew 16 Jesus tells his disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:6). We learn a few verses later (16:12) what Jesus meant: “Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Even in chapter 23 of Matthew we will see in verses 15-22 that Jesus is faulting the teaching of the Pharisees. Therefore, explanation #1 is simply wrong.
2. “Observe and do” (KJV) in verse 3 means to evaluate first and then do only if the evaluation proves that what was taught was in line with God’s Word.
As we can see from the Greek, the correct order is not “observe and do” but rather “do and observe.” And the Greek word for observe does not imply evaluation. Rather, Jesus instructs them to do what is said and guard it—make certain of it. This interpretation then is also less than satisfying.
3. “Moses’ seat” refers to a stone seat in the synagogue next to which the scrolls of the Law were kept and from which the Law was read. Therefore, verse 3 tells the disciples to follow the Pharisees only when they read the Law from Moses’ seat.
While archaeologists have found these stone seats in excavated synagogues, the custom was to stand and read Scripture and then sit down to teach (Luke 4:20). Therefore, the explanation does not fit the circumstances.
4. “Moses’ seat” is a figurative expression, which simply refers to his writings—the Law or Torah. Therefore, verse 3 tells the disciples to follow what the Pharisees say as they read the Torah.
This is generally the most common interpretation of the verse. The English translation of the ancient Hebrew manuscript of Matthew (which predates most of our Greek manuscripts) reads like this: “Upon the seat of Moses the Pharisees and Sages sit, and now, all which he will say unto you, keep and do; but their ordinances and deeds do not do, because they say and do not.” The Hebrew, at first, seems to support this interpretation. However, notice the “he” pronoun inserted in the English translation, connecting of what is said that should be followed with Moses (rather than the Pharisees). That is an interpretive insertion. There are no pronouns in the Hebrew just as there were no pronouns at this point in the Greek. Context dictates identification of the possessive, and it would appear in this case that context indicates Jesus refers to what the Pharisees are saying, not to what Moses said.
5. In telling his disciples to follow what the Pharisees say, Jesus is being sarcastic.
This is suggested by those who recognize that 23:3 is opposed to what Jesus has said throughout the rest of Matthew but who do not want to dishonestly manipulate the text so that they can assume conformity. They suggest that Jesus is saying something like the following: “You would think these Pharisees and scribes were Moses, the way they keep making up so many laws! And of course you should obey their every whim.” The problem is that Jesus contrasts the first part of the verse with the second. In the first he says do what they say. In the second he says don’t do what they do. We cannot assume sarcasm for the first part and not for the second simply because that’s how we want to interpret it. We lose the sense of the whole if we insist on sarcasm for part of the verse without any indication to do so.
6. “Moses’ seat” was a reference to Moses’ judicial activity in judging civil law.
This interpretation is the first that doesn’t manipulate the text while providing a seemingly adequate reason for the paradox. In Exodus 18 we are told that Moses “sat” to judge the people. Moses’ father-in-law thinks the burden is too much for him and suggests he organize lower courts to judge minor matters, while still having significant issues brought to him. The practice of this adjudication of civil matters was something conducted by the Sanhedrin and its lower courts. Pharisees made up a good portion of these courts with the scribes recording their decisions. It would appear then that when Jesus references “Moses’ seat” he is speaking of the judicial activity of Moses in judging these civil matters. So the Pharisees who “sit on Moses’ seat” are those who judged civil matters in Palestine in Christ’s time. Christ is blasting the Pharisees and scribes for their pride and arrogance (which also causes them to incorrectly disregard the command of Scripture at times). But Jesus is not advocating anarchy. Just as in his answer to the question of paying taxes in 22:15-22, Jesus is saying that his disciples should follow what the Pharisees say as they adjudicate civil law while sitting on Moses’ seat. But, he says, concerning their practice of hierarchical assumption and arrogance, do not imitate them. This sets the tone for why Christ pronounces his woes. Jesus is not set on explaining what teachings are right or wrong. He is about to attack the Pharisees’ idea of superiority and their resultant arrogance. It is their creation of a hierarchical structure that has distorted the covenant from a means by which to have relationship with God to a means by which the Pharisees could control and manipulate the people while improving their own position of power and worth. This explanation, then, fits with the context. Do not create civil unrest by ignoring the judicial decrees, Jesus tells them. But do not imitate or support their arrogance and idea of superiority.
In verses 8 through 12 Jesus speaks of that arrogance, showing how the Pharisees do things to appear more spiritual and of more worth than others. They love to be honored, even in how they are addressed. Jesus then says to his disciples not to be called father or instructor or master. Is he truly denouncing these words as titles? If so it would appear strange that Paul would speak of himself as a father to Timothy (1 Tim 1:2) and to others (1 Thess 2:11). And certainly we would think it odd not to call our schoolteachers teacher or professor. We must not get so legalistic that we lose sight of the principle. Jesus is faulting the idea of superiority and authority of some persons over others in matters of access to God. This was the error of the scribes and Pharisees. It was for this reason that they wanted titles that would further that impression. If the titles are meant to distinguish those of superior and authoritative rank in access to God, they are wrong. But for other reasons, they are not.
Jesus pronounces seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees. (The KJV includes eight woes. Verse 14, however, is not found in the oldest manuscripts. Although it is probably something Jesus said as shown in other Gospels, Matthew probably did not include it in his original.) Six of these seven identify the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites. They are hypocrites because they offer relationship with God but provide only a self-exalting subordinate relationship with themselves. A relationship with God must recognize God as one whom we esteem for his value, worship his glory, and obey because of his authority. Those, in fact, are the elements of the old covenant wrapped up in moral, ceremonial, and civil law.
The first two woes concern how the Pharisees were establishing relationship. Woe #1 faulted them for shutting people out of the kingdom (23:13). The covenant was meant as a means for relationship with God, but the Pharisees made it a list of conformity controlled by the leaders. Woe #2 called the Pharisees out for proselytizing for the wrong purpose (23:15). They held out an offer of the means to obtain relationship, but they provided only subordinate relationship to themselves.
The next three woes concern how the Pharisees were administering relationship. Woe #3 showed they esteemed false value (23:16-22). This was an aberration of the Moral Law. Swearing was the promise of yourself based on what you esteemed most. The Pharisees, esteeming things other than God the most, distorted this practice and directed it toward those false values. Woe #4 speaks of how they obeyed false authority (23:23-24). This was an aberration of the Civil Law. Giving, which is the sacrifice of yourself based on God’s authority, was directed by and toward the Pharisees’ perceived authority. Woe #5 faulted the Pharisees for worshipping a false glory (23:25-26). This was an aberration of the Ceremonial Law. Cleansing, which is for the presentation of yourself in worship, was directed for the Pharisees’ glory.
The final two woes concern how the Pharisees were projecting relationship. Woe #6 showed them appearing as if for God, but their motives were actually for themselves (23:27-28). The whitewashing of tombs with a lime and water mix was to warn travelers at Passover of where graves were so that they would not accidentally touch the graves, rendering themselves unclean for seven days and thus unable to celebrate the feast. Lime is associated with healing and life (due primarily to the lime found in hot springs) and with death (it coated most tombs of other civilizations, such as the pyramids in Egypt). Jesus used the life/death dichotomous symbolic meaning of the lime to indicate the good appearance though rotten hearts of the Pharisees. Woe #7 showed their complicity with their fathers in attacking those who brought the Word of God. This will be discussed in more detail in the next summary.