In Albuquerque, New Mexico, we have a street called Ouray (pronounced like hooray without the h). There is also a city in Colorado by that name. In Biblical Greek there is a word that sounds very similar. It is ouay, without the r. In English we have a word that is almost an exact transliteration: woe. In the Greek the word is almost a sigh, expressing deep emotion. It is usually translated either alas or the English equivalent, woe. When we read the eight woes Jesus pronounces in Matthew 23 or the three woes in the Revelation, we often think of them almost as a curse. This is not what the original intent was. It was an expression of deep sorrow. In the case of Matthew 23, Jesus was expressing how aggrieved he was at the actions of, primarily, the scribes and Pharisees. It wasn’t an “I’m going to blast you to hell” sort of grief; it was an “I wish you would see your error and repent” sort of grief.
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: forThey come before God seeming to believe they have done nothing wrong. ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. (Matt 23:13-15)
The first two woes decry how the scribes and Pharisees deal with people that would like to enter God’s kingdom. Essentially this is how they react to his own teachings.
First he points out the hypocrisy of knowing how to enter the kingdom, but not even taking advantage of it. The Pharisees knew who Jesus was; they just did not want to accept it. They may or may not have known he was Messiah, but they knew of his teachings about the kingdom of God. They knew that the crowds were following Jesus because he spoke with authority that they did not have. (Mk 1:23) They were jealous, and like many jealous people they decided to “take their ball and go home.” If the people would not listen to them, they would prevent the people from listening to Jesus.
In the second case, Jesus says that even if one makes it into the kingdom in spite of their efforts to the contrary, the scribes and Pharisees pervert his conversion. They teach the new convert to follow their own doctrines thus spoiling him for the kingdom.
If Jesus was so sorry for these actions by the religious people of his day, would he not weep also if it happened today? And does it happen? How many people are kept out of the kingdom by the way Christians approach them? Some have taken “hate the sin but love the sinner” and turned it into “hate the sin and antagonize the sinner.” With the manner in which some people approach potential converts, it is a wonder that they teach anyone at all. And those that do listen are often the ones who do so because the message fits their hatreds.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. (Matt 23:14, 16, 23)
In all things he calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, but in these three matters they seem worse than in the others. Perhaps that is because these matters concern their relationship to God.
The first concern is prayer. “Devouring” widow’s houses could encompass a number of offenses. Most literally, the Pharisees appear to have made loans to the most vulnerable in society, and then demanded their houses to pay the debt. Before the Babylonian captivity, Amos and some of the other prophets blamed Israel for their mistreatment of the poor. That sin is bad enough, but they compounded it by trying to appear more religious. “They love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” (Matt 6:5) They come before God seeming to believe they have done nothing wrong.
Jesus spends a lot of time discussing the matter of vows. This woe is about one’s attitude toward God’s law. The scribes (lawyers) had developed a complex set of rules about vows. These were expressed in a sort of legalese that tended to obfuscate rather than clarify. Most of all, they were intended to allow loopholes so that the informed could get around their obligations. One could say “by heaven” and be safe, but “as God is my witness” was binding. Thus it was incumbent on the one to whom the vow was made to listen carefully. The Pharisees were like the man who said, “I swear on my mother’s grave,” until it was pointed out that the hearer knew his mother was still alive.
Jesus points out the ridiculousness of all of this. What makes the sacrifice holy? The altar. What makes the gold holy? The Temple itself. What is the sin? Making vows to God or man without ever intending to keep them. Instead, a vow should be a vow. If you don’t intend to keep it, don’t make it. Especially, don’t think you can lie to God and excuse it by some hair splitting.
The third matter is the tithe. In Israel, the tithe was essentially the same as the taxes we pay to the government today. They were used to pay the officers of the government (the priests) and for social aid programs. The scribes and Pharisees were diligent about paying taxes. They even set aside a tithe of the least of their agricultural products—the herbs and spices. Jesus does not say there was anything wrong with this. Paying the tithe was a good thing. Where they went wrong was believing that observing the details made up for ignoring the broader picture. Strict religious adherence is of little value without the “weightier matters.” One can drop money in the contribution trays without faith; it happens all the time. Religious practice without religious feeling is a woe, something much to be pitied.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. (Matt 23:25, 27, 29-31)
The mysterious “they” say that reputation is what others see but character is what you are when others are not looking. If that is true, then the lawyers and the Pharisees had reputations that did not match their character. They carefully cultivated the reputation of being the set apart, the holy ones. They were probably successful for the most part. What upset them about Jesus was that he was able to see character. Jesus called them out when their reputation was really a façade.
Who would buy a dishwasher that advertised that it sterilized just the outsides of dishes? When you fill a coffee cup, is it not the inside that gets dirty? (I’ve seen coffee and tea cups that were not washed, and the inside was where the stains were.) If you wash the dishes, you wash the whole dish; or at least you wash the inside. Nobody wants just the outer appearance of cleanness.
“He that toucheth the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days.” (Num 19:11) Being ceremonially unclean was a big deal. Not only did it mean you were pretty much cut off from other people for a week, it also meant you were cut off from the Temple. Someone who was so concerned about praying where people could see him would not want to risk being away from Temple for that long. Since the Pharisees chose to put a hedge around the Law to make sure they didn’t violate it, they went so far as to whitewash places where people were buried. After all, was not touching a grave the same as touching a dead body, even if swearing by the gold of the Temple was not the same as swearing on the Temple? The problemOne can drop money in the contribution trays without faith. with whitewashed tombs, however, was that they almost came to be a point of pride. “Look how well I decked Uncle Shlomo’s tomb. Nobody will ever step on it.” Like the tea-stained cup, what was on the outside merely concealed the decay inside. Embalming was rarely used by the Jews. In fact, to save on cemetery space, they came back after the flesh decayed, and reburied the bones in a smaller space. Jesus was mourning the fact that the scribes and Pharisees could have been what they appeared, rather than mere bone-bags.
They took pride in certain tombs, as well. An old saying is that “they kill prophets, don’t they.” Years after they were murdered, however, the Pharisees revered them, and apparently even decorated their tombs. But when called about the circumstances of the death, they would plead, “but that was our fathers, not us.” Jesus says, “like father, like son.” If you are a descendent of a murderer, how do you know you wouldn’t have acted the same way? After all, the greatest of the prophets is among you and you are about to kill him. Appearances may be deceiving. Reputation is not the same as character.
Eight woes. Eight times Jesus says that he is sorry that they acted the way they did. He really wanted the Pharisees to be what they thought they were. If Jesus mourns over the scribes and Pharisees, does he not equally mourn over his own people who claim to follow him, but act differently? If we act hatefully, or more righteous than others, or simply lie to ourselves about who we really are, then we grieve Jesus just as much as the Pharisees did.