Matthew 23

SCRIBES AND PHARISEES

If a man is characteristically and temperamentally an irritable, ill-tempered and irascible creature, notoriously given to uncontrolled outbursts of passionate anger, his anger is neither effective nor impressive. Nobody pays any attention to the anger of a bad-tempered man. But when a person who is characteristically meek and lowly, gentle and loving, suddenly erupts into blazing wrath, even the most thoughtless person is shocked into taking thought. That is why the anger of Jesus is so awe-inspiring a sight. It is seldom in literature that we find so unsparing and sustained an indictment as we find in this chapter when the wrath of Jesus is directed against the Scribes and Pharisees. Before we begin to study the chapter in detail, it will be well to see briefly what the Scribes and Pharisees stood for.

The Jews had a deep and lasting sense of the continuity of their religion; and we can see best what the Pharisees and Scribes stood for by seeing where they came into the scheme of Jewish religion. The Jews had a saying, “Moses received the Law and delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua to the elders; and the elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue.” AH Jewish religion is based first on the Ten Commandments and then on the Pentateuch, the Law.

The history of the Jews was designed to make them a people of the Law. As every nation has, they had their dream of greatness. But the experiences of history had made that dream take a special direction. They had been conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and Jerusalem had been left desolate. It was clear that they could not be preeminent in political power. But although political power was an obvious impossibility, they none the less possessed the Law, and to them the Law was the very word of God, the greatest and most precious possession in the world.

There came a day in their history when that preeminence of the Law was, as it were, publicly admitted; there came what one can only call a deliberate act of decision, whereby the people of Israel became in the most unique sense the people of the Law. Under Ezra and Nehemiah the people were allowed to come back to Jerusalem, and to rebuild their shattered city, and to take up their national life again. When that happened, there came a day when Ezra, the Scribe, took the book of the Law, and read it to them, and there happened something that was nothing less than a national dedication of a people to the keeping of the Law (Neh.8:1-8).

From that day the study of the Law became the greatest of all professions; and that study of the Law was committed to the men of the Great Synagogue, the Scribes.

We have already seen how the great principles of the Law were broken up into thousands upon thousands of little rules and regulations (see section on Matt. 5:17-20). We have seen, for instance, how the Law said that a man must not work on the Sabbath day, and how the Scribes laboured to define work, how they laid it down how many paces a man might walk on the Sabbath, how heavy a burden he might carry, the things he might and might not do. By the time this scribal interpretation of the Law was finished, it took more than fifty volumes to hold the mass of regulations which resulted.

The return of the people to Jerusalem and the first dedication of the Law took place about 450 B.C. But it is not till long after that that the Pharisees emerge. About 175 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria made a deliberate attempt to stamp out the Jewish religion and to introduce Greek religion and Greek customs and practices. It was then that the Pharisees arose as a separate sect. The name means The Separated Ones; and they were the men who dedicated their whole life to the careful and meticulous observance of every rule and regulation which the Scribes had worked out. In face of the threat directed against it, they determined to spend their whole lives in one long observance of Judaism in its most elaborate and ceremonial and legal form. They were men who accepted the ever-increasing number of religious rules and regulations extracted from the Law.

There were never very many of them; at most there were not more than six thousand of them; for the plain fact was that, if a man was going to accept and carry out every little regulation of the Law, he would have time for nothing else; he had to withdraw himself, to separate himself, from ordinary life in order to keep the Law.

The Pharisees then were two things. First, they were dedicated legalists; religion to them was the observance of every detail of the Law. But second–and this is never to be forgotten–they were men in desperate earnest about their religion, for no one would have accepted the impossibly demanding task of living a life like that unless he had been in the most deadly earnest. They could, therefore, develop at one and the same time all the faults of legalism and all the virtues of complete self-dedication. A Pharisee might either be a desiccated or arrogant legalist, or a man of burning devotion to God.

To say this is not to pass a particularly Christian verdict on the Pharisees, for the Jews themselves passed that very verdict. The Talmud distinguishes seven different kinds of Pharisee.

(i) There was the Shoulder Pharisee. He was meticulous in his observance of the Law; but he wore his good deeds upon his shoulder. He was out for a reputation for purity and goodness. True, he obeyed the Law, but he did so in order to be seen of men.

(ii) There was the Wait-a-little Pharisee. He was the Pharisee who could always produce an entirely valid excuse for putting off a good deed. He professed the creed of the strictest Pharisees but he could always find an excuse for allowing practice to lag behind. He spoke, but he did not do.

(iii) There was the Bruised or Bleeding Pharisee. The Talmud speaks of the plague of self-afflicting Pharisees. These Pharisees received their name for this reason. Women had a very low status in Palestine. No really strict orthodox teacher would be seen talking to a woman in public, even if that woman was his own wife or sister. These Pharisees went even further; they would not even allow themselves to look at a woman on the street. In order to avoid doing so they would shut their eyes, and so bump into walls and buildings and obstructions. They thus bruised and wounded themselves, and their wounds and bruises gained them a special reputation for exceeding piety.

(iv) There was the Pharisee who was variously described as the Pestle and Mortar Pharisee, or the Hump-backed Pharisee, or the Tumbling Pharisee. Such men walked in such ostentatious humility that they were bent like a pestle in a mortar or like a hunch-back. They were so humble that they would not even lift their feet from the ground and so tripped over every obstruction they met. Their humility was a self-advertising ostentation.

(v) There was the Ever-reckoning or Compounding Pharisee. This kind of Pharisee was for ever reckoning up his good deeds; he was for ever striking a balance sheet between himself and God, and he believed that every good deed he did put God a little further in his debt. To him religion was always to be reckoned in terms of a profit and loss account.

(vi) There was the Timid or Fearing Pharisee. He was always in dread of divine punishment. He was, therefore, always cleansing the outside of the cup and the platter, so that he might seem to be good. He saw religion in terms of judgment and life in terms of a terror-stricken evasion of this judgment.

(vii) Finally, there was the God-fearing Pharisee; he was the Pharisee who really and truly loved God and who found his delight in obedience to the Law of God, however difficult that it might be.

That was the Jew’s own classification of the Pharisees; and it is to be noted that there were six bad types to one good one. There would be not a few listening to Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees who agreed with every word of it.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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