December 16, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: He makes enemies

See Matthew 23:1-36, Mark 12:38-40, Luke 11:37-53 & 20:45-47

I’ve noted before Luke’s penchant for putting episodes in Jesus’ life in different places than Matthew and Mark do, and his denunciation of the Pharisees is a good example. He first puts it in the context of a dinner that Jesus attended at the home of a Pharisee before his arrival in Jerusalem, but then repeats it in only three verses during the time that Jesus was teaching in the temple.

Mark’s Gospel also has only three verses, nothing like the diatribe thatMatthew’s Gospel gives us. According to Matthew, Jesus addressed seven “woes” against them: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees.” He calls them “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “serpents,” “brood of vipers,” and, above all, “hypocrites,” which he repeats five times.

In the Old Testament, “woe to” appears frequently in the prophetic and apocalyptic literature. It was used to express horror of a sin and a promise of punishment for those who commit it.

The fact that Matthew’s Gospel went on and on as it does reflects the bitter conflict between Pharisaic Judaism and Matthew’s Christian community when the Gospel was written. Still, there is no doubt that a deep opposition existed between Jesus and the Pharisees and, in particular, the scribes who were experts in the Mosaic Law.

Jesus obviously wasn’t trying to win friends among the Pharisees. It’s hardly a surprise that, as Luke said, “The scribes and Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him.” He made enemies—knowingly and deliberately.

The Pharisees were known for their devotion to the Mosaic Law. At the time of Jesus, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, there were about 6,000 Pharisees in Palestine among a Jewish population of 1 million. So the Pharisees, including the scribes who belonged to that religious group, were a small minority among the Jews.

(When we hear, by the way, that most Jews rejected Jesus, it simply isn’t true. Jews numbered about 6 million in the entire Roman Empire, about one-tenth of the population. Most of them never heard of Jesus, either to accept him or to reject him.)

When Matthew wrote Jesus’ seven “woes” against the Pharisees and scribes, he probably wanted to remind his readers of the six “woes” in the fifth chapter of Isaiah. Isaiah’s woes, though, were directed against the rich and powerful, and most of the Pharisees and scribes during Jesus’ day were neither. Since they were teachers, though, they could be more dangerous.

Jesus’ biggest complaint against these teachers of the law was that they were hypocrites. Surely not all of them were, but in this harangue Jesus didn’t bother to differentiate. He called them to task because their actions too often didn’t match their speech.

His last “woe,” though, is the most serious. Jesus tells his enemies that they stand in the same line as their ancestors who murdered the prophets and the righteous. He predicts that they will continue to persecute those whom God will send, referring, of course, to Matthew’s Christian community. †


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