WHAT DID JESUS REALLY SAY

001-jesus-teaching

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Part V

Verse 14: It will be bad for you teachers of the law and you Pharisees. You are hypocrites. You cheat widows and take their homes. Then you make long prayers so that people can see you. So you will have a worse punishment.”1

There are a number of Greek manuscripts that do not include this verse. But I want to include it because it harmonizes with what Jesus is saying. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus says, “For there was a certain sect of men that were Jews, who valued themselves highly upon the exact skill they had in the law of their fathers and made men believe they were highly favored by God, by whom…women were misled.”2 As such, the women were led to believe that by honoring these Pharisees, and giving them whatever they asked for, they were honoring God. Such scoundrels forgot about the warning Moses gave:You must never do anything bad to women whose husbands are dead or to orphans. If you do anything wrong to these widows or orphans, I will know it. I will hear about their suffering. And I will be very angry.3 Yet, after such scams they still had the aloofness and arrogance to stand in public and pray long prayers.

In the Talmud, we find this notation: The pious men of old used to wait for an hour and pray for an hour and then wait again for an hour. But seeing that they spend nine hours a day over prayer, how is their knowledge of Torah is preserved and how do they get their work done? [The answer is] that because they are pious, their Torah knowledge is preserved and their work is blessed.”4 So we can see, long prayers were an honored tradition among pious Jews.

But one early church writer did not have such admiration for these heartless Pharisees who spent all their time in prayer, not in seeking on how to give, but how to get. He writes: It is just for anyone who does evil to receive deserved retribution. But in this case, we have one who is using prayers as a cloak for his own wickedness. And he is deriving even the reason for his greed as godliness. Surely, he is justly liable to a far more grievous punishment. So why did God not stop this and depose them? Because the time had not yet come. He leaves them time for repentance for a while. But by His sayings, He tries to prevent His own disciples from being similarly deceived or to be drawn to emulate these men because of the dignity of their positions. Earlier He said, ‘Observe whatever they tell you but not what they do.’5 For they do many things wrong.”6 

Verse 15: It will be bad for you teachers of the law and you Pharisees! You are hypocrites. You travel across the seas and across different countries to find one single convert who will follow your ways. When you find that person, you make him worse than you are. And you are so bad that you belong in hell!”

This verse in the earliest Hebrew version of Matthew reads this way: “You encompass sea and land to bind the heart of one man to your faith and when he is bound he is doubly worse than before,” and is rendered as part of verse 14. So there may have been some redaction or notes that got from the margin into the text along the way. However, since this was addressed to the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day, then we need only to focus on the principle involved, and that is to be sure that those we win for the kingdom of God are followers of Christ, not followers of ourselves.

It was established in Jewish verbal tradition by a well-known spokesmen who said: “He who teaches Torah to his neighbor’s son is regarded by Scripture as though he had fashioned him, as it is written, and the souls which they had made in Haran.78 In the same place, we find where another Rabbi adds: “He who influences his neighbor to fulfill a precept is regarded by Scripture as though he had done it himself, for it is written, ‘The Lord said unto Moses . . . take . . . your rod, wherewith you smote the river;’9 did Moses then smite it? Aaron smote it! But, he who causes his neighbor to fulfill a precept, is regarded by Scripture as though he had done it himself.”10

Early church writer Jerome saw the action of these hypocrites this way: The scribes and the Pharisees were reviewing the whole world on account of the business and diverse profits taken by their disciples. These profits were taken under the pretense of sanctity.”11 In other words, they classified what they were doing as good works worthy of public support. It reminds me of the promotional advertisement used by some radio and televangelists who claim that if the hearer or viewer sends in money they will receive a blessing. And the higher the amount, the greater the blessing. Some of these individuals even claim that they heard such directions directly from God’s voice.

Chrysostom in one of his sermons has this to say: The scribes and Pharisees have laid endless toil upon others. This should draw them toward being more empathetic with others’ burdens. But the things that we acquire easily we care less about. So even their unfair advantages do not render them more gentle. Here He lays to the charge of the priests two things. First, that they have been unprofitable for the salvation of many. They have forgotten that they need much toil in order to win over even one. And second, that they were remiss in the preservation of those whom they had won. Not only were they careless but traitors. We see this from the wickedness of their lives, corruption and making others worse. When a disciple sees his teacher as being corrupt, he becomes even more so. He does not stop at his teacher’s corruption.”12

There is an interesting story about a Hebrew scholar named Shammai who was a contemporary of Jesus. The Rabbis taught: “A certain non-Jew once came before Shammai and asked him, ‘How many Toroth13 have you?’ ‘Two,’ he replied: ‘the Written Torah and the Verbal Torah.’14 ‘I believe you with respect to the Written, but not with respect to the Verbal Torah [said the Jew]; make me a proselyte on condition that you teach me the Written Torah only.’ But he scolded and repulsed him in anger. When he went before Hillel, he accepted him as a proselyte. On the first day, he taught him, Alef, beth, gimmel, daleth;15 the following day he reversed [them ] to him. ‘But yesterday you did not teach them to me this way,’ he protested. ‘Does this mean then that you rely on me? Then also rely on me with respect to the Verbal [Torah].’”16 In other words, it was not enough that this non-Jew learn the written word, but also accept the verbal word of Hillel as being equally necessary.

Today, we might see this if a non-Christian came to a member of the Latter-day Saints and ask how many Bibles are there and being told there are two. One being the Bible, and the other being the Book of Mormon. In addition, they have two other texts – the Book of Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. Each reads very much like the Bible in type and breadth of thematic concerns and literary forms (history, law, psalm). Even the rhetorical stance of each canon is biblical: God is speaking to prophets faced with temporal crises of spiritual significance. In terms of the authority granted these texts, all have equal weight, including both Bible testaments, as historical witnesses to God’s promise of salvation, enacted by covenant with the Israelites and fulfilled in the atonement of Jesus Christ as the only begotten of the Father.17

We also read where Jews were encouraged Jews to purchase heathen slaves and convert them to Judaism. In doing so, says Rabbi Ammi in the name of Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, “You bring them under the wings of the Shechinah.”18 There are many sayings and teachings in Judaism on proselytes and proselytizing. It was an exacting science, and the rules had to be followed to the letter of the verbal law.

Here are some of the instructions found in the Talmud: “The Master said, ‘If a man desires to become a proselyte . . . he is to be questioned as follows: “What reason have you for desiring to become a proselyte . . .” and he is made acquainted with some of the minor, and with some of the major commandments’. What is the reason? — In order that if he desires to withdraw let him do so; for Rabbi Helbo said: “Proselytes are as hard for Israel [to endure] as a sore, because it is written in Scripture. ‘And the proselyte shall join himself with them, and they shall cleave to the house of Jacob’.””19 But it gets worse when we read this: “Rabbi Helbo said: Proselytes are as injurious to Israel as a scab, for it is said: And the stranger shall join himself with them, and they shall cleave to the house of Jacob. Here it is written. [This is the law for all manner of plague of leprosy . . .] and for a rising, or for a scab.”20

This attitude may have come from what happened in Persia when the Jews were liberated by the death of Haman, “Wherever the king’s command was read in every province and every city, there was joy and gladness among the Jews. They were having parties and celebrating. Many of the common people from other groups became Jews. They did this because they were very afraid of the Jews.”21 Perhaps that is why the Pharisees had to look so hard and long to find a proselyte. But what upset Jesus, was the fact that they would mold that new believer into a more righteous fool and arrogant Jew than the Pharisee himself was.

1 This verse is added in some Greek copies from other sources – See Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47. It is not included in the NIV, but it is part of the oldest Hebrew version of Matthew’s Gospel, so I have included it here.

2 Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 17, Ch. 2:4

3 Exodus 22:22-24

4 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berachoth, folio 32b

5 Matthew 23:3

6 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 73.1

7 Simeon ben Lakish: See footnote (27): Genesis 12:5 – Since no human being can make (create) life, this is interpreted as meaning whom Abraham taught.

8 Babylonian Talmud, ibid. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 99b

9 Exodus 17:5

10 Rabbi Abbahu in Babylonian Talmud, ibid.

11 Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 4, Ch. 23:35

12 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 73.1

13 “Toroth” is plural for Torah: Meaning systems of teaching the law

14 The Written Torah is the Pentateuch; the Oral Torah is the whole body of Rabbinical and traditional teaching thereon which was committed to writing in what we know as the Mishnah and Talmuds

15 First four letters of the Hebrew alphabet which in themselves have special moral and religious meanings

16 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 31a

17 The Christian Century: The Bible plus; the four books of Mormonism by Kathleen Flake, 2012

18 Midrash Rabbah (aka Gen. Rab.), op. cit., Vol. I, Ch. 47:9-10, p. 404

19 Ibid., Seder Nashim, Masekhet Yebamoth, folio 47b (See also folio 109b).

20 Ibid., Masekhet Kiddushin, folio 70b

21 See Esther 8:17

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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