NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 20-22: “Whoever uses the altar to make a promise is really using the altar and everything on the altar. And anyone who uses the Temple to make a promise is really using the Temple and God, who lives in it. Whoever uses heaven to make a promise is using God’s throne and the one who is seated on it.”
Two things we need to notice here. Jesus was not promoting the idea of swearing by using the altar, Temple or heaven, nor was He telling the Jews that it was wrong. He was pointing out the seriousness of using such sacred objects when making a vow. By focusing on the gold and the offerings, they were trying to avoid the possibility of profaning the Temple and the altar. But our Lord wanted them to know, you can’t have one without the other because each gives the other its meaning. In other words, if a person swears by the altar they should know that the offering on the altar is automatically included and thereby make the oath binding.
But most of all, Jesus points out the connection between the altar, Temple, heavens, and God. It is to God that all the gifts on the altar are made; it is to God that all the praise in the Temple is directed, and it is to God that all adoration directed toward heaven is ascribed. So if you make an oath using God as the ensurer of that oath, you include everything that belongs to Him. Another way to put this is, if you dedicate your hands to do God’s work, you are including your heart, soul, mind, body, and spirit; if you dedicate your heart to Him, you are including everything you are, everything you have, and everything you own. Therefore, take your vows seriously.
Jesus was not fishing for things to criticize these religious leaders about, it was all part of Jewish tradition. For instance, according to John Gill, the following oath was taken: “…swear to me that you wilt not betray me, and he swore to him; by what did he swear? says Rabbi Jose bar Chanina, “by the innermost altar.”1 Also, in another Midrash it is written, “Again, it is said of Zedekiah, ‘…that Nebuchadnezzar made him to swear’; ‘by what did he make him to swear?’ says Rabbi Jose, ‘by the covenant he made him to swear’; Rabbi says, ‘by the altar‘ he made him to swear.”2
But the real irony that Jesus points out, is that the Pharisees were vowing to offer something higher than the altar. No doubt they had forgotten God’s words to Moses: “Seven days you will make atonement on the altar and consecrate it; thus the altar will be especially holy, and whatever touches the altar will become holy.”3 They had gotten it backwards, but that didn’t matter to them because it didn’t fit into their scheme. Then the Master shows them their foolishness in not respecting the Temple. King David made it clear, “LORD, I love the house where You live, the place where your glory is.”4 And had they forgotten the words of Solomon, “Now, Lord, I have built a beautiful Temple for You, where You may live forever.”5
When the priest brought water from the pool for the altar, they chanted this hymn, “The LORD has chosen Zion to be the place for His Temple, the place He wanted for His home. He said, “This will always be My place of rest. This is where I want to sit on My throne.”6 Previously, Jesus told His followers, “Don’t make a vow using the name of heaven, because heaven is God’s throne.”7 But in the Mishnah we read, “[If a man said,] ‘I adjure you’, or ‘ I command you’, or ‘I bind you’, they are liable. [But if he said,] ‘By heaven and by earth’, they are exempt.”8
Origen has this to say about swearing on objects to validate one’s oath: “One of the Pharisaical traditions regarded oath taking. Some were swearing by the temple, others by the gold of the temple; some by the altar, others by the gifts of the altar. The Pharisees were teaching that one who swore by the gold of the altar or by the gift of the altar was obligated, whereas one who swore by the Temple or by the altar was not under obligation. Our Savior spoke against these traditions. He wished to call them back from human traditions to divine revelation. Those who hand on such traditions are blind and foolish. They do not see that what is placed in the Temple is not sanctified through itself but through the Lord of the Temple. That which is placed on the altar is judged already as a gift of God, which is why it is placed on the altar. It seems foolish to argue that one who swears in one way is bound and one who swears in another way is not bound. This assumes that what is sanctified is above the one who sanctifies. It seems foolish to argue that one who swears by heaven is less vulnerable than one who swears by God Himself. Jesus showed them that it was equally as absurd to swear by heaven as to swear by the Temple or by the altar. It is irrational to assume that one avoids punishment because he is not swearing by God but by the throne of God. Thus He spoke to the Jews prohibiting them to follow the Pharisaic tradition. Moreover, He clearly rejected the whole business of swearing at all, as if it were a superior way.”9
To put it another way, if someone has to swear or affirm on a person or object believed to be greater and more trustworthy than themselves, they are admitting that you cannot believe what they say. So without realizing it, these Jews were using God’s name and God’s house in vain. They had twisted the Scriptures to such a point that Jesus saw them as blind men leading the blind. But it appears that Jesus is just getting started because He presents another four-fold indictment of the scribes and Pharisees.
Verse 23: “It will be bad for you teachers of the law and you Pharisees! You are hypocrites! You give God a tenth of the food you get, even your mint, dill, and cumin. But you don’t obey the really important teachings of the law—being fair, showing mercy, and being faithful. These are the things you should do. And you should also continue to do those other things.”
Jesus was referring here to the established law on tithing produce: “A tenth of all crops belongs to the LORD. This means the crops from fields and the fruit from trees—a tenth belongs to the LORD.”10 And this included what is said in Isaiah: “A farmer prepares the ground, and then he plants the seed. He plants different kinds of seeds different ways. He scatters dill seeds, he throws cumin seeds on the ground, and he plants wheat in rows. A farmer plants barley in its special place, and he plants spelt seeds at the edge of his field.”11 Mint, dill, and cumin were well-known aromatic plants used in cooking. It grew with very little effort and attention. So the Pharisees were not being all that generous with the Lord by tithing such spices because they didn’t require much investment.
The Rabbis were very detailed in the tithing of these edibles, describing it to this point: “One who peels the outer husk of barley, peels one by one, and may eat without tithing, but if he peeled several and put them into his hand and he is not standing next to the storage pile where he could return them to, he is liable.”12 Also, the Rabbis specified that: “Pressed figs, dates, carobs, rice, and cumin and if one brought these from a distant country, since they are very similar in appearance as the ones grown in Israel, the Rabbis did not differentiate between the two. However, rice from outside the land [of Israel, since it is easily distinguishable from the white rice of Israel], whoever uses it is exempt from tithing it.”13
But while the Pharisees paid close attention to these specifics, they completely overlooked what God said: “People, the LORD has told you what goodness is. This is what He wants from you: Be fair to other people. Love kindness and loyalty, and humbly obey your God.”14 In other words, Jesus was pointing out the Pharisees’ attention to detail, at the expense of more important matters; weightier moral matters of the law.15
Origen sees an application for what Jesus teaches here to the church in his day. He writes: “Not only among the Jews but among ourselves as well, we find people sinning in these ways. They are swallowing camels. People of this type frequently show off their religion even in the smallest of things. They are rightly called hypocrites for wanting to exploit their religiosity before men but being unwilling to undertake that very faith which God Himself has justified. Therefore the imitators of the scribes and Pharisees must be dislodged and sent away from us, lest a woe touches us in the same way it touches them. The scribes could be described as those who valued nothing found in the Scriptures except its plain sense interpreted legalistically. Meanwhile, they condemn those who look into the very depths of God Himself. Mint and dill and cumin are only spices for food but are not themselves substantial food. What substantive food would mean in conversion would be that which is necessary for the justification of our souls—faith and love—unlike these legalisms, which are more like condiments and flavorings. It is as if a meal might be thought to consist more of condiments and flavorings than the food itself. The seriousness of judgment is neglected while great attention is given to minor matters. Spiritual exercises which in and of themselves are hardly justice are spoken of as justice and compassion and faith. It is lacking in justice to treat these small parts as the whole. When we do not offer to God the observance of all that is necessary for worship, we fail altogether.”16
1 Midrash, Etcha Rabbati, folio 54a
2 Midrash Kohelet (Ecclesiastes, folio 78
3 Exodus 29:37
4 Psalm 26:8
5I Kings 8:13
6 Psalm 132:13-14
7 Matthew 5:34 (cf. Isa. 66:1).
8 Mishnah, op. cit. Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Shebuoth, Ch. 4:13
9 Origen: On Matthew, loc. cit.
10 Leviticus 27:30, (Cf. Deuteronomy 14:22-23)
11 Isaiah 28:25
12 Mishnah, ibid. First Division: Tractate Ma’aserot, Ch. 4:5-6
13 Ibid., Tractate Demai, Ch. 2:1
14 Micah 6:8
15 See Matthew 7:12; 22:34-40
16 Origen, Commentary on Matthew 19-20