NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 29: Now, in quick succession, Jesus will focus on one type of tomb after another. “It will be bad for you teachers of the law and you Pharisees! You are hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets. And you show honor to the graves of the godly people who were killed.
In this indictment, Jesus uses terms that were very familiar to His listening audience regarding the way they excavated graves and built shrines over them. In the Jewish Mishnah, we find the following instructions on preparing tombs or digging graves: “Dug out graves1 and built tombs may not be dug during weekdays of a Festival, but dug out graves may be adapted [e.g., shortened or lengthened] during the Festival, and a clothes washer’s vat may be constructed during the Festival, and a coffin, with the deceased [present for all to see] in the courtyard [may be made during festival weekdays since people will know that this is not ordinary project].”2
Rabbis Moses Maimonides and Obadiah Bartenura commented on this by saying that the graves were the holes which are dug into the earth, and the sepulchers are the buildings erected over the grave.3 Likewise, in the Babylonian Talmud we read in their commentary on the Mishnah – called “Gemara”: “What are KUKIN [dug out graves] and what are BURIAL PLACES?— Said Rabbi Judah, kukin are recesses made by excavation and ‘burial-places’ are structures made by building.”4 This should help you distinguish between the two.
We are told that many of these edifices, which they built over the graves of some of their prophets and righteous men, were very grand and beautiful. Those who have visited the Holy Land come back with pictures and descriptions of these sepulchers that are very impressive, especially Rachel’s tomb near Bethlehem. Jesus was not speaking against such monuments since it was certainly an honor and laudable for people to show such respect to those they held in such high esteem, but to illustrate something that was made to look good on the outside while covering up their wicked deed on the inside.
Painting of Rachel’s Tomb as it looked in the late 1800’s © Holly Hayes
Chrysostom shares his view. He writes: “Jesus did not pronounce woe upon them because they blamed others or because they build monuments. Rather, He pronounces woe because while pretending to condemn those who killed the prophets, they do worse. They witness against themselves. As for evidence that their adorning of monuments is a pretense, Luke says, ‘Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and consent to the deeds of your fathers; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.’5 Their purpose was not to honor those that were slain but to make a show of the murders. They are afraid lest, when the tombs had perished by time, the proof of their daring should fade away. They set up these buildings as a kind of trophy, priding themselves in the daring deeds of those men and displaying them. This is what is reproved by the Lord.”6
Verse 30: “And you say, ‘If we had lived during the time of our ancestors, we would not have helped them kill these prophets.’”
How many times have you heard someone say, “If I had lived back in the days of… I would have done this or done that?” That’s what Jesus said the scribes and Pharisees were claiming. What upset our Lord most, was the fact that while they patted themselves on the back for showing such respect to these holy men of God, they actually would have joined them in persecuting and killing these holy men. It was all a sham, Jesus said. Rather than these scribes and Pharisees being descendants of the prophets, they, were in fact, children of those murderers with the selfsame bloodthirsty, persecuting spirit inside of those who killed them.
It didn’t take very long to prove our Lord right because these same individuals started doing the things to the apostles that their forefathers did to the prophets. This had been a long-standing problem as we see in Chronicles, “The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent prophets again and again to warn His people. He did this because He felt sorry for them and for His Temple. He didn’t want to destroy them or His Temple. But they made fun of God’s prophets and refused to listen to them. They hated God’s messengers.”7
If there was anything that the Lord despised, it was self-righteousness and hypocrisy. Such, He found breeding among the Scribes and Pharisees, these self-made and self-appointed experts who spent most of their time pointing out and criticizing all things contrary to their own views and beliefs. As Eliphaz said to his friend Job, “What you say clearly shows your sin. You are trying to hide your sin by using clever words. I don’t need to prove to you that you are wrong. The words from your own mouth show that you are wrong. Your own lips speak against you.” While these charges did not apply to Job, it certainly fits the character of the scribes and Pharisees.8
Chrysostom gives us a paraphrase of what Jesus is saying here to these religious leaders: “And you yourselves continue to do these things in this spirit. Though you may speak to the contrary, you still do them. You say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Yet your own disposition is evident. Even as you are unfolding your intention, you are already expressing it however disguised. So Jesus adds, ‘Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets.’ If you are the son of a murderer but do not partake of the mind of your father, you yourself are not to blame. But if you do so partake, you have an affinity with his wickedness.”9
Verses 31-32: “So you give proof that you are descendants of those who killed the prophets. And you will finish the sin that your ancestors started!”
The attitude of these opponents of Jesus would be much like (no offense is meant here nor any denigration of character intended) an illegitimate son extolling the virtues and the value of chastity, condemning all others who do not heed his words, all the while forgetting that he himself was the result of non-virtue and fornication. We must never forget that we are all sinners saved by grace, therefore we need to talk to unconverted sinners as once our brothers and sisters in the flesh while we try to get them to see the benefit and joy of becoming our brothers and sisters in the Spirit. Once the hypocrisy of these Pharisees had been exposed, the Lord would explain the consequences to them.
Cyril of Alexandria gives us his commentary: “We will carefully investigate what the Savior says. The forefathers of the Jews killed the holy prophets who were transmitting the divine word to them in those times. They surely have become witnesses for some of them, because the prophets are now revered and honored. They have placed crowns on their heads or assign … honor to their tombs as to holy things, for believing the prophets to be holy men, they have become the judges of those who have killed them. For by honoring them in this way, they have spoken against those who killed them, and through these things they accuse them of having acted wickedly. But though they agreed to condemn the murders committed by their own forefathers, they were about to become threshing floors for the same kind of evils, indeed, to things even worse. They ‘killed the author of life’ and added to their impieties against Him other murders, those of His holy apostles. For while one scrutinizes the sins of others, making a decision according to one’s innate reason, one sees the wickedness and censures it.… He who is led into similar passions is like a blind man carried away.”10
Some years later, Hilary of Poitiers has this to say on the text: “The form of judgment is perfect; the understanding and idea of equity are instilled in each of us by nature so that the more fully the ideal of equity is known, the less need there is for the forgiveness of iniquity. The people of the law killed all the prophets. They had become inflamed with hatred toward them because of the harshness of their reproaches since the prophets had publicly called them thieves, murderers, adulterers and sacrilegious. Moreover, because they had denounced the Jews as unworthy of the kingdom of heaven and because they taught that the Gentiles would be the heirs of the covenant of God, they afflicted the prophets with a variety of other punishments. The descendants, however, repudiated the deeds of their fathers, honoring the prophets’ books, decorating their tombs, restoring their sepulchers and attesting by these forms of respect that they were not culpable for the crimes of their fathers.”11
Some 300 years later, another church scholar gives his impression of what he wants the reader to understand here. He writes: “Every good deed that is done for God is universally good for everything and everyone. Deeds that are not seen to benefit everything and everyone, however, are done on account of man, as the present matter itself demonstrates. For example, those who build reliquaries and adorn churches seem to be doing good. If they imitate the justice of God, if the poor benefit from their goods and if they do not acquire their goods through violence against others, it is clear that they are building for the glory of God. If they fail to observe God’s justice, … and if the poor never benefit from their goods and if they acquire their goods from others by means of violence or fraud, who is so foolish not to understand that they are building for human respect rather than for the glory of God? Those who build reliquaries12 in a just manner ensure that the poor do not suffer as a result of it. For the martyrs do not rejoice when they are honored by gifts for which the poor paid with their tears. What kind of justice is it to give gifts to the dead and to despoil the living or to drain blood from the poor and offer it to God? To do such things is not to offer sacrifice to God but to attempt to make God an accomplice in violence, since whoever knowingly accepts a gift which was acquired by sinful means participates in the sin.”13
1 Dug out graves in Hebrew are called Kukin
2 Mishnah, Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Moed Katon, Ch. 1:6
3 Commentary on the Mishnah, loc. cit.
4 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Tractate Mo’ed Katan, folio 8b
5 Luke 11:47-48
6 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 74.1
7 II Chronicles 36:15-16, (cf. Jeremiah 2:30)
8 Job 15:5-6
9 Chrysostom: Ibid.
10 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 260
11 Hilary of Poitiers: Matthew, 24.8
12 These are containers for holding holy relics in churches and monasteries
13 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 45