Woe to you, Pharisees!
Matthew 23 continues themes from previous chapters, mainly highlighting Yeshua’s anger toward the Pharisees and Sadducees. Matthew’s tendency is to insert lengthy sermons into the narrative, in this case a long diatribe directed at those who have been characterized as the chief rivals of Yeshua’s mission, and spells out in clear terms who his followers regard as their enemies. The conflict probably has more relevance to Matthew’s time and audience than to participants in the Jewish Rebellion, just as Daniel, who Yeshua references, told more about the world of the Jews under Seleucid rule rather than those among the Babylonian exiles many generations before.
Most of Yeshua’s invective is focused on the Pharisees. It can be gleaned from the argument Matthew has Yeshua deliver that Matthew’s congregation held the Pharisees mostly responsible for what happened in Jerusalem leading up to and during the Rebellion, and who continued to be their focus for condemnation in the aftermath. It was during this period following the destruction of the Temple that Rabbinic Judaism was beginning to take the place of worship and sacrifice at the Temple, and it can be construed from this chapter Matthew’s attitude toward this emerging movement.
Yeshua counsels his followers to listen to the Pharisees’ words but to not copy their actions. He says they place burdens on people they refuse to help manage; dress in clothing that attracts attention due to its extravagance; and claim the most prominent places at feasts and synagogues. Yeshua tells his followers to not adopt the title of “rabbi” because they have only one teacher, and not to refer to anyone as “father” because they have only one father. Both terms became synonymous with authorities within post-exilic Judaism and the emerging Christian church.
Several passages begin with “Woe to you, Pharisees…” Yeshua accuses them of keeping followers from the kingdom of heaven by not preaching about it and blocking those who seek it. He chastises them for giving the Temple gold and sacrifices on the altar more importance than the Temple that gives the gold its value and the altar that makes the sacrifices meaningful. He blasts them for observing rituals of their religion while neglecting the law, justice, mercy, and faith. He echoes criticism he’s made throughout the Gospel that they preach outward cleanliness while inside they’re unclean. Finally, he says they are dead inside and have murdered the prophets sent to warn them.
The chapter concludes with Yeshua lamenting that Jerusalem has rejected those sent to redeem it and have murdered the prophets they should have heeded. His words make it very clear that the destruction of Jerusalem was wrought by its own neglect of those those prophets (including him) who sought to protect Jerusalem and its people. He warns them that they won’t see him again until they acknowledge who he is and why he’s there.
Destruction of the Temple
None of Matthew’s sermon is included in Mark’s Gospel, which starts Chapter 13 with Yeshua’s prediction of the destruction of the Temple. Matthew realigns with Mark in Chapter 24, though modifying it for Matthew’s audience. Yeshua predicts in both Gospels that not a stone will be left standing in the Temple complex, which foreshadows the fate both authors knew had already taken place.
The apostles ask Yeshua for a sign that the end times are at hand. This is an example of Yeshua imparting information to his followers that he refused to share with others, such as when the Pharisees asked him for a sign early in both Gospels. Yeshua warns them about false prophets and gives a list of cataclysmic events that will proceed, most of which happen almost everyday somewhere on the planet, such as earthquakes, wars, and famine.
Yeshua then talks of followers being persecuted, as, no doubt, those in Matthew’s community felt they had endured. Many of the predictions Yeshua is making seem to foretell the events that are about to take place with his capture and the reaction of his disciples, as will soon be demonstrated. He talks throughout of false prophets, which could mean rival factions, or other Messianic contenders, as Josephus records a number of them in his history of the Rebellion.
Yeshua warns his followers about the desolating sacrilege spoken of in Daniel, with an aside to the reader. The reference refers to Daniel 9.12, 11.31, and 12.11, which doesn’t spell out what the sacrilege is. However, the verses do indicate that the sacrilege will appear during the time when burnt offerings will no longer be offered at the Temple, and since that’s the time in which Mark and Matthew are writing, we can surmise that they’re speaking of the statue of Nero placed in the Temple for people to worship, which is what set off the rebellion. Yeshua instructs his followers to flee to avoid the tribulations.
Ultimately, his message is vigilance, to remain on watch for when the Son of Man will return. He compares it to the fig tree and to a servant appointed by his master to look after the house in his absence. Much has been made of Yeshua’s prediction that the current generation will not pass away until all this is over but in all likelihood, Yeshua is describing incidents that have already happened or are ongoing at the time he’s speaking. Matthew and Mark’s intentions are to encourage their audience to remain faithful and stay on guard.
As shall be shown in the next few chapters, not even Yeshua’s closest advisers are able to remain watchful.