“But woe to you, Pharisees and scribes, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”
Matthew 23:23-24, Jesus speaking
In a previous post, I talked about how this and another passage are revealing of who Jesus is and what he cares about, and how we are to be imitators of him. I dwelt on the truth that part of the Messiah’s purpose on earth was to show us how we ought to be.
Yet, I struggle with understanding how we are to follow him here. Is it really true that we are supposed to say to other people, “Woe to you, hypocrites! You have neglected the weightier matters of the law! You blind guides!”
The problem is that all of us are being hypocritical whenever we speak any rebuke at all, much less such a fiery one as this. I am a mere man. I am a sinner. I break the Law hourly, often not in small ways. Therefore, how could I dare to speak with the boldness he displays? I am the one to receive the rebuke, not give it! It feels as if I’ve got no right to speak with such censure, and so the fact that I am decidedly not Jesus is heavy upon me, preventing me from being able to have a really passionate condemnation of someone else’s sin.
And it makes sense that Jesus is allowed to issue such a ferocious challenge to the Pharisees, without restraining his words. He can speak like that because his character is unassailable. He fulfilled the law to the utmost, and did not get his priorities screwed up like the rest of us. The Pharisees can’t say to him, “Oh yeah? Well you’re no better than us!” He actually is better than us, and is allowed to tell us off because when he sees us and denounces our sin, he is not speaking hypocritically. He is speaking as the very definition of good and evil.
Now, a note. There are some things that Jesus did that we are not called to do. For example, we are not called to bear God’s punishment for someone else’s sin. We are not called to be the actual agent that changes another person’s heart. We are not called to be the ultimate source of someone else’s joy. In life it is good and right to remember that we are not the Creator God, but instead are his creatures. Otherwise, we might end up like sophomore year me, feeling empathetically burdened to my very soul by the pain of the entire world, wanting to take all suffering onto myself so that no one else would ever have to feel any pain ever again, ending it once and for all, forgetting that this is exactly what Jesus has already done (and forgetting that a Savior complex ≠ maturity). We are not Jesus, and there is an element of unhealthiness and heresy and pride in wanting to do his job. After all, he said that it is finished.
Then maybe… maybe we aren’t actually supposed to rebuke like Jesus did. Maybe that part of his ministry was reserved for him, and we are only to listen to his words and be changed by them. Maybe I was wrong when I said we should be like him in this way.
Nope! This is a false solution. Proof: Paul’s letters and life contain equally bold chastisements. In Scripture, we see that strong rebuke is not reserved only to Jesus. So, I can’t simply abandon the rebuking aspect of His nature, and say, “Oh, Jesus is allowed to speak harsh words, but we shouldn’t do that.”
Then what do I do? I feel like I am in quite the pickle.
Scripture and Scripture
Seven insights help me in escaping my labyrinthine pickle. The first is that this passage is not the entirety of what the Bible says about rebuke. The old adage is true, that Scripture must be interpreted through other Scripture.
For example, let’s think on 2 Corinthians 10:10-11, where Paul is talking about himself. He writes, “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’ Let such a person realize that what we say by letter when absent, we will be in our actions when present.” Apparently, Paul was different in person than what was expected. Though his written words were extremely potent, in person he was meek (AKA Kendrick).
We tend to assume that we know how specific virtues will look in the Christian life, and we tend to be completely wrong. For example, leadership does not always mean charisma or fantastic public speaking skills or endless excitement. Often it means quiet service and steadfastness. Perhaps when we think of Jesus saying his rebuke, we are imagining his tone or internal spiritual state incorrectly.
Consider 2 Timothy 4:2; “Correct, rebuke, and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” A rebuke without patience is not from Scripture, and is not from God. This means that if we are imagining Jesus saying, “You blind guides!” without patience, we are not imagining Him truthfully. In our rebukes, we are to be bold and truthful, but always speak with patience.
How about Titus 3:1-2? “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” There is a certain kind of person who starts off with the discovery that rebuke and boldness are an essential part of the makeup of the mature Christian, but who ends up thinking it is most of the point of Christianity, and so becomes a noisy gong and clanging cymbal, you might say. This verse is the needed reminder in that case. Be submissive to rulers and authorities. Speak evil of no one. Avoid quarreling. Be gentle. Show perfect courtesy. These things are also an essential makeup of the mature Christian.
There are a whole bunch of Proverbs about instruction and rebuke. One of my favorites of these is 28:23, which reads, “Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.” I have this fear that a rebuke will be a barrier between me and a friend, and instead of bringing us closer it will drive us apart. But this Proverb breaks through that illusion and reminds me that this is not really the case.
One example of a good rebuke is 2 Samuel 12, the infamous scene of Nathan confronting David over his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. Nathan spins a powerful tale that gets David riled up in anger against injustice, only to cut him to the core with the words that he is the evildoer of the story. Then Nathan delivers to David the consequences and mercy of God’s judgment. And, it seems that at the end of it all, they are friends.
We have to consider the whole counsel of God to get to a proper view of something difficult. Jesus’ sayings are not more truthful than Paul’s letters, which are not more truthful than Micah’s book. Each carry the authority of God equally. What this means is that rebuke is complicated, and to ignore this reality is to ignore the biblical evidence.
The second help to me is an analysis of what my first instinct tells me are the rules about speaking a rebuke. The assumption I tend to have is that the authority of our words lies in our own personal virtue. Jesus is allowed to have fire in his words because he isn’t being hypocritical, but we are not allowed because we would be being hypocritical. Isn’t this the point of Jesus telling us to remove the log from our eye and calling on the one without sin to throw the first stone at the adulterer? He is saying that we cannot be self-righteous towards the sinner when we ourselves have also sinned.
Well, yes that is the point. But I think the answer to this rebuttal is that those two admonitions address a heart issue, and are not saying that we should never point out the speck in the other’s eye. Jesus is saying that we should be far more concerned with our own sin than with the sin of another, and that self-righteousness is never a correct motivator.
I admit that there will always be some self-righteousness in a rebuke. But, there may very well be much more self-righteousness in restraining words when you know they ought to be said. I could just raise my eyebrows and think to myself, “Well, that was rude” but say nothing because I am sooo humble. If my friend is going down a path I know will hurt him and I say nothing, am I righteous? Surely not. I am focusing on protecting myself instead of giving the words my friend needs. (Reminds me of that line in Ill Mind of Hopsin 6—”I should’ve stopped you when I had the chance to do so / But back then I felt like that was too bold.”)
Plus, we do not always speak from ourselves. There are times that we do. When I talk to a friend about porn addiction and I am recovering myself, my words have some force because of what I have been through. But there are times that we don’t speak from ourselves. I think rebuke is pretty much always one of those times. In a good rebuke, we are conscious that we are no better than the person we are rebuking, but we love the other person too much to stay quiet, and are confident that our words are correct because our Father has told us the same things. Basically, rebuke is about being a mouthpiece of our God.
Being the mouthpieces of God—there is an element of hearty Christian zeal in this. A temporary and out-of-the-ordinary forgetting of yourself to say something you know needs to be said, regardless of whether you are precisely the right person to say it or it is precisely the right time to say it.
Just like other zeals, Christian zeal can very quickly become ravenous; see Crusade number four. But different from other zeals, Christian zeal that is complete and mature will be incorruptible, and will accomplish much redemption, restoration and reconciliation. The goal here is not to avoid zeal, but to do zeal in a mature way.
If there is some hesitation to the idea of zeal in general, let us remind ourselves that whether we like it or not, we are, in fact, moderns. Sometimes we like to berate the odd assumptions and prejudices of the postmodern culture/society we live in, but the reality is that whatever is going on out there is also going on in here, in the Church, in our homes, in our very hearts. We are affected by everyone around us, and society is not too keen on Christian zeal right now.
But Christian zeal is a pretty established part of our tradition. Think of Luther’s words, or, as my wife says, the bad-ass William Wilberforce, or the countless stories in Foxe’s Book. Certainly, zeal is tricky, but I am not comfortable abandoning it as altogether unwise. I put to you that one place we can use zeal for the glory of God is in a rare and needed rebuke.
A Diverse Church
At this point, let it be said that the Church is made up of many members, each with their own gifts. Some are Gimli and some are Legolas. Some are good at rebuke and really bad at listening, and others are good at listening and really bad at rebuke. I don’t want you to take all these thoughts I am writing and feel unendurable pressure to be someone you basically were just not created to be.
That’s what tends to happen to me. I’m going to be honest, I am horrible at talking to non-believers about Jesus. I want to be good at it and do it with ease, but it is just really tough for me. And when I see someone else doing an amazing job at it, I usually feel really guilty about how generally bad I am at being a Christian.
Don’t get me wrong—this is something I should be working on. But as I work on it, I want to remember that the Father has designed me with specific talents and abilities that have been given to me to use, so that I can joyfully work in the space he has provided, celebrating and praising him through imitation. Christianity is not a competition, and each of us has a role we fit into in whatever communities the Father brings us to. Conversely, this means there are roles in the community that we do not fit into.
Another way that I am bad at resting in my specific gifts is by feeling a need to do everything. I feel like I have to get coffee with this person or else no one will and he won’t get good, solid advice, or like I have to say this one thing to defend orthodoxy or else my entire community will go bad.
In these times, I need to remember that the Kingdom is much bigger than I am. There are hundreds of millions of believers doing all kinds of work I know absolutely nothing about. This thing is two thousand years old, and it has got along just fine without me.
There will come times in everyone’s life that they should stand up in some bold way for what they believe in. But maybe it is more often the job of certain members of the Body than others, and maybe that is a beautiful thing.
Alright, even with a bit of words about zeal and about interpreting Scripture through other Scripture, I gotta say that the passage still feels a bit harsh. So, next let’s consider the context of Jesus’ words.
Jesus is speaking to “the crowds and his disciples,” about the Pharisees. He isn’t primarily speaking to the Pharisees—he is speaking to laymen.
The thing about the Pharisees is that they had great power. Earlier in the passage Jesus says, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.” I interpret this to mean two things. One, they were the abiding government for the Jews. They held judicial power, so you better do what they say or else there will be very tangible consequences. And two, they were the abiding scholars of the day. They didn’t just have legal power, they also brought the Word of the Lord to the people. They were the ones telling the people about God, so not listening to them was essentially like not listening to God.
This double authority, both in physical/legal and spiritual matters, means they had great power indeed. And when you’ve got one group of people with power over another group of people, you’ve got vulnerability. The laymen were in a position of great vulnerability to the Pharisees. And what does this mean? It means that the Pharisees had better do a really good job at ruling, or else they will harm the laymen.
Well, they were not doing a good job, but instead they were doing spiritual harm; “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” The Pharisees were legalists and perfectionists, basically, who told the people they had to be unbelievably righteous, beyond anyone’s ability. They only spoke of the Law, not of God’s grace and forgiveness and love. (And let it not be said that the OT does not have these things. I am willing to argue that the most poignant pictures of God’s tender love are not in the New Testament but the Old.) Then the people, genuine followers and lovers of God, received this as the complete truth, and so trusted them, and felt the full force of the burden. They were enslaved.
Jesus looks at all this and understands it so perfectly. He sees exactly what is going on. He is the most socially aware, woke person to have ever lived, because he invented society. And he grieves for the laymen. He wants to protect them, to free them, because he loves them utterly, and therefore hates what harms them.
The way he frees them is by removing the false authority the Pharisees have. He exposes their fraudulent righteousness. He releases the hold the leaders had on the normal people by pointing out with gusto and force that they are hypocrites. “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” This is a total breath of fresh air for those listening.
Jesus is not primarily speaking to the Pharisees here. He is speaking to the normal people who are being hindered and guilt-tripped by the ones that are supposed to be guiding them. His words here are less a rebuke to the Pharisees (though they are that, which we can gather from their presence in Luke 11:37-46), and more of an emancipation for the laymen.
And there are certainly times that we can do the same. When I hear about a friend’s pastor standing up and telling his congregation to cut off fellowship with one of its elders who recently switched views to Catholicism, I’m going to point out that ostracization of former community members is a defining characteristic of a cult. When those we love are being spiritually harmed by their authority figures, it is right and proper to criticize those authority figures.
But even with all this, I still feel somewhat uneasy. If I’m honest with myself, Jesus’ words do not sound humble, they do not sound loving, and they do not sound mature! Elsewhere in the chapter he says stuff like, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” and “You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” That sounds condemning and impatient and completely lacking in grace! What are we are to do about that?
The final answer hinges on the meaning of the word “woe.” When I first read the passage, I had a very clear idea of that word in my mind. I assumed it meant a condemnation, or a curse. Jesus was summoning judgment upon the Pharisee’s heads, speaking authoritative words that will effect harm.
It turns out that it is not so simple.
I happened across a Tim Keller sermon that discussed the word “woe” that opened the door to this heaviest enigma. Keller put forward the notion that this word can mean multiple things based on the context.
For example, in the very next chapter of Matthew, chapter 24 verse 19, Jesus uses this word again; “And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days!” The ESV translates the word “alas”, though the good folks over at BibleHub reveal to us that precisely the same Greek word is used in both chapter 23 and chapter 24. Yet the ESV translates it accurately; here it means “alas.” Jesus is not calling down a curse upon pregnant women who are unfortunate enough to be in the end-times he describes, that is absurd! He is expressing grief at how horrible their doom is.
Or, think of a certain phrase we English speakers can use: “Woe is me!” The closest I could find to this meaning in the NT is 1 Corinthians 9:15-16. If the Hebrew synonym can be considered an identical word, then Isaiah’s famous shout of undoing is comparable. The English phrase describes a declaration of ruin and desolation, which asks the world for pity and sympathy.
Yet in other times, the word is indeed used more harshly. Matthew 11:20-24 specifies that Christ is denouncing unrepentant cities when he declares woe to them. Even here, though, the force of the word is not quite what I expected. The Greek word for denounce here is less about calling down a curse, and more about disgracing. It is less a summoning, more a declaration.
And let us consider one final text before returning to the main passage in question. Matthew 26:24 reads, “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” This time it is a “woe” statement followed by a prediction—a prophecy. Here I do not think it is calling down a curse, but merely stating the fact that woe will follow the betrayer’s deeds.
So now, in our passage, how is Jesus using the word? Is he denouncing? Is he prophesying? Does he feel any pity for the Pharisees?
I think that the answers to all three questions is “yes.”
I think he looks at these harmful leaders and denounces them, for they have greatly, greatly erred. Yet consider this also: their state is indeed pitiable. They are all caught up with the wrong things, ignoring the weightier things like justice and mercy and faithfulness. This is sad because those are the good things! They are the things that bring real life to our bones! It is simply no fun to be a legalist.
So even while Jesus denounces their unclean hearts and prophesies their destruction, I believe his pity is not unmoved for them. He isn’t merely condemning the Pharisees, he is also expressing his grief at how pitiable their state is. Jesus rebukes with true love and knowledge. He rebukes knowing that it is tragic that we are stuck in our sin. It only makes us miserable, and so he says, “Woe is them!” Their state is awful! They will live a woe!
This is how we are to be.
And yet another contemplation springs from this fruitful semantic discussion. I was surprised to find that this word was so utterly pregnant with meaning, and if I guess correctly, the majority of those reading will be surprised as well. Why is this? Why is our modern conception of the term “Woe to you” so shallow?
Well, probably many reasons. But one key distinction in the ways the word is used might clear it up. Sometimes, the recipient of woe is innocent, such as the pregnant and nursing women, and sometimes the recipient of woe is guilty, such as Chorazin and Bethsaida. When the recipient is innocent, it is very obvious to us that the word is said only in grief and mourning. But when the recipient is not innocent, then we begin to falter.
When we picture one righteous person declaring woe on another unrighteous person, we instantly conceive of pride, malice, disgust, and hatred on the part of the righteous person. We tend to assume his woe-calling is condemnation and vengefulness. And why do we do this? My theory is that we have barely any idea at all of what it is like to see the wicked get what they deserve and know that it is just and yet still love them and wish them to prosper in virtue and joy. We can’t easily imagine this because we have little experience living it. We either deny that anyone deserves any punishment at all, or we get smug and happy about wrongdoers getting their due. It is difficult for us to imagine a complex and loving prophecy of deserved woe, because we are sinful simpletons.
Well! Phew. That’s about all I’ve got on that passage, though I’m sure I have only scratched the surface.
But the thing is, even after all that, even after I feel like I have some sense of how rebuke is supposed to fit into life, it is still really hard for me to do it well. I’ve been trying and trying as I’ve been writing this essay, but the more I try, the more obvious it becomes that I kinda suck at it.
Well… yeah. Of course. You can’t just figure out the Christian life and then it isn’t hard any more. Sin isn’t one big, heady math problem. It takes sanctification, mortification. It is corruption in our wills. We don’t want to do good. So, we’ve got to work at it. We’ve got to strain ourselves towards the goal. All the while begging Christ to equip us and motivate us and empower us to grow more like himself. If I was hoping for magic words that take away the burden of obedience, then I will not find them in Scripture.
And perhaps this isn’t so bad. In the Reformed branch of Christianity, we talk about three purposes of the moral Law. One purpose is to give us a guide for behavior. Another is to restrain the evil natures of men. And the third purpose is—to show us how much we fail at keeping the Law.
Why would God set it up like this? Basically, it’s so that we would feel that we need something outside of ourselves, and feel that we need him, so that we would reach out to him, grow closer to him, increase intimacy with him. A giant reason the moral law exists is to break us down so that we finally decide to spend time with Jesus.
The deepest problem of this passage is to know that even after all excuses of not having thought it through have been taken away, here at the conclusion of the matter, we still remain lacking. We know what we should do but we don’t do it. It is as simple as that. The Law condemns. This deepest problem can only be solved with the deepest solution, which is the entire story of the Gospel. Christ knows that we are inexcusable, and he knows that justice demands that something be done about the ways we have failed and hurt our fellow beings, and the ways we have offended the graces of our infinitely loving God. He knows this, and he weeps, because he knows that we can do nothing about it. He knows that the only way to satisfy the wrath of God is for him to take all of it on himself for us. He says, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” He knows that he must go through agony that no recipient of his grace would ever come close to. And he does it, because he loves us.
And his doing is not in vain! With his sacrifice our sins are truly, finally, totally, completely washed clean! We can boldly approach the actual Throne of God, the very Seat of Judgement that prior to his deed would have been unendurable shame and despondency! But now, since his deed was true, are belonging and yearnings fulfilled beyond hope!
Therefore, at the close of all Christian contemplations, we are left with mirth and good tidings.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him, all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!
Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees, given to the people, is so profound and multifaceted and strong and perfect, that it serves also as a rebuke of me living two thousand years after the fact, convicting me to learn better how to rebuke, and indeed not only to learn, but to do. And the truest response to this rebuke is to accept it, to feel it, to comprehend my inadequacy and insufficiency to respond. Praise Him! The response is to feel anew my sin, my need, which pulls me also to remember anew the Resurrection of Power, the One who was killed and yet slew Death, the sending of a Savior, the Adoption, the Forgiving of Sins, the Imputed Righteousness!
God on High, truly no text has contained the profundities of your Book. Men’s words are but trifles that have little deeds behind them, when compared to the words that speak, “It is finished.”
In you, Jesus, I find a heart of patience and understanding that yet rebukes bolder than an angry fool! Truly you are the known riddle that is truer than facts known by all.
In my sheepish conviction, full of stumbling and fear, you deal both gently and firmly. Alas, always will I have blindness and laughable pride, and always will I be running from you. But in your great insight you designed even the Law to bring me to yourself, the fountain of Joy and Light!
Your rebuke is instruction sharply given and always received! Never have your words been ignorable, for they pierce hotter than red swords! Yet in their piercing and undoing, they miraculously heal! Oh! How can it be? Would that I would dwell forever in the wonder and majesty of your beauties!
Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
Praise Him, all creatures here below!
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts!
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!