5. (23-24) The religious leaders are obsessed with trivialities, and ignoring the weighty matters.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
You pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin: Their tithing was meticulous and noteworthy; but hypocritical because it served to sooth the guilt of their neglect of the weightier matters of the law. It is both possible and common to be distracted with relatively trivial matters while a lost world perishes.
“The ‘weightier’ matters do not refer to the ‘more difficult’ or ‘harder’ but to the ‘more central,’ ‘most decisive.'” (Carson)
Jesus gave a cursory description of these weightier matters of the law with the words, justice and mercy and faith. “This phrase recalls the summary of true religion (in contrast to extravagant sacrifice) in Micah 6:8.” (France)
Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel: Jesus illustrated their folly with a humorous picture of a man so committed to a kosher diet that he would not swallow a gnat because it was not bled properly in accord with kosher regulations. Yet the same man would swallow a whole camel instead.
“This is a humorous picture which must have raised a laugh, of a man carefully straining his wine through gauze to avoid swallowing a microscopic insect and yet cheerfully swallowing a camel. It is the picture of a man who has completely lost his sense of proportion.” (Barclay)
6. (25-26) The religious leaders are impure both inside and out.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.”
The scribes and Pharisees were satisfied with a superficial cleansing and the appearance of righteousness.
Inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence: While greatly concerned with their outward appearance of righteousness, they were unconcerned with an inside full of sin and corruption.
First cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also:
Jesus did not call them to choose between outer righteousness and inner righteousness.
He called them to be concerned with both, but to first address the inside. True outward righteousness starts on the inside.
7. (27-28) The religious leaders have the appearance of good, but without spiritual life in the inner man.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
You are like whitewashed tombs:
It was the custom of the Jews of that time to whitewash the tombs in the city of Jerusalem before Passover so that no one would touch one accidentally, thus making themselves ceremonially unclean.
Jesus said these religious leaders were like these whitewashed tombs – pretty on the outside, but dead on the inside.
So Paul called the High Priest a whitewashed wall in Acts 23:3.
You also outwardly appear righteous to men: Men might see them as righteous, but God did not. God is never fooled by what we show on the outside. He sees what we actually are, not what we appear to be to other men.
8. (29-36) The religious leaders honor dead prophets, but murder the living prophets.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt. Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell? Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.”
You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous: They professed to venerate dead prophets but they rejected living prophets. In doing so they showed that they really were the children of those who murdered the prophets in the days of old (you are sons of those who murdered the prophets).
We express the same thought when we think. “I wouldn’t have denied Jesus like the other disciples did.”
Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt: Jesus prophesied about how these leaders would complete the rejection of the prophets their fathers began by persecuting His disciples, whom He would send to them.
i. “No amount of argument can rob these words of their terrible import. They stand upon the page for evermore speaking to us of ‘the wrath of the Lamb.'” (Morgan)
“This is one of the most terrible sentences that ever fell from Christ’s lips. It is like his message to Judas, ‘That thou doest, do quickly’ … This crowning sin would fill up the measure of their fathers’ guilt and bring down upon them the righteous judgment of God.” (Spurgeon)
Serpents, brood of vipers: This phrase has the idea of “family of the devil.” These religious leaders took an unmerited pride in their heritage, thinking they were spiritual sons of Abraham. Instead, they were more like sons of the devil, not of Abraham.
Jesus spoke so strongly about these religious leaders for two reasons. First, He did not want others to be deceived by them. Second, He loved these men. These men were the farthest from God and they needed to be warned of coming judgment. What Jesus really wanted was their repentance, not their judgment.
From the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah: Jesus here spoke of all the righteous martyrs of the Old Testament. Abel was clearly the first, and in the way that the Hebrew Bible was arranged, Zechariah was the last. 2 Chronicles is the last book of the Hebrew Bible, and Zechariah’s story is found in 2 Chronicles 24.
Abel’s blood cried out (Genesis 4:10), and Zechariah asked that his blood be remembered (2 Chronicles 24:22).
There is a problem with the description of Zechariah as the son of Berechiah, because the 2 Chronicles text describes him as the son of Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:20). Clarke summarizes the best resolutions to this problem. First, that double names were frequent among the Jews (1 Samuel 9:1 and 1 Chronicles 8:33; Matthew 9:9 and Mark 2:14, and other examples as well). Second, that the names Jehoiada and Barachiah have much the same meaning: the praise or blessing of Jehovah.
“One can almost feel the withering force of His strong and mighty indignation – indignation directed, not against the people, but against their false guides. And yet behind it all is His heart, and the ‘woes’ merge into a wail of agony, the cry of a mother over her lost child.” (Morgan)
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'”
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem: Luke 19:41 tells us that Jesus wept as He looked over the city of Jerusalem, thought about its coming judgment, and said these words. Jesus wanted to protect them from the terrible judgment that would eventually follow their rejection of Him.
It is written that Jesus wept two times: here, at the pain of knowing what would befall those who reject Him, and also at the tomb of Lazurus, weeping at the power and pain of death.
This heartfelt cry is another way to see that Jesus didn’t hate these men He rebuked so strongly. His heart broke for them. When we sin, God does not hate donly destroys our life. We should hope to share God’s sorrow for lost humanity.
How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings: Jesus wanted to protect, nourish, and cherish His people the Jews, even as a mother bird protects the young chicks.
“The image of a hen (Greek is simply ‘bird’) protecting its young is used in the Old Testament for God’s protection of his people (Psalm 17:8; 91:4; Isaiah 31:5; etc.).” (France)
This picture of a hen and her chicks tells us something about what Jesus wanted to do for these who rejected Him.
– He wanted to make them safe. – He wanted to make them happy. – He wanted to make them part of a blessed community. – He wanted to promote their growth. – He wanted to them to know His love. – This could only happen if they came to Him when He called.
iii. “Jesus’ longing can only belong to Israel’s Savior, not to one of her prophets.” (Carson)
The words how often I wanted are a subtle indication that Matthew knew Jesus had visited Jerusalem many times before (as clearly recounted in the Gospel of John), even though he only mentions this last visit. “Jesus could not have said what he says here unless he had paid repeated visits to Jerusalem and issued to the people repeated appeals.” (Barclay)
But you were not willing! The problem was not the willingness of Jesus to rescue and protect them; the problem was that they were not willing. Therefore the predicted destruction would come upon them.
“What a picture of pity and disappointed love the King’s face must have presented when, with flowing tears, he uttered these words!” (Spurgeon)
“We hold tenaciously that salvation is all of grace, but we also believe with equal firmness that the ruin of man is entirely the result of his own sin. It is the will of God that saves; it is the will of man that damns.” (Spurgeon)