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Matthew 23

Jesus reproves the scribes and Pharisees. (1-12) Crimes of the Pharisees. (13-33) The guilt of Jerusalem. (34-39)

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Jesus reproves the scribes and Pharisees

1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,

2 Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:

3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.

4 For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.

5 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,

6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,

7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.

8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.

9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.

11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.

12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

Crimes of the Pharisees

13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.

14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

16 Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!

17 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?

18 And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.

19 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?

20 Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.

21 And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.

22 And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.

23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.

26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.

27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,

30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.

31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.

32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.

33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

The guilt of Jerusalem

34 Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:

35 That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.

36 Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.

37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!

38 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.

39 For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

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G Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary

Ver. 1. Then Jesus, &c. Jesus thus spoke to the multitude a few days previous to his passion. It is here observable that our Saviour, after he had tried all possible remedies, after he had taught and confirmed his doctrines by innumerable miracles, after he had secretly by his parables reprehended them for their wickedness, but without effect, now publicly upbraids their vices. But before his reprehension of the Pharisees, he instructs the people, lest they should despise the authority of the priesthood. Salmeron.

Ver. 2. The Scribes. They, who professed the greatest zeal for the law of Moses, and gloried in being the interpreters of it, sat upon the chair of Moses, succeeded to his authority of governing the people of God, of instructing them in his law, and of disclosing to them his will. Such, therefore, as did not depart from the letter of the law, were called Scribes. But such as professed something higher, and separated themselves from the crowd, as better than the ordinary class of men, were called Pharisees, which signifies, separated. Origen. — God preserveth the truth of the Christian religion in the apostolic See of Rome, which in the new law answers to the chair of Moses, notwithstanding the disedifying conduct of some few of its bishops. Yes, though a traitor, as vile as Judas himself, were a bishop thereof, it would not be prejudicial to the integrity of the faith of God’s Church, or to the ready obedience and perfect submission of sincere good Christians, for whom our Lord has made this provision, when he says: do that which they say, but do not as they do. S. Aug. Ep. clxv.

Ver. 3. All therefore whatsoever they shall say. S. Augustine, in his defence of the Apostolic See, thus argues, contra lit. Petil. “Why dost thou call the apostolic chair the chair of pestilence? If, for the men that sit therein, I ask: did our Lord Jesus Christ, on account of the Pharisees, reflect upon the chair, wherein they sat? Did he not commend that chair of Moses, and, preserving the honour of the chair, reprove them? For he sayeth: they have sat on the chair of Moses. All therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do. These points if you did well consider, you would not, for the men whom you defame, blaspheme the Apostolic See, wherewith you do not hold communion.” l. ii. c. 51. And again, c. 61. Ibid. “Neither on account of the Pharisees, to whom you maliciously compare us, did our Lord command the chair of Moses to be forsaken; (in which chair he verily figured his own) for he warned the people to do what they say, and not what they do, and that the holiness of the chair be in no case forsaken, nor the unity of the flock divided, on account of the wicked lives of the pastors.” — Christ does not tell them to observe every thing, without exception, that the Pharisees should say to them; for, (as it was observed in a previous chapter) many superstitions and false ordinances had obtained amongst them, corrupting the Scriptures by their traditions; but only such as were not contrary to the law of Moses. We are taught to obey bad no less than good ministers, in those things that are not expressly contrary to the law of God. Hence appears how unfounded and unreasonable is the excuse so often adduced by persons in justification of their misdeeds, viz. that they saw their pastors do the same. Such must attend to the rule here given by Jesus Christ. What they say, do: but according to their works, do ye not. Dion. Carthus. — The words, all whatsoever, shew that nothing must be excepted, but what the supreme law orders to be excepted. E.

Ver. 4. Heavy and insupportable burdens. Some understand in general the ceremonies of the law of Moses; but Christ seems rather here to mean the vain customs, traditions, and additions, introduced by the Jewish doctors, and by their Scribes and Pharisees. Wi. — They thus greatly increase the burden of others, by multiplying their obligations; whilst they will not offer themselves the least violence in observing them, or alleviating the burden, by taking any share upon their own shoulders.

Ver. 5. Phylacteries.[1] These were pieces or scrolls of parchment, on which were written the ten commandments, or some sentences of the law, which the Jews were accustomed to fasten to their foreheads, or their arms, to put them in mind of their duty. Thus they interpreted those words. Deut. vi. 8. Thou shalt tie them as a sign on thy hand: and they shall be, and move before thy eyes. Perhaps all the Jews, and even our Saviour himself, wore them; and that he only blames the hypocrisy and vanity of the Scribes and Pharisees, who affected to have them larger than others; and they did the like as to the fringes which the Jews wore on their garments. Wi. — That is, parchments, on which they wrote the ten commandments, and carried on their foreheads before their eyes: which the Pharisees affected to wear broader than other men: so to seem more zealous for the law. Ch. — The word Phylacterion, which is found both in the Greek and Latin Vulgate, properly signifies a preservation. It was a piece of parchment which the Jews carried round their heads from one ear to the other, and round their arms like bracelets, and upon which were written certain words of the law. Since the origin of the sect of Pharisees, they began to attach to these bands of parchment chimerical virtues, such as preservatives of maladies, and preservations from the insults of devils; hence the name phylacterion. V.

Ver. 7. Rabbi. A title like that of master or doctor. Judas gave it to our Saviour. Matt. xxvi. 49. And the disciples of S. John the Baptist call him so. John iii. 26. — Christ blames their pride, and vanity in affecting such titles, rather than the titles themselves. Wi. — Didaskalos, properly a preceptor, as John iii. 10. Art thou a master in Israel, and knowest not these things? V.

Ver. 8. One is your master, or teacher, who is the Christ, and under him one vicar, the successor of S. Peter, with whom all Catholic teachers are one, because they all teach one and the same doctrine in every part of the Christian world; whereas in the multiplicity of modern sects, which are every day dividing and subdividing into fresh sects, no two leaders can be found teaching in all points exactly the same tenets; as each is not only allowed, but expected to follow his own private spirit, and to build his creed upon his own interpretation of Scripture. A.

Ver. 9-10. Call none your father . . . Neither be ye called masters, &c. The meaning is, that our Father in heaven is incomparably more to be regarded, than any father upon earth: and no master is to be followed, who would lead us away from Christ. But this does not hinder but that we are by the law of God to have a due respect both for our parents and spiritual fathers, (1 Cor. iv. 15,) and for our masters and teachers. Ch. — This name was a title of dignity: the presidents of the assembly of twenty-three judges where so called; the second judge of the sanhedrim, &c. V. — Nothing is here forbidden but the contentious divisions, and self-assumed authority, of such as make themselves leaders and favourers of schisms and sects; as Donatus, Arius, Luther, Calvin, and innumerable others of very modern date. But by no means the title of father, attributed by the faith, piety, and confidence of good people, to their directors; for, S. Paul tells the Corinthians, that he is their only spiritual Father: If you have 10,000 instructors in Christ, yet not many Fathers. 1 Cor. iv. 15.

Ver. 13. You shut the kingdom of heaven. This is here taken for eternal happiness, which can be obtained only by faith in Christ, since he calls himself the gate. S. John c. x. — Now the Pharisees, by refusing to believe in him, and conspiring against him, deterred those, who would otherwise have believed in Christ, from professing his name and following his doctrines, and thus shut the gate of heaven against them. Nic. de Lyra. — In all these reprehensions, it is to be noted, for the honour of the priesthood, Jesus Christ never reprehendeth priests by that name. S. Cyp. ep. lxv.

Ver. 14. You devour the houses of widows. Here our blessed Saviour severely reprehends the hypocrisy and other vices of the Scribes and Pharisees, a little before his death, to make them enter into themselves, and to hinder them from seducing others. Wi. The Pharisees, by every means in their power, endeavoured to persuade the widows of the poor to make vows or offerings for the temple, by which they themselves became rich, and thus they devoured the houses of widows. Nic. de Lyra. — Whoever is a perpetrator of evil, deserves heavy chastisements; but the man who commits wickedness under the cloak of religion, is deserving of still more severe punishment. Origen. — The same is said of fasting, alms, prayers. Mat. vi. — As above our Lord had inculcated eight beatitudes, so here he denounces eight woes or threats of impending judgment, to the Scribes and Pharisees, for their vile hypocrisy. Jans.

Ver. 15. Because whilst a Gentile he sinned without a perfect knowledge of the evil, and was not then a two-fold child of hell; but after his conversion, seeing the vices of his masters, and perceiving that they acted in direct opposition to the doctrines they taught, he returns to the vomit, and renders himself a prevaricator, by adoring the idols he formerly left, and sells his soul doubly to the devil. S. Chrys. — They that teach that it is sufficient to have faith only, do make such Christians as blindly follow them, as these Jews did their proselytes, children of hell far more than before. S. Aug. l. de fide et oper. c. xxvi.

Ver. 16. Wo to you blind guides. Avarice seems to have been the chief motive of the Pharisees in teaching this doctrine, since they taught that those who swore by the temple were guilty of no sin, nor under any obligation at all; whereas they who swore by the gold of the temple, were bound to pay a certain sum of money to the priests, by which they themselves were enriched. Nic. de Lyra. — Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing, &c. To understand this obscure place, we may take notice, that a good part of what was offered on the altar, and given to the treasury of the temple, fell to the share of the Jewish priests; and therefore it was not their interest to have such promises or oaths dispensed with. This made them teach the people, that if any one had made a promissory oath or vow to give their money or goods to the temple, or to the altar itself, as it is said v. 18, such oaths or promises were not obligatory, or might easily be dispensed with. But if any one had sworn or vowed to give any thing to the treasury of the temple, or join it to the offerings to be made on the altar, then such oaths and promises which turned to their profit were by all means to be kept. S. Jerom expounds it of oaths in common discourse; as if they taught the people, that when any one swore by the temple, or the altar, it was not so considerable as to swear by the gold in the temple, or by the offerings there made: for in the latter cases, they were to make satisfaction according to the judgment of the Jewish priests. And to correct their covetous proceedings, Christ tells them that the temple and the altar were greater than the gold and the offerings. Wi.

Ver. 19. Sanctifieth. The altar is sanctified by our Lord’s body thereon. Theophylactus, the close follower of S. Chrysostom, writeth thus upon this text: “In the old law, Christ will not allow the gift to be greater than the altar; but with us the altar is sanctified by the gift: for the bread, by the divine grace is converted into our Lord’s body, and therefore the altar is sanctified by it.”

Ver. 21. By him that dwelleth in it. Here we see that swearing by creatures, as by the gospel and by the saints, is all referred to the honour of God, whose gospel it is, whose saints they are. B.

Ver. 23. You . . who pay tithe, &c. The tithes of these small things are not found in the law. Nor yet doth Christ blame them so much for this, as for neglecting more weighty matters; and tells them by a proverb, that they strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel. Wi. — The Pharisees pretended the greatest exactitude even in the smallest commands of the law, when the observance of them could impress the people with a favourable idea of their sanctity; whereas they omitted the more essential precepts of the law, when it did not procure them the praise of men. Nic. de Lyra. — S. Jerom interprets this passage of receiving tithes; the Vulgate has decimare. S. Jer. — The Pharisees are blamed by our Lord for their avarice, in scrupulously exacting tithes of the most trifling things, whilst they lived in a constant neglect of their duty, both to God and their neighbour. Idem.

Ver. 25. Wo to you. Jesus Christ here condemns, in forcible language, the principal vices of the Pharisees, viz. their hypocrisy, false devotion, boundless ambition, insatiable avarice, false zeal, and ignorance in deciding upon cases of conscience. S. Luke represents our Saviour as saying this to the Pharisees at dinner; (C. xi.) so that Christ must either have repeated these things at different times; or, S. Mat. according to custom, must have added them to other words of our Saviour, which, though spoken on another occasion, had some connection with the same subject. In vain do you, Pharisees, boast of your external sanctity. Do not imagine, that fornication, adultery, and other actions, are the only sins to be attended to; and that pride, avarice, anger, and other spiritual sins, are of no moment. He who made the body, made also the soul; and it is of equal consequence that both be kept clean and free from sin. Nic. de Lyra. — By the similitude of the cup, and of whited sepulchres, as also that of building the sepulchres of the prophets, he shews that they did all their actions purposely to be seen by men, and that this was their only motive in all they did. Idem. — Like Ezekiel’s bitter roll, we have here a dreadful list of woes, like as many thunderbolts, levelled against hypocrisy, avarice, ambition, and all bitter zeal. We should be careful not to suffer such rank weeds to grow up in our soil, to the ruin of all good.

Ver. 26. Thou blind Pharisee. The vices of the Scribes and Pharisees are not unfrequently to be found in Christians. The genuine characters of the pharisaical and hypocritical spirit, are: 1. to be punctiliously exact in trifles; 2. to be fond of distinction and esteem; 3. to be content with external piety; 4. to entertain a high opinion of ourselves, and to be impatient of reproof; 5. to be harsh to others, and ready to impose on them what we do not observe ourselves. Sins abundantly sufficient to rob us of every good, and to leave our house quite desolate! not less so than the temple and city of Jerusalem!

Ver. 27. Whitened sepulchres. The Jews, lest they should be defiled with touching the sepulchres, whitened them on the outside, in order to distinguish them. But this exterior whiteness, covering interior corruption, was a genuine picture of the pharisaical character. But these men, says S. Gregory, can have no excuse before the severe judge at the last day; for, whilst they shew to the view of mankind so beautiful an appearance of virtue, by their very hypocrisy they demonstrate that they are not ignorant how to live well. Moral. xxvi. — Tell me, you hypocrite, what pleasure there is in wickedness? why do you not wish to be what you wish to appear? What it is beautiful to appear, is beyond a doubt more beautiful to be. Be therefore what you appear, or appear what you really are. S. John Chrysostom.

Ver. 28. Jesus Christ so often and so boldly condemns the Pharisees, because he reads their hearts and intentions; but we, who can only judge of overt actions, who cannot dive into the secrets of the heart, must never presume to call men’s exterior good actions hypocrisy; but judge of men according as we see and know. B.

Ver. 29. Build the sepulchres, &c. This is not blamed, as if it were in itself evil to build or adorn the monuments of the prophets; but the hypocrisy of the Pharisees is here taxed; who, whilst they pretended to honour the memory of the prophets, were persecuting even unto death the Lord of the prophets. Ch. — Jesus Christ foresaw that they would shortly accomplish the wickedness of their fathers in shedding his blood, as their fathers did the blood of the prophets. Hilar. — And although they seemed to honour the prophets, and to abhor the murder of the just, it was merely that in their persecution of Jesus Christ he might appear to the people neither a prophet, nor just. M.

Ver. 32. Jesus Christ does not here persuade the Jews to continue on in their wicked ways, as if praising and sanctioning their conduct; but only predicts his own death, which they were about to compass, and which crime would greatly exceed that of their fathers: as he was the greatest, and even the Lord of all the other prophets, whom their fathers had put to death. Dion. Carth.

Ver. 35. From the blood of Abel, &c. Not that the Jews, to whom Christ spoke, should be punished for crimes which they themselves did not commit nor be more severely punished than they themselves deserved; but he speaks of the Jewish people which, by putting to death their Messias, should shortly fill up the number of their sins; so that God would destroy their whole nation, as if the blood of Abel, and of the prophets unjustly murdered came upon them at once. See Maldonat. — Of Zacharias, the son of Barachias.[2] Some think this was Zachary, numbered among the lesser prophets, whose father’s name was Barachias; but we do not read of his being murdered in this manner. The more common opinion is, that here is meant Zachary, who, preaching to the people, (2 Par. xxiv. 20,) was stoned to death in the very place where Christ was now speaking. But there he is called the son of Joiada, and not of Barachias. Some conjecture his father might have had both names; and S. Jerom tells us, that in an ancient copy of S. Matthew, called the Gospel of the Nazarenes, he found this Zacharias, of whom our Saviour speaks, called the son of Joiada. Wi. — S. Jerom gives another reason why he might have been called the son of Barachias, and not the son of Joiada, and this is to commend the sanctity of the father; for Barachias is interpreted the blessed of the Lord. Others suppose that he was the 11th of the 12 prophets; but it is not mentioned that he was slain between the temple and the altar. Some surmise that it was the father of the Baptist, collecting from the apocryphal writings that he was killed for preaching the arrival of the Redeemer: but that he was the son of Joiada, otherwise called Barachias, is the common opinion. S. Jerom. — That upon you may come, &c. Not that they should suffer more than their own sins richly deserved; but that the justice of God should now fall upon them with such a final vengeance once for all, as might comprise all the different kinds of judgments and punishments, that had at any time before been inflicted for the shedding of just blood. Ch.

Ver. 36. Amen, I say to you. More severe punishments were inflicted on these Jews, on account of their more grievous and heinous transgressions; for nothing had been able to recall them from their wickedness. They had the example of their ancestors before their eyes, continually irritating the wrath of God; yet all they had suffered for their crimes, could not incite them to leave their sinful ways; but they proceeded further than their ancestors in impiety, and ought therefore to receive a more severe condemnation. Thus though Lamech had not killed a brother, but had neglected to be more prudent after the exemplary punishment of Cain, he still cried out: Seven-fold punishment is taken of Cain, but of Lamech seventy times seven. Gen. iv. S. Chrys. hom. lxxiii.

Ver. 37. And thou wouldst not. Three truths may be gathered from these words of our Saviour: 1. They, who perish, perish by their own fault, because they refuse to listen to the voice of God calling them to salvation; 2. that man’s will is free, and that it is an error in man to lay all his wickedness to the charge of God, or of blind chance; for God justly attributes the reprobation of man to his own perverse will, which often opposes that of God, and brings destruction on itself; 3. how necessary it is for man to subject his will to that of the Almighty, and ever to say with our Saviour: Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done. Salmeron.

Ver. 38. Behold, your house. Their house shall be deprived of the protection of the God of heaven. He it was that had hitherto preserved them, and he also would inflict upon them those very severe judgments they so much dreaded. S. Chrys. hom. lxxv.

Ver. 39. Till you say, blessed is he that cometh. Hereafter you shall own me for your Messias, and the world’s Redeemer, at least at the day of judgment. Wi. — The time here foretold, when they should say: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, is the day of general judgment. When our Saviour says, henceforth, we must understand it of all that time, which intervened between the time of his speaking and his passion. S. Chrys. hom. lxxv. — It may also be understood of the Jews, who are to be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ towards the end of the world. M.

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[1] V. 5. Phylacteria. phulakteria. Conservatoria, or preservatoria. See S. Jerom on this place, p. 188, and S. Chrys. hom. lxxii. in Matt.

[2] V. 35. In Evangelio quo utuntur Nazareni, pro filio Barachiæ, filium Joiadæ reperimus Scriptum.