The Seven Woes

13 But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in.

15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'If any one swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, 'If any one swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.' 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and he who swears by the temple, swears by it and by him who dwells in it; 22 and he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. 26 You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

29 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, '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.' 31 Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. 37 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! 38 Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'" (Mt 23:13-39)

Now there’s something I wouldn’t want to hear from the Lord. Woes are used in the OT as curses; i.e., the opposite of blessings. In the first place, we can consider that the Pharisees were not just a sect of picky people – that is what most people think when they hear the word. Rather, the Pharisees were hypocritical people; people who told others what to do, while not actually doing it themselves. Notice that in six of the seven woes, Jesus calls them hypocrites. So, we must change our mind about who and what Pharisees were: they were not overly-fastidious in following the Law, rather, they didn’t really follow the Law at all. They merely demanded that others do so.

There are Christians like this today. They’re annoying, but they’re not really harmful. Not so the Pharisees and that is our second consideration of them: they were priests, the shepherds of Israel. The above text begins with Jesus’ introduction:

1 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. (Mt 23:1-3)

They sit on Moses’ seat, that is, they were the authorized teachers of Torah in the synagogues and as such, their teachings were correct. The problem is, they did not practice what they preached; they were hypocrites and Jesus disdained hypocrites. Throughout the Gospels, only hypocrites made Jesus angry. And in our text above, Jesus cursed them with a seven-fold curse. This seven-fold curse was foretold from Moses’ day. In the Book of Leviticus, which is the guide for the Levite priests, God promised blessings if they followed His commandments, but seven-fold curses if they did not:

14 But if you will not hearken to me, and will not do all these commandments, 15 if you spurn my statutes, and if your soul abhors my ordinances, so that you will not do all my commandments, but break my covenant, 16 I will do this to you: I will appoint over you sudden terror, consumption, and fever that waste the eyes and cause life to pine away. And you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it; 17 I will set my face against you, and you shall be smitten before your enemies; those who hate you shall rule over you, and you shall flee when none pursues you. 18 And if in spite of this you will not hearken to me, then I will chastise you again sevenfold for your sins, 19 and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like brass; 20 and your strength shall be spent in vain, for your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit. (Lv 26:14-20)

Notice v18, where chastisement is sevenfold for a Levitical priesthood who does not hear the Lord. This sevenfold chastisement is mentioned again in this text, verses 21, 24, and 27, after which the Lord decrees:

27 And if in spite of this you will not hearken to me, but walk contrary to me, 28 then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and chastise you myself sevenfold for your sins. 29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. 30 And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your incense altars, and cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols; and my soul will abhor you. 31 And I will lay your cities waste, and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing odors. 32 And I will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be astonished at it. 33 And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you; and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. (Lv 26:27-33)

For Christians, this final curse came to pass as the Old Covenant world was destroyed in 40 A.D. and replaced by the new world of the New Covenant. As Jesus prophesied above in Mt 23:36, within that generation Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus’ troops. During the siege, people trapped inside the city walls suffered such hunger that there were reported cases of adults eating their own children. Finally, the city was razed, “laid waste,” and the Temple sanctuary was sacked, the Temple itself razed and the ruins were dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter. The Jews themselves, those who survived the massacre, were exiled. All of this was the result of Jesus’ curse upon them, because their “house was forsaken and desolate.” The shepherds of Israel had become corrupt; they had forsaken the Temple, the house of God.

What is our lesson here? We Christians must disdain hypocrisy. We know a secret: that we cannot be perfect in the moral life, therefore we must never expect others to do so either. We must never point out others’ faults; if possible, never even notice them, being so busy noticing only our own faults. For us, there is no judgement, only mercy. Judgement is reserved for God alone; only He may speak the terrible woes. Let’s pray we never hear them.