By Harris Franklin Rall
The last week was a week of warning, during which Jesus made his final appeal. It was a week of conflict as well, which step by step became sharper and more open. No one knew better than Jesus how dangerous was the path which he was treading. The support of the people had thus far kept the leaders from taking open action against him. The crowds had shouted hosannas when he made his entry, and when he cleansed the temple courts they had approved, while the priests stood by in helpless anger. But Jesus had no illusions as to how much this all meant, or as to what the end would be. He knew that there was no deep conviction back of this enthusiasm. The time had come, however, when he must bring the matter to an issue. The people must choose whom they would take as leader, the scribes and priests, or Jesus. On the one side, therefore, we have the efforts of the leaders to entrap Jesus, and this we shall study first. On the other side we have Jesus' open attacks upon the leaders, and this forms the latter part of our study.
The Attacks Upon Jesus
The Challenge from the Sanhedrin. —The first assault upon him was made by a formal deputation of the leaders which came apparently the day after the entry and the cleansing of the temple (Matt. 21. 23-27). Mark says this delegation was composed of chief priests, scribes, and elders, which suggests that they came from the Sanhedrin, as this was composed of these three elements. Their question was the first of a series of efforts to entrap Jesus: "By what authority doest thou these things?" It was apparently an effort to compel Jesus in so many words to declare his Messiahship. It must have astonished the people to see this young prophet from Nazareth turn upon the powerful priests and revered scribes, and rout this imposing body by a single question: '"The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven or from men?" They could not say from heaven, for they had refused John's call; they dared not say from men, for the people held John as a prophet. And so these reputed leaders and teachers were compelled to say, "We know not."
The Answer and the Parable. —It was a skillful counter, but it was far more than that. Jesus was not trying merely to silence his foes. In the first place, he had answered their question and in such manner that they could not attack him. His authority, he indicated, was like that of John; it came from God himself and no Sanhedrin could impeach it. In the second place, he had indicted them; they could not deny the authority of John, and yet they had been disobedient to his message. The sinners whom they scorned had pressed into the Kingdom while they stayed out. Then Jesus drove the rebuke home with one of those parables whose meaning they could not evade and whose condemnation they could not escape (Matt. 21. 28-32). The sinners who had responded to John's message and his own were like the son who had lightly refused his father at first, but who afterward repented and went. They, in turn, were like the second son, who made great protestation of obedience, but in the end disobeyed. Jesus never minimizes sin; he did not condone the sins of publicans and harlots. But the question was, who obeyed in the end? What did all their pious assumptions amount to against this one fact: they had been unrepentant and disobedient in the end?
Pharisees and Herodians: the Tribute Money. —After this parable of the two sons came the two parables of warning that we studied last week, those of the vineyard and the supper. Then followed another attempt to silence Jesus, this time by trying to discredit him with the people (Matt. 22. 15-22). For this purpose the Pharisees sent some of their disciples with certain Herodians. Their attack was cleverly planned. They would first disarm Jesus' suspicions by expressing their appreciation: "Teacher, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, and carest not for any one.'* Then they would put their question, a hotly debated one at the time: "Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?" If he answered no, there would be good grounds for an information before Pilate. If he answered yes, it would alienate the people, for it would be advising them to acquiesce in the shameful yoke of Rome. But again Jesus' unexpected answer left them astonished and speechless. At his request they brought him a Roman denarius; and when he asked whose image and writing was on the coin, they could only answer, "Caesar's." "Then he saith unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." It would be wrong to take these words of Jesus and build upon them a theory of the relation of church and state, or how to divide the religious from the secular. All of life was religious for Jesus. But these men were quibbling about little things and forgetting the great. This matter of acknowledging Rome was not the vital thing. As a matter of fact, they had recognized Rome; they had accepted her government in fact and were using her coins. What did it matter that they paid taxes to her ? But the thing that did matter they were forgetting: to give to God the things that were God's. And that was what Jesus was concerned about, here as everywhere. It is even yet easier for us to debate religion than to do the will of God,
The Sadducees: An Attempt at Ridicule. —The next attack was from the Sadducees (Matt. 22. 23-33). These were practically limited to the priests and their party. They were the aristocrats, the "old families" and the men of position. It meant a good deal of condescension on their part even to notice this young prophet. As a matter of fact, they intended to do so only to get a laugh at his expense. They knew that a man could be worsted with ridicule who could not be downed with other weapons. Jesus, of course, believed in the resurrection like the Pharisees; they did not. Now the Law had prescribed (Deut. 25. 5-10) that in case a man died leaving no children, any surviving single brother should marry the widow and the first child should be considered as the child of the man that had died. So the Sadducees brought their foolish question, of itself calculated to raise a laugh: If a woman under this law married in turn seven brothers, to which one would she belong in the resurrection? Jesus leaves their trivial question to one side, and lifts the whole matter to a plane of faith and moral earnestness that rebukes the triflers and astonishes the people. You err not knowing the Scriptures, he says. In that life beyond they neither marry nor are given in marriage. Nor do you know the power of God, with your denial of the resurrection. You profess faith in the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; but he is the God of the living, and not of the dead.
''Which Is the Great Commandment?" —Not all of the leaders were hostile to Jesus, though it is natural that we should hear mainly of that greater number that did oppose him. Luke tells us that some of the scribes who had heard this reply to the Sadducees said to him, "Teacher, thou hast well said" (Luke 20. 39). It would seem that the next question put to Jesus came also from men who were honestly testing Jesus, men who had been impressed with the way he had worsted the Sadducees (Matt. 22. 34-40). Innumerable commands and rules made up their religion, and they often debated the query, "Which is the great commandment?" It probably did not surprise his hearers that Jesus said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart." These were among the first words that Jewish children learned, and as pious Jews they repeated them every day. But it was something new that Jesus should add, "And a second like unto it is this. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." The legalism of the scribes emphasized all these rules as something demanded by God and done for him. Jesus showed that God wanted them first of all to love and serve their fellow men. In still another way this answer shows the difference between the teaching of Jesus and that of the scribes. Their religion was a matter of many rules, his concern was with the inner spirit. The man who had this inner spirit of love flowing out to God and man, had kept the law and the prophets.
Jesus Attacks His Foes
Why Did Jesus Attack the Leaders? —Jesus met his foes and parried their thrusts. But he did more than this, he turned the attack upon them. His teaching, as they had clearly discerned, had been opposed to them from the beginning. He had emphasized the inner life against their outer forms, the spirit of mercy against their harsh judgments, the spirit of humility against their pride and self-satisfaction, the love of men as pleasing to God instead of the keeping of rules. In all this his opposition had been more or less indirect. Now he attacked them openly and by name. His purpose, however, was not to scourge them or abase them. He was fighting for the people. It was not from anger because they opposed him that he spoke. But they, who should have led the people into the Kingdom, were turning them astray. They were the (willfully) blind leaders of the (ignorantly) blind people. It is notable that his chief attack was not upon the priests, for these had little influence with the people; it was upon the scribes and Pharisees whom the people had trusted and who were the real leaders.
We may divide the twenty-third chapter of Matthew into three parts: (1) the indictment against the piety of the Pharisees, 1-12; (3) the seven woes, 13-33; (3) the judgment and the lament, 34-39.
1. Pharisaic Piety Indicted. —Jesus attacks the piety of the Pharisees (23. 1-12). They had stood as the models of devout religion; was not their whole life given up to the one task of knowing the Law and keeping it? Jesus points out the subtle sin of pride and selfish ambition in all this. For the eyes of men all this is done that they may have praise and reverence, that they may rule over men and be called "rabbi." In the Kingdom, Jesus says, it is humility and service that count. There is no room for masters among the children of one Father.
2. The Seven Woes. —The seven woes might be contrasted with the seven beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount. They are really so many charges against the scribes and Pharisees. We may sum them up as follows: (1) They shut others out of the Kingdom and will not receive the truth themselves, verses 13, 14. (2) They are always trying to win disciples, only to make these worse than themselves, 15. (3) They claim all wisdom, but they teach folly. They are blind quibblers, allowing one oath, refusing another, not seeing that men should swear by nothing at all, since heaven and earth are full of God, 16-22; see Matt. 5. 33-37. (4) They pretend to so great piety that they go beyond what the Law asks and tithe the petty garden herbs. Such piety is a sham because they leave aside the things that really count, justice and mercy and faith, 23, 24. (5) They are scrupulous about all manner of baptisms and washings, but they forget the inner cleansing and are full of extortion and excess, 25, 26. (6) They are like the graves which are always whitewashed just before the Passover so that men might avoid them and not be defiled for the feast. Like these graves, they are beautiful from without, but there is horrible corruption within, 27, 28. (7) They pretend to great reverence for the holy men of the past, building beautiful tombs for the prophets and declaring that they would not have joined in the slaying of these men. They are, in fact, true sons of their fathers, 29-33.
3. Judgment and Lament. —And so there comes the judgment, 34-36. The measure is not quite full, for they are yet to slay Jesus and those whom he sends; but it will fall upon this generation. Last of all we hear the lament, which we have considered before, 37-39. With this note of sorrow Jesus ends.
The Anger of Jesus. —The passion of Jesus in his condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees has seemed to some an inconsistency in his character. They have found this anger hard to reconcile with his spirit of love. They have failed to see that this anger was but a part of his love. His flaming indignation sprang from his very mercy. His anger was not like our anger. It was no wrong done to himself that ever stirred him. He could turn the left cheek when smitten on the right. But it was different when it came to wrong done to others. His condemnation of these leaders was his hatred of sham and wrong and oppression and misuse of power and place, and all this was a part of his love for the people. There can be no high love of holiness without a deep hate of sin. And we must hate it in the world as well as in our own soul. Much that passes as generous broad-mindedness is mere indifference, or moral shallowness. But the holy anger of Jesus is not easy for us to attain. Selfish passion is apt to be mixed in it. We must first love with something of his love, and sorrow for sin as he sorrowed, before we can speak in holy anger as he spoke.
Directions for Study
The Scripture passages: Matthew 21. 23-32; 22. 15-40; 23. 1-39 (Mark 12. 28-34).
Review the main items of the last two chapters, trying to grasp this last week as a whole in your mind. We have studied so far the entry, the temple cleansing, and Jesus' series of warnings and appeals. Recall the three great parables of warnings. Now we have the conflicts.
I. The Attacks Made Upon Jesus
1. The Sanhedrin. This included priests (mostly Sadducees) and Pharisees. It represented the highest authority religious and civil. Ask the three questions: What did they want? How did they proceed? How did they succeed?
2. The Pharisees. This was the attack of orthodoxy and piety, so-called. Ask the same three questions as before.
3. The Sadducees. These were the liberalists. There is a broadness that comes with great convictions, and there is a seeming broadness that is merely indifference. The latter describes the Sadducees. They were trifling even here. Only when their pockets were touched, as in the temple cleansing (for the chief priests belonged mainly to this group), were they really concerned.
II. The Attacks Made By Jesus
1. Note the men whom Jesus attacked. Why the scribes and Pharisees rather than the priests and Sadducees?
2. Note the purpose of Jesus' attacks. He was not simply striking back.
3. This explains the spirit of Jesus' attack.
4. What was the substance of his charges?
How far can a Christian man escape fighting? What should be our attitude toward social, political, and other evils? Name some battles that need to be fought to-day.