Woe to Us Too!
We’re reading from the 23rd Chapter of Matthew today, always a tough section to talk about.
One benefit modern scriptural studies give us– and we should be thankful for it– is a better understanding of the past. For instance, as we read from the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel today, it helps to understand the times they were written. Otherwise, we can get a distorted picture of the people whom Jesus loved, the Jews, whom he seems to condemn exclusively in our gospel today.
Matthew’s gospel was written in Syria or Galilee about 40 or 50 years after Jesus had died and rose again. By then, relations between his followers and the followers of the Pharisees had soured as Pharisaic Judaism tried to pull together Jewish life after the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD.
Relations between the two groups were not amicable, to say the least, and as we know, when tempers flare, words can become unfair.
We’re hearing some unfair words in Matthew’s gospel today. Matthew’s sharp polemic, says Rudolf Schnackenburg, a modern commentator on the gospel, “does not really do justice to the conduct of the scribes and Pharisees, not even for the time of alienation between Judaism and Christianity.“ In other words, Matthew’s exaggerating the faults and weaknesses of his opponents.
So, should we ignore these powerful “woes” Jesus speaks? Better, perhaps, to apply them to a wider audience than Matthew does. The 19th century British historian Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He was speaking about the temptation that affects anybody in power to use it for his or her own aims.
Matthew’s woes apply just as well to Christians and their leaders. They can be hypocritical, proud and opinionated too. Instead of hearing Jesus’ words meant only for others, then, let’s hear them meant for his followers–and ourselves as well.
Woe to us too!