It is possible that Matthew 23 could be taken as offensive. In fact, I’m sure what Jesus had to say in these verses was fairly offensive to his audience, the Pharisees. The names he uses for them if nothing else (white-washed tombs, blind guides, hypocrites, blind guides, brood of vipers) were all very offensive terms back in Jesus’ day.
Jesus is trying to correct the Pharisees in these verses for the way that they are abusing and misusing their religious ideas and ideals; and if anyone has a right to correct, it is Jesus. The Pharisees were all about the rules, a legalistic, works based religious system. The only way to be ok in God’s eyes was to act in the right ways. If you acted in the wrong way, then you fell out of God’s favour. The main thing to understand about the Pharisees is that they had taken the Law God gave to Moses and added to it, making a massive list of rules to follow. One of their favourite things to do was to stand on a street corner, or right in the temple complex, and boast about how good they were at keeping their rules. That is why Paul, who was trained as a top level Pharisee, talks about boasting several times in his writings (Ephesians 2; Romans 3, 4 & 5; 1 Corinthians 1; and so on).
In essence, this chapter from Matthew is Jesus finally having enough with the Pharisees and confronting them head on about their hypocrisy and empty religious practices. They key here is understanding the difference between works born out of a life transforming faith in Jesus, and a religious system where works are the thing that gains you favour in God’s eyes. In the first, good works flow naturally out of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, making us slowly more and more like Jesus. In the second, works are born out of an adherence to a set of rules and are accomplished solely on one’s own initiative and power with the hope of gaining God’s favour.
Jesus is using these rather strong teachings to try to get them to see the futility of their religious rules and the hypocrisy of their boasting.
I don’t know when the last time was that someone corrected you strongly; but it is tempting to become offended when being corrected. We must be careful to not allow an indignant response to correction blind us to the need for the correction. I don’t know how many times I have tried to talk to someone about something that is not very God honouring in their lives, only to have them react indignantly or with anger at me. How dare you try to correct me! Or they pull out the scripture from Matthew 7 about dealing with the plank in your own eye before you deal with the splinter in your neighbour’s eye. Sometimes correction is offensive because it hits the right (or the wrong) spot and we react to it.
Pay attention to these verses as you read them. If Jesus were saying them to you today, which would be offensive to you? It may be a good idea to ask yourself why.
- What was familiar from this passage of scripture? What was something I already knew?
- What was new from this piece of scripture? What was something that really stood out for me that I have never paid attention to before?
- Does Jesus appear in this passage of scripture?
- How does this passage apply to my life, here and now? Do I need to do anything about it?
- What prayer would I offer up to God after reading this piece of scripture?
Tomorrow’s Reading: Mark 13