Jesus warns the religious leaders (Matthew 23:23-28)

Jesus said, “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!”

He accused them of giving a tenth of their spices (as a tithe), but of neglecting the more important matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness. He said that they cleaned the outside of their dishes - but on the inside they were full of greed. He compared them to whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of everything unclean.

Background

  • Tithes – The Israelites had to tithe, which meant giving God a tenth of everything they produced, whether grain, fruit or animals. The tithes were given to the temple and used to support the priests, who did not have any land to farm. Supporting the priests, who were set aside for God’s work, was the same as making a gift to God. Another important idea behind tithing was that God had given crops to His people so they should show their thanks and give something back. The tithing laws in the Old Testament were quite simple. However, by the time of Jesus the Jewish leaders had added a lot of petty rules which made tithing a burden.
  • Whitewashed tombs – The Jews believed that a person must not touch a dead body, or even a tomb marking a burial spot, as it would make that person unclean. If this happened at Passover time, then that person could not be part of the ceremonies. In some places there were burial places at the side of the road, marked with a slab of stone. A stranger might touch this by accident and be defiled. Before Passover, all the tombstones were painted white, to distinguish them from ordinary rocks. They therefore looked white and clean on the outside, but were full of rot and decay on the inside.

Understanding the text

This is part of a longer passage where Jesus warns the scribes and Pharisees seven times about their behaviour and attitudes. The passage we study contains three of these warnings:

  1. The scribes and Pharisees cannot see what is really important and what isn’t. They take some rules to extreme lengths, for example tithing even tiny amounts of herbs and spices. However, they neglect justice, mercy and faithfulness.
  2. They make a big fuss about cleaning their bowls and dishes. They might look as pure on the outside as their utensils, but inside they are greedy and self-indulgent. However, God knows that they are more interested in suiting themselves than they are in pleasing Him.
  3. Just like the whitewashed tomb, the scribes and Pharisees look good on the outside but on the inside they are full of rot and decay.

Jesus is not trying to humiliate these Jewish leaders, he is trying to warn them for their own good that their attitudes are all wrong. They might think they are good and holy, but they are not and they need to change their ways.