From Blessings to Woes
Updated: Dec 13, 2018
You’ve heard of the eight beatitudes of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, right? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and so on (Matthew 5). But, have you heard of the seven woes of Jesus, also in Matthew’s gospel? “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 23). I have seen the beatitudes posted on the wall in churches, but never the woes of Matthew 23. I wonder, why? Both would seem to be appropriate in the context of the church.
The first thing I think contemporary readers of Matthew’s gospel should know, before diving into the harsh words of chapter 23, is that these Pharisees Jesus is denouncing here are not his greatest enemies from the opposite side of ancient Israel’s social, theological, or political spectrum. In truth, these scribes and Pharisees probably represent the faction in Jerusalem whose beliefs and worldview would have been most sympathetic to Jesus. Jesus shares a lot in common with them: including a high respect for scripture and tradition, belief in the future judgment and resurrection of the dead. Unlike the Herodians, who probably would not have bothered, these Pharisees were among those coming out into the desert to be baptized by John (3:7). He even advises others to obey the scribes and Pharisees, respecting what they teach (23:3).
Perhaps that is exactly why Jesus reserves his most scathing critique for them. Jesus does not waste much time rebuking the pagan, Gentile world of foreign enemies. “The Lord only rebukes those he loves” (Proverbs 3:12). In this case, that happens to be the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is engaged in a serious conversation with them for the purpose of their salvation, and ours. Jesus does the same with his own disciples in several instances. To his most eager disciple, Peter, he commands, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) The fact that he does not correct the Sadducees or Herodians or pagan Romans like this does not mean they are better off. If anything, they are in a worse position–not because God doesn’t love them, but because they won’t get close enough to Jesus to hear the truth from him. The woes are not simply condemnation; they are a wake up call!
I think these seven woes of Matthew 23 belong in our churches every bit as much as the eight beatitudes of Matthew 5 because they apply just as much to us. Sure, we can identify with those spiritually hungry disciples who came out to hear the Sermon on the Mount in hopes of following Jesus. But we contemporary Christians also look an awful lot like these Pharisees who have, in theory anyway, aligned ourselves with Jesus’ worldview…just not always (or perhaps not ever?) practiced what we preach. Our hope is found not in further self-justification or flattery from each other, but in our being close enough to Jesus today to hear both his words of blessing and rebuke, that we may be formed and shaped by his Holy Spirit, and so be saved.
1. Which of Jesus’ “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees speak most to you about our own hypocrisy or the contemporary church?
2. How do you know or experience the conviction of the Holy Spirit? Are we close enough to Christ to be corrected by God today?
3. Is our love tough enough for us to correct and rebuke each other? Or do we indulge in flattery and gossip in secret, for fear of offending each other?