Matthew 23 - The King Who Judges

Matthew 23

If there is a chapter in gospels that finally puts rest that image of Jesus as this soft, always smiling, hippie feel good teacher, it is this chapter. In this chapter his veins are popping, his throat is horse from shouting his judgment on the religious leaders. He is laying it on them thick.

This is definitely one of those chapters you don't want to read it in its entirety because it is non-stop. It is like a mother's scalding that goes on for hours. Just when you think you mother's wrath has subsided and done, here comes another wave. And so it is with Jesus.

And when you listen, you hear those fiery prophets of old, Jeremiah and Isaiah, those who warned the people of impending doom because Israel thought they were covered by their ethnicity, safe by their jewish citizenry, a gauranteed to be saved. They could do no wrong. And Isaiah and Jeremiah says, “Oh no, you did lot of wrong!”

This is what Jesus is doing. The Pharisees though they were doing right by God, best they could, under Roman occupation, helping people to be faithful without being radicalized into zealots, a terrorist group.

But Jesus looks at them and says, you got it all wrong. That hurts. When you are trying your best and still get it all wrong?

The way Jesus lays it on the Pharisees is so painful, I was tempted to just read one of Jesus words of judgment. But I realized that if we are going to know Jesus as Jesus is, you have to hear this judgment. As hard as it is to hear, if we don’t hear it all, we won’t hear what he says at the end.

Now to put it into the right context, two things to say before reading the scripture itself.

First, Jesus judgment comes after the Pharisees were on the attack. The previous chapter, Pharisees are doing everything in their power, direct attack, secret traps, to get Jesus to disqualify himself. Jesus words does not come as a tit-for-tat. Jesus was not rolling up his sleeve and saying “that’s all you got, now it’s my turn.”

Jesus words of judgment comes after the Pharisees have basically exposed themselves as sick.

Jesus’ words is not a comeback of a vengeful leader. Jesus words is the truth of a doctor, the diagnosis of a sick soul and society. As hard as it is, we can’t talk about the cure until we talk about the disease. A band aide won’t do because we are not talking about a minor scrape, but a cancer of the soul and society.

Second, the context of the whole Matthew gospel, who is telling us about the story of the King of the Jews. And what Jesus is doing here is playing an important role of a king, that of judgment.

Remember. Jesus entered the city on a donkey just a few days ago, a symbol of a King who is returning not to conquer, a white horse, but to his own people, disrobed of the armor, and brining the peace he has created. And when the King comes back, he comes with judgment, to judge all the cases that have been piling up while he was away.

One of the primary role of a king is judgement. He is one who declares what is right and wrong. The King, who is wise and just, because his calling is from God, will mete out the judgment of God's wisdom and justice. This was hardly the case for most kings. For most all kings were sinners and abused their powers. But this King is actually God, so his judgment is wise, fair and just.

And the returning king judges his stewards. This is the world behind the parable Jesus often told, about the vineyard owner returning to his vineyard and judging the tenants.

Well, this is the parable if flesh and blood. Jesus is a prophet, but he is the kingly prophet, and he judges.

So are you ready for some judgment from Jesus?

 

23:1-4

1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.

 

Now don’t let the word Pharisees throw you off. His judgment is not just for the professional religious. His judgment if for all Christians, who know God Word and rather than focusing on obeying it oneself, using it to judge others. More energy is spent on exposing the sins of others than on repenting of one’s own sins.

Any one feel a pang of guilt from this. Good!

5-12

5“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. 6And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues.7They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’

8“Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters9And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your Father. 10And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you must be a servant. 12But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

 

 

Religion used to create another pecking order. You are the bottom of the society, so come to church, get a title, be the first to be seated at the dining table, claim special knowledge of scripture, make everyone afraid to read bible on their own, or pray on their own. Make yourself a necessity.

How can there be any hierarchy in the Christian family, when there is only one Father, God, and all of us, are brothers and sisters. How can a Christian bea master over another? How can a Christian think lower of other Christians?

13-24

13“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.

15“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!

16“Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’ 17Blind fools! Which is more important—the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred?18And you say that to swear ‘by the altar’ is not binding, but to swear ‘by the gifts on the altar’ is binding. 19How blind! For which is more important—the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20When you swear ‘by the altar,’ you are swearing by it and by everything on it. 21And when you swear ‘by the Temple,’ you are swearing by it and by God, who lives in it. 22And when you swear ‘by heaven,’ you are swearing by the throne of God and by God, who sits on the throne.

23“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. 24Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!

All this is hitting to close to home.

Jesus is judging how religion plays all these games of rule, how they argue about what is good and what is not good, about how to please God, all the while forgetting or ignoring about what really is good and matters to God’s heart.

This is church dividing over whether to play tradition hymns or contemporary music. Over whether they should do lectionary preaching or thematic preaching.

This occupies us. We make theology about why we do what we do. And in arguing about it, we really feel like we are doing something for God. I mean we are wrestling for truth right?

Meanwhile, children die of starvation, teens commit suicide, families break apart, innocent people are getting killed and executed. People are dying because of hopelessness and injustice and we argue about doctrines?

Have you heard about the argument about the argument over justification from the classical definition and new perspective?

Big name theologians.

I imagine them going up to heaven, and they meet Jesus and they are all so proud because they defended the truth, and say well Jesu I defended the classical theology of justification. And Jesus is going to look at them and say, “what are you talking about? I never heard that doctrine before.”

Jesus isn’t saying don’t think things through. Of course we should. Jesus says go tithe. But here is something you and I cannot argue about. Practice justice , mercy and faith!

 

25-28

 25“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! 26You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

27“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.

 

Jesus returns to what he first started with, Christians unwillingness to deal with their own crappy heart. This filthy heart of ours. Look how everything Romans do, you do in the pretense of religion.

29-36

29“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. 30Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’

31“But in saying that, you testify against yourselves that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.32Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started. 33Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?

34“Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city. 35As a result, you will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people of all time—from the murder of righteous Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you killed in the Temple between the sanctuary and the altar. 36I tell you the truth, this judgment will fall on this very generation.

 

Jesus breaks their last layer of defense. All that Jesus is saying, some of them are actually amening. They are nodding. Yes, because we agree with the prophets, we decry what our ancestors did to Jeremiah and Isaiah. If we were there, then we would have sided with Jeremia and Isaiah. We would have been in the right side of history.

But Jesus says, you are doing the same!

And I wonder if as we hear these words and Jesus say “this very generation” do we imagine that first century Palestinians or 21st Century Americans?

Do you know Jesus is talking to us, is talking about us?

Did you know that we had prophets in our midst and we killed them? Lincoln and King, to name just two?

Jim Wallis, a Christian thinker and writer, says “American Christian has been coopted.”

Is that true? Are we prophet killers? Is American Christianity in the wrong side of God?

The people listening to Jesus was convinced that they would never kill a prophet, they were more righteous than their ancestors. But irony was that they killed Jesus, who was the prophet of prophets, the King of righteous judgment.

I wonder, I wonder, if Jesus were to visit American churches, what would he say? Would the American Christians accept his judgment? Run him out of the pulpit? Get him arrested? Cry for death penalty?

I wonder, I wonder, if Jesus came today, what would he say to us, to you?

After delivering the judgment of the returning King, Jesus still has few more words.

37-39

37“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. 38And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate. 39For I tell you this, you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

These are not words of someone who hates, someone who gets a high on putting people down, who finds his meaning in being mean. Jesus words are harsh but his heart breaks. He is a mother who truly hates to judge.

I remember my mother…she would punish us, then hug me and say, “it hurts you more than me.”

It might not be true for all parents, but it is for Jesus.

For he is not just the king who judges but the king who sacrifices. He is a king who truly puts his people over himself.

Jesus is speaking about his death in few days. Irony is that the words welcoming the King were spoken but they did not understand. Jesus will return again, to Jerusalem, to America to the world, because he has to leave, he has to leave because there is one thing he must do, he must take the judgment upon himself. The judgment he lays of the his people, he will bear on his flesh. The disease of the soul will be his disease, the disease of the society will be his disease.

The king who lays down the rule, lays down his life

 

This King who says, "You hyprocrites," in a span of few days will be daying on the cross and with the little life left him will pray, "Father forgive them."

In this way he is more than any of the prophets, greater than Isaiah, Jeremiah and even Moses and Elijah. That he is ready to lay down his life for the people. And in that utter weakness, Jesus proves himself the true King.

Kids

Pastor Esther Yang,

The father hit himself

I tired this, surprise them with grace. I took it a step further. I hit myself.

And when I did it. Ian’s eyes opened and said, “So from here on, everytime I do something wrong, you wil get punished?”

Jesus takes on our judgment.

This frees us from the judgment but not the invitation to repent, to change our way of living.

To live looking into ourselves first, to live treating everyone as equals, to live putting justice and mercy and faith first, to live grateful to Christ who took away our judgment.

 

Four Quartets

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

 

 

 

Readings

23:1-4

1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.

5-12

5“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. 6And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues.7They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’

8“Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters9And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your Father. 10And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you must be a servant. 12But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

 

13-24

13“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.

15“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!

16“Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’ 17Blind fools! Which is more important—the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred?18And you say that to swear ‘by the altar’ is not binding, but to swear ‘by the gifts on the altar’ is binding. 19How blind! For which is more important—the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20When you swear ‘by the altar,’ you are swearing by it and by everything on it. 21And when you swear ‘by the Temple,’ you are swearing by it and by God, who lives in it. 22And when you swear ‘by heaven,’ you are swearing by the throne of God and by God, who sits on the throne.

23“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. 24Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!

 

25-28

 25“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! 26You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

27“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.

 

29-36

29“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. 30Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’

31“But in saying that, you testify against yourselves that you are indeed the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.32Go ahead and finish

 

 

what your ancestors started. 33Snakes! Sons of vipers! How will you escape the judgment of hell?

34“Therefore, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers of religious law. But you will kill some by crucifixion, and you will flog others with whips in your synagogues, chasing them from city to city. 35As a result, you will be held responsible for the murder of all godly people of all time—from the murder of righteous Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you killed in the Temple between the sanctuary and the altar. 36I tell you the truth, this judgment will fall on this very generation.

37-39

37“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. 38And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate. 39For I tell you this, you will never see me again until you say, ‘Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

 

 

 

Four Quartets

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.