(Mat_22:23-33; Mar_12:18-27; Luk_20:27-39; Mat_21:34-40; Mar_12:28-34; Mat_22:41-46; Mar_12:35-40; Luk_20:40-47; Mat 23)
The last day in the Temple was not to pass without other ‘temptations than that of the Priests when they questioned His authority or of the Pharisees when they cunningly sought to entangle Him in His speech. Indeed, Christ had on this occasion taken a different position; He had claimed supreme authority, and thus challenged the leaders of Israel. For this reason, and because at the last we expect assaults from all His enemies we are prepared for the controversies of that day.
We remember that, during the whole previous history, Christ had only on one occasion come into public conflict with the Sadducees, when, characteristically, they had asked of Him ‘a sign from heaven.’ Their Rationalism would lead them to treat the whole movement as beneath serious notice, the outcome of ignorant fanaticism. Nevertheless, when Jesus assumed such a position in the Temple, and was evidently to such extent swaying the people, it behoved them, if only to guard their position, no longer to stand by. Possibly, the discomfiture and powerlessness of the Pharisees may also have had their influence. At any rate, the impression left is, that those of them who now went to Christ were delegates, and that the question which they put had been well planned.
Their object was certainly not serious argument, but to use the much more dangerous weapon of ridicule. Persecution the populace might have resented; for open opposition all would have been prepared; but to come with icy politeness and philosophic calm, and by a well-turned question to reduce the renowned Galilean Teacher to silence, and show the absurdity of His teaching, would have been to inflict on His cause the most damaging blow. To this day such appeals to rough and ready common-sense are the main stock-in-trade of that coarse infidelity, which, ignoring alike the demands of higher thinking and the facts of history, appeals-so often, alas! Effectually – to the untrained intellect of the multitude, and – shall we not say it? – to the coarse and lower in us all. Besides, had the Sadducees succeeded, they would at the same time have gained a signal triumph for their tenets and defeated, together with the Galilean Teacher, their own Pharisaic opponents. The subject of attack was to be the Resurrection – the same which is still the favourite topic for the appeals of the coarser forms of infidelity to ‘the common sense’ of the masses. Making allowance for difference of circumstances, we might almost imagine we were listening to one of our modern orators of materialism. And in those days the defence of belief in the Resurrection laboured under twofold difficulty. It was as yet a matter of hope, not of faith: something to look forward to, not to look back upon. The isolated events recorded in the Old Testament, and the miracles of Christ – granting that they were admitted – were rather instances of resuscitation than of Resurrection. The grand fact of history, than which none is better attested – the Resurrection of Christ – had not yet taken place, and was not even clearly in view of any one. Besides, the utterances of the Old Testament on the subject of the ‘hereafter’ were, as became alike that stage of revelation and the understanding of those to whom it was addressed, far from clear. In the light of the New Testament it stands out in the sharpest proportions, although as an Alpine height afar off; but then that Light had not yet risen upon it.
Besides, the Sadducees would allow no appeal to the highly poetic language of the Prophets, to whom, at any rate, they attached less authority, but demanded proof from that clear and precise letter of the Law, every tittle and iota of which the Pharisees exploited for their doctrinal inferences, and from which alone they derived them. Here, also, it was the Nemesis of Pharisaism, that the postulates of their system laid it open to attack. In vain would the Pharisees appeal to Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, or the Psalms. To such an argument as from the words, ‘this people will rise up,’ the Sadducees would rightly reply, that the context forbade the application to the Resurrection; to the quotation of Isa_25:1-12 :19, they would answer that that promise must be understood spiritually, like the vision of the dry bones in Ezekiel; while such a reference as to this, ‘causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak,’ would scarcely require serious refutation. Of similar character would be the argument from the use of a special word, such as ‘return’ in Gen_3:19, or that from the twofold mention of the word ‘cutoff’ in the original of Num_15:31, as implying punishment in the present and in the future dispensation. Scarcely more convincing would be the appeal to such passages as Deu_32:39 : ‘I kill and make alive,’ or the statement that, whenever a promise occurs in the form which in Hebrew represents the future tense, it indicates a reference to the Resurrection. Perhaps more satisfactory, although not convincing to a Sadducee, whose special contention it was to insist on proof from the Law, might be an appeal to such passages as Dan_12:2, Dan_12:13, or to the restoration to life by certain of the prophets, with the superadded canon, that God had in part prefiguratively wrought by His prophets whatever He would fully restore in the future.
If Pharisaic argumentation had failed to convince the Sadducees on Biblical grounds, it would be difficult to imagine that, even in the then state of scientific knowledge, any enquiring person could have really believed that there was a small bone in the spine which was indestructible, and from which the new man would spring; or that there existed even now a species of mice, or else of snails, which gradually and visibly developed out of the earth. Many clever sayings of the Pharisees are, indeed, here recorded in their controversies, as on most subjects, and by which a Jewish opponent might have been silenced. But here, especially, must it have been felt that a reply was not always an answer, and that the silencing of an opponent was not identical with proof of one’s own assertion. And the additions with which the Pharisees had encumbered the doctrine of the Resurrection would not only surround it with fresh difficulties, but deprive the simple fact of its grand majesty. Thus, it was a point in discussion, whether a person would rise in his clothes, which one Rabbi tried to establish by a reference to the, grain of wheat, which was buried ‘naked,’ but rose clothed. Indeed, some Rabbis held, that a man would rise in exactly the same clothes in which he had been buried, while others denied this. On the other hand, it was beautifully argued that body and soul must be finally judged together, so that, in their contention to which of them the sins of man had been due, justice might be meted out to each – or rather to the two in their combination, as in their combination they had sinned. Again, it was inferred from the apparition of Samuel that the risen would look exactly as in life – have even the same bodily defects, such as lameness, blindness, or deafness. It is argued, that they were only afterwards to be healed, lest enemies might say that God had not healed them when they were alive, but that He did so when they were dead, and that they were perhaps not the same persons. In some respects even more strange was the contention that in order to secure that all the pious of Israel should rise on the sacred soil of Palestine, there were cavities underground in which the body would roll till it reached the Holy Land, there to rise to newness of life.
But all the more, that it was so keenly controverted by heathens, Sadducees, and heretics as appears from many reports in the Talmud, and that it was so encumbered with realistic legends, should we admire the tenacity with which the Pharisees clung to this doctrine. The hope of the Resurrection-world appears in almost every religious utterance of Israel. It is the spring-bud on the tree, stript by the long winter of disappointment and persecution. This hope pours its morning carol into the prayer which every Jew is bound to say on awakening; it sheds its warm breath over the oldest of the daily prayers which date from before the time of our Lord; in the formula ‘from age to age,’ ‘world without end,’ it forms so to speak, the rearguard to every prayer, defending it from Sadducean assault; it is one of the few dogmas denial of which involves, according to the Mishnah, the loss of eternal life, the Talmud explaining – almost in the words of Christ – that in the retribution of God this is only ‘measure according to measure;’ nay, it is venerable even in its exaggeration, that only our ignorance fails to perceive it in every section of the Bible, and to hear it in every commandment of the Law.
But in the view of Christ the Resurrection would necessarily occupy a place different from all this. It was the innermost shrine in the Sanctuary of His Mission, towards which He steadily tended; it was also, at the same time, the living corner-stone of that Church which he had builded, and its spire, which, as with uplifted finger, ever pointed all men heavenwards. But of such thoughts connected with His Resurrection Jesus could not have spoken to the Sadducees; they would have been unintelligible at that time even to His own disciples. He met the cavil of the Sadducees majestically, seriously, and solemnly, with words most lofty and spiritual, yet such as they could understand and which, if they had received them, would have led them onwards and upwards far beyond the standpoint of the Pharisees. A lesson this to us in our controversies.
The story under which the Sadducees conveyed their sneer was also intended covertly to strike at their Pharisaic opponents. The ancient ordinance of marrying a brother’s childless widow had more and more fallen into discredit, as its original motive ceased to have influence. A large array of limitations narrowed the number of those on whom this obligation now devolved. Then the Mishnah laid it down that, in ancient times, when the ordinance of such marriage was obeyed in the spirit of the Law, its obligation took precedence of the permission of dispensation, but that afterwards this relationship became reversed. Later authorities went further. Some declared every such union, if for beauty, wealth, or any other than religious motives, as incestuous, while one Rabbi absolutely prohibited it, although opinions continued divided on the subject. But what here most interests us is, that what are called in the Talmud the ‘Samaritans,’ but, as we judge, the Sadducees, held the opinion that the command to marry a brother’s widow only applied to a betrothed wife, not to one that had actually been wedded. This gives point to the controversial question, as addressed to Jesus.
A case such as they told, of a woman who had successively been married to seven brothers, might, according to Jewish Law, have really happened. Their sneering question now was, whose wife she was to be in the Resurrection. This, of course, on the assumption of the grossly materialistic views of the Pharisees. In this the Sadducean cavil was, in a sense, anticipating certain objections of modern materialism. It proceeded on the assumption that the relations of time would apply to eternity, and the conditions of the things seen hold true in regard to those that are unseen. But perchance it is otherwise; and the future may reveal what in the present we do not see. The reasoning as such may be faultless; but, perchance, something in the future may have to be inserted in the major or the minor, which will make the conclusion quite other! All such cavils we would meet with the twofold appeal of Christ to the Word and to the Power of God – how God has manifested, and how He will manifest Himself – the one flowing from the other.
In His argument against the Sadducees Christ first appealed to the power of God. What God would work was quite other than they imagined: not a mere re-awakening, but a transformation. The world to come was not to be a reproduction of that which had passed away – else why should it have passed away – but a regeneration and renovation; and the body with which we were to be clothed would be like that which Angels bear. What, therefore, in our present relations is of the earth, and of our present body of sin and corruption, will cease; what is eternal in them will continue. But the power of God will transform all – the present terrestrial into the future heavenly, the body of humiliation into one of exaltation. This will be the perfecting of all things by that Almighty Power by which He shall subdue all things to Himself in the Day of His Power, when death shall be swallowed up in victory. And herein also consists the dignity of man, in virtue of the Redemption introduced, and, so to speak, begun at his Fall, that man is capable of such renovation and perfection – and herein, also, is ‘the power of God,’ that He hath quickened us together with Christ, so that here already the Church receives in Baptism into Christ the germ of the Resurrection, which is afterwards to be nourished and fed by faith, through the believer’s participation in the Sacrament of fellowship with His body and Blood. Nor ought questions here to rise, like dark clouds, such as of the perpetuity of those relations which on earth are not only so precious to us, but so holy. Assuredly, they will endure, as all that is of God and good; only what in them is earthly will cease, or rather be transformed with the body. Nay, and we shall also recognise each other, not only by the fellowship of the soul; but as, even now, the mind impresses its stamp on the features, so then, when all shall be quite true, shall the soul, so to speak, body itself forth, fully impress itself on the outward appearance, and for the first time shall we then fully recognise those whom we shall now fully know – with all of earth that was in them left behind, and all of God and good fully developed and ripened into perfectness of beauty.
But it was not enough to brush aside the flimsy cavil, which had only meaning on the supposition of grossly materialistic views of the Resurrection. Our Lord would not merely reply, He would answer the Sadducees; and more grand or noble evidence of the Resurrection has never been offered than that which He gave. Of course as speaking to the Sadducees, He remained on the ground of the Pentateuch; and yet it was not only to the Law but to the whole Bible that He appealed, nay, to that which underlay Revelation itself: the relation between God and man. Not this nor that isolated passage only proved the Resurrection: He Who, not only historically but in the fullest sense, calls Himself the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, cannot leave them dead. Revelation implies, not merely a fact of the past – as is the notion which traditionalism attaches to it – a dead letter; it means a living relationship. ‘He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for all live unto Him.’
The Sadducees were silenced, the multitude was astonished, and even from some of the Scribes the admission was involuntarily wrung: ‘Teacher, Thou hast beautifully said.’ One point, however, still claims our attention. It is curious that, as regards both these arguments of Christ, Rabbinism offers statements closely similar. Thus, it is recorded as one of the frequent sayings of a later Rabbi, that in the world to come there would be neither eating nor drinking, fruitfulness nor increase, business nor envy, hatred nor strife, but that the just would sit with crowns on their heads, and feast on the splendor of the Shekhinah. This reads like a Rabbinic adaptation of the saying of Christ. As regards the other point, the Talmud reports a discussion on the Resurrection between ‘Sadducees,’ or perhaps Jewish heretics (Jewish-Christian heretics), in which Rabbi Gamaliel II. at last silences his opponents by an appeal to the promise ‘that ye may prolong your days in the land which the Lord sware unto your father to give unto them’ – ‘unto them,’ emphasises the Rabbi, not ‘unto you.’ Although this almost entirely misses the spiritual meaning conveyed in the reasoning of Christ, it is impossible to mistake its Christian origin. Gamaliel II. lived after Christ, but at a period when there was lively intercourse between Jews and Jewish Christians; while, lastly, we have abundant evidence that the Rabbi was acquainted with the sayings of Christ, and took part in the controversy with the Church. On the other hand, Christians in his day – unless heretical sects – neither denied that Resurrection, nor would they have so argued with the Jewish Patriarch; while the Sadducees no longer existed as a party engaging in active controversy. But we can easily perceive, that intercourse would be more likely between Jews and such heretical Jewish Christians as might maintain that the Resurrection was past, and only spiritual. The point is deeply interesting. It opens such further questions as these: In the constant intercourse between Jewish Christians and Jews, what did the latter learn? and may there not be much in the Talmud which is only an appropriation and adaptation of what had been derived from the New Testament?
2. The answer of our Lord was not without its further results. As we conceive it, among those who listened to the brief but decisive passage between Jesus and the Sadducees were some ‘Scribes’ – sop̱erim, or, as they are also designated, ‘lawyers,’ ‘teachers of the Law,’ experts, expounders, practitioners of the Jewish Law. One of them, perhaps he who exclaimed: Beautifully said, Teacher! hastened to the knot of Pharisees, whom it requires no stretch of the imagination to picture gathered in the Temple on that day, and watching, with restless, ever foiled malice, the Saviour’s, every movement. As ‘the Scribe’ came up to them, he would relate how Jesus literally ‘gagged’ and ‘muzzled’ the Sadducees – just as, according to the will of God, we are ‘by well-doing to gag the want or knowledge of senseless men.’ There can be little doubt that the report would give rise to mingled feelings, in which that prevailing would be, that, although Jesus might thus have discomfited the Sadducees, He would be unable to cope with other questions, if only properly propounded by Pharisaic learning. And so we can understand how one of the number, perhaps the same Scribe, would volunteer to undertake the office; and how his question was, as Matthew reports, in a sense really intended to ‘tempt’ Jesus.
We dismiss here the well-known Rabbinic distinctions of ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ commandments because Rabbinism declared the ‘light’ to be as binding as ‘the heavy,’ those of the Scribes more ‘heavy’ (or binding) than those of Scripture, and that one commandment was not to be considered to carry greater reward, and to be therefore more carefully observed, than another. That such thoughts were not in the mind of the questioner, but rather the grand general problem – however himself might have answered it – appears even from the form of his inquiry: ‘Which [qualis] is the great – ‘the first’ – commandment in the Law?’ So challenged, the Lord could have no hesitation in replying. Not to silence him, but to speak the absolute truth, He quoted the well-remembered words which every Jew was bound to repeat in his devotions, and which were ever to be on his lips, living or dying, as the inmost expression of his faith: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.’ And then continuing, He repeated the command concerning love to God which is the outcome of that profession. But to have stopped here would have been to propound a theoretic abstraction without concrete reality, a mere Pharisaic worship of the letter. As God is love – His Nature so manifesting itself – so is love to God also love to man. And so this second is ‘like’ ‘the first and great commandment.’ It was a full answer to the Scribe when He said: ‘There is none other commandment greater than these.’
But it was more than an answer, even deepest teaching, when, as Matthew reports, He added: ‘on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’ It little matters for our present purpose how the Jews at the time understood and interpreted these two commandments. They would know what it meant that the Law and the Prophets ‘hang’ on them, for it was a Jewish expression (תלוין). He taught them, not that any one commandment was greater or smaller, heavier or lighter, than another – might be set aside or neglected, but that all sprang from these two as their root and principle, and stood in living connection with them. It was teaching similar to that concerning the Resurrection; that, as concerning the promises, so concerning the commandments, all Revelation was one connected whole; not disjointed ordinances of which the letter was to be weighed, but a life springing from love to God and love to man. So noble was the answer, that for the moment the generous enthusiasm of the Scribe, who had previously been favourably impressed by Christ’s answer to the Sadducees, was kindled. For the moment, at least, traditionalism lost its sway; and, as Christ pointed to it, he saw the exceeding moral beauty of the Law. He was not far from the Kingdom of God. Whether or not he ever actually entered it, is written on the yet unread page of its history.
3. The Scribe had originally come to put his question with mixed motives, partially inclined towards Him from His answer to the Sadducees, and yet intending to subject Him to the Rabbinic test. The effect now wrought in him, and the silence which from that moment fell on all His would-be questioners, induced Christ to follow up the impression that had been made. Without addressing any one in particular, He set before them all, what perhaps was the most familiar subject in their theology, that of the descent of Messiah. Whose Son was He? And when they replied: ‘The Son of David,’ He referred them to the opening words of Psa_110:1-7, in which David called the Messiah ‘Lord.’ The argument proceeded, of course, on the twofold supposition that the Ps was Davidic and that it was Messianic. Neither of these statements would have been questioned by the ancient Synagogue. But we could not rest satisfied with the explanation that this sufficed for the purpose of Christ’s argument, if the foundation on which it rested could be seriously called in question. Such, however, is not the case. To apply Ps cx., verse by verse and consistently, to any one of the Maccabees, were to undertake a critical task which only a series of unnatural explanations of the language could render possible. Strange, also, that such an interpretation of what at the time of Christ would have been a comparatively young composition, should have been wholly unknown alike to Sadducee and Pharisee. For our own part, we are content to rest the Messianic interpretation on the obvious and natural meaning of the words taken in connection with the general teaching of the Old Testament about the Messiah, on the undoubted interpretation of the ancient Jewish Synagogue, on the authority of Christ, and on the testimony of History.
Compared with this, the other question as to the authorship of the Ps is of secondary importance. The character of infinite, nay, Divine, superiority to any earthly Ruler, and of course to David, which the Ps sets forth in regard to the Messiah, would sufficiently support the argument of Christ. But, besides, what does it matter whether the Ps was composed by David, or only put into the mouth of David (David’s or Davidic), which, on the supposition of Messianic application, is the only rational alternative?
But we should greatly err if we thought that, in calling the attention of His hearers to this apparent contradiction about the Christ, the Lord only intended to show the utter incompetence of the Pharisees to teach the higher truths of the Old Testament. Such indeed, was the case – and they felt it in His Presence. But far beyond this, as in the proof which He gave for the Resurrection, and in the view which He presented of the great commandment, the Lord would point to the grand harmonious unity of Revelation. Viewed separately, the two statements, that Messiah was David’s Son, and that David owned Him Lord, would seem incompatible. But in their combination in the Person of the Christ, how harmonious and how full of teaching – to Israel of old, and to all men – concerning the nature of Christ’s Kingdom and of His Work!
It was but one step from this demonstration of the incompetence of Israel’s teachers for the position they claimed to a solemn warning on this subject. And this appropriately constitutes Christ’s Farewell to the Temple, to its authorities, and to Israel. As might have been expected, we have the report of it in Matthew’s Gospel. Much of this had been said before, but in quite other connection, and therefore with different application. We notice this, when comparing this Discourse with the Sermon on the Mount, and, still more, with what Christ had said when at the meal in the house of the Pharisee in Peraea. But here Matthew presents a regular series of charges against the representatives of Judaism, formulated in logical manner, taking up successively one point after the other, and closing with the expression of deepest compassion and longing for that Jerusalem, whose children He would fain have gathered under His sheltering wings from the storm of Divine judgment.
To begin with – Christ would have them understand, that, in warning them of the incompetence of Israel’s teachers for the position which they occupied, He neither wished for Himself nor His disciples the place of authority which they claimed, nor yet sought to incite the people to resistance thereto. On the contrary, so long as they held the place of authority they were to be regarded – in the language of the Mishnah – as if instituted by Moses himself, as sitting in Moses’ seat, and were to be obeyed, so far as merely outward observances were concerned. We regard this direction, not as of merely temporary application, but as involving an important principle. But we also recall that the ordinances to which Christ made reference were those of the Jewish canon-law, and did not involve anything which could really affect the conscience – except that of the ancient, or of our modern Pharisees. But while they thus obeyed their outward directions, they were equally to eschew the spirit which characterised their observances. In this respect a twofold charge is laid against them: of want of spiritual earnestness and love, and of mere externalism, vanity, and self-seeking. And here Christ interrupted His Discourse to warn His disciples against the first beginnings of what had led to such fearful consequences, and to point them to the better way.
This constitutes the first part of Christ’s charge. Before proceeding to those which follow we may give a few illustrative explanations. Of the opening accusation about the binding (truly in bondage: δεσμεύω) of heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and laying them on men’s shoulders, proof can scarcely be required. As frequently shown, Rabbinism placed the ordinances of tradition above those of the Law, and this by a necessity of the system, since they were professedly the authoritative exposition and the supplement of the written Law. And although it was a general rule, that no ordinance should be enjoined heavier than the congregation could bear, yet (as previously stated) it was admitted, that, whereas the words of the Law contained what ‘lightened’ and what ‘made heavy,’ the words of the Scribes contained only what ‘made heavy.’ Again, it was another principle, that, where an ‘aggravation’ or increase of the burden had once been introduced, it must continue to be observed. Thus the burdens became intolerable. And the blame rested equally on both the great Rabbinic Schools. For, although the School of Hillel was supposed in general to make the yoke lighter, and that of Shammai heavier, yet not only did they agree on many points, but the School of Hillel was not unfrequently even more strict than that of his rival. In truth, their differences seem too often only prompted by a spirit of opposition, so that the serious business of religion became in their hands one of rival authority and mere wrangling.
It is not so easy to understand the second part of Christ’s accusation. There were, indeed, many hypocrites among them, who might, in the language of the Talmud, alleviate for themselves and make heavy for others. Yet the charge of not moving them with the finger could scarcely apply to the Pharisees as a party – not even in this sense, that Rabbinic ingenuity mostly found some means of evading what was unpleasant. But, as previously explained, we would understand the word rendered ‘move’ as meaning to ‘set in motion,’ or ‘move away,’ in the sense that they did not ‘alleviate’ where they might have done so, or else with reference to their admitted principle, that their ordinances always made heavier, never lighter – always imposed grievous burdens, but never, not even with the finger, moved them away.
With this charge of unreality and want of love, those of externalism, vanity, and self-seeking are closely connected. Here we can only make selection from the abundant evidence in support of it. By a merely external interpretation of Exo_13:9, Exo_13:16, and Deu_6:8; Deu_11:18, practice of wearing Phylacteries, or, as they were called, tep̱ilin, ‘prayer-fillets,’ was introduced. These, as will be remembered, were square capsules, covered with leather, containing on small scrolls of parchment, these four sections of the law: Exo_13:1-10; 11-16: Deu_6:4-9; Deu_11:13-21. The Phylacteries were fastened by long leather straps to the forehead, and round the left arm, near the heart. Most superstitious reverence was attached to them, and in later times they were even used as amulets. Nevertheless, the Talmud itself gives confirmation that the practice of constantly wearing phylacteries – or, it might be, making them broad, and enlarging the borders of the garments, was intended ‘for to be seen of men.’ Thus we are told of a certain man who had done so, in order to cover his dishonest practices in appropriating what had been entrusted to his keeping. Nay, the Rabbis had in so many words to lay it down as a principle, that the Phylacteries were not to be worn for show.
Detailed proof is scarcely required of the charge of vanity and self-seeking in claiming marked outward honours, such as the uppermost places at feasts and in the Synagogue, respectful salutations in the market, the ostentatious repetition of the title ‘Rabbi,’ or ‘Abba,’ Father,’ or ‘Master,’ or the distinction of being acknowledged as ‘greatest.’ The very earnestness with which the Talmud sometimes warns against such motives for study or for piety sufficiently establishes it. But, indeed, Rabbinic writings lay down elaborate directions, what place is to be assigned to the Rabbis, according to their rank, and to their disciples, and how in the College the most learned, but at feasts the most aged, among the Rabbis, are to occupy the ‘upper seats.’ So weighty was the duty of respectful salutation by the title Rabbi, that to neglect it would involve the heaviest punishment. Two great Rabbis are described as literally complaining, that they must have lost the very appearance of learning, since in the market-place they had only been greeted, with ‘May your peace be great,’ without the addition ‘My masters.’
A few further illustrations of the claims which Rabbinism preferred may throw light on the words of Christ. It reads like a wretched limitation from the New Testament, when the heathen Governor of Caesarea is represented as rising up before Rabbis because he beheld ‘the faces as it were of Angels;’ or like an adaptation of the well-known story about Constantine the Great when the Governor of Antioch is described as vindicating a similar mark of respect to the Rabbis by this, that he had seen their faces and by them conquered in battle. From another Rabbi rays of light are said to have visibly proceeded. According to some, they were Epicuraeans, who had no part in the world to come, who referred slightingly to ‘these Rabbis.’ To supply a learned man with the means of gaining money in trade, would procure a high place in heaven. It was said that, according to Pro_8:15, the sages were to be saluted as kings; nay, in some respects, they were higher – for, as between a sage and a king, it would be duty to give the former priority in redemption from captivity, since every Israelite was fit to be a king, but the loss of a Rabbi could not easily be made up. But even this is not all. The curse of a Rabbi, even if uncaused, would surely come to pass. It would be too painful to repeat some of the miracles pretended to have been done by them or for them, occasionally in protection of a lie; or to record their disputes which among them was ‘greatest,’ or how they established their respective claims. Nay, their self-assertion extended beyond this life, and a Rabbi went so far as to order that he should be buried in white garments, to show that he was worthy of appearing before his Maker. But perhaps the climax of blasphemous self-assertion is reached in the story, that, in a discussion in heaven between God and the heavenly Academy on a Halakhic question about purity, a certain Rabbi – deemed the most learned on the subject – was summoned to decide the point! As his soul passed from the body he had exclaimed: ‘Pure, pure,’ which the Voice from Heaven applied to the state of the Rabbi’s soul; and immediately afterwards a letter had fallen from heaven to inform the sages of the purpose for which the Rabbi had been summoned to the heavenly assembly, and afterwards another enjoining a week’s universal mourning for him on pain of excommunication.
Such daring profanities must have crushed out all spiritual religion, and reduced it to a mere intellectual display, in which the Rabbi was always chief – here and hereafter. Repulsive as such legends are, they will at least help us to understand what otherwise might seem harsh in our Lord’s denunciations of Rabbinism. In view of all this, we need not discuss the Rabbinic warnings against pride and self-seeking when connected with study, nor their admonitions to humility. For, the question here is, what Rabbinism regarded as pride, and what as humility, in its teachers? Nor is it maintained that all were equally guilty in this matter; and what passed around may well have led the more earnest to energetic admonitions to humility and unselfishness. But no ingenuity can explain away the facts as above stated and when such views prevailed, it would have been almost superhuman wholly to avoid what our Lord denounced as characteristic of Pharisaism. And in this sense, not with Pharisaic painful literalism, but as opposed to Rabbinic bearing, are we to understand the Lord’s warning to His own not to claim among brethren to be ‘Rabbi,’ or ‘Abba,’ or ‘guide.’ The Law of the Kingdom, as repeatedly taught, was the opposite. As regarded aims, they were to seek the greatness of service; and as regarded that acknowledgment which would come from God, it would be the exaltation of humiliation.
It was not a break in the Discourse, rather an intensification of it, when Christ now turned to make final denunciation of Pharisaism in its sin and hypocrisy. Corresponding to the eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount with which His public Ministry began, He now closed it with eight denunciations of woe. These are the forthpouring of His holy wrath, the last and fullest testimony against those whose guilt would involve Jerusalem in common sin and common judgment. Step by step, with logical sequence and intensified pathos of energy, is each charge advanced, and with it the Woe of Divine wrath announced.
The first Woe against Pharisaism was on their shutting the Kingdom of God against men by their opposition to the Christ. All knew how exclusive were their pretensions in confining piety to the possession of knowledge, and that they declared it impossible for an ignorant person to be pious. Had they taught men the Scriptures, and shown them the right way, they would have been true to their office; but woe to them who, in their position as leaders, had themselves stood with their back to the door of the Kingdom, and prevented the entrance of others.
The second Woe was on their covetousness and hypocrisy. They made long prayers, but how often did it only cover the vilest selfishness, even to the ‘devouring’ of widows’ houses. We can scarcely expect the Talmud here to furnish us with illustrative instances, and yet at least one such is recorded; and we recall how often broad phylacteries covered fraudulent minds.
The third Woe was on their proselytism, which issued only in making their converts twofold more the children of hell than themselves. Against this charge, rightly understood, Judaism has in vain sought to defend itself. It is, indeed, true that, in its pride and exclusiveness, Judaism seemed to denounce proselytism, laid down strict rules to test the sincerity of converts, and spoke of them in general contempt as ‘a plague of leprosy.’ Yet the bitter complaint of classical writers, the statements of Josephus, the frequent allusions in the New Testament and even the admissions of the Rabbis, prove their zeal for making proselytes – which, indeed, but for its moral sequences, would neither have deserved nor drawn down the denunciation of a ‘woe.’ Thus the Midrash, commenting on the words: ‘the souls that they had gotten in Haran,’ refers it to the converts which Abraham had made, adding that every proselyte was to be regarded as if a soul had been created. To this we may, add the pride with which Judaism looked back upon the 150,000 Gibeonite converts said to have been made when David avenged the sin of Saul; the satisfaction with which it looked forward to the times of Messiah as those of spontaneous conversion to the Synagogue; and the not unfrequent instances in which a spirit favourable to proselytism is exhibited in Jewish writings, as, also, such a saying as this, that when Israel is obedient to the will of God, He brings in as converts to Judaism all the just of the nations, such as Jethro Rahab, Ru, etc. But after all, may the Lord not have referred, not to conversion to Judaism in general, but to proselytism to the sect of the Pharisees, which was undoubtedly sought to the compassing of sea and land?
The fourth Woe is denounced on the moral blindness of these guides rather than on their hypocrisy. From the nature of things it is not easy to understand the precise allusion of Christ. It is true that the Talmud makes the strangest distinction between an oath or adjuration, such as ‘by heaven’ or ‘by earth,’ which is not supposed to be binding; and that by any of the letters of which the Divine Name was composed, or by any of the attributes of the Divine Being, when the oath is supposed to be binding. But it seems more likely that our Lord refers to oaths or adjurations in connection with vows, where the casuistry was of the most complicated kind. In general, the Lord here condemns the arbitrariness of all such Jewish distinctions, which, by attaching excessive value to the letter of an oath or vow, really tended to diminish its sanctity. All such distinctions argued folly and moral blindness. The fifth Woe referred to one of the best-known and strangest Jewish ordinances, which extended the Mosaic law of tithing, in most burdensome minuteness, even to the smallest products of the soil that were esculent and could be preserved, such as anise. Of these, according to some, not only the seeds, but, in certain cases, even the leaves and stalks, had to be tithed. And this, together with grievous emission of the weightier, matters of the Law: judgment, mercy, and faith. Truly, this was ‘to strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!’ We remember that this conscientiousness in tithing constituted one of the characteristics of the Pharisees; but we could scarcely be prepared for such an instance of it, as when the Talmud gravely assures us that the ass of a certain Rabbi had been so well trained as to refuse corn of which the tithes had not been taken! And experience, not only in the past but in the present, has only too plainly shown, that a religious zeal which expends itself on trifles has not room nor strength left for the weightier matters of the Law.
From tithing to purification the transition was natural. It constituted the second grand characteristic of Pharisaic piety. We have seen with what punctiliousness questions of outward purity of vessels were discussed. But woe to the hypocrisy which, caring for the outside, heeded not whether that which filled the cup and platter had been procured by extortion or was used for excess. And, alas for the blindness which perceived not that internal purity was the real condition of that which was outward!
Woe similarly to another species of hypocrisy, of which, indeed, the preceding were but the outcome: that of outward appearance of righteousness, while heart and mind were full of iniquity – just as those annually-whited sepulchres of theirs seemed so fair outwardly, but within were full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Woe, lastly, to that hypocrisy which built and decorated sepulchres of prophets and righteous men, and by so doing sought to shelter itself from share in the guilt of those who had killed them. It was not spiritual repentance, but national pride, which actuated them in this, the same spirit of self-sufficiency, pride, and impenitence which had led their fathers to commit the murders. And were they not about to imbrue their hands in the blood of Him to Whom all the prophets had pointed? Fast were they in the Divine judgment filling up the measure of their fathers.
And thicker and heavier than ever before fell the hailstorm of His denunciations, as He foretold the certain doom which awaited their national impenitence. Prophets, wise men, and scribes would be sent them of Him; and only murder, sufferings, and persecutions would await them – not reception of their message and warnings. And so would they become heirs of all the blood of martyred saints, from that of him whom Scripture records as the first one murdered, down to that last martyr of Jewish unbelief of whom tradition spoke in such terms – Zechariah, stoned by the king’s command in the Court of the Temple, whose blood, as legend had, it, did not dry up those two centuries and a half, but still bubbled on the pavement, when Nebuzar-adan entered the Temple, and at last avenged it.
And yet it would not have been Jesus, if, while denouncing certain judgment on them who, by continuance and completion of the crimes of their fathers, through the same unbelief, had served themselves heirs to all their guilt, He had not also added to it the passionate lament of a love which, even when spurned, lingered with regretful longing over the lost. They all knew the common illustration of the hen gathering her young brood for shelter, and they knew also what of Divine protection, blessing, and rest it implied; when they spoke of being gathered under the wings of the Shekhinah. Fain and often would Jesus have given to Israel, His people, that shelter, rest, protection, and blessing -but they would not. Looking around on those Temple-buildings that House, it shall be left to them desolate! And He quitted its courts with these words, that they of Israel should not see Him again till, the night of their unbelief past, they would welcome His return with a better Hosanna than that which had greeted His Royal Entry three days before. And this was the ‘Farewell’ and the parting of Israel’s Messiah from Israel and its Temple. Yet a Farewell which promised a coming again; and a parting which implied a welcome in the future from a believing people to a gracious, pardoning King!