The power of life and death (Matthew 23:25-39)

Jesus’ rant against the Pharisees (Matthew 23) ends up revealing the struggle between life and death for the world. It’s the most detailed explanation he ever gave of the meaning of the cross.

The gospel is good news of peace. The world’s problems can’t be resolved while people take power over others. At every level — domestic violence, community oppression, cultural genocide, international war — the heart of evil is people claiming power over others, power enforced by death (or at least the threat of death). We won’t be at peace until we stop grasping power, and honour the One to whom it belongs.

That’s how Jesus announced it in Jerusalem. He shamed those who had taken on the role of community leaders, labelling them pretenders who were blocking God’s reign (23:13). He accused them of plundering (harpagē) without restraint (akrasia) (23:25). That unusual pair of words also turns up in Josephus’ description of Antiochus IV seizing Jerusalem: he plundered it and slaughtered people excessively, overwhelmed by an unrestrained craving for revenge (Wars 1.34). It’s true: those who grasp power plunder the community and destroy the sheep because they’re not answering to anyone (Ezekiel 34; John 10:7-11).

Those who grasp power cannot give life. God alone does that. Human control rests on death, taking the lives of those who don’t recognize them. That’s the truth Jesus introduces in verse 27. Pretenders to power present as stately as polished tombs, and what’s within them is just as deadly. Everyone knew that touching something dead made you unclean, but they hadn’t seen these guys as the touch of death on their community.

Maintaining death in the community? Yes, Jesus says: watch them decorate the tombs of the prophets. The spokesmen of the living God had always been a problem for those whose power rested on death — rulers like Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 19:2) or Herod (Matthew 14:1-13). The Pharisees’ claim to be a different generation isn’t credible. Just like their ancestors (Nehemiah 9:26), they’re threatening God’s spokesman to Jerusalem (23:29-31).

So, here’s the problem. If history is the struggle between life and death, who wins? Did Cain win by murdering Abel? Do the killers survive through the generations, while the righteous die? That’s the question raised at the start of the Bible, even before Israel even existed as a nation (on Genesis 4).

Israel was supposed to be God’s answer, but they ruled by death too. Their whole story was a catalogue of death, all the way to 2 Chronicles 24:20 (the final example in the Hebrew Bible). A priest named Zechariah questioned whether King Joash was serving the heavenly sovereign, so Joash slaughtered him in the very courtyard of God’s house. It’s hardly surprising that the Old Testament ends with God terminating the kingship that misrepresented him so badly. They’d been under foreign rule ever since.

When God sent his anointed, would this generation be just like the previous ones? Would the tenants in God’s vineyard say, This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance (21:38)? Would this generation end the whole sordid history by completing what your ancestors started (23:32)?

So, here’s the tragedy. If they complete the reign of death by murdering God’s anointed, the weight of history falls on them (23:36). He feels as powerless as the hen who sees the eagle hovering and calls her chicks to take refuge under her wings, but they’re not willing (thelō). Jesus has observed in nature the difference between predatory power and loving leadership (23:37).

If Jerusalem refused her life-giving king, death would take over. It would be the desolation of the city of God’s house on earth (23:38). That’s exactly what Jesus enacted when he arrived as king. He even echoed the words Jeremiah used to describe the city’s destruction by Babylon: God’s house had become a den of bandits (21:12-13, quoting Jeremiah 7:11). Now Jesus laments over Jerusalem (23:37) for the same reason the city fell previously: because the city’s leaders shed within her the blood of the righteous (Lamentations 4:13). He continues to explain to his disciples the destruction they must expect (24:1-2).

If it ended there, the death of God’s anointed would be the ultimate disaster for human history. The answer to the whole story from Abel to Zechariah would be: death reigns.

But it doesn’t end there. As final as death appears to be, Jesus holds out hope of a new Jerusalem, a world coming under his kingship. The city that kills her king cannot see him until they say, ‘Blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord’ (23:39). Is that even possible once they kill him?

Those were the words of the crowds recognizing the arrival of their king: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (21:9, echoing Psalm 118:26). But the crowds were overruled by the play-actors whose power was rooted in death. Jesus believes that, regardless of what they do, God has decreed his kingship, so God will raise him up. Death loses because earth’s eternal sovereign is the life-giver (compare 22:29-32).

History receives its answer when the dying world receives life from the one who comes in the name of the Lord. That is indeed where the Gospel according to Matthew takes us (28:18-20).

Did you recognize the gospel in Matthew 23? That’s how Jesus described the life-and-death struggle he was about to endure, arguably the most detailed explanation of the meaning of the cross he ever gave.

Is this how you explain the gospel to the world?

Matthew 23:25-39 (my translation, compare NIV)
25 Woe to you, scholars and Pharisees, play-actors, because you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they hold plunder and anarchy. 26 Blind Pharisee! First cleanse the inner face of the cup, so its outer face becomes clean too.

27 Woe to you, scholars and Pharisees, play-actors, because you’re like whitened tombs: shiny and stately outside, holding dead bones and unclean rot inside. 28 That’s you: superficially presenting people with what’s right, but inside you’re all pretence and lawlessness.

29 Woe to you, scholars and Pharisees, play-actors, because you construct tombs for the prophets and maintain the tombs of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we’d lived in our ancestors’ time, we would not have been participants in the blood of the prophets.’ 31 You’re giving evidence against yourselves: you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Complete what your ancestors started! 33 Serpents, born to snakes! How can you escape Gehenna’s judgement? 34 See, as a result, I myself am sending you prophets and sages and scholars. Some of them you will kill and crucify. Some of them you will flog in your synagogues, and you will hound them from city to city.

35 It has all come on you: the blood of the righteous being poured on the ground — from the blood of righteous Abel, to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth: all these things will come upon this generation.

37 Jerusalem! Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you! How often I wanted to gather your children the way a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you didn’t want to. 38 Look! Your home is left deserted. 39 For I tell you, you cannot see me now until you say, ‘Blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord.’

What others are saying

David M. Moffitt, “Righteous Bloodshed, Matthew’s Passion Narrative, and the Temple’s Destruction: Lamentations as a Matthean Intertext,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125:2 (2006): 306:

There are, then, three themes in this context that align remarkably well with Lam 4:13: the condemnation of the religious leadership of Jerusalem, the accusation that the religious authorities have shed righteous blood, and the connection between the shedding of that blood and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. This means that Matt 23:35 and Lam 4:13 share not only lexical and formal agreement but also thematic agreement.
Yet, beyond the thematic and lexical similarities, a third factor points to an allusion to Lam 4:13 in Matt 23:35. Specifically, Jewish interpretive traditions of Lamentations also link the story of the murder of Zechariah with the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem.

See also: David L. Turner, “Israel’s Last Prophet: Matthew 23:29–36 and the Intertextual Basis of Matthew’s Rejected Prophet Christology” in New Studies in Textual Interplay LNTS, (T&T Clark, 2020).

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

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