by miriam berg
Chapter XXIV

Yeshua and his disciples spent that night back in Bethany, and returned into Jerusalem the next morning. It was on this day Yeshua finally got down to specifics about the harms he blames the Pharisees for causing; and he included the Sadducees and the chief priests in his bill of particulars. He began fairly gently:
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk in long robes, and to be saluted to in the marketplaces, and to sit in chief seats in the synagogues, and in the chief places at feasts; but they are those who devour widows' houses, consuming all their inheritance, and for pretence they utter long and loud prayers; this is pure unrighteousness.
He has commented on the chasing after chief seats three times now; it must have been an obtrusive habit of his opponents. The rest of this discourse comes mostly from Matthew, who probably collected everything he could find that Yeshua had said condemning the Pharisees and scribes. But it itemizes what it was that he objected to in their practices, and presumably what he wanted them to quit doing, and try to attain the reign of God instead.
Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees! for you pretend to have the key of knowledge, and claim to be the ones to open and shut the door of the kingdom of God; but you have not entered in yourselves, and those that are seeking to enter, you hinder them.
Remember previously when he inveighed against those who try to prevent someone from entering the reign of God? Now he says that it is the Pharisees themselves who are causing this hindrance. By what means? By claiming to have the knowledge of the kingdom, and by passing judgment over who is in the reign of God and who is not. Worse, they are acting like sentinels and guards, without being in the reign themselves. He does not tell them why they are not in the reign, but based on his earlier teachings, we can assume it was their failure to practice universal love and love of enemies.
Woe unto you, you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! for you scour land and sea to make one convert, and when you find one, you make them even more of a prude and a snob about religion than yourselves!
There does not seem to be so much that is unrighteous about this kind of behavior, however obnoxious it may be. He goes on:
Woe unto you, you blind guides, who say, If a man swears by the temple, it does not count; but if he swears by the gold which is in the temple, he is bound by that oath. You fools who are blind, which is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifies the gold?
      Or again: If a man swears by the altar in the temple, it does not count; but if he swears by the gift that lies upon the altar, he is bound. That is stupid; for which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift special?
      So you should say that if a person swears by the altar, he swears by all the things that are upon it as well; and if he swears by the temple, he also swears by all the things that are in it. And if you swear by the heaven, you are swearing even by the throne of God.
On the plain of Gennesaret he spoke unequivocally against oaths: Swear not at all. But here he is simply pointing out a moral inconsistency and superficiality of their teachings about oaths, which allowed subtle knaves to get out of their oaths, and the simple, or the poor and unlearned, to be held to their unwitting pledges even if it bankrupted them. And of course the money lost by the poor went into the purses of those that were rich. But he continues again:
      Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and all manner of sweet-smelling herbs, for the pleasing effect they create; but you have left undone the weightier things of the law: justice and mercy and faith in God.
      But these you ought to have done, without having to leave the other undone. You blind guides, who strain at gnats, and swallow the camel, which even a donkey knows not to do.
So one of the things he holds against the Pharisees' actions is their ostentation and show of piety, when they are not paying attention to justice (those who are not with the haberim are kept humiliated and subservient) and mercy (the tiny rules of the Torah are made more burdensome for those who can least carry them out) and love of God with all your strength, heart, and soul. He does not say that they should not go through the formal motions of gifts and incense, merely that there are more important things to think about. They are paying too much attention to infinitesimal things and too little to infinite things. Then he says more yet:
      Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you wash the outside of your cups and pots, but within they are grimy with all your extortion and excess. You blind ones, first you should wash the inside of your utensils, and then it matters, and the outside may be washed as well.
      Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like sepulchres, painted white on the outside, but inwardly are full of dead men's bones, and decay and putrefaction. You are like that; you put forth great shows of righteousness before men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and harmfulness.
Again he hammers at their love of outward show of virtue, at the expense of deterioration of their caring and forgiveness, their inward love. He tells them they should first polish up their inner character which creates their outward actions; it does not matter how glossy the surface is if their deeds are not in accordance with the ways of righteousness, which he did not need to tell them about, they could read about them in the Torah. He is not finished yet:
      Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build monuments to the prophets, and decorate with wreaths the tombs of the righteous, and boast, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have joined in their acts of despising and rejecting them.
      But you are still the sons of them that killed the prophets; and you are no better than your fathers, unless you can strive to prevent the coming days of disaster from making this place like Gehinnom!
Matthew quotes Yeshua as calling them "serpents" and "brood of vipers"; but these expressions almost certainly came later when the enmity between the Jews and the followers of Yeshua had become bitter and genocidal. Finally he says:
      And it is written that God has said, I will send unto them prophets, and wise men, and scribes; and some of them they will kill and persecute; and the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the beginning of the world, shall be upon all succeeding generations; from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zachariah, whom your fathers killed between the holy of holies and the altar; I say that it shall soon happen to this generation.
Matthew mistakenly calls the father of Zachariah by the name of Berechiah; the story happened in the days of Joash the grandson of Jezebel who killed Zachariah the son of Jehoiada the high priest who had saved him from destruction by Athaliah, Jezebel's daughter. But here his emphasis is upon the fact that the prophets were mistreated, even though they were acknowledged to be emissaries of God. And the punishment would fall upon this generation the more because they had failed to follow the "weightier matters of the law" as given in the prophets; not, we might notice, out of God's vengeance, but because of their own failure to practice their own historical teachings.

This completes the catalogue of criticism levelled by Yeshua against the scribes and Pharisees. Now, it is clear that he has spent his year or so of traveling and teaching breaking the laws of the haberim, despising or ignoring their punctilious observances. What is not so clear, after all, is what was immoral or evil about those observances. He has put xhem down, saying that you did not need to do them at all; but that does not make them evil, it only makes them unnecessary.

We need to remember that the Pharisees were in many ways a saving force in the history of the Jews. By their insistence on the observance of the historical traditions they prevented the assimilation of the Jews into the Hellenistic and Roman culture, whereas the deported citizens of Israel had been assimilated into Assyrian society and disappeared. But for the Judeans who were defeated and deported by the Babylonians the story was different; they have survived as a people, but the Babylonians have disappeared completely. And the best among the Pharisees taught and practiced ethical and moral teachings many of which resemble those which Yeshua promulgated: Rabbi Hillel, as we have told, and Shammai too, and others. We should expect this, of course, since they were both reading the same Hebrew scriptures.

But the practice of their own teachings had always been held back by the "chosen people" notion, which was a narrow nationalism and sense of superiority to the peoples around them. Ezra, the scribe who returned from Babylon in about the fourth century B.C.E., insisted on everyone who was married to a non-Jew getting divorced from them and expelling them from the Jewish society. The book of Ruth, which taught that David's own grandmother had been a foreigner, a Moabitess, and a wicked foreigner according to the Jewish notions at that, and the book of Jonah, which taught that God could forgive even the most wicked of men, symbolized by the Assyrians who destroyed Israel, were written about this time or later, to protest such narrow exclusiveness. And by the time of Yeshua this narrowness had degenerated into primarily a practice of being rigidly different for the sake of being different; and it appears where Yeshua most rejected the teachings of his fellow-Jews was in his attitude towards non-Jews. He preaches to and heals all alike: a Roman, a Phoenician, a Samaritan; and he pictures a non-Jew, the Samaritan, as the world's most unforgettable example of compassion and caring. We can even conclude that it was not his breaking of the rules of the scribes and Pharisees that set them so much against him as it was his acceptance of and caring for non-Jews.

While they were still inside the temple courtyard, he went over to the contribution jars which were embedded in the wall to see how much money visitors were putting in. As he stood there, he watched many well-to-do persons tossing in many coins and valuable gifts. Then there came a poor widow, who put in a tiny coin, called by Mark "two mites, which make a farthing." It must have been almost the smallest possible coin in Hebrewdom. But Yeshua called his disciples over, and said:
Look at this, I tell you: this poor woman has contributed more than anyone else who has given; for they gave but a little out of their great wealth; but she cast in every penny she had.
Again he criticizes the hoarding of wealth, and says it is better give much of what little you have than to have much and give little.

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