Scripture: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.” Matthew 23:16-22 ESV
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Observation: Recapping Yesterday’s Daily Focus, Jesus turns the tide on the scheming religious leaders with his first two of seven woes that expose the scribes and Pharisees’ duplicity. He blasts them as hypocrites and spells out in no uncertain terms that they will not enter nor allow others to enter the kingdom of heaven. Yet they will go to great lengths of travel and expense to make a single convert to the Hebrew faith (proselyte). Still, all they genuinely do is make a disciple for themselves, and both are hellbound.
Today’s reading continues with the third woe. Again the day and setting are Tuesday of Passion Week in the temple court. This time Jesus addresses the scribes and Pharisees as blind guides (just as he warned his disciples earlier in his ministry, see 15:14) who parse the meaning and application of words as they apply to levitical law. In particular, Jesus cites an innovation of the law regarding the swearing of oaths, for the religious leaders amended the law with an escape clause. If one swore by the altar, it means nothing, but if by the gift on the altar, it counts.
Jesus then forthrightly addresses their selfishly-motivated interpretation of the law (aided by their spiritual blindness) with superior authority: the altar makes the gift sacred; thus, it is binding to swear by the altar. And the same applies to swearing by the temple, for the Lord dwells in his temple. And if any would dare to swear by heaven, remember who sits on his throne in heaven: God, the King of the universe.
Takeaway: Over time, the Pharisees developed a complicated progression of rulings compiled in the Mishnaic tractates for vows (Nedarim) and oaths (Šebuʿot). Regarding oaths, they ruled that swearing by location (altar or temple) had no merit. But the gift, being a sacred offering to God, counted. So does this mean oaths are okay? Earlier, while preaching his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-36), Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd not to take any oaths but instead say “yes” or “no,” for heaping on words to prove our sincerity is sinful.
However, with this third woe, Jesus does not condone oaths but exposes the scribes and Pharisees’ hearts. With a touch of irony, the Son of God stands in the temple of God and disproves these blind guides’ ruling that invalidated oaths sworn by the altar or temple. Instead, deconstructing their logic, he speaks out against equivocating promises before God. It is a matter to take seriously, for such pretentious and insincere acts of righteousness resulted in Israel’s earlier exile.
But what’s our takeaway? Satan is at his best when he appeals to our egos and intellects. He tempts us to deceive ourselves by reasoning without faith, which leads to innovative interpretations of Scripture. So how do we combat our pull toward self-deception? Put into practice what we already understand from Scripture. And an excellent place to start is with the Great Commandment that Jesus earlier cited to the lawyer of the Pharisees: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (22:37-39). And remember, the Holy Spirit will not reveal any more than what we are already obeying.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, who never deceived himself or others because he always listened to and obeyed your will. But we are prone to self-deceive to justify our selfish desires. So, in your mercy, please help us combat self-deception by reading, marking, and digesting your and your Son’s commands and promises in our hearts so that we might practice what we already know. Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling