Jesus pronounces seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees. Remember, the scribes are lawyers, in this case probably also Pharisees. Legal beagles. Experts in loopholes. You know the type. And Pharisees are a religious group that tends to build hedges about the law to keep people from breaking it or even coming close. They were famous for extending the rules of temple purity into everyday life.
Pronouncing woe is a “powerful but imprecise statement about the unhappy situation in which some category of persons finds itself (whether they know it or not.” (Nolland) Most of the woes mention hypocrisy, which can be intentional or unintentional. Hypocrisy is easy to see in others. Sometimes we need help in seeing it in ourselves.
The Pharisees and their scribes have largely rejected Jesus. And apparently they have also taught others to reject him, too. We don’t have much information about that, but you can imagine that some kind of censure would be threatened against the followers of Jesus. We know that it certainly happened as time progressed.
I think Jesus probably has in mind the Pharisees working hard to build their group, convincing other Jews to become Pharisees. The Pharisees had some good characteristics, but as we shall see, they also had some condemnable ones. As they grew in power, they seem to become more and more extreme. In the end, they are the only group of Jews whose teaching survived the destruction of Jerusalem just thirty-five years or so from the time Jesus was pronouncing woe on them.
Here is one for the legal beagles. They liked to govern things like oaths with fine detail. Jesus says it truly all comes back to God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus showed a preference for no oaths. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people just meant what they said?
The leaders have become misleaders.
Here’s one for the legalists. That’s the problem with legalism; it can become such a focus on the little things that we lose track of the big things. Jesus says to keep the focus on both.
Straining the mosquitoes out of the wine is a good thing. Who wants to drink a mosquito, especially if it also makes you unclean for a day? But not noticing the camel floating in your soup is a big problem. If you eat it you will be unclean anyway, and you have a problem with your focus.
Now the woes finish up by noticing how the scribes and Pharisees are worried more about how they are perceived that how they actually perform. Jesus has continually talking about what we do and what we say. In fact, that is the essence of hypocrisy.
The Pharisees have rules about cleaning cups. All well and good. But inside some of them are unclean despite the emphasis on purity.
Like whitewashed tombs, the Pharisees and their scribes present a nice picture, but death reigns inside. Hypocrisy and lawlessness. The charge of lawlessness would sting a scribe or a Pharisee!
Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of being like their ancestors, who rejected the prophets. Now they are rejecting Jesus. They make a nice appearance by honoring the dead prophets, but they reject a living prophet.
Harsh words from Jesus. Not Jesus meek and mild. The Pharisees are bound for Gehenna unless they change their ways and accept Jesus. Some of them have and some of them will, but most will not.