Ash Wednesday: Jesus on Blessings and Cursing

Will you be making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday? Will you be fasting during the 40 days of Lent? Will you give up any little luxuries until Easter?  Will you mark Ash Wednesday with ash on your forehead as a visible sign of your repentance for sin?  Will you tell anyone?  In our series The Passion of Jesus, based on the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught us how to inoculate ourselves from spiritual abuse:

Be Holy: Cultivate a Simple Faith.
Be Hidden: Content with a Secret Faith.
Be Humble: Concentrate on a Serving Faith.

In today’s passage – Matthew 23:13-39, Jesus turns from the disciples and confronts those responsible for the abuse, directly and personally. He pronounces eight woes upon them.  It is poignant to remember this was Jesus last public sermon. It stands in stark contrast to his first public sermon in Nazareth and its elaboration in what became known as the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5, Jesus describes true righteousness. In Matthew 23, He defines false righteousness.  Let us compare the two.

Lets distinguish the path to blessing from the path to cursing. The first contrast?

Jesus on Blessings and Curses from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

Entering the Kingdom Shutting the door of the Kingdom
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”(Matthew 23:13)

Only the poor in spirit will enter the kingdom. The poor in spirit are those aware of their spiritual poverty, aware of their need of God’s forgiveness and grace. But the proud in spirit will not stoop to enter, but worse, they stood in the way of others entering. The Greek verb indicates people trying to get in who cannot. By teaching man-made traditions instead of God’s truth, they closed the door for those who looked to them for guidance and leadership.

Mourners Comforted Mourners Exploited
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.”
(Matthew 5:4)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses…  therefore you will receive greater condemnation (Matthew 13:40)

While this verse is not found in some manuscripts of Matthew, it is recorded in Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47. Instead of mourning over their own sins; Instead of comforting needy widows, the Pharisees took advantage of the weak, they exploited the vulnerable. Jesus soberly suggests their punishment will be severe. Third contrast?

Meek Inherit the Earth Proud Lead Way to Hell
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)

The Pharisees were out to win others to their club. But they were hypocrites because they taught one thing and did another. Professing to be the successors to Moses, they turned people away from the living God. Think about it, how often are people turned off the church by the actions of some of her clergy?

Instead of saving souls, the Pharisees were condemning souls!  Calling someone a “child of hell” is strong language. It is the equivalent of “child of the devil,” which Jesus described the Pharisees on several other occasions (Matt. 12:34; 23:33; John 8:44).

This is simply someone who has rejected God’s way of salvation. When we receive Jesus as our Lord and Saviour we become children of God (John 1:12).

As you know, converts can sometimes show more zeal than their leaders, but here, says Jesus, “double devotion” only produces double condemnation. The fourth contrast?

Hungry for Holiness Greedy for Gain
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?… And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.”  (Matthew 23:16-22)

Jesus had used the expression, “Blind guides” before (Matt. 15:14). The Pharisees were blind to the true values of life. Their priorities were confused. They would take an oath and use some sacred object to substantiate that oath, as if their words could not be trusted alone. They swore by the gold in the temple, for example, or the gift on the altar. But they would not swear by the temple itself or the altar. Yet it was the temple that sanctified the gold and the altar that sanctified the gift. Their oaths sounded impressive but they were hollow words. They were not hungry for holiness but were greedy for gain. Fifth contrast?

Obtaining Mercy Rejecting Mercy
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24)

The Pharisees majored on minors. They had rules for every tiny aspect of life, but ignored the things that really mattered. Legalists are invariably pedantic with  details. For example, the Pharisees thought nothing of holding Jesus trial at night which was against the law, but were unwilling to enter Pilate’s residence because he was a Gentile (John 18:28). Jesus insists, justice, mercy, and faithfulness are more important than obeying petty rules. While it is good to pay attention to details, we must never lose sight of our priorities. Jesus did not condemn the practice of tithing. But He condemned those who allowed their legalistic scruples to deny justice and mercy to others. The sixth contrast?

Pure in Heart Defiled in Heart
“Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:25-28)

Jesus uses two illustrations: food utensils and the tomb. They both teach the same truth: it is possible to be clean on the outside and at the same time contaminated on the inside. Have you ever been served a dirty cup or plate in a restaurant? What did you do? The Pharisees were careful to keep their image sparkling, because they wanted people to respect them. But God sees the heart. In the Book of Numbers God warns us to be careful not to touch a dead body, because we might become infected, especially in a hot climate (Numbers 19:11ff).

So they put whitewash on tombs to warn people. Jesus uses this vivid image to describe the Pharisees: white on the outside, but contaminated on the inside! D.L. Moody used to say, “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself.”  The Pharisees cared more about their reputation and not their character. And the final contrasts:

Peacemakers and Persecuted are God’s Children Persecutors are the Devil’s Children
“Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12) “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. …  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”
(Matthew 23:29-33)

When Jesus called the Pharisees “a brood of vipers,” He was identifying them with Satan who is the serpent (Gen. 3:1ff). In the Parable of the Tares, Jesus makes it clear that Satan has a family (Matt. 13:38). In John 8:44, Jesus says, Satan is a murderer and a liar, and his children sadly follow his example.

As we compare these tragic woes with the blessings Jesus longs to give, we can begin to see why the Pharisees hated him. Jesus emphasized the inner man; they were concerned with their image. Jesus taught a spiritual life based on God’s word. The Pharisees taught an enslaved life based on their rules and regulations. Jesus measured spirituality in the quality of character, the Pharisees measured it in the quantity of religious observances.  Jesus taught humility and sacrificial service of others. The Pharisees were proud and expected people to serve them. Instead of coming into the light, the Pharisees tried to put out the Light.  Blessings and curses. Jesus concludes his final public sermon with a lament:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
(Matthew 23:37-39)

These last public words of Jesus express his passion for Jerusalem. His grief over the many invitations they had ignored. Their leaders had rejected God’s messengers over and over again, and even killed some of them. But in contrast, Jesus came to gather and save them. Verse 38, “I have longed…  you were not…” summarizes the tragedy of final rejection. There is no tension here between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, for both are included.

The image of the mother bird gathering and protecting her chicks under her wings is a familiar one. Moses used it in his farewell sermon too (Deut. 32:11). It describes the love of Jesus, His tender care, his willingness to die to protect his own.  “Your house” probably means the Temple and the city, both destroyed by the Romans in 70A.D. The temple was “My house” in Matthew 21:13, but now it has become “Your house”, abandoned and left empty. Yet, Jesus also left them with a promise: He will one day return. Those alive will see Him and say, “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!” This is a quotation from Psalm 118:26.

It is a messianic psalm quoted many times in Passion Week. The crowds had used these words on Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:9). When will this promise be fulfilled?  When Jesus returns – then every knee shall bow. It will be a day of blessing and cursing. The fact that Israel rejected their King did not hinder God’s plan of redemption for the world. Through His Apostles and their disciples, he is building His Church, now made up of all nations.  Jesus is establishing His glorious kingdom on earth, one person at a time.

Blessings and curses.  It is our privilege and calling to heed these woes and hunger for his blessing. And that is why we invite you to join us on Ash Wednesday 7:30pm refreshments, for 8:00pm, to pray for our world, our nation and church, to hear our Mission Focus on Wycliffe Bible Translators and to share in the bread and wine as we remember the Lord’s death until he comes.  Maranatha! Amen.

Lets pray.

With grateful thanks for inspiration to Warren Wiersbe. This sermon is adapted from, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Matthew 23:13–37). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

First preached March 2014.