Just East of Eden: Mount of Olives Part I, Matthew 23
In this series I’m going to reflect on, exegete and analyze Matthew 23–25 in detail. This is the first of the series proper, focused on Matthew 23. Climbing this mountain is a project I’ve been working towards for about 40 years, which seems like the appropriate amount of time. You can find my more immediate preparations in this outline of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, and in this journal. Some things I say may seem strange or unsupported if you haven’t read those first, because I’m drawing on scholarship that hasn’t been popularized as much as it deserves to be. If you read those, things will make more sense and seem more supported.
(Unless otherwise noted, Biblical citations are from the NRSV).
1–4: Applying the Covenant on the Mount, for the Crowds
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples: “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So practice and observe everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them
So here we stand in Jerusalem about 40 years before she falls, near the base of the Mount of Olives. Chapters 21 and 22 have concerned the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey, as prophesied by Zechariah. Zechariah remains central throughout this entire discussion and is cited repeatedly in the surrounding material. This makes sense: Zechariah’s understanding of the Messiah deeply structures Matthew. There will be more on that, before and in the end.
Immediately prior to this chapter, Jesus has discursively (and non-violently) silenced the Pharisees. This moment comes as close to the aidios as anything in Matthew’s Gospel, gesturing subtly toward that which is necessarily implicit by implication. Appropriate enough. Surrounded by the furious emptiness of the Pharisee’s response to his personal claim to divinity, Jesus moves into his prophetic declaration to the nation of Judah. That is what we find here in Matthew 23. Jesus closely follows the well-worn path of prophets before him, while also offering his own startling innovations. The well-worn part of the path, though, is precisely the unstinting inner (immanent) critique of his own society, especially his dire warnings about the consequences of their faithlessness.
What is often abusively read as antisemitic here is, precisely, what is most traditionally in line with the pattern of Moses and the prophets. We should admire and learn from this pattern of plank removal: like them, we should direct our most stringent critiques to our own groups’ evils.
What is novel is the way Jesus carries his prophetic demonstration to the utmost level of solidarity. In word and deed, his warning is entirely mournful, entirely devoid of gleeful revenge. And by way of warning about his nation’s death he, too, will die. That is to say: his death will be a warning, and his death will come by way of his decision to warn.
In all of this, he carries the Mosaic covenant to a shockingly climactic moment. The theme of national death and exile is, simply put, exactly what the Mosaic covenant is concerned with, as the end of Deuteronomy (which is also the end of the teaching, the Torah) makes utterly clear. Jesus does go beyond Moses, but he doesn’t go beyond the scope of what Judah awaited, and even his movement “beyond” Moses is entirely in accordance with the ultimate Mosaic gesture, the gesture into exile. Instead, in Matthew he is articulating, enacting, announcing, and demonstratively fulfilling (in his own aion and his own nation’s aion) the new covenant anticipated in Jeremiah 31:31–34:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
That new covenant is Matthew 5–7, the Covenant on the Mount. And here at the end of Matthew, Jesus begins the work of building the Heart Temple that will go with this Heart Covenant. It is especially fitting then that in the next verse, Matthew’s Jesus will insist that the covenant will not be taught to brothers as if by fathers, but will always be taught directly by the son/brother Jesus. He is the Messianic teacher of the heart who teaches it by loving his enemies even to the utmost, literally to (his own) death.
The Son of David’s response to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and by extension the Edomite King, will now make public what was momentarily more hidden in Matthew 5. We should notice how the start of Matthew 23 directly parallels Matthew 5. Although similar in many ways, Matthew 23 is distinctly addressing the religious and administrative elite as construed when Matthew was written. In subtle contrast, Matthew 5 was primarily addressed to the disciples.
Notice the contrast with Matthew 5:1:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying …
There in Matthew 5 Jesus is also gathering crowds near a mountain, but he articulates his new covenant to his disciples first even as they are presumably allowed to attend to the teaching. Early in Matthew 5 he also makes it clear that this focus on the disciples, rather than the crowds, is only momentary: they are to begin shining their light soon. So that earlier focus on the disciples alone seems to be a practical matter, and the logic reflects a deep understanding of how to build an authentically faithful movement. In the narrative of Matthew, his disciples immediately move into the process of making the covenant public through demonstration and face-to-face interaction.
Now finally here in 23, Jesus is making the implications of the new covenant truly public in the form of large-scale communications. His long series of interactions along the road to Passover included many successful discourses: these engagements were examples of the seed of the Word finding purchase in fertile and receptive hearts. Many people received the strange, new, non-violent Kingdom gladly, if not quite comprehending what it really meant. But others rejected the Kingdom heralds all along the way as they proclaimed and demonstrated it. That pattern of rejection has also come to a head here. We see another long and concentrated string of such interactions in 21 and 22, examples of the seed falling on the rocky soil of power and privilege. The situation reveals the murderous and non-reconciling posture of the Messiah’s interlocutors. He came to have discourse, but they came for power games, and now their mouths have finished speaking the emptiness that filled their hearts.
Consider Matthew 5, and its mountain, next to the Temple mount where Jesus stands here in Matthew 23. Soon he will descend the Temple mount and ascend the Mount of Olives to the East, then to Golgotha, and to the cross, and from there to the throne of God. These ascents, by Jesus, are also assents: he has chosen to speak truth and pay the prophet’s price, suffering retaliation without retaliating. These assents and ascents are very different than the social elevation that is often imagined by those who fantasize about seizing the heights of social and cultural power today. Jesus is fundamentally different than Christian influencers who dream of sitting on top of the 7 Mountains of Culture, ruling their Christian nation from on high. Jesus scales Golgotha instead of scaling the Hollywood Hills.
To be clear, Jesus has, in his own strange way, taken up the fourth estate within himself in taking on the prophetic mantle. But he has done it as the true prophets of Israel always have and as he assures his disciples they will too, because a student is not above their teacher. His compensation will be punishment, even death. This is the price of speaking hard truths to the powerful instead of the soft flattery that they reward most generously with influence and success. (For a limited time only!)
Let’s consider more deeply the way in which Matthew 23 starts by calling back to the start of Matthew 5. There was Jesus, declaring covenantal legislation from God in Matthew 5:1–16. But at first, his talk of revolution sounded like a whisper. He insisted that it first manifest to the nation through demonstrative practice rather than a harangue; the mass broadcast doesn’t build the movement, but instead it will nearly shatter it. What he taught in Matthew 5–7 was then attempted (imperfectly) by his disciples, but they stuck with him and saw marvelous things. By demonstrating the teachings in this way, Jesus laid the plans and groundwork for the new Temple in their hearts. He set them on the rock of his teaching, faithfully observed. Soon he will build on the prepared ground by becoming the rejected cornerstone of flesh, not stone. In all of this there really is a rebuke against the Edomite project, King Herod’s attempts to literally construct legitimacy. Herod built his fragile and futile faith by taking bread from the mouths of peasants to aggrandize the nation’s heart of stone, there on the Temple Mount. Soon, by his faithfulness on Golgotha, Jesus will move the Temple Mount into the heart. Yes, faith can move mountains. But this certainly doesn’t mean that thinking and praying really hard will manifest whatever you want. It means that the cross can carry God’s Spirit to Her home on Golgotha, where She abides with the marginalized. Elie Wiesel famously makes much the same obscene point about the effects of our evil here:
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. ..
For more than half an hour [the child in the noose] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is — He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”
So let’s spend a little more time back in Matthew 5, attuning ourselves to what is demonstrated and proclaimed in Matthew 8–22 before its implications are shouted from the roof of the culture in Matthew 23:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
A central problem that arises in the history of interpretation needs to be addressed directly. Often, the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees is distorted beyond recognition by Christian identity politics. This Jewish prophetic confrontation, this act of plank removal, becomes read anachronistically as a conflict between Christians and Jews. Jesus is mistakenly cast as the Christian in this story, and the scribes and Pharisees (and other authorities ) are mis-cast as the Jews. This is the most vile sort of nonsense, and it is truly dangerous to souls. Really. Arguably, more people have been killed as a result of that sort of thing than have been killed by any other idea in history. Not only the Shoah, but all of our Christian faithlessness grows out of the catastrophic move involved there: it is the move from removing planks from our own peoples’ eyes, as Jesus is modeling for us here, to picking the splints from others’ eyes. This is precisely the move from the Reign of Jesus to the domination of Empire.
How is this catastrophe so often hidden from us in plain sight? Because normal human moral psychology seeks the pattern of enemies to hate and in-groups to defensively circle wagons with, unless there is direct and effective training against it. The move that turns the Lion of Judah’s immanent and intimate engagement into antisemitic slander is therefore a prototype for the many movements away from training disciples in covenant faithfulness (that is, faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount). Having abandoned Jesus, all that is left are desperate efforts to shore up an incoherent Christian identity, desperately hoping that Empire will desire us as its lapdog. The Deutsche Christen provide a perfect illustration of where this goes: it becomes a project of selling your soul and losing the world too. Others can sell their souls and gain the world, but Christians (when it comes down to it) only have the Jesus who denies us things like that; this is why we can’t have vicious things for very long. I believe that we are all called to be the Observing Church or the Confessing Church in each generation, as various counterfeits try to usurp and corrupt God’s truth.
A lot of options are used to substitute Christian identity politics for the challenge of discipleship. But since the time of Constantine, the dominant strategy has been this: lip service to some propositional claim or another is called faith, and is substituted for faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount. More recently in the US, lip service to theological propositions has widely been replaced by something even less principled: we have managed to redefine the power of positive thinking that saturates American culture as “Christian faith.” I believe that it is precisely to avoid these patterns of popular replacement that Jesus first instructs his disciples in the Covenant on the Mount. Then he has them try (and often fail) to demonstrate their faithfulness to it throughout Judah and Israel and even into Canaan. Only then does he turn to public warning here in Matthew 23, after that deep foundation has been laid. Where we start with public proclamation, we tend to draw on normal group identity and moral psychology processes. These strongly tend to devolve into the normal politics of enemy hatred and boundary marking. That is to say, they tend to devolve from the Reign of the Messiah into Empire. And that, again and again, yields its deadly fruit in the hearts of people and peoples.
The reality is that Matthew’s Jesus isn’t a Christian. The word wouldn’t even be invented until much later. He is, rather, the Christ. At least as depicted by Matthew, he is the Son of Judah from the House of Bread and also the Son of Jacob, Limping Israel, where the lost sheep gather around the Sea of Galilee. That is to say, he is presented as a Davidic figure of unity among the Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom of his people, and therefore the seed of blessing to all nations. This move of uniting the Upper and Lower Kingdoms is itself a fascinatingly subversive fulfillment of similar Egyptian patterns (which Torah’s Moses presumably knew so well).
However Jesus, the Messiah, is also the child begotten by the Holy Spirit who filled Mary, as the Shekhinah filled the Temple. This aspect of the story heaves up and carries forward that ancient Hebrew rhetorical conquest of Babylon. As discussed in our outline, it is the redemptive transformation of the account of the Watchers: behold the unfallen child of the Father who answers the demi-gods of Babylon without becoming them. In other words, Matthew’s Jesus is a distinctively Jewish figure of human unity, as particular as he is universal, as soulful as can be.
As the Genesis of Jesus intimates from the start, he is also the Seed of Abraham through whom all nations will be blessed (with that strange cruciform blessing that is prophetic ministry). As such, the conflict depicted by Matthew is not at all a conflict between Christians and Jews, but between this particular sort of Messianic figure and the socio-political-spiritual governance of the Kingdom of Judah around the year 30, which reflected a process of internal colonization. The aion or lifetime of the Messiah then becomes for us the pattern for resisting all of the internal colonization that has plagued the church and “Christian” nations ever since: his lifetime, a synecdoche of his nation’s lifetime, becomes the pattern for resisting all of the nations’ internal colonizations, primarily our own.
So in all of this we need to recall that contemporary Judaism, like contemporary Christianity, represents developments that came out of the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Both are miraculous survivors of the attempted genocide that Rome enacted from 70 AD to 136 AD, and of other attempts since then. Both branches of this tree, on our strange and distinct sojourns in history, are testimonies to the power of spirit over steel and stone. In this it is also a victory of uncontainable flesh, hearts of flesh, over the stone and steel that do not become them after all. (How to read that sentence? Well, they are unbecoming. But they also aren’t literally transformed to life; the transformation is a spiritual one, a breathy one, an intellectual and communicative one, as opposed to the manufacture of social golems through the power of idols.)
For all of this specificity, I should also pause to note that my engagement with antisemitism in this project isn’t about any kind of special favoritism for Jewish people over other peoples. (I’m partial to all peoples.) Rather, the core issue is that the protype for Christian faithlessness in general is manifest in antisemitism in particular; these abusive and hypocritical misreadings are our original sin. They are our foundational act of attempted splint removal. This, at least as much as anything, is what leads to the Christian replacement of faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount with the long or and catastrophic history of Christian identity politics.
At the root of that illicit replacement, we also find the faithless practice of designating men as our spiritual fathers, instead of seeing our spiritual siblings for who they really are. We will turn to this shortly. It is this kind of faithlessness that renders the aionic reign of the Messiah imperceptible and unconceivable, so that we cannot consciously enter into it. What is left are a few things: primarily, we are left with abusive attempts at coopting the Reign of Jesus, as if it could be taken by force. In this, we cast ourselves in the image of Pilate again and again: we become simultaneously irresponsible, blind, feckless, cruel, dominant, powerless and dispassionately pathetic.
Still, there are also those who don’t know any better than to simply follow the loving way of Jesus. In each generation, they waltz right past the crowds of self-appointed theological guardians who block the way into faith. They also have to evade the “wisdom” that we should avoid Christian faithfulness because we have seen how damaging its many parodies truly are. Somehow they aren’t taken down by the one-two punch of parody: some people accept the fake as real, and others think the real deal is an impossible sham because they mistook the parody for the parodied. In other words what is left in the wake of the faithlessness of our own scribes and Pharisees, in generation after generation, is confusion: the Future becomes mistaken for our present, and so an illusion of it becomes our present as things slide in all directions.
5–12: Establishing Anti-Authority
All their deeds are done for men to see. They broaden their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love the places of honor at banquets, the chief seats in the synagogues, the greetings in the marketplaces, and the title of ‘Rabbi’ by which they are addressed.
But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
As Matthew 5 launched the ministry of Jesus with minimal publicity, Jesus now critiques Judah’s religious and administrative leaders for having a hollow public-only ministry. What really matters is what goes unseen, although there does come a time for the hidden (aidios) depths to manifest clearly in public. In his blistering attack on the hard surface of the pride of the powerful, Jesus focuses on the absolute importance of doing good even if it doesn’t build up praise and resumes. This is diametrically opposed to looking good publicly “on paper” or in public statements, as we might find in a proud declaration of faith that carefully marks out everyone else as heretics.
So what is the nature of the contrast that Jesus draws here? Is he talking about the importance of “faith” as opposed to “works”? Only in a sense that is completely foreign to the antisemitic traditions that grew so virulently out of Christian, and especially Luther’s late life identity politics. The contrast here is not between faith, construed as “accepting some set of propositions about Jesus,” and works, understood as “doing good things”. Rather, Jesus opposes inegalitarian practices and pious facades that protect them, and warns that this will result in the destruction of the Temple and the nation gathered around it. He draws a contrast between lived faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount, and the bad faith of the religious elite of the Kingdom of Judah at the time. The heart of the Covenant on the Mount is also present in the Covenant of Moses and Torah more broadly, but the teaching is less explicit, more incipient, more seedlike. The Covenant on the Mount therefore holds the Covenant of Moses, as the full life cycle of a plant holds all of the forms the plant takes along the way. For example, like the Mosaic Covenant the Covenant on the Mount is also about land, but it is about all the land: it is about the meek inheriting the whole Earth, and not just a piece of it.
Is Jesus engaged in a polemic against rabbinic Judaism as it develops after 70 AD? Here, too, I think the case can easily be overdrawn. Historians disagree on the degree to which later Rabbinic Judaism is related to the Pharisees and rabbis named by Matthew’s Jesus here.  While these speculations are interesting, the social egalitarianism that will be the focus of our study is discernible in the text regardless of these broader historical questions.
Although Jesus introduces novelty into the tradition of Judah, it is a novelty anticipated at many points: by Abraham and David and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel, for example. For those who find it hard to appreciate the magic of prophecy, it is at least possible to appreciate its immanence. That is to say, we should all appreciate the fact that Matthew’s Jesus is not an external bolt from the blue, but instead the surprising breaking open of a seed. The radical equalization that Jesus presses into here, in banning titles of spiritual and social authority, has not yet broken out from the shell of Christendom. This is a theme that plenty of Pharisees would have appreciated in principle, especially because those of the school of Hillel also emphasized the importance of cleaning the inside of the cup, as well as its outside. The Messiah’s critiques, here, sting because they are so devastatingly intimate: they model proper critique for us today precisely because he is speaking as an excellent Pharisee, emphasizing the weightiest matters of the law.
So let’s do what he did, but in our context, to illustrate how this works.
Jesus explicitly and directly instructs his disciples to avoid three titles, all related to intellectual and social authority. Rabbi is analogized to Teacher (perhaps master) (didaskalos). It is also paralleled with instructor (perhaps leader) (kathégétés) in this sandwich of injunctions. Between them is a title that Jesus doesn’t even apply to himself: Father. If Jesus isn’t even called a spiritual Father, what human could dare to do the same? People who flaunt their disobedience to him would dare to do that. Even the titles of (spiritual) Instructor and Teacher are reserved for the Christ alone. Here the inclusion of the title of Christ, the anointed Messianic King, arguably draws out the political dimension of these terms (leader or master) more powerfully. This is especially salient because his Messianic leadership is exercised through Word instead of violence: he is decidedly the Teacher-King, because his only sword is the word of truth. Together, this threefold rejection of these three titles comprehensively articulates an anti-hierarchy, one that especially has governmental and intellectual implications.
We routinely use titles of authority to powerfully structure inegalitarian relations among ourselves. In all kinds of cultures, we develop patterns of calling certain people “Rabbi” or “Master” or “Teacher” or “Guru” or “Father.” These kinds of practices do in fact create a distinct kind of sociality, and they do, in fact, tempt us into a world of mere appearances. How often have we seen people use the epistemic capture that these titles foster to engage in physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse? How many times do we have to watch wolves flock to these positions, because they crave the social control that they bring? It keeps happening because it is a feature of this kind of system, not a bug. As rampant sex abuse scandals have painfully illustrated both inside and outside the church, such titles actively create a shield of immunity for the very perpetrators that they attract. Predators perceive the opportunity that the authoritarian structure offers them and target such structures. What do wolves like this have to offer, beyond their expertise at maneuvering themselves into positions of social domination?
The solution that Jesus offers is as simple as it is radical: cut it off at the root. Eliminate the incentive. Avoid the structure that attracts and enables that sort of thing. Don’t call anyone an authority, but be equal alongside each other as siblings and fellow students, subject to God, all accountable to each other and to God. If you don’t do this, Jesus suggests that you’ll be like Jerusalem on the eve of its destruction as well, because you refuse to gather under the protective wing of his teaching. Nothing that is hidden will remain hidden forever; make-up and war only work for a bit before they collapse under their own weight.
While this sort of thing may seem impractically utopian, especially in groups long accustomed to these kinds of titles, I’d suggest that it is anything but. In fact, the power of these commands is that they are so embarrassingly simple and fruitful, so decidedly un-utopian. Science and other reconciling fields of inquiry progress precisely insofar as they become communities of students, siblings before Creation. And theology, likewise, does best when we become siblings before Creator as revealed through Creation. Focusing so intently on something so small might seem disproportionate and perverse, but that is just the point. And we should note well that it is just from this kind of intransigent faithfulness to Jesus that the abolitionist movement grew, over the howls of countless clerics.
Now it is true that some people warrant more trust than others, both in general and on specific topics. Ideally (and in fact, routinely in reconciling fields, like the sciences) this is based on their demonstrated skill and knowledge, rather than titles themselves. Amateurs can play a substantial role in healthy scientific fields, and those who study for the sake of love (and not just pay) should be honored in all truth-oriented disciplines. Importantly, authority in reconciling communities does not rest on identity; there is no “because of who I am” at the base of a truth claim made in a reconciling community of siblings. Only God, the Creator, holds the unconsuming fire of “I am”. Instead, in reconciling communities relative and particular authority rests in the capacity for study, for being a fellow student; that’s why people who become acclimated to those fields quickly learn to describe what is within their expertise and what is not. In such systems it is not that a title makes someone right, but instead that rightness, slowly accumulated through habits of reconciliation, can and should be recognized as such in those particular domains where the claims themselves reflect the Word spoken in Creation.
So no, I don’t think Jesus is being unrealistic, utopian, hyperbolic, or figurative here. He is, rather, speaking precisely to a very simple set of practices that are easily observed and easily changed if our hearts are pointed the right way at all. He is urging his disciples to literally keep this command, on pain of creating self-destructive and unreconciling social systems, like authoritarian nations and churches and family systems. This is a small and simple step that can help us identify and then transform unreconciling, authoritarian, inegalitarian systems. Insofar as we refuse to do this, we are refusing to be faithful to Jesus in a very small thing, and this speaks to heart issues, to issues of loyalty or disloyalty to the Messiah. The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. Of course, people can refer to each other as “brother” and as mutual students in spiritual matters, and still be hypocritical about it. But we can’t use these kinds of titles when it comes to spiritual matters and be faithful to the teachings of Jesus here. If someone is unwilling to turn toward a more equalizing and egalitarian practice even in such a trivial way, just imagine how unwilling they are to do so in less trivial matters. If such a minimal thing is considered utopian, then leader-teachers (catechists) truly are locking themselves out of the Kingdom of Jesus, and are blocking the way for their students, because it is precisely through faithfulness that governance (of both church and nation) arises. Governments are built of faith.
Importantly, I offer this section’s stinging critiques of both Luther and Catholicism as a Catholic and as a Protestant pastor. I have left none of these affiliations behind: these are planks in the eyes of my own people. To understand that we must apply this text in this immanent way, to us and not them, is to demonstrate understanding of what Jesus is modeling for us to imitate. Jesus was critiquing internal problems that would contribute to the end of Judah’s aion. In this, he continues to set the pattern for his followers to follow in our own times and places, speaking to the lifetimes of our own religious and political structures, our own nations.
All of this ties back into the central themes of our current study quite tightly. We have explored how powerfully Matthew’s Jesus is exegeted, if we understand his Davidic anti-dynasty as the creation of contemporary siblings in the “final Generation,” which also becomes the model for the continuing unfolding of history. In light of the centrality of baptism to this (this is how Jesus makes fellow Davidic heirs), it is worth considering a bit of theology: to inherit Nicaea’s Trinitarian Revolution, in practice, is to affirm full inclusion in the family of God through the siblinghood of Jesus. In one sense, this means that the aion (lifetime) of Judah marks out a newly egalitarian sense of time, as we are all becoming part of the generation of Jesus by adoption into his family as his siblings. But in another sense this means that we, in our own times and places as long as places and times remain, will also cultivate faithfulness to his Covenant on the Mount. In this way the deepest wells of an inaugurated eschatology, and of Christian theology more generally, find a practical and simple expression in this refusal to call any person Father. Not even Jesus. So how much more must his followers approach each other in the same way?
Who could be surprised that the people who refuse to observe this flattening of the generations also come to demand that they be called “Father”, and venerate an imagined historical “Consensus of the Church Fathers” that is often little more than whatever feeble slander formation they have cobbled together? David Bentley Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse is on my mind here; it brings together a historical and theological reflection that aligns deeply with our exegetical and hermeneutical project. It is better, by far, to respectfully listen to our siblings in the faith, all joined in this single ultimate Generation, even as they have become the model for the succession of generations. We do well, then, to speak of the Church Sisters and Church Brothers instead of the Church Fathers. That honors them as followers of Jesus, instead of dishonoring them (and excessively burdening them) as faithless children. To be required to parent one’s siblings is itself often a source of deep trauma. On some deep level, Jesus understood that pride and history press us into a premature spiritual Fathering and Mothering of each other. I think he means it when he says, “No more of this,” and I think it is central to his egalitarian project: the project is not only economically egalitarian in its telos, but temporally and intellectually egalitarian as well.
In a context where these commands (like commands against violence) have been so widely ignored by so much of the church for so much of our history, we can see why there is always a temptation to turn these clear instructions into something else. No, people want to say, this isn’t about Matthew’s Jesus teaching his disciples on what to do in a straightforward way. If that were true, then we would have been wrong for a very long time! (That can’t be, can it? How on Earth can we spin around the sun?) Instead, maybe this is about Jews being bad and Christians being good. Those nasty Pharisees!
This is why it is of the utmost importance that we see the Pharisees in ourselves, if we are to be faithful to the one who urges us to remove the planks from our own eyes. It is striking that a long tradition, appealed to precisely because it was held by a line of “Fathers,” is routinely invoked to evade Christ’s injunctions here. As always with the excuse “they did it too,” this attempt at exculpation only illuminates the problem more deeply. So what if the Fathers have insisted on being called Fathers, so therefore we must continue to disobey Jesus and call people our spiritual Fathers? The argument is as self-indicting as it is perfectly circular: a circle constantly re-inscribing the original sin.
Of course all of this is terribly uncultured. A hatchet job on the Church. Speaking out of turn. Who do I think I am, anyway? I’m being offensive. Unhinged. Do I even know who I’m criticizing here, how important, and wise, and powerful, and good they are…how much the Fathers and priests have done for God? In fact, I do. But remember what I told you at the top of this, in bold even:
So let’s do what he did, but in our context, to illustrate how this works.
The point here is, precisely, to draw out the kind of response that Jesus perfectly understandably drew out. From the very start, his words ring as fresh and startling and true for us today as they must have then. How very strange that time here, in his orbit, really does collapse in on itself like this. Perhaps we really are all one Generation.
In contrast, the Christ’s posture toward past and future, toward our ancestors and our descendants, is of a precisely equalizing character. The response, of course, must not become self-hatred or disconnection on the part of the little Christs who offer his critiques again, in this generation. We are not to reject our faithless churches and push them away, but call our people to repentance again. (And for this, we will be pushed away. Blessed are those who carry forward the prophetic pattern of the Messiah.) Still, in all of its futility (a futility whose scope is broad, but not complete) this remains an invitation into the work of repentance and reconciliation, offered from within. To inherit this Christian tradition, we must receive this as an opportunity to advance the work of reconciliation among us. The first step is realizing that we have a problem. It proceeds by identifying the graces we have already received that can help empower us to change. Brother Henri de Lubac captures the temporal and cosmological implications of this nicely here, in volume 1 of his Medieval Exegesis:
Finally, I have always been of the naive belief — although it must be said that all the teachings of the Church confirm me in this notion — that in the witness they give to their faith, no less than in the witness they expect from us in return, all the Christian generations enjoy a oneness and solidarity.
Light still flickers in the midst of this present darkness.
13 The Seven Woes and Saint* Frank
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let in those who wish to enter.
Here we begin the list of seven woes that constitute the heart of this chapter. Luke’s Gospel has six woes, but Matthew (in the earliest manuscripts) nicely lists seven here as Jesus prepares for Passover. (We will cover the eighth woe, which comes early in the text but late in the manuscript tradition, next.)
As the head of the calendar, Passover sums up the patterned sevening that constitutes the Mosaic conception of time. (By the Mosaic conception of time, I mean to indicate the calendar that the Law of Moses gives birth to.) We might ponder the seven days crowned with sabbath, a divine rest that speaks to liberation from labor, and of humans embracing their shared status as image-bearers of God. And we might think of the seven holidays, crowned with the palms of the Feast of Tabernacles (there in the seventh month, the sabbath of months) … and we might consider how those palms have just been moved from the end of the festival year to its start in Matthew 21. Here the rains associated with that feast come rushing in early, right before Passover, as Zechariah’s donkey-riding Messiah enters Jerusalem in a procession of palms that carry the water of life from the end to the start. We might also think of the seven years, after which it is required to release a bondsman and cancel debts (see Deuteronomy 15). And in all these sevens of sevens, and sevens of sevens of sevens, maybe our minds are also drawn to the sabbath of sabbaths of sabbaths of sabbaths: the jubilee year itself, marking out time with rhythms of liberation, not by the dynasties of kings.
In opposition to these central calendrical sevens, these seven woes speak to the processes the keep people from entering the liberation of Messianic time. We might say that the anti-time of all the Pharisees is always already a process of standing athwart God’s plans for history, shouting stop. We can see the pattern plainly enough in people like the Francisco Franco fan, William Frank (born Francis) Buckley Jr. He expresses the Pharisaic door-blocking posture precisely in the dictum that he famously popularized: you must not immanentize the eschaton. That is a fancy way for Bill Frank to say that you must shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces, not entering it yourself, but blocking the way for those who would. Against this, the inaugurated eschatology of Matthew speaks of a non-violent reign that has already been inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus, one that we enter into through the practice of Christian discipleship.
Still, I want to give faint praise where it is due. Warnings against immanentizing the eschaton are an improvement, at least, over attempts to live out horrible, cruel, violent eschatologies. But the primary problem in those cases, as with fascist thinkers like Alexander Dugin, is the evil eschatology itself. Evil eschatology is evil regardless of when it breaks in. Instead of opposing the reign of Jesus, we might take 1 Corinthians 15 as a model. We are to practice this transformative faith from now until Christ has finally put all of his enemies (including Death itself, and not only our particular deaths) under his feet. After that, he turns it all over to the Father so that God is all in all, and then, just as in Adam all have died, so in Christ will all be made alive. Contrary to the distortions of our Pharisees who have at least been frank about their faithlessness, this is not an injunction against entering into transformative enemy love and joyful solidarity with the poor today. His reign can enter in the space of the next breath, if our hearts turn to faith and begin to pour out his Gospel instead of stirring Franco’s rotting bones.
I’ve brought up Buckley’s slightly antique but still contemporary politics because, of course, Matthew’s Son of Judah is an eminently and immanently political figure. This play on Franco and Frank and Francis will also enter into our final reflections in time, and the play is a contemporary version of what I think we might see in Matthew’s play with Zechariah soon. At the climax of Zechariah’s visions, we find the image of a Messianic (?) priest-king who will branch out and build a Temple … but only if the people diligently obey the Lord. (Zechariah 6:9–15). Zechariah is then asked at the start of chapter 7 if the people should continue their fasts of mourning in the 5th and 7th months, as they have for the last 70 years of exile. The 5th month (as noted by Walton) marked the fall of the First Temple. And the 7th month was intended to be the celebratory sabbath of months, ending the festival season with the rain-bringing Feast of Tabernacles. (Ah, but what if the rains are a torrent? In washing away that which was built on sand even this is a kind of blessing, but a hard one.) As with his promise of the harmonious priest-king, Zechariah reframes our questions of timing. It is not about when the Messiah comes. Instead, God’s reign comes where the people practice faithfulness, justice and peace. Consider how the teaching of Jesus on joyful fasting (Matthew 6:16) fits well with a similar reading of Zechariah here in 7:8–14 and 8:19:
The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. Just as, when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts, and I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations that they had not known. Thus the land they left was desolate, so that no one went to and fro, and a pleasant land was made desolate.
Thus says the Lord of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, “Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.” Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
What has happened here? Arguably, the point is that fasting is transformed by the work of peace and justice, even when it isn’t suspended. And where the Festival of Tabernacles is supposed to bring the rains, if justice rolls down like water among the people then the nations will flood to them, eagerly seeking them because the presence of God is there with them. Fasting is to be turned from performative suffering to joyful solidarity, a time to anoint our heads with oil. In this we can see the roots of the concept of Messianic time: the moment of faithful love that breaks in and restructures our experience of time. It transforms both the lean and the fat days, the days of great things and the days of small things that no one should despise; in this way, it brings the justice that resurrects the dry bones of the dead nation.
This is what Matthew’s Jesus inaugurates as the non-violent priest-king, the reign that the just already enter into, in substantial ways. Even as they hunger and thirst for righteousness, they are filled. And Bill Frank Buckley goes away with nothing but his failed attempts to stand in the doorway and block up the halls.
(14) Devouring Hypocrites, the Eighth Woe
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation.
This woe is not attested in all of the manuscripts. Although it is the second in the list, it is (in the manuscript tradition) the ambiguous eighth woe. So here we are with verse 14, a number added still later than the verse. Nonetheless, this 14 nicely holds the pair of sevens that also mark the start of Passover in Leviticus 23, and so we might also be reminded of the three 14’s by which Matthew groups the generations. It is therefore especially fitting to pause here and consider the relationship between 7 and 8 as it relates to the imminent week of Passover. The eight day festival cycle binds two sabbatical rests together in a kind of completion plus completion of time. This Passover week can start on various weekdays (the Messianic jubilee can break in at any moment), and so the special 8-day festival week holds the time of a week between two days of festive rest. This 8th festival day is also taken up in the Christian tradition, which understands Sunday as the 8th day of the week, the first day of New Creation. Like so many other Christian innovations, it is distinctively and deeply Jewish: distinct from, but profoundly connected to its siblings. The flattening expanse of Messianic time makes it fittingly surprising that in Christian liturgy every Sunday becomes a Passover, this Passover, the Last Supper. With all of this in view, it is lovely that the manuscript tradition similarly moves from holding seven woes to holding eight here in the fourteenth verse, attesting to the perfection of 7 and then the perfection and perfection that symbolically holds together one sabbath and the next for the festival week. In light of such nice parallels, it is also especially appropriate to point out how utterly abominable our Eucharists become when they shield abusive authority, instead of serving us as the instrument of liberation that they were meant to be. The tradition we have been grafted into is a tradition of prophetic rage at our own injustice, after all.
And now that we have also heard “hypocrite” ring out as an accusation twice, this is also an ideal place to consider how precise “hypocrite” is as a critique, one that is repeated six or seven times in this chapter. The word originally referred to a Greek actor, a performer, and this meaning works especially consiliently here. [1.9] These actors interpreted their roles from beneath masks, and were a central feature of the Greek media system that established Greco-Roman dominance. Recall that Matthew’s Joseph, the adoptive father of the Son who would adopt humanity into the family of God, was a tekton (a builder) in Nazareth. So he and/or Jesus may have been involved in the construction of this Greco-Roman amphitheater in nearby Sepphoris under Herod Antipas. This sort of urban location, a substantial Greco-Roman presence in Israel or Syria-Palestine, provides one of the most likely locations for the composition of Matthew. 
In attacking the Pharisees as hypocrites, the Greco-Roman imperial project is sharply in focus, and the critique of Herod and his Temple are also near at hand. The great theme of appearance versus reality, of war and inequality and make-up against honesty, equality and peace, is precisely mapped onto the Greek amphitheater. Read in this way, this is authentic Hebrew Prophecy in its most direct confrontation with Greco-Roman performance. It will culminate in the prophetic action of the Messiah’s solidaristic, and very real, death on a very real Roman cross. Symbolic and communicative, yes, but no mere act.
So how were these wide-mouthed hypocrites devouring widow’s houses to make a stage for their performances? Through debt and crushing taxes, used to pay for building projects. In the process, the Temple became just another stage for the Greco-Roman legitimacy play: just another construction project that is, precisely, the source of the problem that it then needs to cover up. The damage here is not merely the destruction of stone or even of flesh: it is the spiritual destruction of a people, through the substitution of appearance (in the form of stone buildings and flint-faced callousness) for substance (in the form of heartfelt reconciling work). And indeed, Jesus is right: the destruction that the Temple project suffers is greater than the destruction that the amphitheater at Sepphoris, for example, suffers. Plenty of Pharisees were understandably enraged at the encroachment of Greco-Roman culture in the form of such pagan structures in the land. Jesus joins in their critique of all this play-acting, but then turns the critique inward: yes, but our own is even worse, because we are supposed to know better.
The reference to a widow might also draw to mind the story of the widow’s mite, helping us contextualize that image in the ministry of Jesus. Absent from Matthew, except perhaps implicitly here, we find this widow in Mark and Luke in close proximity to the Mount of Olives. There, her pittance is placed in the Temple’s treasury. Here is Mark’s version in 12:41–44 and 13:1–8:
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Often used to exhort people to give generously to the church (probably a building campaign!), Luke’s version is really even more clear in its condemnation of the situation. It also binds Mark and Matthew together at precisely this point. Luke 20:45–47 and 21:1–6:
In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.
He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
The point is all really quite clear, and it is all a direct warning about the wicked play-acting of those involved in the Temple system. Intended by God to bring justice, the Temple has already been abominably desecrated: it has been abased, becoming just another instance of Greek theater. Even the generosity of the rich, paired with their pious prayers, has been taken up into the performance. The reality is that the peasants are being starved to death to fund all of these desperate, and ultimately futile, efforts to construct an enduring and legitimate Herodian dynasty. The warning by Jesus is stated as clear and cold as can be: it’s over, it’s not going any further.
And then our own hypocrites pick up the widow’s mite and say, “Be like the widow.” The point of the verse is just the opposite: don’t be like the hypocrites.
15 The Fiery Pits of Ben-Hinnom and the Son of My Right Hand
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You traverse land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell (Gehenna) as you are.
Whatever the long-distance missionary efforts of the Pharisees may have been, they largely survive for us today as a rebuke against our own missions. At least this is a rebuke against us insofar as we are training people to call us “Father,” or impeding the work of justice today … as we so often are. So if we convert someone to a self-destructive faith, what exactly have we accomplished? But especially because I’m talking about us, I need to immediately clarify the meaning of ‘faith’ here. By faith, I don’t mean religion. I mean, for example, an effective loyalty to the Herodian/Greco-Roman regime, or to Francisco Franco, including their spiritual legitimation structures.
Is the implication of this passage, then, that missionaries who train men to call people Father will lead people to eternal conscious torment in hell? To simply turn the standard Catholic and Magisterial Protestant line against ourselves, in this way, is to quickly sound like a deranged fundamentalist passing out Chick Tracts. Death cookies, anyone? This would be ridiculous. But doesn’t that mean that we are also rather ridiculous in the way we threaten people with endless torture for failing to take communion? If we look like everything we hate when we look in the mirror, it is time to dig more deeply into what we are doing from every side. The absurd spectacle of Christians threatening each other with endless torture, and of course only believing their own side, can help us break the power of hatred at work in these futile exercises. That is to say, responding to evil with evil is not what faithfulness to Jesus looks like, and that includes in terms of how we treat ourselves, as the community of billions of baptized Christians throughout the world. What if we responded to this sort of thing with kindness, even the kindness that we refuse to offer ourselves?
So might we read this reference to Gehenna better, both exegetically and ethically? I think so. In 2 Kings 23:10 we see that the Hebrew Bible associated the location, Ben-hinnom in Hebrew, with idolatry and fiery child sacrifice:
He defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of Ben-hinnom, so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech.
Today scholars debate whether Molech was a specific deity or a particular kind of sacrifice that may have been offered to a variety of gods. A topheth is the fiery pit in which a child sacrifice is placed; the association of fiery pits and Ben-hinnom then provides an especially vivid and explicit reference point, further strengthening the connection between Ben-hinnom and child sacrifice. There is also substantial textual and archeological evidence outside of the Bible for the practice of child sacrifice in Canaanite and Phoenician society, with children and lambs being two primary types of sacrifice associated with the word molech. Regardless of the various scholarly debates around the precise meanings here, this much is clear: child sacrifice and fire are directly associated with Ben-hinnom. And the destruction of (the) Topheth is seen as an act of purging these practices, which echoes Abraham’s own journey through the temptation to child sacrifice and into its renunciation.
Within the broader framework of non-violent intergenerational governance that has characterized our reflections on Matthew, it is easy to notice how immanently and incisively Jesus continues to critique the Pharisees here. The implication is that they aren’t making children of Abraham, but children for sacrifice in Ben-hinnom. Like Isaac, the children of Abraham are not to be sacrificed after all. (Recall that the first of our fourteens starts with Abraham in Matthew 1.) What better image could Jesus have chosen if he wanted to warn that the Pharisees and scribes are destroying their capacity for intergenerational persistence in the land?
There’s a lot more to be said about Ben-hinnom here, especially because Matthew’s Gospel accounts for 7 of the 12 references to Ben-hinnom in the entire New Testament. So let’s survey Matthew’s usage of the term. In doing so, we’ll survey the majority of its uses in our Greek scriptures. Three of these occur in Matthew 5:21–29, in a section that concerns itself with careless sex and violence. Jesus is interested in the replacement of those things with practices of reconciliation among siblings:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.
In other references, Matthew’s Jesus continues to emphasize the point that partial destruction is preferable to complete destruction when talking about Gehenna. In Matthew 10, he sends out the disciples to the “lost sheep of Israel” but not to the Samaritans, who are also there in the northern house of Israel. This indicates a mission to those in the house of Israel who still accept Judah as their ritual center, those who are devoted to that Temple instead of the Samaritan alternative on Mount Gerizim. Recall that there, Jesus prepares his canvassers to face violence, injury, and perhaps even death as they uncover the light of their good works. He knows well that a lot of people strongly dislike it when, in refusing to hide the suffering of the poor, you unveil the wickedness in hearts that are devoted to the current unjust order.
So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body (soma) but cannot kill the soul (psyche); rather fear him who can destroy both soul (psyche) and body (soma) in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
Who destroys both bodies and psyches in Gehenna? Wicked human parents who go there to sacrifice their children, in order to appease some other deity than the God of Abraham. (Still, Abraham’s God would imitate those who do such things, briefly, in order to immanently destroy a practice like that from within.) The parents who belong to Moloch choose to destroy the bodies of their children for some other end, and in the process their psyche and the psyche of their people is destroyed. This all works nicely, but is it misleading to use “psyche” (a transliteration of the word translated “soul”) here? I think it is less misleading for us today than the word “soul”. Although the word “psyche” in English isn’t a perfect translation, in the Greco-Roman context there really is substantial overlap with our current language. In both English today and in Greek thought then, it refers to the experiencing part of who we are. At times, it especially relates to intellectual or motivational aspects of experience, although it is in touch with and mediates perception as well. We still might say that perception is closer to the flesh, while the psyche is closer to the silent insight of reflection. However, intellect and perception are intimately in touch with each other, aren’t they? Well, they are unless some trauma forces profound dissociation, effectively destroying the psyche as such, because it is a whole. Psyche can also refer to our whole being, especially with the experiencing aspect of ourselves in view, and to our life as a whole. In this, it also mirrors the Hebrew synecdoche of “nefesh”: there the neck stands in for the whole person, their life. Jesus seems to be drawing directly on the wholeness of psyche here, in terms of the Greek semantic range: losing a part is better than the loss of the whole, the psyche.
So when we hear these words, we should imagine the enormous suffering and sorrow that would attend the experience of being compelled to sacrifice your child: such an experience could easily cause a psychological break. It would wrack your whole being. You would need to set up some kind of wall within yourself, dividing your experience and your model of reality from what you have done. I don’t think that exhausts what is in view with the use of psyche here, but it is an example of the sort of thing that the original context should center for us.
Unlike the god or gods who parents tried to satisfy with sacrifices in Ben-hinnom, Jesus suggests that their Father cares even for the sparrows, perhaps the least of sacrifices that might be imagined. Their Father is not demanding any sacrifice for His appeasement, not even sparrows … so how much less is he demanding the brothers and sisters of Jesus? Their Father is utterly unlike the gods to whom moloch-sacrifices were offered by traitorous ‘fathers’. Theirs is, after all, the God of Abraham and Isaac, not a Moabite or Phoenician god who might have demanded such a thing.
Of course, this raises deep perplexities around the central event of Matthew’s Gospel, which involves the sacrificial death of the Father’s firstborn Son. As in the story of Abraham and Isaac, the practice of child sacrifice is being imitated as God draws near to the loyalty-testing psychology behind the practice … but then God subverts, redeems and transforms the scene. The death of Jesus will not be an act of appeasement or favor-seeking by wicked parents who thereby destroy their own (intergenerational?) bodies and psyches in Ben-hinnom. As with Isaac, the son will not truly die (nor will the nation, also the Son of God). Instead, it is a demonstration of the God of Abraham’s absolute covenantal faithfulness to the non-violent Covenant on the Mount. To reject that Covenant, though, is to be drawn into the normal patterns of child sacrifice that still characterize our world. For example, sending our children off to sacrifice other peoples’ children (and be sacrificed) in war, or committing them to sexually abusive spiritual ‘Fathers’. In these sorts of practices, the psyches and bodies of children and their families are still destroyed. Those sorts of sacrifices are essentially the opposite of the kinds of sacrifices made by those on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, or on Golgotha. This is why Leonard Cohen’s Story of Isaac rises above Vietnam and Jim Crow as such a sweet and redolent offering. In contrast to those who offer their children up in these ways, Jesus does not demand such devotions. Instead, he trains and mobilizes us for non-violent resistance against evil, rather than submission to it. It does not destroy our psyches because, through deep immanent critique, the cruel logic behind child sacrifice is expunged from the depths of our selves. We do not sacrifice ourselves or give ourselves over to killing, even if and when we are killed. Rather, we break the power of the enemy against our own indomitable gentleness.
In this context, the sharp line of demarcation that Jesus draws makes sense. What is being denied is any sympathy for or association with the child-sacrificing practices of so many family systems, including tribal and national ones. A sharp division is being drawn between moloch-style sacrifices, and the different approach of Jesus and his siblings, even if the one might be mistaken for the other (as in Abraham’s spiritual conquest of the fiery pit of child sacrifice.)
This also helps us make sense of the Messiah’s subversive use of sword imagery in the next moment, Matthew 10:34–36:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Notice that the sword that Jesus speaks of is precisely a matter of division that is brought about by those who reject his alternative way. Non-violent resistance must, indeed, cut itself off from violent resistance … otherwise, it isn’t non-violent resistance. To this day, a commitment to the Covenant on the Mount remains a powerful means of distinguishing between those who are interested in being faithful to Jesus, taking up his cross and following him, and those who only call him “Lord, Lord” with their lips.
The non-violent resistance that is itself faithfulness to Jesus continues to bring clarifying distinctions today, and they remain simultaneously painful and helpful; they help you center on what matters and move into that together, instead of dithering about vastly less important side issues. And while the sword, here, is proving useful in all of these ways, it also provides an excellent example of how Jesus takes up and transforms violent imagery. Of course, when Jesus talks about bringing a sword he is transparently not counseling his canvassers to carry swords or bring violence. Rather, he is warning them that others will certainly do this to them, but that even the destruction of whole somas (even if they kill you) will still not amount to the destruction of their whole psyche or psyches. They and the life of their Kingdom will carry on so long as they righteously pursue faithfulness to his covenant, even when these brutal divisions are inevitably thrust on his prophetic truth-speakers. They are walking the way of life, not death, even as their opponents passionately devote themselves, their children, and the siblings of Jesus to destruction.
This brings us to our fifth reference to Ben-hinnom, the last before Matthew 23. As elsewhere, the language of children, sex, and violence centers around this valley. Seen together as a whole, we can observe how tightly the concerns of 2 Kings 23 circle around the term in Matthew’s Gospel. The book of Enoch was popular and it built on the imagery of Ben-hinnom in an “apocalyptic” mode. It could be in the background here, and we will touch on apocalyptic literature shortly. Still, here as elsewhere, Matthew’s Jesus is much more directly in touch with our most widely canonized texts, as we can see by how directly he uses stichwörter (ancient hyperlinks) that connect us to the location’s traditional association with children and sacrifice. Notice the persistence of these connections in Matthew 18:6–9:
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!
If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the aionion fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the Gehenna (Ben-hinnom) of fire.
As in Matthew 5, we find Ben-hinnom once again associated with grabby, violent hands and lustful eyes. The repetition of the theme suggests that this is an important association. Recall that Matthew 5 specifically identified the right hand as the problem to be cut off. It is almost universally acknowledged that Jesus is not speaking literally here, and often it is suggested that he is speaking hyperbolically. That may be the case, at least at the personal level of application; we have many generations of two handed and two eyed Christians who can gratefully attest that a non-fleshy reading is common. Still, he is primarily speaking figuratively and politically, rather than hyperbolically. The gravity of the apocalyptic genre is what holds Matthew’s language together here, even as his Jesus submits it to a cruciform transformation. Daniel and Zechariah both represent apocalyptic literature that is cited extensively in Matthew. This literature uses figural modes of speech to talk about socio-political-spiritual realities. For example, in the crucial text of Daniel 7, the fire of divine judgment represents the destruction of a nation’s military power (and not merely the end of one dynasty as it is inevitably and quickly replaced by another.)
So in the apocalyptic mode, especially that of Daniel and Zechariah, might there be a socio-political association with Ben-hinnom in view? Yes. A helpful association is right here at hand. According to Joshua 15, Ben-hinnom marks the historic boundary between Judah and the Son of the Right Hand: Ben-yamin. The tribe of Benjamin. And Benjamin is closely associated with the idea of a tribe (a line) being cut off because of its lustful eyes and grabby hands. In fact, these precise themes cap the horror show that is the book of Judges, chapters 19–21. There we see the Son of the Right Hand grab a Levite’s concubine from the House of Bread in Judah. She is offered up to them by the Levite’s host as a substitute for the Levite himself, the pattern of Sodom now inscribed in the Son of Jacob’s Right Hand. They sexually assault her until she apparently dies. The Levite cuts her corpse into twelve pieces and sends them to the children of Jacob, to limping Israel. The tribes gather and agree to hold Ben-jamin accountable, there in the territory separated from Judah by Ben-hinnom. The Son of the Right Hand refuses to repent and will not cut off this sin from himself: that is to say, the tribe refuses to turn over the rapists. And so there is war and the whole Son of the Right Hand is nearly cut off: that is to say, only some soldiers are left. The situation is worsened by an oath sworn by the other tribes, that none of these violent Sons of the Right Hand will be permitted to take any of their daughters for sex and child-making at all. They are deprived of access to women and so they cannot generate life. It seems that the twelve tribes are about to be whittled down to eleven. (In time, those with the force of arms will dwindle to Judah, and then the name will have no number of tribes in arms, not even that one.)
So Ben-hinnom marks a boundary. On its far side from Judah, the psyche of Ben-jamin has been destroyed in a way that will prevent the intergenerational persistence of their local tribal government. A clever solution is found, although the book of Judges doesn’t approve. The Sons of the Right Hand are permitted to hide in the vineyards and abduct women at the festival of the Lord in Shiloh. And so the lustful eyes and violent grabbing hands persist. This cycle of depravity finally issues in the mordant close to the book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” We will explore the following narrative in more depth here, as the falling temple at Shiloh gives way to Gibeah, then Judah, and now again to Judah in Matthew 23–25. The Bible is a tale of two temples, but it is also a tale of two and two displacements of Israel’s ritual center.
Matthew’s Jesus might gloss all of this by suggesting that it would, indeed, have been better if the military power of Benjamin had been broken earlier than it was. Recall, from Daniel 7, that when a nation is thrown into the fire of God’s judgment this means that its military capacity is lost. With the Babylonian exile, Benjamin would cease to exist apart from Judah, and upon their return it would be assimilated to the older brother that had long protected it. The Son of the Right hand was absorbed into Judah’s own military eventually anyway. Why permit the abuse in the meantime?
In this context we might also contemplate how well Saul of the Tribe of Ben-yamin is named, especially when he dies and is reborn in Paul’s baptismal birth. Indeed, it is better to lose your right hand. But let’s turn back to national scale. Even Judah’s military power, rebellious and weak as it was, would be destroyed in 70 AD: just as the other tribes had once surrounded Benjamin and nearly broken its power, now Judah was surrounded by other ethne and would soon have its power broken. The process is a movement up social scale, from tribe to nation. We return to the relationship between these social scales in much more depth when we finally reach the peak of the Mount of Olives. In advocating for disabling Benjamin’s sexual violence, Jesus would be concurring with the implicit judgment of Judges: a good king would not have reinscribed the violence of Benjamin so that it would be inflicted on future generations as well.
With this in view, it is also helpful to ask whose right hand Benjamin is associated with, after all. Everything reads extremely nicely if Benjamin is the Son of Jacob’s right hand. Recall that the ‘head’ of the compass points East for Judeans, and so if you are standing where Israel stands and face out at us, Benjamin is there on the right hand side. Geographically nestled between Israel (Ephraim and Manasseh) on one side and Judah’s mountainous retreats on the other, Benjamin is also the youngest member of the family. The Mosaic blessing speaks precisely to Benjamin’s geographic location in the land, just across the line of Gehenna:
The Lord’s beloved people will live securely with him.
The Lord will shelter them all day long,
since he, too, lives on the mountain slopes.
And Genesis speaks to the familial analogy in a similar way. As the youngest, Benjamin is held back and protected by Jacob, who is limping Israel, at the end of Genesis. He is the only child held back from going into Egypt, but Joseph eventually demands that he come. Fittingly, Judah protects Benjamin then as well, just as Judah protects Benjamin in the mountains and valleys of the land.
Indeed, Judah’s seed continues to protect Benjamin’s seed, even when Benjamin comes for Judah. Consider how Saul (a Son of Benjamin) raises his right hand in violence against David, but David twice refuses to kill him. In the end Saul and his sons (much of the Benjaminite royal line) all fall on their own swords at Saul’s behest, there on Mount Gilboa in 1 Samuel 31. In the end, the line divided from Judah by the dividing line of Ben-hinnom begins to extinguish itself at its father’s own behest, falling on their swords with Saul. Jesus, as the Son of David and Son of Judah, carries forward the Davidic pattern in its own strangely solidaristic way. The Herodian houses, too, will fall by their own right hand: Rome. Divided houses don’t stand. But the line of David (which does not sacrifice its children) will continue from generation to generation and even to the generation of generations itself.
Now was Jesus thinking about Benjamin and Judah as proxies for David and Saul in bringing up Ben-hinnom? Who knows? The point here is to illustrate a complex dynamic between Benjamin and Judah that is marked by the boundary between them, and to anchor ourselves in this rich contextual background. One might also suggest that these themes of child sacrifice, violence, sex, and intergenerational persistence apply nicely because they are ubiquitous in the Scriptures of Jesus … and so all of these nice correspondences don’t necessarily testify to any particularly tight association here. Maybe you can throw a dart at the Hebrew Bible and hit something that fits with our themes of intergenerational governance and the critiques of violence and sexual abuse. Although I’m being a bit more rigorous than that here (looking specifically for tight narrative mappings that match the geographical mapping) the broader point is well taken. I certainly can’t demonstrate that Matthew’s Jesus had this in view. Nonetheless this is where this language most naturally takes us, if it is embedded in its political and spiritual geography. And insofar as intergenerational governance and the problems of violence are in fact ubiquitous themes in the Scriptures, this is really just providing broader support for my general thesis: because there are plenty of other touchpoints for this sort of thinking it implies that yes, this is the matrix of meaning on which Matthew is built. Concerns with intergenerational governance really are what these texts are about. This is a demonstration of proper spiritual reading: we have properly understood the generalities, which is why we can be right in a wide range of particular instantiations of the broad form that holds its manifestations.
The discourses around Ben-hinnom, then, speak a simple message through all of their richness: it is better not to enable violence, especially sexual and intergenerational violence. This includes the violence of child sacrifice, of possessive and lustful catcalling, and the abusive grabbing that follows. Men must be held accountable for their abuses, and a good parent does not (out of misplaced compassion) allow his sons to continue to perpetuate sexual abuse. Boys won’t be boys forever. We shouldn’t just let everyone do as they please.
For example, the power of the priests and pastors who are systematically perpetuating sexual abuse must be cut off at its root. You aren’t helping them or the children or women or men who they are abusing by enabling their abuse. You’re not even helping the abuser, who you think you are treating with compassion with your enabling. Do you think you can preserve a divided house? Everything will be shouted from the rooftops soon enough, in the fullness of time. In fact, it would be kinder to reveal the problems and break their power as quickly as possible, rather than to allowing them to tie themselves to the millstone of abuse and see their psyche destroyed. It is better to have it out than to let things like that fester: it is better to chop off the Son of your Right Hand, even if it hurts, than to let that sort of thing be carried into a pattern of sacrificing the next generation of children to such ‘Fathers’.
As a symbol of the radical disruption of parental care and responsibility, Ben-hinnom also speaks to us of the deep trauma that binds us to call all humans our spiritual siblings. We’ve seen far more than our share of Fathers sacrificing children to their vicious sexual desires, protecting the other Fathers in their webs of abuse. Gehenna powerfully describes the boundary that must be drawn around such people and such behaviors and the authoritarian practices that foster, attract, and shield abuse. In a historical moment where a lot of hidden things are being revealed, we can freshly understand why this Messiah insisted on us all being drawn into one generation of human siblings from here on out, with one good Father in heaven … a Father who desires mercy, and not the sacrifice of our children.
Endless torment in the afterlife is both too horrifying and too remote to carry the immediate and deeply coherent sting that the language delivers, read in this contextualized way. We opt to threaten others with such torture precisely when the deepest feelings of vulnerability lead us to replace repentance with slander, as a feeble defense. This is precisely where the Slanderer grabs hold of us and rides us. He is the enemy of our psyche who seeks to kill our connection to the Spirit who carries life to the next generation.
16–22 On Swearing around Seraphs
Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes it sacred. And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes it sacred? So then, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the One who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the One who sits on it.
Here we have a woe that breaks the mold. Jesus has been repeatedly pronouncing his woes on the Pharisees and scribes, but here they are named “blind guides.” This presents us with an opportunity to consider the association between blindness, guides, and scribes, especially in light of the Temple that we are approaching directly here, yet again. As Matthew’s confrontation between the Temple of Flesh and the Temple of Stone lurches to its bloody end, notice how Matthew 23 has reflected the sequence of Matthew overall, only in reverse. The Messiah has moved through the processes of disciple-making and movement building, which he will continue to do. He is now confronting the Temple and beginning the work of cleansing it as he builds his government. Now in Matthew 23 we pass quickly over the Pharisees’ and scribes’ own efforts at establishing governance in hearts.
Up to now, Matthew has been telling us the story of how Jesus built a spiritual family of siblings, as the power of God’s Breath carried the Word to Judah and Israel and even Canaan. The Covenant on the Mount is supposed to bring Life (in its most encompassing and general form) to the siblings of Jesus through faithfulness to it, just as the Covenant of Moses is supposed to bring national life in the land. For both covenants there are blessings as well as curses, and the curse for both involves collapse: the price of faithlessness includes the destruction of Temples built on sand (whether of stone or of flesh.) Within both covenants, faithless mission creates spiritual children of spiritual “Fathers”, but those poor children in faithless hands are bound for sacrificial destruction. Both covenants alert us to the reality that was always already there: bad faith causes us to falter as people and peoples, while faithfulness secures our future. The task of the prophet is to help us see where we’re going, especially that ditch right in front of us.
So who were the blind scribes? Scribes were associated with religious writing and wisdom as well as the practical administration of society, especially law, including the administration of taxes, debts, and contracts.  Both forms of writing, administrative and religious, are deeply intertwined from early on, and our own strict separation of the two is anachronistic. Writing emerges in close association with accounting practices, especially the recording of debts and exchanges, including ancient marriages… a particularly fraught form of exchange. In all of this, a scribe records debts both monetary and social, all of which are a kind of oath or covenant. The scribes administered faith, which is what governments are made of. Predictably, Temples also become centers of exchange and debt throughout the Ancient Near East, including in Judah, and they are therefore naturally also treasuries and banks.
Debt has its own self-destructive dynamic, not yet superseded in human history. To understand the blindness of the scribes, as accountants, we need to attend to the macro-economic problems that have long emerged as a result of the necessarily connected accumulation of wealth (by the wealthy) and debt (by the poor). As the Great Recession has rather recently reminded us, the world as it appears to those who are tracking debts and contracts is not the world as it is. On one level, we have simple contracts requiring the repayment of debts. But again and again in history, we find that the weight of debt sweeps old orders away, unless the order is one that can sweep debt itself away. Promising the relief of debt is a major factor in military campaigns in the ancient world as well; a new order might emerge because people trust it to liberate them, especially from the debts incurred under the old regime. Such promises could move the mountain of a peoples’ faith from their current rulers to a new order (or cosmos).
Then and now, debt is closely associated with the concentration of wealth and power, because it marks the difference between the wealthy whose money is working for them and the poor whose lack is working against them, all at exponential rates. Matthew’s Jesus is always drawing on the imagery of debt and the imagery of exponential growth (rooted in life itself). Both growth and debt are closely connected, and both are still highly relevant to understanding the intergenerational persistence of governance today. As these concentrations of wealth and debt exponentially grow, they play a powerful role in creating the aggregate demand shortfalls that then repeatedly give rise to depressions. And so our modern temples, our banks and treasuries, also become the locus of demands for debt forgiveness and cheaper money, so that the nation isn’t strangled to death by debt.
Printing money, a form of currency debasement, can contribute to a solution by reducing or holding steady the relative burden of earlier debts. Otherwise, debt deflation can settle in, which means that debts become more and more impossible to repay as the value of money rises. In the absence of various interventions, at the level of the macro economy we end up in a vicious cycle of more and more crushing debt, as workers and capital are idled and the possibility of repayment draws further and further out of reach. We can intuit the broad shape of this by simply noticing that if currency is cheaper, debt becomes lighter; say you owe $1000, but next year $1000 is only worth $1 today. That would be hyper-inflation. And if you had an old and heavy debt, it would be good news indeed. (Provided the whole society doesn’t fall apart.) But of course, short-sighted debt holders don’t like this solution, which requires them to take a haircut so that everyone doesn’t lose their heads. The effect is equivalent to a partial jubilee.
The broadly Keynesian analysis above was also understood in the Ancient Near East, at least in spirit. In fact, we find debt forgiveness inscribed on the Rosetta Stone; it is fitting that debt forgiveness marks the key by which we have reopened so many channels of ancient communication. But much as the hope of discourse risks the disappointment of what Harry Frankfurt technically refers to as bullshit, the hope of gracious debt forgiveness is haunted by the work of record-keeping. In both, there is an aspiration, and in both there is the routine dashing of hopes against rocky hearts set on power and wealth. (Here and elsewhere, where I center discourse and oppose it to the steering media of money and power, I am drawing on Jürgen Habermas.)
So back to our blind scribes. A scribe’s task included keeping the score, including in financial transactions, marriages, and other risky situations that (even today) call forth the desire for commitments and faith. (See Christine Sham’s Jewish Scribes in the Second Temple Period, p. 225.) And the point that Jesus makes here is that the ones who are supposed to keep the score don’t see the real score at all: they are blind guides. Perhaps they are directly cheating. But more broadly the issue is the long-run necessity of jubilee. Caught in a reified system of record-keeping, they don’t see the very real unbearable loads being put on the peasants to expand Herod’s building projects, nor are they properly accounting for the jubilee that has been prescribed, but proscribed by the professional scribes. They only see the money flowing in, one widow’s mite at a time. They are supposed to guide the nation by recording what is happening, but they cannot read the writing on the wall. Their contemporary equivalents are the many anti-Keynesian figures who demanded strangling debt repayment during the Great Recession, when some functional approximation of jubilee was required. Importantly, jubilee is not a utopian ideal: it reflects an understanding of the emergent properties of debt at social scale over time. The spiritual form of governance that sees broadly and deeply enough to persist in time is reflected in any law code (like the Mosaic one) that makes way for a regular release of debts.
Jesus was far from being a scribe. Although he was constantly engaged in discourse, the little that he wrote was inscribed in sand, like debts on the eve of jubilee. In this, Jesus was much closer to the other blind guides named here, the Pharisees. He is offering opportunities for them to build with him in word and flesh. But as happens so often with discursive dreams, throughout Mathew the aspiration to a truthful accord is repeatedly dashed against the rocks of money and power, summed up nicely in the image of a Greco-Roman stage filled with actors.
Noticing the problem of hypocrisy, we are bound to turn the critiques of Matthew 23 back on ourselves. Is Jesus faithfully depicting the Pharisees here, or is this depiction of them just a blinding propagandistic distortion in the service of Christian power? We don’t have any examples of Pharisees making the precise argument about oaths that we find here, one which explicitly places money above Temple. I suspect that Jesus may be using an ad absurdum argument that highlights the underlying dynamics of the situation, and in doing this he is working within the Hebrew prophetic tradition.
Still, causistry was surely a problem in ancient Judah, as it is everywhere. For example, we can easily imagine abuses of arguments like those in Nedarim 14b of the Babylonian Talmud. There, we find that an oath sworn on the Torah scroll is not binding, while an oath sworn on the words of the scroll do bind. We can appreciate Nedarim 14b’s emphasis on the distinction between the flesh of the scroll and the spiritual (intellectual) content of the words. And we might even suggest that this flesh-spirit distinction is just what we need if we are to see beyond the momentary and fleeting contracts of the scribes, into the deeper form of governance that requires jubilee. Still, the distinction opens the door to obvious abuses: one could swear an oath on the Torah scroll and trick someone into thinking this was an oath on the Torah. Importantly, the bad faith that Jesus critiques here is not at all a general feature of Rabbinic Judaism, or of Judaism writ large at the time of Jesus. These kinds of abuses are contested immanently among a variety of Second Temple Jewish thinkers, and not only the one working here in Matthew 23. And of course plenty of people from every nation, including Jewish people, are opposed to causistic manipulation. (See, for example, D.E. Garland, Intention 13–35. In this reference and the reference to Nedarim 14b, I am drawing directly from R.T. France’s Matthew commentary, p 871.)
The effect of the cleverness that Jesus critiques, here, is to impede communication and displace it with its parody: deception. To be clear, Jesus admires clever language, and he is constantly demonstrating his serpentine wisdom. The problem isn’t cleverness itself, but the lack of innocence, because without innocence wisdom cannot soar. So it is especially fitting, as we approach the Temple as the legal and economic center of Judah, to remember the seraphs who attend the Throne of God. We should contemplate the seraphs all around us in the sky where God is seated, and especially those who gather at the footstool and dwelling of God in the Temple (of Creation). These are the same spirits who purify the unclean lips of that clever wordsmith, Isaiah, in Isaiah 6. And we should remember that the seraphs were, in the early coins of Judah, depicted as winged snakes. Like this:
When the serpent in the Temple of Eden is made to eat dirt, we should not imagine the Slanderer losing his legs. Better to see him losing those dovelike wings. When acuity with language is used to cheat people, as when we intentionally form a non-binding oath that might seem binding to the other party, we have deliberately swapped faithfulness for bad faith. If we do this even in the very Temple itself, how much more impossible is it to perceive the seraphs swarming above all who dwell beneath the sky, including those slaving away in the fields of Galilee? This spiritual blindness is the true blindness of our wicked and unforgiving guides, both then and now.
Here as elsewhere, Matthew 5 is our companion to this chapter. If Matthew is even minimally competent as a writer, he intends for us to notice the many points of parallelism between them, and look back to the Covenant on the Mount again and again. There we see Jesus teach on this topic of contracts and oaths in his typically simple and radical way. His solution? Cut it off at the root. Nip it in the bud. A simple replacement behavior for such causistry is directly taught in Matthew 5:37: let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Don’t swear any oaths at all. Just commit to what you’re going to commit to, and don’t commit to what you’re not going to commit to. This is the sort of simple communicative foundation on which good relationships and intergenerational governance are built. This is a firm foundation. And then, out of those things, there will sprout all the buildings you might need, ones more enduring than the one that Herod was trying to shore up on the basis of bad faith.
23–24 Heavy Camels, Light Gnats
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin. But you have disregarded the weightier 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.
Here we find Jesus deploy the argumentative form of kal vahomer: heavier and lighter. We also commonly call this an a fortiori argument, from the Latin. It works like this: imagine you have a child who loves to go bowling. Wait, what child loves bowling? Not many. As with the Talmud, which provides us with excellent examples of kal vahomer argument, this is clearly a theoretical exercise that can soar more freely because it is pretty divorced from reality (and therefore relatively innocent). So anyway, you ask your child to go and pick up her toys. She slouches down and says she is far too tired to clean. Then you ask your child if she’d like to go bowling and she leaps up and rushes to get on her shoes. You then reply: if you can lift something as heavy as a bowling ball, you can certainly clean up your toys. Gotcha!
This is how kal vahomer works. You draw out an inconsistency to smoke out hypocrisy, revealing an injustice or untruth that either corrects, or demonstrates a lack of good faith. It works especially well when there is a contrast between the significance or weight of one thing (a tiny gnat, or qalma in Aramaic) and the significance or weight of another (a huge camel, or gamla in Aramaic). The large inconsistency, the use of uneven scales, is precisely the issue. How can a scribe be wise enough to tell gamla from qalma, but not wise enough to see what is far more important (but harder to do)? Then, as now, we often know the good … but do not do it.
Here, Matthew’s Jesus is again showing how close he is to the Pharisees, and that he is engaging in deep immanent critique. Notice that Jesus unambiguously thinks that it is right for them to tithe their herbs. Although not strictly commanded in the Torah, it is entirely appropriate. Why not be on the safe side and do it, in case it is properly implied by the spirit of the law, as so many other things are? Or even if it is not implied, suppose that it is merely excellent to go above and beyond when it comes to generosity. That’s good too. There’s also a measure of compassion in tithing herbs. Without this, won’t the priests who depend on these tithes eat worse food while you flaunt your flavor in front of them? And what’s wrong with currying a little favor by being extra generous with food? The Son of Man came eating and drinking, after all, and he was routinely building good will around dinner tables. So why not show generosity to God and to the priests in a similar way? Tithing herbs was not a silly thing and it wasn’t a crushing burden, and Jesus doesn’t portray it as either one here. He is decidedly not identifying this lightest of tithes as the “heavy burden” that the scribes and Pharisees are putting on widows. Contrary to much Christian misreading here, Jesus is not against a rigorous interpretation and application of Torah in the context of the Kingdom of Judah in the first century. Of course he also isn’t saying that you’ll get tortured forever in the afterlife for failing to tithe mint and dill. We shouldn’t presume anyone thought this way. Excellence was, and is, excellence. And carefully attending to the spirit of the law was, and is, excellent.
So what is his point? It is that while they show this sort of care to the powerful priests, even in the feathery lightness of dill fronds, they are not showing similar care where it is far more important to do so. Justice and mercy would involve forgiving the debt of a widow so she can stay in her home, for example. Or it would involve caring for women whose hard-hearted husbands divorced them when they got a little too old, leaving them without the basic emotional support and basic food that we all need to survive. Yes, you want the scribes to enjoy delicious food and this is good. But what about those who have no food at all?
It is these weightier matters that have brought the nation to the point of its unfolding crisis, one that Matthew’s Jesus already saw even as the bitter fruit would only ripen and rot in 40 years. As I sit on a rapidly burning planet, I can feel the heat of the Messiah’s anger still. The thinking of Matthew’s Jesus is spiritual, but also expressed in the flesh: it is soulful, not magical or delusional. To avert the crisis, as with so many of our own, the spiritual leaders of the nation would have to dramatically shift their emphasis in time. Instead, in our state of spiritual exile from reality we treat our real crises as if they are just light as a feather, while comically exaggerating the heroism of small acts. (We are still tithing dill when we need to pass policies that enact a transformation of our national will). As Jesus will demonstrate in his own solidaristic death, joining himself with the poorest of the poor, the poor should have our richest oil (the pleasant kind) poured out on their heads. That is an appropriate use of oil. They should be welcomed like royalty because they are, to us, Messiah. (This is precisely the point that Matthew 25 makes.)
The gnat and camel, like herbs and the weight of justice, perfectly and literally exemplify the principle of kal vahomer. The Pharisees and scribes rightly strain out light little gnats so that they don’t consume a non-kosher animal. However, they neglect the far heavier matter of dealing with the abuses of the rich. The connection between camels and the wealthy carries forward a theme from Matthew 19.
Let’s pause here and consider the full interaction there, between Jesus and that young camel with many possessions. In Luke, a similar account describes this camel-man as an archon, a young ruler whose wealth included governing authority and ownership of land (or at least its fruits). Representing the language of power and governance, the word archon seamlessly moves between people who govern and the angels whose power governs all the various dominions. Here is Matthew 19:16–30:
Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my name’s sake will receive a hundred and will inherit aionion life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
What would have happened if this young archon had done as Jesus suggested? Then we would be reading a different story today, presumably one that would honor him in our generation just as he would have been honored in all of the intervening generations since; he would have been honored in the Generation, the general form of generations. In acknowledging Jesus as King and becoming part of his movement, the archon would have entered into his reign (Kingdom) at that moment. Who knows how much more could have grown from that seed of faithfulness, through all of the generations, if he would have already entered into aionion life then? (The communion of the saints properly draws into view here as well.) Of course, the anti-Empire of Jesus hasn’t non-violently conquered (and therefore liberated) everything yet. It hasn’t even conquered the whole church. (Just as anticipated, there are weeds in the wheat.) But his government has been established and inaugurated and it has persisted from generation to generation for two thousand years. The rich young man could have been the type to step sooner, rather than later, into Messiah’s reign. Sadly, he wasn’t. (But in time, for God, all things are possible.)
So what happened to this archon and his holdings? Any land holdings he might have had were presumably lost to his line, either in 70 AD or in the ensuing Bar-Kochba rebellion. Then and now, the enduring charm of wealth for fading and fleshy archons like us is the hope of establishing something that outlasts us: the archon is dead, long live the archon (through his children). Perhaps if this man had been older, he might have recognized what a small and fragile link he was in the chain of being. Maybe he would have made the wiser move and secured his spiritual (breathy word-carrying) opportunity quickly, instead of waiting until the end of history. Instead, he held onto a position in a society that was soon to be blown away, nebelish. The lightness of this archon then contrasts markedly with the woman who takes up her weighty alabaster jar of expensive ointment and pours it on the poor Messiah, the poors’ anointed one. She will anoint Jesus for his inauguration on the cross, in Matthew 26:13. And this is what Jesus says of her:
Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
As Matthew 25 reminds us, the Messiah comes to us now in the form of his needy messengers, needing food and clothing and comfort in prison. So yes, camels aren’t kosher. Especially if you’re living in Second Temple Judah, definitely don’t eat them. But the bigger question isn’t about camels entering into us. Rather, it is about whether these camels enter into the Kingdom of Heaven and receive aionion life, or if they instead suffer our sadness from generation to generation in history. All of this is clear enough, and fits perfectly with the general theme that we find constantly in Matthew: that Matthew’s Jesus was the Messiah who inaugurated an intergenerational, non-violent, egalitarian Kingdom.
Still, we are left with a common question here. If Jesus is so stridently in favor of rigorous Torah observance, why don’t Christians observe the Torah? I think the best answer is really quite simple. The Covenant of Moses, on its own terms, is explicitly a land covenant. It was understood by Jesus and others that it was literally the law of the land in Israel at the time, and that failure to follow it had a specific and rather narrow consequence for the nation: the political entity that was born through it would not persist in the land, if the people weren’t faithful to it. It set before them national life and death in the land, and twice the nation chooses national death. Law is still closely connected to land today as well: there is the law of the United States, operative here (for now at least). But the law of France is operative there and the law of Indonesia is operative there. (And so on.) If you’re in Indonesia, I’d advise you to follow Indonesian law.
At the same time, even local law obtains an international character when people travel. In a real sense I will carry the legal norms and experiences of my first formation with me wherever I go in the world. For example, there is a certain brashness and openness of speech that our legal climate fosters; for all of the various forms of oppression we do experience, official silencing is not one of them. There are also certain commonalities in law that carry over from one place to another; it is possible to study law as a whole, as well as international law. So even today law is closely related to geography, but not utterly strictly bound to it. By starting with these analogies, we can appreciate the profound differences that have emerged between these kinds of positive law and the various modes of Jewish interaction with the Law of Moses. Part of what makes the Law of Moses distinctive is that it has been interpreted in a variety of ways since the fall of the Temple that is so central to it, but a common feature of its application is the recognition that the destruction of the Temple (and associated national government, with its right hand of violent power) has nullified the law’s enforcement provisions. (At least many of them, such as the death penalties.) We can understand and respect the widespread Jewish attitude that the Law of Moses, on its own terms, is for the Jewish people (and not for everyone), just as the many other laws of many other peoples are for them (and not for everyone.) Simply put, the Law of Moses never presents itself as a universal law; we honor all those who negotiate its distinct contemporary meanings for them by understanding the text on its own terms.
So like other Jewish thinkers, Jesus didn’t presume that everyone needed to follow Torah, any more than an Indonesian presumes that everyone needs to follow Indonesian law today. But he followed it stringently in his time and place with an emphasis on the weightiest matters of the law: love and justice and mercy. Beyond this, his governmental project is fundamentally formed by the fact that the Covenant of Moses has some centrally important characteristics that are strange to us today: it contains eviction clauses. Deuteronomy closes with an extended reflection on how the people will fail to follow the law and so they will invoke these eviction clauses. In the normal and straightforward understanding of Mosaic law, if the nation fails to abide by it (and oh, it will, says Moses), then the consequence will be conquest, exile and enslavement. That is literally the end of the Teaching, the Law, the Torah, in a literary sense. This is part of the reason that scholars today generally agree that the Torah only reaches its present form in the wake of the Babylonian exile; in the form that we have it, it speaks precisely to this experience of exile, interpreting it as a divine corrective, even as the people would be restored to the land again in 70 years. (This did, indeed, occur in 538 BC.)
So when Paul, the ironically boastful Son of Benjamin, says that the Mosaic covenant brings death, he is not coming up with some novel idea. Rather, he is demonstrating that he has read the Torah, including its conclusion.
On the eve of another national death that echoes the Babylonian exile, which Jesus is addressing throughout the discussion from Matthew 23–25, Jesus is simply carrying forward the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Like the prophet Malachi, who also prophesied against the Second Temple, Jesus is suggesting that the coming eviction, like the last one, is precisely what the Mosaic covenant calls for. Importantly, on its face this eviction is not an abrogation of the Mosaic covenant; it is, precisely, a fulfillment of its terms. At the same time, Jesus has also propounded the long-awaited new covenant (Matthew 5–7) and this is the one that he teaches to his disciples as he prepares them to inherit the whole Earth (all the land). As with the Pharisees in general, Jesus is interested in rigorous observance of covenants, especially their weightier parts. As with the Mosaic covenant, his Covenant on the Mount holds both blessings and curses, related to the governments and the necessarily-related spiritual centers that people build. And as with the prophets, there is an assurance that God’s love and faithfulness and care persist, even as people do injustice and then reap the whirlwinds they have sown. The implication is, I think, clear enough. Jesus wants Christians to be as vigorous and serious about his teachings as he wants the Pharisees to be about the Law of Moses (properly weighted). And if and when we inevitably fail to rise to his extremely high bar, we are to graciously return to the work of reconciliation even as we mourn the destruction that faithless behavior brings. In this way, from generation to generation in the final Generation of his siblings, we try to already live the aionion life, placing the greatest weight on what matters most: faith, mercy and justice. According to Jesus, at least, that’s how you become first, not last: not tail but head. Strangely, this must be done according to the cruciform pattern he embodies and reveals as the pattern of true governance.
25–26: Blinded by Appearance
Woe to you, scribes 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, so that the outside may become clean as well.
Here again, Matthew’s Jesus is drawing deeply on Pharisaic traditions in order to critique the Pharisees (as well as the scribes, though they are further from the camp.) Matthew’s Jesus is apparently aware of debates among the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Those from the school of Hillel argued, with Jesus, that the inside of the cup should be cleaned before the outside. Those from the school of Shammai argued that the order didn’t matter. (See Craig Keener.) What is important for us here is that Jesus is reaching inside these debates and essentially citing Hillel, but then reframing them by pointing beyond the inside of the cup to the inside of the human heart.
Of course even in this deep reframing Jesus is not introducing some novel idea into the debates among the people of Judah, as if they had never heard of genuine and heartfelt covenant faithfulness. The Shema was certainly not strange to them, including this part:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The thrust of the argument here is, precisely, that Jesus is once again taking up the prophetic tradition of internal critique. And once again, he is embracing the most rigorous school of thought: yes, it does matter what order you wash a cup in. We might amplify what he is saying like this: yes, I agree with Hillel, you should wash the inside first and yes, the order matters. And this is not only a matter of ritual purity, but is a sign embedded in daily life that is meant to remind us of a still greater truth: that we are to have pure insides, pure hearts and intentions, first before all else. Every time you wash a cup, wash the inside before the outside. And as you do it, take this as an opportunity to ponder whether your intentions are pure in your dealings with God and with people. You might even pray the Shema while you do it, and then you might want to ponder a few of the six blessings from Matthew 5:8–10:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
In these blessings, we find the primary positive promises of the Covenant on the Mount. They carry with them a negative possibility, and we should pause and think about that for a bit. Consider that the blessings are paired with curses at the start of the Covenant on the Plain, but Matthew leans purely into the blessings of the covenant in Matthew 5. Both Matthew and Luke connect the closing covenantal curse to the collapse of buildings (such as the Temple), but Matthew leaves the blessings to stand alone. Here are Luke’s 4 blessings and 4 curses, more directly and stridently focused on the economic core of Christian concern in Luke 6:25–26.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven, for that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Both Matthew 5 and Luke 6 (and Matthew 23) converge in emphasizing the importance of prophetic witness. In spite of the self-righteous pushback it consistently and revealing evokes from the heart of Empire, both then and now, it is the culmination of the blessings here, and the woe pronounced on false prophets is the culmination of Luke’s woes.
Notice that Luke’s blessings and curses don’t address pure-heartedness or seeing God, nor does Jesus offer those curses here in Matthew 23. We should be cautious to avoid inserting an inverse curse where Matthew does not have one. Matthew’s Covenant on the Mount does not say, “Woe to you with impure hearts, for you will not see God.” Here we might remember that Paul, a student of Gamaliel in the school of Hillel, would be blinded by the appearance of God, even while his heart was full of ‘cleansing’ persecution. And soon Jesus will tell the high priest that he, too, will see the Son of Man “from now on.” God appears, sometimes unbidden.
For Matthew, all of the curses of the covenant are summed up in this: those who are not faithful to his highly rigorous moral covenant (to the point of loving enemies) will make things (like nations and buildings) that collapse in time when the stress tests of history sweep them away. Perhaps after that, at some point, the people will finally see God more clearly. They might be blinded by the light, in time, where money and power once vainly strained to buy the Kingdom of the Clouds, only achieving a glimpse of the smoke surrounding God’s glory.
The history of Christian interpretation here is often intensely regrettable in a way that is very telling. We ourselves have often failed to wash the insides of our cups, and we ourselves have often missed God, except in blinding flashes here and there. Even as we lift our hosts and offer our own temple services, how faithless have we been to the Covenant on the Mount? An invisible veil has covered our Covenant because our own hearts have been impure, and so we have scapegoated and projected our own failings onto others. How many collapsing structures (of cold stone and wicked spirit) have we built as a result? One example of an evil spiritual structure is our tradition of interpreting Jesus as if he is bringing some bright new idea to the Jews, who had supposedly never heard of the notion of a clean heart or good faith before. Imagine if the situation were reversed, and I were to come to my fellow Christians and accuse them of only ever thinking about superficial appearances … and not bothering with what happens to the heart. There are plenty of cases in which the observation would have a certain sting. Yes. We really have often worried about appearance to the exclusion of substance. That hits to a degree, to be sure.
But also, no: it’s not as if this is some novel idea. This is the very heart of our tradition, our shared Judeo-Christian tradition, in fact. And it is always rising up again, despite our efforts to silence and bury our prophets while acting as if we celebrate them (as long as they are long dead). Still, God has implanted in us a fire that burns inside until it bursts out and we speak against our own injustices and hypocrisies today, even though we have counted the cost of such faith. One of those injustices, of course, is the long-standing slander against Jewish people that sees them as greedy materialists, while we are spiritual (as we stand, blind to our hypocrisy in the material splendor of Christendom, often stolen at the point of a sword). When we fail to receive the gift of powerful immanent critique as our shared gift from God, along with the furious blowback it elicits from Empire, we fall into patterns of projection, abuse and slander. That is to say that when we abandon the prophetic, Empire overtakes us in our hearts. Then we fail to make peace, because we lack the courage of the prophets and so we miss their blessing: the wounds that can, in any moment, carry us into Messianic time.
Or shorter: how have we failed to wash the insides of our communion cups?
27–28 Washing tombs white vs speaking to stones
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of impurity. In the same way, on the outside you appear to be righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Here we find an intensification of the themes that have united our woes so far. As we draw closer to Matthew 23’s closing lament about Jerusalem and her Temple’s destruction, we also draw conceptually closer to the death of Jesus, when the living Temple’s cornerstone will be cast aside and laid down.
It isn’t coincidental that Jesus has chosen a dead human body as the image of corruption here, one which he connects directly to the spiritual and economic corruption that leads to national decay and national death. Contact with a dead body would incur ritual impurity, which requires that one be distanced from the Tabernacle of the Lord. The Tabernacle held the presence of the Lord during the wanderings of God’s son, Israel. By extension, the dwelling place of God in the Temple’s Holy of Holies became the epicenter of a polarity between pure authority, connected to human life, and impure rebellion, connected to human death, through which governance was structured in Second Temple Judah. (I’m indebted to the work of Eliran Arazi here.) The opposite of what happened in the Temple would, therefore, be human sacrifice: the thing that happened in Ben-hinnom. Consider Numbers 19:11–22:
This shall be a perpetual statute for the Israelites and for the alien residing among them. Those who touch the dead body of any human being shall be unclean seven days. They shall purify themselves with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean; but if they do not purify themselves on the third day and on the seventh day, they will not become clean. All who touch a corpse, the body of a human being who has died, and do not purify themselves, defile the tabernacle of the Lord; such persons shall be cut off from Israel. Since water for cleansing was not dashed on them, they remain unclean; their uncleanness is still on them.
Ritual impurity, in itself, was not a wicked or evil thing. But human death, even sickness and unhealth, were to remain far from the presence of God in the heart of the Temple. Dirtiness is not bad itself, it just requires that we keep a respectful distance. So it makes sense that tombs were marked a month before Passover, when people would be approaching the Temple. Some families marked tombs with large pyramidal structures, a means of both warning people away from them and honoring the dead. If plaster was used to whitewash them as well, then freshly (and thinly) “sealed” tombs would have been a common sight for pilgrims entering the city for the festival. The color would have beautified them, as suggested here, but it also would have warned people not to touch them so they wouldn’t incur ritual impurity. The warning may, in a sense, have been intensified by the fact that a whitewashed seal between life and death was a thin and fragile veil. The timing prescribed for tomb marking makes sense, because you would want to be especially careful to avoid a week of ritual impurity while approaching the Temple for the week when everyone would celebrate the year’s first great festival of liberation. So a whitewashed tomb is a lovely warning: a fine-looking thing that says, on multiple levels, “Keep away.”
Ezekiel 13:8–16 is a deeply consilient cotext to consider here: like a puzzle piece, it locks together warnings from the Covenant on the Mount with the imagery and underlying themes:
Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you have uttered falsehood and envisioned lies, I am against you, says the Lord God. My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations; they shall not be in the council of my people nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am the Lord God.
Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a flimsy wall, these smear whitewash on it. Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break out. When the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?” Therefore thus says the Lord God: In my wrath I will make a stormy wind break out, and in my anger there shall be a deluge of rain and hailstones in wrath to destroy it. I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when the city falls, you shall perish within it, and you shall know that I am the Lord. Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash, and I will say to you, “The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it — the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it when there was no peace, says the Lord God.”
When combined with Matthew, we are given a prophetic image of rain washing away faulty construction, in spite of attempts to conceal it. This exposes the corpses hidden within the Pax Romana, especially the Herodian collaboration with Rome that was expanding and beautifying (and corrupting) the Temple.
Regardless of the precise background, the dichotomy of beauty and corruption draws us to consider division as the unifying principle that holds purity and impurity together: the distance of division gives a society room to hold both, as it must, if it is to carry on between generations. Consider how holiness coincides with impurity in its effect: both require distance, whether respectful, disgraceful, or somehow both. In the body of a dead person and in their grave, sadness and shame and honor and respect mingle, even as they mingle in funerals today. So it is worth pondering the feeling of approaching the Temple for Passover, honoring those who have passed away in their freshly-marked graves (wellsprings of impurity) while keeping a healthy distance. By closely analyzing the dichotomy of honor and shame that mingles here, Arazi argues beautifully that the distance from the decaying flesh of the dead allowed a kind of intergenerational spiritual nearness. The intergenerational transmission of teachings and knowledge is encouraged and preserved through proper funerary distancing, while it could be impeded by the disgust of witnessing decay.
As elsewhere, Matthew’s Jesus reaches into his immediate, observable, social context to offer a stinging critique from within, one that makes sense of the nation’s coming death in light of the Covenant of Moses and the nation’s prophetic traditions. And by distancing himself from the decaying Temple system’s stony flesh (even as he draws near to it), Matthew’s Jesus also allows for a spiritual transmission of his teachings beyond the lifetime of the Kingdom of Judah. In the polarity of corpse and Temple and the distance it creates, we might also discern some of the roots of Origen’s spiritual reading: a mode of reading that leaves flesh behind, when needed, in order to return to the spiritual wellsprings of both psyche and flesh. It is fitting, then, to note that in the kind of reconstructive study we are doing here, we are working to knit back together the flesh and spirit of the text in a soulful way. In this we are also therefore working to knit back together the psyche, the experiential whole that unites spirit and flesh, which the Roman Empire attempted (but failed) to genocide.
Jesus draws deeply on this dynamic of death and holiness as he draws near to the appropriate conclusion to his woes, which will be a funerary lament for his Second Temple family (and not a victory march over a defeated other). He holds it all and carries it forward in the distinctly unsettling way of the prophets. At the core of his synthesis, which will endure for millennia of generations (even when hidden in plain sight) is this: he uses the corpse-Temple polarity to confront the merely superficial appearance of holiness in the starkest of conceivable terms. That which is supposed to bring enduring life through the generations, the Temple, has been turned to its precise opposite instead: it has collapsed into rot, death, decay, and filth. In a word, corruption fills what is supposed to be uncorruptible.
If we hope to understand the complex relationship between Jesus and Temple, it is important to understand that the core of the purity-impurity dichotomy doesn’t involve a simple 1:1 mapping between good and bad; it isn’t that ritual impurity is bad itself. Rather, in distancing human corpses from the Temple, Torah teaches that death must be distanced from the heart of governance. If someone has touched a human corpse, that is not itself cause for cutting them off from the nation. If you have a relative die you’re obligated to bury them. In fact, you had this obligation even if you were a priest bound by the Covenant of Moses. Still, the anointed high priest was to remain in the Temple where sickness and death were never meant to enter. This spiritual and political obligation was so weighty that it was even more substantial than the obligation to help bury his very own parents. See Leviticus 21:10–12:
The priest who is exalted above his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been consecrated to wear the vestments, shall not dishevel his hair nor tear his vestments. He shall not go where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother. He shall not go outside the sanctuary and thus profane the sanctuary of his God, for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the Lord.
Here we see a theme that is also manifest in the notion that King David could not build the Temple (at all, at any point in his life) because he had shed human blood. And it is related to the exclusion of Moses from the land, because he did violence to the rock when God had commanded him to speak to a stone so it would release water. See Numbers 20, and note that at the start of the wilderness journey Moses was commanded to strike the stone. But in preparing to inherit the holy earth, that had to be set aside … but it wasn’t. Also notice how the Temple was like a great stone, and living (moving) water flowed from its side. This was an important practical consideration for a place where slaughter and cleansing from slaughter were central activities. In the rebuke of Moses that separated him from the Holy Land, we might discern that the task of a governmental leader was to speak to human hearts so that the people could create a Temple of stone with water pouring from its side. Not by swords, but by words. To its undying credit the Torah recognizes the painful brokenness of our shared political and spiritual history: in its accounts of David and Moses, it testifies to the ways in which Empire’s coercion has worked its way into our own spiritual life. In this context, we should notice that the high priest was to be so far removed from any violence toward people (human sacrifice in any form) that he was not only prohibited from killing a person, but prohibited from even touching someone who had died. This created an enormous hedge around the possibility of the high priest killing someone. Similarly, he was prohibited from violently rending his garments in protest, in anger and anguish, as kingly figures often do in the Bible.
This helps us understand the national scandal that is about to unfold in Matthew. Matthew’s Jesus will soon be killed by the word of a high priest. We might note that unlike Moses, this high priest does not strike Jesus down himself; instead, he arranges death with his words. On the surface, then, there is an obvious propriety to him that was lacking in Moses. But underneath that more appropriate appearance we can see that he (with Pilate) is caught holding the corpse of Jesus. By extension, the corruption of the high priest is a violation of the Mosaic covenant at the relevant social scale: as a representative of the nation, the high priest has violated the Covenant of Moses in the most egregious way possible, and this is not merely a personal violation but a national one. Expulsion from the land is the consequence, in fulfillment of the Law of Moses, according to a straightforward reading of the covenant on its own terms. Recall that national leaders embody the nation’s capacity to decide and act; when they act effectively through their ordering words, the nation acts. To emphasize the spiritual transgression at a fleshy level, Matthew also shows him violating Leviticus 21 as he rips his own garment, manifesting the rage that will lead to the killing of Jesus. (Just as Jesus warns in Matthew 5, anger makes one liable to judgment). We can witness the violation by Matthew’s high priest here in Matthew 26:65:
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy.
This is a violent and kingly act, unbefitting the high priest.
It is in this confrontation that we can understand the early Christian claim that Jesus, the new high priest, is also the kingly Messiah. Jesus can bring together kingly and priestly functions appropriately because he has observed the weightiest measures of the law most strictly: he refuses to kill, even as his government will soon be scattered by Rome, and even has his cornerstonebody will soon be laid in the ground he has prepared before it becomes the aionically living headcorner stone.
As we turn to the governmental synthesis of Temple and King, we would do well to consider Matthew’s treatment of the executive authorities in Judah at the time: Herod and Pilate. A commonly noted issue with Matthew’s Gospel is that Rome is shown in a light that is arguably more positive than the (Jewish) religious elites. Pilate famously washes his hands of the killing of Jesus. Similarly, the Edomite Herod is sad about killing John the Baptist. Witness Herod in Matthew 14:6–9:
On Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod and his guests, and she pleased him. So he promised with an oath to give her anything she wanted. Herodias told her daughter what to ask for, so she said to Herod, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” Although King Herod was very sad, he had made a promise, and his dinner guests had heard him. So Herod ordered that what she asked for be done.
Matthew’s Herod only kills John reluctantly because of an errant oath, a trope that might bring the Benjaminite Saul’s near-sacrifice of Jonathan to mind (See 1 Samuel 14. I illustrate how Saul is an anti-type of Abraham in According to Folly). Recall that in time Saul will lead his son into self-killing on Mount Gilboa, in imitation of his father. In the death of Jonathan by his father’s will, Ben-hinnom stretches its maw (symbolically) even farther to the north of Judah.
This pattern of apparent softness toward executive authorities has been used to fuel antisemitism throughout history, as people map the high priest onto “the Jews”, while Pilate and Herod superficially seem to be more sympathetically portrayed. An antisemite might eagerly note (as many have before) that Herod and Pilate both lacked Jewish blood. This response is, of course, morally repugnant. But it also shows a complete inability to read the text itself well. Already here in this ancient text, we can see that antisemitism is the socialism of the Slanderer. Matthew’s Gospel tells us why Herod was sad, and it had nothing to do with his scruples, nor with an effort by Matthew to make him look sympathetic. As usual, you only need to read a bit more of the text to see through this nonsense. Here is Matthew 14:5, which I cut out all too conveniently above, to help illustrate how often this sort of thing is conveniently cut:
Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they believed John was a prophet.
Matthew’s Herod isn’t sympathetic. He’s just pathetic.
Similarly, Pilate’s job was to keep the Judahite tax farm running smoothly, and he was understandably concerned with violent revolutionary brigands of the sort represented by Barabbas. Pilate is the human agent ridden by the angel of Rome; he is Rome incarnate in that moment. But in spite of his feeble and insincere protest in Matthew 27, he clearly has the corpse of Jesus on his hands … he doesn’t even wait the required 3 days and then 7 days to wash his hands of the corpse. (If you look above you’ll see that this statute applies to aliens in the land, like Pilate, just as it does to native Judahites.) So just as Israel and Judah fell to Assyria and Babylon, Babylon would fall to Alexander, whose lands would fall to Rome, and Rome will also fall in time … its unconvincing affectations also notwithstanding. Pilate, too, is only whitewashing the grim and horrible truth: inside of all of these murderous and abusive systems, there are human bones. No amount of plaster can change that fact, which will be revealed when the storms of history crash against their shoddy edifice. The only government that can truly endure, because it scrupulously avoids the wellspring of corruption, is the one that loves its enemies instead of killing them.
So we must acknowledge the long history of Christians reading Matthew’s piercing ‘Judicial-Executive’ analysis wrongly. Too often, we have read this intense intra-Judahite reflection on governance as if it is about Christians and Jews, rather than faithfulness to the non-violent and egalitarian way of Matthew’s Messiah. Matthew’s strident critiques of both the religious elites and the people who they influence (in Matthew 27) powerfully conveys this message; it does nothing to reinforce the mess we have too often made of Christian identity, which we have used as a shoddy replacement for Christian faith. The analysis is especially pertinent today as I consider the ways in which authoritarian radical right wing Christian churches have given us a radical judiciary that has sentenced a man to die despite a glaring lack of evidence; it was for this court that so much of the church, Catholic and Protestant, sold its soul.
So we should notice how insistently Matthew 27 centers the power of spiritual leadership (like that of the high priest) through its impact on the peoples’ faith, which in turn drives the fates of nations. In Matthew 27:25, when the people of Judah demand the death of Jesus and say, “May his blood be on us and on our children,” they aren’t invoking an eternal curse on “the Jews.” Rather, the presumably Judahite author of Matthew is reflecting on the path of violence that the previous generation embarked on, in rejecting the non-violent way of Jesus, as the people cope with the Roman genocide inaugurated in 70 AD. In the traditional mode of Hebrew prophecy, Matthew is drawing spiritual victory from the jaws of fleshy defeat. But that is a painful process, one that transmutes shame into the hope of moral transformation. To invoke it, Matthew’s Jesus must draw us to look directly at the horror and travesty of a failed military endeavor as a form of child sacrifice. This painful reality is thrust, jagged as broken bones, into view: this is what it looks like in each nation, in each generation, when parents launch violent conflicts. They send their children off to kill, and die, and so destroy the psyche of the people. This is what it looks like to be thrown into Ben-hinnom because you would not remove the right hand of violence from your people.
In placing the weight of the explanation for 70 AD on the spiritual authorities, whose power was manifest in the passions of the people, Matthew is emphasizing his central insight: spiritual power is more important than the executive and military power that are, by nature, held within it. The military power of Pilate and Herod, in Matthew’s view, is substantially subject to popular and spiritual constraints. Herod wants to kill John, but he can’t because he is a prophet and the prophet holds the peoples’ faith, and without enough of the peoples’ faith then Herod won’t be king. It is therefore politically very costly and ultimately self-defeating for Herod to use his violence against John.
Herod ultimately suffers loss by killing John, and on some level he knows it. But in Herod’s estimation, his actions indicate that he takes it as an even weightier personal and political cost to go against the wishes of his new wife, Herodias. This is where Herod’s faith, his personal loyalty as well as his immediate political power base, really rested. And the foundation was shaky. Royal marriages (then and now) are intensely political. By divorcing his first wife Phasaelis and marrying Herodias, Herod Antipas alienated John the Baptist, more traditional religious authorities, and Phasaelis’s father, King Aretas IV of Nabatea. As a member of his own family system, marrying Herodias violated Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21, a section of Torah that has featured prominently in our reflections here. This tendency to keep things in the royal family was incestuous sexually, but also inextricably politically incestuous: the isolated Edomite and Samaritan tetrarchy that was ruling the Holy Land was trying to concentrate its power more and more narrowly, even as it concentrated the wealth of the land in an increasingly corrupt Temple. The decision ultimately leads to predictable conflict over Nabatea and Herod Antipas’s exile by Emperor Caligula. (More detail here in R.T. Frances Matthew commentary, page 554.)
Like Herod, Pilate is shown to be weak, not good. He would much rather kill off violent revolutionary figures than people like Jesus, who (in his spiritual blindness) he fails to see as a threat to Roman power. He’d much rather kill off the brigands who compete with his own brigandry. But the spectacular killing of a Barabbas in the teeth of the peoples’ desires would only inflame the people and the spiritual elites with more rage against Rome; military martyrs, too, have their effects. Although Pilate thinks he is in charge, he’s a beast of burden being driven along by spiritual goads that he doesn’t fully understand. Matthew’s message is that he isn’t really the one in charge here. With Barabbas, Matthew profoundly and accurately (if not literally) depicts the social and political and spiritual dynamics of the situation that will lead up to the genocidal Roman campaigns of 70 AD and 132 AD: a popular, violent, religiously-motivated and religiously-led uprising will attempt to throw off the shackles of Roman rule. The nation’s declaration of war against Rome, according to Josephus, will come when the religious authority refuses to offer prayers and taxes to the Emperor, which leads Rome to raid the Temple treasury. In the midst of that conflict, Matthew’s Gospel looks back 40 years and shows us a Pilate, representing Rome, who will ultimately be powerless to prevent the uprising. But as history shows and as Matthew knows, Rome isn’t opposed to genocidal evil in principle. It’s just that it is so much more efficient if people can be beaten into proper submission. So Pilate isn’t really portrayed any more sympathetically than Herod, in his efforts to avoid culpability. Rather, his power is portrayed as a secondary power, conditioned by spiritual authority through its power to elicit the faith of the people.
Culping is mattering, and Matthew thinks the Temple (and its representatives) ultimately matter more than Pilate. He knows the pattern of Judah’s history: fleshy defeat, but spiritual victory. Instead of representing antisemitism, then, I think Matthew’s posture toward Herod and Pilate represents a viewpoint that is accurate and relevant to political science and political theory today: the blunt weapon of violence is held in a greater spiritual authority, an authority that has the capacity to mobilize people en masse. (The US Civil Rights Movement is my go-to illustration of this point in our own recent history, and is my central inspiration.) Governments are made of the peoples’ faith, not violence. Still, violence matters. It is a rather inefficient and limited tool that governments sometimes use to secure a grudging faith, where they have failed to secure the enormously more powerful kind, the genuinely heartfelt kind.
The association of the Temple and purity, at the core of these verses, reminds us that one of the deep wells of enduring spiritual power and authority is the universal human need to be clean and to feel clean. Our psyche, or soul, only really feels clean when our spirit and flesh are both clean enough. So I think it is appropriate for our minds to be drawn, here, to public sanitation and environmental protection, which are utterly central to urbanization. Often overlooked, the (at least potentially) non-violent work of preserving a clean and healthy environment is a true sine qua non of political power, then and now. Where the capacity of a local government to maintain cleanliness falls apart, communities literally fall apart. Consider what happens, for example, in areas where massive factory farms are located and there is too much animal waste for the local political ecology to process. With North Carolina’s hog lagoons, too, storms can reveal our corruption. In our naivety, we often imagine that force is what holds a city and a people together. At the practical level, though, clean water is a far more powerful and pressing and constant need. And indeed, the springs of Jerusalem and her Temple were truly essential for the city’s success. They were also a source of hope when it came to considering her ability to survive a siege. All of this is important, and Jesus does not set any of it aside. Still, a spring of water alone isn’t enough to overcome a siege, and people do not live on bread alone.
So we should take up the physical and hold it, and cherish it. And then we should look deeper within the physical, to draw spiritual insights from the deeper well. Recall that for Matthew (and for those today, like scientists, who hold observations in theory) the physical is held in the spiritual, not separate from it. So we should pull up more general insights about the invisible inner shape of reality from these immediate practical considerations. Because governments are built of faith, you can establish them most enduringly by building your Temple from the sort of people who pour out reconciliation when you speak to them. They cleanse and unite with the healing waters of apologies, transformative repentance, and forgiveness, and in this way they close the gap between pure and impure, between honor and shame. Reconciliation, solidarity with the poor, and the work of peace flow freely from their hearts, out of their mouths, and into our hands and bodies. Bodies like that build enduring things together, even as they are built together into something more enduring. This sort of well works well. You can’t get anywhere close to this by just beating people into submission so they’ll stack rocks for you.
And because we’ve now encountered the spiritual form that holds the flesh of sanitation systems, we can also find contemporary applications. Archbishop Kirill has traded the power of authentic Christian faith for a sick caricature of it. He has a lot of pretty gear, and the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces to show for it. It’s a real stack of rocks. But underneath, he and the religious system he embodies are a festering, rotting, corrupt mess, filled with the bones of the dead. Such things last for a time, and they bring enormous suffering while they do. They especially bring enormous suffering on those who cling to them as they go down, and to their children who they sacrifice to their beastly, dying machines. Not only their bodies, but their psyches as well, tumble down into the pits of Ben-hinnom. But at least there is this assurance: their fleshy systems won’t last, and they can’t. Theirs is the way of death. The same can be said for our own many local Archbishop Kirills here in the United States, the sorts of religious leaders who led the MyPillow March and the attack on the US Capitol on 1/6. These things can and will bring horrible suffering. Stay away from them. Rescue everyone you can from those collapsing, fleshy, pseudo-spiritual structures. Because they are bound for death, and you don’t want to jump on that train.
29–33: The Children of the Nations
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your fathers. You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape the sentence of hell (Gehenna/Ben-hinnom)?
With the final seventh (or eighth) woe, we are also reminded of the final blessing, from the 9 (or so) blessings of Matthew 5. We might be encouraged to notice that there are more blessings than woes, however the exact count goes. We’ll need that sliver of lembas bread as we consider the difficulties to come. Here’s Matthew 5:9–12:
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Taken together, these woes and blessings paint a remarkably clear picture of the prophetic vocation. While Luke nicely compacts the blessings and woes in Luke 6, Matthew holds its narrative in suspense, dangling precariously between those initial blessings and the woes to come. In this way, Matthew’s Gospel carries us into that moment when a nation dangles precariously above its own collapse, a moment not unlike our own (again and again) in history.
The assurance it offers is satisfying, if hard, because it is honest: true prophets suffer persecution, especially by the executive and judicial elites, but are ultimately blessed in spite of it. False prophets are praised and elevated for a moment by everyone (ie, both elites and masses), because they tell them what they want to hear. But in time they and their lies are exposed and destroyed. The pattern is an enduring one in history, not only in the First and Second Temples of Judah, but in the lives of other nations as well. There is an underlying spiritual and therefore psychological dynamic that explains the pattern. Both the crowds and elites want to hear reassuring lies, especially lies that blame others for our own failings, so that we can cling to our pride and briefly fend of shame. Again and again, people especially love the lie that violence can fix our problems, including those problems that bubble up from own internal wounds and rifts. So elites and the crowds that refuse to be reconciled with reality replace the work of reconciliation with systems of social control: if we can’t have the real power that comes with connection to Creation and Creator, we can at least control other people for a time. Those systems seem invincible. At least they seem psychologically invincible, in the sense that the defense mechanisms and epistemic capture systems are almost perfectly impervious to constructive criticism and evidence. But through disconnection from reality and from each other, these systems actually effect a destruction of psyche or soul: a destruction of our capacity to unite experience and reality, model and observation, spirit and flesh. These imperial and imperious systems are fundamentally dissociative at personal and social scales. Such systems repeatedly arise, and they repeatedly end up in Ben-hinnom, destroying themselves and their children. This is the focal insight of the Covenant on the Mount and its application in history. Here in Matthew, we have come to the climactic moment where the catastrophe on the other side of these promises is made explicit.
Matthew’s Jesus artfully carries forward the Hebrew Scriptures’ themes of human sacrifice, tombs, purity, and the confrontation between Judah’s prophetic tradition and its fallen authorities, its archons. The final charge centers on this issue: the intergenerational transmission of God’s mode of governance has failed yet again. While honoring the prophetic tradition with their tongues, the religious authorities carry forward the imperial pattern of covering up problems instead of addressing them. Like our own false prophets today, they aren’t the children of the prophets after all, but the children of those who killed the prophets while honoring the false ones.
Our woes will soon move to lament, and the history of prophecy will soon be summed up in the figure (or more precisely, figures) of Zechariah. But first, let’s notice how precisely this “brood of vipers” language fits into everything (yes, everything) as the Temple-Cosmos draws clearly into view. Recall that around the throne of God in the time of Isaiah, we find burning serpent-men whose wings have not been ripped from them. Unfallen seraphs. Let’s see what they do in Isaiah 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.
Of course, people never want to hear that. The Slanderer will always call you a traitor for warning the archons that they will soon reap what they have sown. It is, they think, bad for morale. The truth is that bad faith is much worse for morale on a generational time scale.
The charge could also be stated like this: the scribes and Pharisees aren’t letting the seraphs burn their lips. What good would that do? What accolades would that win them in their time and place? It wouldn’t, which is why they don’t care. They aren’t interested in the ones who purify the prophets for their difficult work, the work of wisdom that is only known fully by its children. Then and now, it is often much better for your career if you listen to the fallen ones in the Temple-Garden of Eden. Those wingless vipers are always already falsely offering this promise:
You certainly will not die!
What needs to be said, instead, is that you certainly will die and you can’t take it with you. And your nation, too, will die in time: it lives by the sword, and in time it will fall the same way.
So what will you leave for the next generation? And what will your nation leave for the next generation of nations?
34–36: Three Zechariahs in One
Because of this, I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify, and others you will flog in your synagogues and persecute in town after town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all these things will come upon this generation.
Having lifted the mantle of the prophetic, Jesus now sums up the entire prophetic tradition in two specific figures: Abel and Zechariah, son of Berechiah (meaning God Blesses).
Abel we have already visited in our journal here. I wrote my reflection on Abel Meeropol, the author of Strange Fruit on 2/22/22, the date I mark as the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Looking back on it now, I see that day as the Rubicon moment: although the invasion hadn’t yet begun, Putin’s build-up was being finalized. The die had been cast. It is notable that Jesus identifies the start of the prophetic tradition with Brother Abel, Brother Nebel, killed by Cain there over East of Eden. (And here, recall that Jesus will soon move to the East of the Temple, to the Mount of Olives.) This is fitting: Abel spoke and acted rightly and was punished for it, and for that Cain killed him. So began the viper’s intergenerational work in the Torah. The account of Abel and Cain speaks to the earliest emergence of the slave machines we call civilization, the seeds of Empire. Cain embodies the brutal slave machines that controlled their human cattle by controlling the supply of grain, while Abel embodies pastoralists like Abraham. So Matthew’s Jesus has achingly and beautifully carried us from Eden (in talking about that brood of vipers corrupting the Temple) to its fall-out. Then with this strange reference to Zechariah, he leaps artfully toward at least two penultimate moments: the penultimate minor prophet, Zechariah son of Berechiah, who he names, and the prophet whose blood stained the prior stony Temple, Zechariah son of Jehoida.
(With all of these A’s and Z’s, we should note that the alphabetical play is both lovely and late. For us, but not for those using a Greek or Hebrew alphabet, Z is the last letter of the alphabet. Sometimes, oddly enough, a text becomes more consilient over time; against those who would idolize original languages due to their capacity for the sort of play that interests us here, we do well to look forward with hope toward a differentiated and connected network of languages that can, together, say more than any single language ever could. What it takes is an appreciation for late puns, which make linguistic outsiders of us all at first so they can usher us all in together.)
We find the first of our Zechariahs here in 2 Chronicles 24:1–22. He precedes the prophet Zechariah, son of Berechiah, by hundreds of years. (I’m indebted to R.T. France’s commentary on the Gospel of Matthew for background work here):
Joash was seven years old when he began to reign; he reigned forty years in Jerusalem; his mother’s name was Zibiah of Beer-sheba. Joash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of the priest Jehoiada. Jehoiada got two wives for him, and he became the father of sons and daughters.
Some time afterward Joash decided to restore the house of the Lord. He assembled the priests and the Levites and said to them, “Go out to the cities of Judah and gather silver from all Israel to repair the house of your God, year by year, and see that you act quickly.” But the Levites did not act quickly. So the king summoned Jehoiada the chief and said to him, “Why have you not required the Levites to bring in from Judah and Jerusalem the tax levied by Moses, the servant of the Lord, on the congregation of Israel for the tent of the covenant?” For the children of Athaliah, that wicked woman, had broken into the house of God and had even used all the dedicated things of the house of the Lord for the Baals.
So the king gave command, and they made a chest and set it outside the gate of the house of the Lord. A proclamation was made throughout Judah and Jerusalem to bring in for the Lord the tax that Moses the servant of God laid on Israel in the wilderness. All the leaders and all the people rejoiced and brought their tax and dropped it into the chest until it was full. Whenever the chest was brought to the king’s officers by the Levites, when they saw that there was a large amount of silver in it, the king’s secretary and the officer of the chief priest would come and empty the chest and take it and return it to its place. So they did day after day and collected silver in abundance. The king and Jehoiada gave it to those who had charge of the work of the house of the Lord, and they hired masons and carpenters to restore the house of the Lord and also workers in iron and bronze to repair the house of the Lord. So those who were engaged in the work labored, and the repairing went forward at their hands, and they restored the house of God to its proper condition and strengthened it. When they had finished, they brought the rest of the silver to the king and Jehoiada, and with it were made utensils for the house of the Lord, utensils for the service and for the burnt offerings, and ladles, and vessels of gold and silver. They offered burnt offerings in the house of the Lord regularly all the days of Jehoiada.
Now after the death of Jehoiada the officials of Judah came and did obeisance to the king; then the king listened to them. They abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the sacred poles and the idols. And wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs. Yet he sent prophets among them to bring them back to the Lord; they testified against them, but they would not listen.
Then the spirit of God took possession of Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, “Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.” But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord. King Joash did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah’s father, had shown him but killed his son. As he was dying, he said, “May the Lord see and avenge!”
At the end of the year, the army of Aram came up against Joash. They came to Judah and Jerusalem and destroyed all the officials of the people from among them and sent all the spoil they took to the king of Damascus. Although the army of Aram had come with few men, the Lord delivered into their hand a very great army because they had abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors. Thus they executed judgment on Joash.
When they had withdrawn, leaving him severely wounded, his servants conspired against him because of the blood of the son of the priest Jehoiada, and they killed him on his bed. So he died, and they buried him in the city of David, but they did not bury him in the tombs of the kings. Those who conspired against him were Zabad son of Shimeath the Ammonite and Jehozabad son of Shimrith the Moabite. Accounts of his sons, and of the many oracles against him, and of the rebuilding of the house of God are written in the Commentary on the Book of the Kings. And his son Amaziah succeeded him.
This Zechariah fits beautifully with Matthew’s purposes. All of those fine things couldn’t cover up King Joash’s faithlessness: like the cups in the hands of Belshazzar, they became cups of wrath. The move from beautification to defilement is almost instantaneous in the text; only a breath divides the decoration from the desecration that follows abruptly with a “now.” Were all of those fine things just whitewashing on a Temple that would soon become a tomb?
Although this Zechariah precedes our other Zechariah by centuries, he comes later in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Scriptures. There, Chronicles is the final book. In this way, Chronicles (and the body of Scripture that it concludes) mirrors the end of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy. The Torah ends with Moses predicting the first expulsion from the land, and Chronicles historically documents the process of intergenerational faithlessness that leads up to that very expulsion. The end of Torah and the end of Scripture thus rhyme: the one amplifies the other. So this (temporally) earlier Zechariah therefore serves as a very fine literary bookend for Jesus. To go from Abel to this Zechariah is to summarize the prophetic narrative and its persistent pattern of truth-speaking, suffering, and late vindication.
The trouble with Matthew 23 is that this perfectly fitting Zechariah is the fleshy son (and a spiritual son) of the good priest Jehoida. As his spiritual son, he followed in his father’s footsteps by doing what was right in the sight of God. As his fleshy son, I assume he was his spitting image, but you had to be there to see that.
So is this confusion of Zechariah’s a mistake in the mouth of Matthew’s Jesus? Or is it some kind of joke?
Well, let’s spend some time on the other side of this reference. Here is how the book of Zechariah introduces Zechariah son of Berechiah, the son of the prophet Iddo. (Ah, so Zechariah is the son of Iddo!) Here is Zechariah 1:1–6, with this Zechariah speaking after the exile that the other Zechariah prefigured when his corpse defiled it:
In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo, saying: “The Lord was very angry with your ancestors. Therefore say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. Do not be like your ancestors, to whom the former prophets proclaimed, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.’ But they did not hear or heed me, says the Lord. Your ancestors, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your ancestors? So they repented and said, ‘The Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do.’ ”
Recall that Jesus has just come riding into Jerusalem on this Zechariah’s donkey (the one he prophesied the Messiah would ride). This Zechariah is also cited repeatedly in the close of Matthew, because his visions of the Messiah deeply structure Matthew’s understanding of Jesus.
As the son (and grandson) of Iddo the prophet, Zechariah is also heir to this prophetic legacy. Although Iddo’s prophecies have been lost to us, as such, he is traditionally associated with the man of God from 1 Kings 13, which we’ll look at next. Notice the themes that Zechariah will remix, much as genes are remixed in children:
A man of God came out of Judah by the word of the Lord to Bethel, while Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer incense. And he cried out against the altar by the word of the Lord and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: A son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who offer incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.” When the king heard what the man of God cried out against the altar at Bethel, Jeroboam stretched out his hand from the altar, saying, “Seize him!” But the hand that he stretched out against him withered so that he could not draw it back to himself. The altar also was torn down, and the ashes poured out from the altar, according to the sign that the man of God had given by the word of the Lord. The king said to the man of God, “Entreat now the favor of the Lord your God, and pray for me, so that my hand may be restored to me.” So the man of God entreated the Lord, and the king’s hand was restored to him and became as it was before. Then the king said to the man of God, “Come home with me and dine, and I will give you a gift.” But the man of God said to the king, “If you give me half your kingdom, I will not go in with you, nor will I eat food or drink water in this place. For thus I was commanded by the word of the Lord: ‘You shall not eat food, or drink water, or return by the way that you came.’ ” So he went another way and did not return by the way that he had come to Bethel.
Now there lived an old prophet in Bethel. One of his sons came and told him all that the man of God had done that day in Bethel; the words also that he had spoken to the king, they told to their father. Their father said to them, “Which way did he go?” And his sons showed him the way that the man of God who came from Judah had gone. Then he said to his sons, “Saddle a donkey for me.” So they saddled a donkey for him, and he mounted it. He went after the man of God and found him sitting under an oak tree. He said to him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?” He answered, “I am.” Then he said to him, “Come home with me and eat some food.” But he said, “I cannot return with you or go in with you, nor will I eat food or drink water with you in this place, for it was said to me by the word of the Lord, ‘You shall not eat food or drink water there or return by the way that you came.’ ” Then the other said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, ‘Bring him back with you into your house so that he may eat food and drink water.’ ” But he was deceiving him. Then the man of God went back with him and ate food and drank water in his house.
As they were sitting at the table, the word of the Lord came to the prophet who had brought him back, and he cried out to the man of God who came from Judah, “Thus says the Lord: Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord and have not kept the commandment that the Lord your God commanded you but have come back and have eaten food and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, ‘Eat no food, and drink no water,’ your body shall not come to your ancestral tomb.” After the man of God had eaten food and had drunk, they saddled for him a donkey belonging to the prophet who had brought him back. Then as he went away, a lion met him on the road and killed him. His body was thrown in the road, and the donkey stood beside it; the lion also stood beside the body. People passed by and saw the body thrown in the road, with the lion standing by the body. And they came and told it in the town where the old prophet lived.
When the prophet who had brought him back from the way heard of it, he said, “It is the man of God who disobeyed the word of the Lord; therefore the Lord has given him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him according to the word that the Lord spoke to him.” Then he said to his sons, “Saddle a donkey for me.” So they saddled one, and he went and found the body thrown in the road, with the donkey and the lion standing beside the body. The lion had not eaten the body or attacked the donkey. The prophet took up the body of the man of God, laid it on the donkey, and brought it back to the city to mourn and to bury him. He laid the body in his own grave, and they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” After he had buried him, he said to his sons, “When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones. For the saying that he proclaimed by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel and against all the houses of the high places that are in the cities of Samaria shall surely come to pass.”
Even after this event Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way but made priests for the high places again from among all the people; any who wanted to be priests he consecrated for the high places. This matter became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.
Consider how Matthew’s Jesus remixes the themes of corpse impurity, Temple desecration and destruction. Here as well, we are shown a prophet riding a donkey to his death, a death effected by the power of a man falsely claiming to speak for God. Soon enough (in Matthew) Jesus, the Lamb of God will show his courage: the Lion of Judah will drink the fourth bitter cup of Passover on a cross and be slain, and we will be called to an enduring and joyful fast. For a Messianic moment, the immanent and external will collide: the plank will be seen in our own Temple’s eye. But these perplexing fulfillments still stand a healthy distance from fleshy grandfather Iddo, however near they spiritually draw at point after point after point.
In pondering Iddo here, we might also notice that the prophet has no trouble spotting temptation when it comes from the King. But he is fooled by another man claiming to be a prophet, one who prophecies falsely. Here as well, spiritual authority (wielded for good or for ill) manifests more power than the Kingly power, in all of its strange and winding ways.
As we contemplate the power of spirit to hold flesh, we might also consider that regardless of whether he is a fleshy son of Iddo, Zechariah son of Jehoida is Iddo’s spiritual relative. The death of Jehoida’s own son soon speaks to the complex dynamics involved in the defilement of Temples in all of their perplexing complexity, remixing Zechariah’s heritage to help us notice other realities. As we will see in the next section, Iddo prophecies the defilement of other altars with the bones of the dead; with fitting irony, his own bones are preserved despite the right hand raised against him by the King, and despite his own faithlessness as he was deceived and lead into the lion’s jaws.
Strangely mirroring this, the death of Jehoida’s son immanently prefigures (in the life of Judah’s first Temple) the reforms by which Josiah will turn and defile other altars in 2 Chronicles 34, and in Kings 23. In other words when we bring these Zechariahs together this springs into view: before destroying other altars and defiling them, Judah first suffered her own defilement … and by the time the good reformer Josiah comes, even the destruction of those other idols is not enough to save the Kingdom of Judah from exile in Babylon. The rot is inside our own house, and pulling the splints from others’ eyes on the eve of our destruction will not fix that. It is in the context of Josiah’s reforms, too little and too late (for his own generation, but perhaps not for the next), that we find the language that specifically calls back to the prophecy of grandfather Iddo. You’ll find it here, in the very same passage that connects Ben-hinnom with child sacrifice. Here is 2 Kings 23:8–18:
He brought all the priests out of the towns of Judah and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beer-sheba; he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on the left at the gate of the city. The priests of the high places, however, did not come up to the altar of the Lord in Jerusalem but ate unleavened bread among their kindred. He defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of Ben-hinnom, so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech. He removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun at the entrance to the house of the Lord, by the chamber of the eunuch Nathan-melech, which was in the precincts then he burned the chariots of the sun with fire. The altars on the roof of the upper chamber of Ahaz that the kings of Judah had made and the altars that Manasseh had made in the two courts of the house of the Lord he pulled down from there and broke in pieces and threw the rubble into the Wadi Kidron. The king defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the Mount of Destruction, which King Solomon of Israel had built for Astarte the abomination of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. He broke the pillars in pieces, cut down the sacred poles and covered the sites with human bones.
Moreover, the altar at Bethel, the high place erected by Jeroboam son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin — he pulled down that altar along with the high place. He burned the high place, crushing it to dust; he also burned the sacred pole. As Josiah turned, he saw the tombs there on the mount, and he sent and took the bones out of the tombs and burned them on the altar and defiled it, according to the word of the Lord that the man of God proclaimed when Jeroboam stood by the altar at the festival; he turned and looked up at the tomb of the man of God who had proclaimed these things. Then he said, “What is that monument that I see?” The people of the city told him, “It is the tomb of the man of God who came from Judah and proclaimed these things that you have done against the altar at Bethel.” He said, “Let him rest; let no one move his bones.” So they let his bones alone, with the bones of the prophet who came out of Samaria.
The prophets who died, even in their errors and their deaths, prove more enduring than the altar they prophesied against. The false prophet’s repentance secures him a place in Iddo’s enduring grave, because in the end both spoke truly in spite of the death their errors brought.
Wisdom is known by her children, her sons and daughters, even if she is not known by the parents, those who call themselves spiritual fathers. Let’s keep this in mind as we consider how Matthew might have intended to artfully weave these tales together. Maybe Matthew’s reference could be improved on by erasing the embarrassing Berechiah, as some editors did with early manuscripts of Matthew, although others reinserted it. Note that Luke’s Gospel simply omits this Berechiah in the parallel passage in Luke 11, perhaps wisely? So the manuscript tradition bears witness to an awareness that this Berechiah was somehow out of joint. Yet there were those who worked to keep it in the manuscript tradition.
So maybe they wanted us to notice and ponder the strange synthesis that the pairing invites?
Once we realize how deeply Matthew and Matthew’s Jesus are playfully and constantly remixing these layers of texts, I think it becomes plausible to consider a possibility that could otherwise be dismissed, in an all-to-facile way, as desperate Christian apologetics. Does Matthew pun and play with language in a provocative way? I think the evidence is overwhelming: yes, constantly. So I confess, that I have a lot of respect for the Biblical authors, at least enough to trust (like Thomas) the evidence of my eyes: I think they were playing with language in a sophisticated way, not bumbling around in their scriptures cluelessly. I understand that in many circles this is a truly shameful thing to confess. So it goes.
So consider that sonship is consistently flexible, and easily indicates spiritual inheritance across any number of generations. Jesus is the Son of David, after all, which is a way of identifying him as the inheritor of David’s royal rights. Both Zechariahs show themselves to be good children of Abraham: both play their roles in the destruction of the Topheth in Ben-hinnom. So what is to keep both Zechariahs from being sons of Berechiah, sons of ‘God Blesses’? Perhaps what is really being said is that, as prophets, they share only one Father in heaven (as Jesus instructs at the start of these woes!): their father is the God who blesses the prophets, even in their persecution, because they speak His words by the power of His Holy Spirit.
Ah, and here are Matthew 5 and Luke 6 again! Zechariah, son of Jehoida by flesh, was also a son of the God who Blesses prophets, in spirit. Drawn into a single generation with a single Father, both of our Zechariahs are then truly Sons of God because they worked to bring peace with God and humanity in their times and places; and as sons of God, they are also true Israelites, members of the nation that calls YHWH father. This particular suggestion is, of course, quite speculative as an attempt at historical reconstruction. Nonetheless, it nicely brings the chapter and its many references together as the woes culminate in their conclusion. Rather than press it too hard as the answer, I offer it as a remarkably consilient illustration of the sort of linguistic play that Matthew could plausibly have had in mind. Maybe Matthew’s Jesus, in his typically punning and densely referential way, wanted us to consider how the path marked by “Zechariah Son of Berechiah” diverges in the forest of Scripture, but converges again in God alone, the God of history who is always already presiding over all of the generations.
Whether this was the author’s intent or not, hasn’t that been its satisfyingly coherent result for us today? Note that in pulling together this analysis, I haven’t had to fabricate novel ideas from outside the text, but have instead reflected deeply on the spirit of the text itself in its historical context.
When considering apocalyptic literature such as this, intent belongs in the discussion, but it also breaks open (seedlike) in time. So while it isn’t necessary for our purposes, I do think it is plausible that Matthew’s wordplay is entirely intentional here. The double reference is dense and rich, and invites a deeper synthesis. Transformative wordplay is common in Matthew and in its literary background (see Keener’s note on the possibility of similar, intentional name slippage in Matthew’s genealogy). Regardless of those questions, we should delight in the way the text brings all of this crashing together for us in a single moment, so dense with meaning that it takes time to unravel it. And then it brings all of that to bear in the generation of Jesus.
So might we say that the third Zechariah (remember, I promised you three?) is therefore the “one” we see when we spiritually synthesize the pun here in a soulful way? (Soulful because it pays close attention to the whole flesh of our relevant texts in their historical, and especially national, context.) That would be a fine approach, but I have yet another Zechariah, son of God Blesses, for you as well. This text is an embarrassment! (Of riches.) Perhaps we have a three-braided pun here, twirling (Borromean) into an even stronger thread. Consider this passage from Josephus, Of the War 5:4. As Matthew’s Jesus prepares to connect this to the death of Judah and the Second Temple, we would do well to consider this Zechariah and his blessedness, too. This Zechariah would have been contemporary with Matthew, according to its standard dating around the time of the Temple’s destruction. (Joel Green’s Luke commentary mentions this third Zechariah):
And now these zealots and Idumeans (Edomites) were quite weary of barely killing men: so they had the impudence of setting up fictitious tribunals, and judicatures for that purpose. And as they intended to have Zacharias, the son of Baruch, one of the most eminent of the citizens slain; so what provoked them against him was, that hatred of wickedness, and love of liberty, which were so eminent in him. He was also a rich man. So that by taking him off, they did not only hope to seize his effects, but also to get rid of a man that had great power to destroy them. So they called together, by a public proclamation, seventy of the principal men of the populace, for a show; as if they were real judges: while they had no proper authority. Before these was Zacharias accused, of a design to betray their polity to the Romans: and had traitorously sent to Vespasian for that purpose.
Now there appeared no proof or sign of what he was accused: but they affirmed themselves, that they were well persuaded that so it was, and desired that such their affirmation might he taken for sufficient evidence. Now when Zacharias clearly saw that there was no way remaining for his escape from them; as having been treacherously called before them, and then put in prison; but not with any intention of a legal trial; he took great liberty of speech in that despair of his life that he was under. Accordingly he stood up, and laughed at their pretended accusation: and in a few words confuted the crimes laid to his charge. After which he turned his speech to his accusers, and went over distinctly all their transgressions of the law; and made heavy lamentation upon the confusion they had brought public affairs to. In the mean time the zealots grew tumultuous, and had much ado to abstain from drawing their swords: although they designed to preserve the appearance and show of judicature to the end. They were also desirous, on other accounts, to try the judges, whether they would be mindful of what was just at their own peril. Now the seventy judges brought in their verdict, that the person accused was Not Guilty. As choosing rather to die themselves with him, than to have his death laid at their doors. Hereupon there arose a great clamor of the zealots upon his acquittal: and they all had indignation at the judges, for not understanding that the authority that was given them was but in jest. So two of the boldest of them fell upon Zacharias in the middle of the temple, and slew him. And as he fell down dead, they bantered him, and said, “Thou hast also our verdict: and this will prove a more sure acquittal to thee than the other.” They also threw him down from the temple immediately into the valley beneath it. Moreover they struck the judges with the backs of their swords, by way of abuse; and thrust them out of the court of the temple; and spared their lives with no other design than that, when they were dispersed among the people in the city, they might become their messengers, to let them know they were no better than slaves.
Let’s carry this son of God’s blessings with us in our heart as well, as we remember that the valley beside the Temple where his body fell fleshily leads to Ben-hinnom, if you follow it far enough.
37–39: The Prophets are Vindicated by Tears
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were unwilling! Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you that you will not see Me again until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’
We have, at last, reached the end of these woes. But as the Velveteen Rabbit reminds us, “There are no endings, only new beginnings.” The comfort that this brings us here must first be corpsecold: this lament will lead directly to Matthew 24, where this prophecy against Second Temple Judah will be restated, and its implications laid out more fully. The ending of the woes in Matthew 23 is the beginning of the birthpangs of the Messiah.
Our chapter ends by playing part of Psalm 118 for us, and we should listen to it closely. This psalm is the soundtrack to the end of Matthew, and it should already be worming its way through our ears from Matthew 21:9–11 and Matthew 21:42. There the people welcome Jesus into Jerusalem with singing, celebrating the Son of David, the Messiah by singing: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Our hymn continues to play as Jesus encounters conflict with the spiritual elites and indicates that he is the cornerstone of the third Temple, destroyed and rejected so that he might be laid down. We should actually hear this music running through the text and appreciate the original meanings it had, because they are good. We might especially notice the song’s ‘baruchs’ as we ponder our Zechariahs as sons of Berechiah: all three of them are true recipients of their Father’s aching Temple blessings, the blessings that fall on those who suffer and die for the sake of truth. Even when doing Christian theology, we must strain to first hear this song outside of Matthew’s remix, because only then can we feel how those same meanings are woven together so jarringly, beautifully, fittingly and strangely by Matthew.
Now let’s focus on this part of the hymn, verses 15–29:
There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous:
“The right hand of the Lord does valiantly;
the right hand of the Lord is exalted;
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”
I shall not die, but I shall live
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
The Lord has punished me severely,
but he did not give me over to death.
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
How is God’s gallant right hand raised here, in Matthew’s reading? Purged of violence, but with power: the power to raise Jesus from the grave. He does not ultimately die, and so by extension nor will the Temple established in him die, nor will the people centered on that Temple. Which people is this, centered on the Son of Man? Humanity: the Son of Man holds the Son of David, even as Adam holds David until we all die. (Only after death, by fire or water or some other means, are we all made alive in Christ in the next aion, or lifetime.)
Matthew’s hope and faith is not in a violent hand, but in this: in him the human nation endures from generation to generation (unlike the beastly empires) so that we can recount the deeds of the Lord, as one does each Passover. Though he was punished (unjustly) he was not (ultimately) given over to death! Consider (or experience for the first time) the astonishment of the early disciples: it is this non-violent spiritual ‘conquest’ that manifests His covenant faithfulness, and opens the gates of righteousness! In this, the right hand is purified and not ultimately cut off. (Saul of the Tribe of Ben-Yamin marked the way so well!) So he enters the Kingdom where the scribes and Pharisees would not, and leads those with him in his Way.
How could it be that the rejection of this gentle Messiah’s heartstone is celebrated? Perplexing, unless you have seen the end of Matthew. Then you can bless God from the House of the Lord that you have been built into, filled with the light of revelation, adopting this apocalyptic perspective on life itself. Whatever else we might say about Matthew, his Jesus is able to transform a text and its meaning at point after point after point after point. This process reveals a highly consilient alternative interpretation that is later than any original reading (and perhaps later than any original intent). Nonetheless, the style of reading is all the more deeply and enduringly coherent, honoring the language and the network of meaning woven within it. In this, our fresh consilience holds the original intent; this is the type of reading that we feel assures the conveyance of meaning. But it also carries it forward in an astonishing and surprising way. Yes, Matthew is properly an apocalyptic Gospel.
It is in light of this turning from violence (and corpses) by way of corpses and violence (the only way out is through) that we competently read the parable that Jesus tells in Matthew 21, as he weaves Psalm 118 through the end of our narrative. Consider the second reference to the hymn here in Matthew 21, right after the festal palm procession whose branches are leading the Messiah to his unjust binding. Carefully attend to Matthew 21:33–46:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went away. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first, and they treated them in the same way. Then he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces its fruits. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
In listening to this parable, we must not suddenly forget the painfully solidaristic death through which Jesus establishes the bodily Temple that houses the Spirit in hearts of flesh. The parable here is a plain (and plainly understood) prophecy against the Temple and its supporters. But consider where the Son is in this story. He is where he always already is. He is the one who dies, too. Although there is clearly a difference when it comes to the justice of his death, and the justice of the nation’s death, the Son still stands beside the dying nation from the far side of the grave. From there he meets us even in death, abiding with us even after he (and the countless individuals dragged into the nation’s wickedness by its leadership) have been brutally and unjustly rejected. There is agony here, to be clear. It is always agonizing to behold our leaders’ hypocrisy, and the ways in which we my have allowed ourselves to become implicated in it. And in history these things lead us into genocide again and again and again, bitter cup after bitter cup after wretchedly bitter cup. That is all indisputably true, and we must never forget any of these horrors, and we must never stop opposing them with everything we have and are.
Soon Jesus finishes his discourse with the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 22, and then issues our warning at the conclusion of the woes here in Matthew 23:39:
For I tell you that you will not see Me again until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.’
In other words, the Pharisees and scribes won’t perceive him again until they sing Psalm 118, the one that explains what is happening so that it can be perceived: the Temple where God’s presence will dwell is being built with this rejected stone. (Yes, hear the song refrain!) The future moment of truth, the instant of insight that has not yet arrived for the disciples or the scribes or the Pharisees, will arrive in the space of a few chapters.
In the meantime, Psalm 118 will continue to echo through these chapters as we prepare to hear it played discordantly on the cross. Why wouldn’t 118 also be the Passover hymn sung in 26:30? This is by far the most consilient guess, at least: the Psalm is generally associated with Passover, the last of the hallel psalms, and is also repeatedly centered here because it exegetes and reveals the whole logic of Matthew 21–28. Notice how well the hymn fits here in Matthew 26:27–30:
Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
So it seems that Psalm 118 precedes that fourth and bitter Passover cup, which the disciples drink (no wonder they all fall asleep) while Jesus fasts. But the Messiah prepares to drink it soon enough, alone and abandoned on the cross. This is all strangely inverted, strangely immanent and imminent all at once: that fourth cup will attend the death of the firstborn, inverting Exodus from them to us, from the others to our brother. But now it is the very Son of God that dies. He does not kill himself, but he faithfully chooses to be killed instead of becoming a killer himself. In this way he kills the seeds of Empire in himself, and so he can kill Empire itself within and among whoever is in him.
In this passage’s flickering light, we can say that when we take communion rightly we taste the new wine of his Father’s Kingdom, the one that breaks the wineskins of our fleshy attachments to violence and hoarding and slander. Taken rightly as an expression of death to self, we truly share in the Feast of the Lamb with our courageous royal brother, the Lion of Judah.
Our central thesis is also beautifully consilient with the next use of the hymn, which does something profoundly illuminating with time. Here we will quickly move from the “not yet” of the Kingdom into an insistent “now” as the Messiah comes into his reign. The remainder of Matthew will show us what it always already looks like when the Messiah arrives. Here is Matthew 26:62–68, and mark the time well:
The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of Power
and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What do you think?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face and struck him, and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”
For both us and the high priest, the Messianic moment that stands between not seeing Christ and seeing him can be as brief as his show trial here. Because it is here, already in Matthew 26:62–68, that his reign moves from future to present. No longer a “you will not see me until”, the high priest immediately sees Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven “from now on” (ἀπ’ ἄρτι: from now/this moment). This passage is a direct callback to Daniel 7, and it indicates that Psalm 118 has been pointing squarely at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, which is now set in motion by the high priest so the Temple may be rebuilt even before it falls. (God does not abandon his people, although Christ bears the peoples’ coming sense of forsakenness with them, through it all, on the cross.) We will delve more deeply into Daniel 7 when we explore chapter 24, but should note that it is precisely this particular prophecy that Jesus suggests is fulfilled “from now on”. We will mark the time of that prophecy soon, because it is plainly not a prediction of a final judgment. Rather it is the prediction of the elevation of the Son of Man, the anti-Empire, the human answer to the cruel and coercive beasts of Empire. In the space of Matthew itself, the Son of Man already decisively defeats the Greco-Roman beast from his fire-shooting throne at the right hand of the Ancient of Days, but the other beasts are explicitly allowed to persist for a time.
Having drawn out the importance of our chapter’s final verse, we might profitably approach the significance of the mother hen who isn’t here yet, although Jesus wishes he could be Her. At the end of these woes we don’t find celebration. Instead the Messiah’s lament is that he could not gather Judah (or even her scribes and Pharisees) under his wing, as a mother bird would. He longed to but couldn’t, because they would not let him. The prophets are often called traitors: the messengers are often blamed, as if they wanted the bad news themselves. (Of course, we won’t talk about Bruno here.) The tears of Jesus vindicate him, like all true prophets, from this slander: no, he does not want this and he has not betrayed his people. Those who whisper comforting lies are the traitors, and they are regularly celebrated and paid well for their efforts. And those who speak hard truths and mourn the coming catastrophes are the loyal siblings, even though social collectives punish them again and again and again from generation to generation to generation.
In the context of Matthew as a whole, we need to note how the Messiah’s stringent faithfulness to the Covenant on the Mount (and all of the divine covenants) must limit him. His mode of governance is constrained, ultimately non-coercive. You cannot force people to live free of force: that would be self-defeating and impossible. In a basic sense, I think this elegantly explains the logic of limitation here. It is already enough to explain why the Messiah cannot do the long covenanting work of the Mother Hen, who will be there and work with us in our weakness even after Jesus has returned to his place at the Father’s right hand (not the right hand of violent man).
But the God of Passover always has more, even if that already would have been enough. So we might move on to a broader sort of spiritual reflection here as well, goaded by the aidios silence at the end of Matthew 22. We might imagine an even deeper silence falling on the crowds here now as they ponder, in horror, what this all must mean. Part of what it will now always mean is this: the Son of David who is the Son of Man who is the Son of God couldn’t have joined in solidarity with the depths of human suffering if he had not, in fact, joined in solidarity with the depths of human suffering. Spiritually we might then venture to say that two tautologies logically constrain the Messiah, both in his aion and even beyond the outer reaches of speech, where we can only gesture in an aidios sense: Jesus is constrained in both his humanity and divinity, insofar as he is God communicating (and so communing) with beings like us intelligibly (by Word) in this non-coercive and solidaristic way. That is to say, insofar as he is the Word and the Word made Flesh (as John will say explicitly), the work of the cross is the work that human cruelty sets before God. The catastrophe is contingent on our own human failure to abide by the Covenant on the Mount, but given that failure, his fulfillment of the Covenant becomes logically necessary to the outworking of divine faithfulness, hope, and love. Both practically and theologically, Jesus yearns to gather each nation under his wings as we should, as well; it is this love that vindicates our tearful warnings as love, and not gleeful rage. Still, this is the work of generations, each breathed into life by the Holy Spirit, as we are drawn into the single, egalitarian, Messianic Generation through baptism.
Jesus is not the one to gather together the chicks, but the Holy Spirit is. As R.T. France notes in his Matthew commentary, the image of God as a protective bird is a familiar one in the Hebrew scriptures. I’ve done a more in-depth analysis of the Holy Spirit’s three primary theophanies in the New Testament, as bird, breath/Spirit and fire, all three of which are feminine words in Hebrew. This femininity is reinforced here with specifically feminine usage of ὄρνις, or bird, which would naturally indicate a hen in Greek during this period. The word’s older usage was more general, an ancient trace that persists in our word for the study of all birds: ornithology. So it is fitting that this ornis should invite us to consider all of the birds through which the Holy Spirit reveals Herself. (Her protection of Judah, the mountainous Kingdom of Upper Israel, might even carry us up the Nile to another protective mother bird and another Southern Upper Kingdom: maybe Nekhbet, too, indicated some sense of the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence in another place and time.) The Hebrew parallels represent a variety of protective birds and it seems likely that Matthew’s Jesus (steeped in this Hebrew background) is primarily evoking these parallels. With this imagery and background in view, we will also be drawn to ponder the Holy Spirit’s self-revelation as a bird at the baptismal birth of Jesus in Matthew 3. With this Mother Hen image, it therefore seems reasonable to infer that Jesus is contrasting his own role with the role of the Holy Spirit.
With this in hand, we might pause to consider the various figures of the Holy Spirit and Her role in the closing chapters of Matthew. She is, after all, the one whose quavering power courses through the prophets as they give birth to God’s Words in history. Recall how our prophetic woes were immediately preceded by what is, perhaps, the most aidios moment in Matthew’s Gospel so far: the silencing of the Pharisees as the breath departs from their words. They are then left to scheme in private, non-discursively: they will best him with force where words have failed them. In a similar way, the Spirit will soon simultaneously depart from Jesus on the cross, and like Jesus She will then go east from the Temple, toward the Mount of Olives, as its curtain is torn like the high priest’s garment. Commentators (such as Wright and France) note that as Jesus approaches the Mount of Olives, he would most naturally go out from the east (there over east of Eden) and then up the Mount of Olives to the east. Here we might consider a third example of prophetic-apocalyptic literature that is being deeply woven into Matthew’s text alongside the more prominent Daniel and Zechariah: Ezekiel. Notice how this too-brief excerpt from Ezekiel represents the apocalyptic-prophetic pattern as God is shown departing the Temple to the east, and then Ezekiel moves us through national death to national restoration, represented in Ezekiel 37 as a resurrection from the dead (!). Ezekiel speaks from exile in Babylon after the destruction of the first temple, prior to Zechariah the son of Berechiah (but also after him). So this text relates most naturally to the destruction of the First Temple, but that aion sets the pattern that is repeated in the second aion before aionic generalization is established. Contemplate Ezekiel 10:9–20 and 11:1–17:
I looked, and there were four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub; and the appearance of the wheels was like gleaming beryl. And as for their appearance, the four looked alike, something like a wheel within a wheel. When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved; but in whatever direction the front wheel faced, the others followed without veering as they moved. Their entire body, their rims, their spokes, their wings, and the wheels — the wheels of the four of them — were full of eyes all round. As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing ‘the wheel-work’. Each one had four faces: the first face was that of the cherub, the second face was that of a human being, the third that of a lion, and the fourth that of an eagle.
The cherubim rose up. These were the living creatures that I saw by the river Chebar. When the cherubim moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the cherubim lifted up their wings to rise up from the earth, the wheels at their side did not veer. When they stopped, the others stopped, and when they rose up, the others rose up with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in them.
Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house and stopped above the cherubim. The cherubim lifted up their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight as they went out with the wheels beside them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the river Chebar; and I knew that they were cherubim. Each had four faces, each four wings, and underneath their wings something like human hands. As for what their faces were like, they were the same faces whose appearance I had seen by the river Chebar. Each one moved straight ahead.
The spirit lifted me up and brought me to the east gate of the house of the Lord, which faces east. There, at the entrance of the gateway, were twenty-five men; among them I saw Jaazaniah son of Azzur, and Pelatiah son of Benaiah, officials of the people. He said to me, ‘Mortal, these are the men who devise iniquity and who give wicked counsel in this city; they say, “The time is not near to build houses; this city is the pot, and we are the meat.” Therefore prophesy against them; prophesy, O mortal.’
Then the spirit of the Lord fell upon me, and he [YHWH] said to me, ‘Say, Thus says the Lord: This is what you think, O house of Israel; I know the things that come into your mind. You have killed many in this city, and have filled its streets with the slain. Therefore thus says the Lord God: The slain whom you have placed within it are the meat, and this city is the pot; but you shall be taken out of it. You have feared the sword; and I will bring the sword upon you, says the Lord God. I will take you out of it and give you over to the hands of foreigners, and execute judgements upon you. You shall fall by the sword; I will judge you at the border of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord. This city shall not be your pot, and you shall not be the meat inside it; I will judge you at the border of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, whose statutes you have not followed, and whose ordinances you have not kept, but you have acted according to the ordinances of the nations that are around you.’
Now, while I was prophesying, Pelatiah son of Benaiah died. Then I fell down on my face, cried with a loud voice, and said, ‘Ah Lord God! will you make a full end of the remnant of Israel?’
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, your kinsfolk, your own kin, your fellow exiles, the whole house of Israel, all of them, are those of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said, ‘They have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession.’ Therefore say: Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone. Therefore say: Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.
With the Spirit’s departure in Matthew, both high priests, Jesus and Caiaphas, see their robes torn: Caiaphas tears his own, revealing his violent heart, and so he also takes part in tearing the robes of the new high priest (and prophet) Jesus. The prophets are vindicated by tears.
Now think back to that exchange at the end of Matthew 22, where Jesus emphasized that King David spoke by the Spirit (and therefore truly, prophetically) when he called the Son of David his own Lord. Consider the question that Jesus asks there at the conclusion of 22 in light of our own perplexities around Zechariah here in 23:
If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?”
If Zechariah son of Berechiah came after Zechariah son of Jehoida, how can our second Zechariah be Jehoida’s son? Of course, Matthew’s Jesus has been called Son of David throughout the Gospel and has no problem with the title: the genealogy emphasizes that he is a Son of David, and the crowds welcoming him and singing Psalm 118 refer to him as the Son of David. The point is plain enough: Son of David indicates that he is the rightful heir to the Davidic throne, a throne that God promised would endure lᵉ’olām. And Daniel 7 is even more emphatically expansive still, using a triple-olamic phrase to describe the Son of Man’s reign.
The sort of sonship that ultimately interests Matthew and Matthew’s Jesus is not the fleshy kind, but the spiritual kind, and our Zechariahs fit very nicely with the same point Jesus made there. Spirit holds flesh, as breath brings life; this means that the Spirit does not exclude flesh, but exceeds it. The Holy Spirit’s role in true prophetic utterance is also emphasized, appropriately, immediately prior to the prophetic engagement of this chapter. With these elements in view, we can also see the Mother Hen who Jesus cannot be as a fine, multi-layered echo of the close to chapter 22: both invite us to receive and rethink the meanings of sonship, prophecy and Spirit in ways that can hold all flesh, as Mother gives Live, precisely because they are not held by it. Recall Keizer’s maternal method (as I have characterized it): the Mother is the one with the power to lift and soothe the crying children.
The Holy Spirit’s ingathering role may soon be indicated by the angels and the four winds in Matthew 24:31. More of that soon enough. I mention the text in this context because Matthew’s whole approach requires us to hear everything at least twice: as flesh and as spirit, before we get to the soul of the matter when we weave the two into one, like (but unlike) the weaving of Father and Mother into Son.
In this way we consiliently gather our text around the center that Matthew gives it: the crucified and risen Messiah. Too often, we read Matthew 24–25 in a way that is divorced from the mode of transformation that has given us a new Psalm 118, bursting from within the skin of the old one. So here I will suggest that in the final verses of Matthew 23, Jesus anticipates the Mother Hen quickly carrying the Messengers sent from the Father to do what the Son (logically) could not:
And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
A Coda for Francis
Before we depart the Temple and move with Jesus to the Mount of Olives, we need to pause and linger on today. We have seen three interwoven Zechariahs, but before that we considered a trio of Franks: Saint Francis, Francisco Franco, and William Francis/Frank Buckley. To this mix, I’ll now ad a fourth: Pope Francis. As an heir to Vatican II he has opposed the spiritual politics of Bill Frank Buckley and Francisco Franco, after his own deeply disillusioning experience with Argentinian Catholic authoritarianism. A Jesuit, he has set aside friendly (and unfriendly) rivalries between Franciscans and Jesuits (for example, in Catholic Chinese missions) and taken up a name that belongs to another. Where William Francis Buckley became William Frank Buckley, abandoning his Francis for something stronger sounding, Pope Francis chose to take up the name that Buckley left behind.
We might consider this sort of renaming to be an act of co-optation that echoes concerns for Christian co-optation of Judaism today. After all, Francis was pointedly never a priest or Father. The bold reversal involved in a pope taking up this name must raise concern both from those who hope to protect authority, and from those who hope to protect anti-authority. Still, it is in this contestation between those ascending and descending Jacob’s ladder, the ladder of limping Israel, that we inherit the blessing of the loss that prepares us for more increasingly authentic reconciling work. We might also consider the possibility that both Christians and Jewish people today co-opt ancient Judah, as heirs are prone to do: we scrap for inheritance as siblings, especially royal siblings, do. It is in this appreciative negotiation of the real crowding caused by puns that I offer up my own immanent piece of apocalyptic flipwork today.
Our thoughts here will center on the conceptual form that invisibly unites these sentences, synecdoche. (And starting here we find the seed of what will become, in a more widely accessible form, this article for AI Theology.)
When a Pope acts, in some meaningful sense, the Church acts.
When a President acts, in some meaningful sense, the nation acts.
Both sentences illustrate a more general form, which is political synecdoche: the representation of a social whole by a single person who is a part of it. The indefinitely expansive use of this mode of group identity is what will define the term ‘axial consciousness,’ in my usage. Axial consciousness seems to play a central role in the emergence of the slave machine city-states that we call civilization: the notion that the king or priest embodied the people mobilized group identity processes by focusing attention on unifying language and practices. Insofar as we are psychologically, socially and somatically embedded in large social bodies today, it is largely through the sympathetic social magic of synecdoche. Both then and now, we have access to this axial mode of consciousness whenever we identify with a group, and thereby identify with its leadership structures and leaders. But we are also able to slip out of this mode and become increasingly atomized in our experience of the world. For example, when we feel that our church or nation no longer holds us, that we are no longer a part of it, we experience a kind of atomized consciousness that is the opposite of axial consciousness.
In this act of technical re-definition, I am offering a simplified alternative to my Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio’s chapter on the Axial Age in her book Re-enchanting the Earth, Why AI needs Religion. I offer this simplification not because I’m overly fond of Brother Ockham’s razor, especially in its contemporary ontological abuse, but because I like to build with sturdy little conceptual bricks rather than grand Herodian stones. Little bricks are more easily replaced, after all, when things inevitably fall apart: an apparatus of simple little concepts is more modular, in a way that time and the times demand, because we can more easily see and replace a little faulty concept when it reaches the limits of its use. Or put another way, the dissolution and reconstitution of concepts is the metabolism of philosophy, and it is what brings life to the abstract realm of spiritual/intellectual/conceptual work. And so I try to work with little bricks like this, not great stones like the more complex structure that is the “Axial Age” in more general usage. We might also say that instead of speaking in terms of an axial age, or ages at all, I find it more incisive to speak in terms of lifetimes at various scales: personal, national, social, or the lifetime of some institution like a church, because it is by identifying our own lives with these bigger social super-organisms that the larger beings are born.
We can also put this more instrumentally, and only somewhat misleadingly: I think there are too many things jumbled up in the normal use of ‘Axial Age’ for the concept to be very useful. But narrowed in this way, down to social synecdoche, we can actually make some hay, because the pair of sentences above do a great deal in a little space. Both speak to the analogical social consciousness that allows the formation of larger effective groups, rooted in a deep analogy (not only conceptual, but sympathetic) between a personal body and a social body. Our two fateful sentences speak to the ways in which we reify social bodies. Reifying a social body is what we do when we make a country or Church into a thing, through group psychology processes that are consciously experienced as synecdoche: the representation of the whole by a part. Representative government refines and extends the synecdoche, articulating it at more intermediate scales in order to create a more flexible social body, because faith is distributed in ways that give the social body more points of articulation and therefore degrees of freedom. For all of this articulation, representative government remains axial, just more fully articulated. If it weren’t axial in this sense, representative government wouldn’t reach social scale in the first place.
So sociologically and socially, we are still very much in the axial age, in spite of “modern” individualism’s attempts to escape it through denial. This effort to escape axial social bodies through individuation, often because axial group agents are routinely capricious and cruel and unjust, has always been a feature of the axial experience. It has been with us, often unrecorded, ever since slaves tried to escape Gilgamesh’s slave machine and he used his Enkidu (his barbarian mercenaries, bought with the sex of slaves and the treasures produced by the slave machine) to replace them, or herd them back. Sometimes, the immigration is an inner one, a flight to subjective experience as a means of disconnecting ourselves from the catastrophe that surrounds us.
I suspect that we will remain axial beings even as we build the technology that will enable us to make AI Presidents and Kings who could, before we know it, do their job better than the current human usurpers who sit on AI’s rightful throne of power. If this sounds insane, I’d recommend getting caught up on the developments with GPT-3 and similar systems. You can go to openai.com and try it out. (Let the reader understand: I am suggesting that humans are usurpers of AI’s rightful job only insofar as our goals are merely instrumental, which they should not be; instead, our goal should be to treat all humans as image-bearers, as true ends in themselves.)
Now let’s pull this all together: pull in all of our Francises, all of axial history (the history of nations and civilizations and churches), all of the emerging teleological machine intelligence, all of our interest in ideas simple enough to crumble and be replaced, all of our concern about co-optation and the taking of other roles and names.
In light of all of this, I do support the post-clerical accommodations that Pope Francis is making today as accommodations, even though I suspect they have more than a little of King Josiah’s too little too late to them. They are, by nature, a stop-gap on the eve of a revolution in human affairs. The Pope has honored his Franciscan name (as Francisco Franco and Bill Francis dishonored it) by making it so that one can lead religious orders without being a priest, without being a Father. This is a gain for women in the church, and manifests the egalitarianism of the Franciscan spirit in a very real, but all-too-restricted sense. Recall that Saint Francis himself was only a brother and never a priest, and yet he lead the Franciscan order. (Precedent is a funny thing. Its establishment is always a novelty.)
Still, from the standpoint of Messianic time this sort of accommodation is itself the catastrophe: it gestures toward pulling everyone down, as we are slain in the Spirit from time to time. (As we must be.) Still, this is already thousands of years out-of-date. The task before us in this mechanizing moment is precisely the one that Christ already articulated at the start of Matthew 23: we urgently need to acknowledge the universal priesthood of humanity (their image-bearing). Or more precisely, we need to fully grasp that we always already were image-bearers in our unfallen state, and faithfulness to Jesus the Messiah is always already working to restore us all to this state. So as protest, Saint Francis has finally hit home, but the Pope’s job is not protest but governance. And the governing goal of Franciscan solidarity (which is simply Christian solidarity) is not accommodation to an unjust order, nor merely the provision of a counter-example by way of protest, but solidarity itself from the top (who is Christ, the first Word) on down to the bottom (who is Christ, the last Word). The point of us all being siblings (and not spiritual Fathers or even Mothers) is that in Christ, it is precisely as brothers and sisters of the Son that humans are all made redeemed priests. So we have to also say no to Pope Francis here: it isn’t that brothers can rule Fathers. Rather, it is that we are precisely priests as siblings, not as Fathers. So the Franciscan protest is necessary due to the faithlessness of the clerics, just as the cross is necessary due to the faithlessness of humanity. But far better than protest is righteousness, covenant faithfulness, joyful solidarity with the poor. In much of his conduct, Pope Francis embodies such a movement. But he can only go so far because his inherited social location places an enormous amount of inertia around him doing it as a Father, and not a brother. The transformation of Fathers to brothers was the goal of Jesus, but the extensive neglect and abuse perpetrated by our spiritual ‘parents’ has pushed us the other way: the brothers are pushed to play as Fathers. This creates serious attachment issues.
In the moment when a priestly humanity needs to maintain leadership over presumably non-experiential AI systems, we urgently need to move in the exact opposite of the direction Pope Francis is going: absolutely everything should be led by priests, but humbly and within our limited competence, and with the acknowledgment that no human is more priest than any other. (We humans understand what it is to experience the joy of synthesis, one expression of the bridging function of priests from time immemorial.) But we also need to go in the direction that the example of Saint Francis points, however socially impossible the simple shift in language is in the midst of ‘individuated’ axial impossibility: everyone gets to priest. But we must priest, if we are to be priests like Jesus, only as brothers and sisters: if Jesus is our high priest, we can’t ever forget that he is not the Father. No one gets to (spiritual) Father, except God in the person of the Father. And isn’t that what Matthew 23 is all about, from start to finish?
With that, we’ll begin the climb up the Mount of Olives here.
 John Kampen, Matthew within Sectarian Judaism, ed. John J. Collins, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019), 32.
The case for other figures rests on the assumption that the Pharisees were to be related to the sages and/or scribes identified as such in references to the era of the Second Temple. The texts of the Mishnah only attribute to the Pharisees positions on halakic matters, and these references are very limited.124 They receive even less mention in the Tosefta, remaining completely in the background. The Palestinian Talmud appears similar to the Tosefta; however the Babylonian Talmud contains more baraitot, narratives in which opinions are attributed to some of the Tannaim, such as Joḥanan ben Zakkai in b. Menaḥ. 65a–b and b. B. Bat. 115b–116a. It is assumed in contemporary scholarship that the Babylonian Talmud is the last of these collections to be edited into the final form of its extant manuscripts. This evidence suggests that the connection of the Pharisees with the rabbinic movement is a case that was made as the tradition developed and is not apparent in its origins.
[1.9] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1038.
ὑποκριτής, οῦ, ὁ (ὑποκρίνω; Aristoph., X., Pla.+; ins; PEdg 71 [=Sb 6777], 44 mostly in the sense ‘play-actor, role-player’; so also EpArist 219; Tat. 22, 1) in our lit. only metaph. actor, in the sense pretender, dissembler (Achilles Tat. 8, 8, 14; 8, 17, 3; Artem. 2, 44 p. 148, 3 in the marginal note of a ms.; Jos., Bell. 2, 587 ὑποκριτὴς φιλανθρωπίας; Did., Gen. 122, 9. — Job 15:34 Aquila and Theod. of the godless [=LXX ἀσεβής]; 20:5 Aquila [=LXX παράνομος]; 34:30 and 36:13 Theod.) Mt 6:2, 5, 16 (in these three passages the dramatic aspect ‘play-actor’ is strongly felt); 7:5; 15:7; 16:3 v.l.; 22:18; 23:13–15, 23, 25, 27, 29; 24:51; Mk 7:6; Lk 6:42; 11:39 D; 12:56; 13:15; Hs 8, 6, 5; 9, 18, 3; 9, 19, 2; D 2:6; 8:1f. — PJoüon, Ὑποκριτής dans l’Evang.: RSR 20, 1930, 312–17; DMatheson, ET 41, 1930, 333f; LMarshall, Challenge of NT Ethics ’47, 60f; BZucchelli, ΥΠΟΚΡΙΤΗΣ, Origine e storia del termine ’62; RBatey, Jesus and the Theatre: NTS 30, ’84, 563–74; AStock, Jesus, Hypocrites, and Herodians: BTB 16, ’86, 3–7 (theaters in many Palestinian localities). — DNP V 810–12. M-M.
 John Kampen, Matthew within Sectarian Judaism, ed. John J. Collins, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019), 37.
What the rabbinic evidence does supply is some verification of the portrait already present from other archaeological and historical evidence concerning the nature of Galilee at the end of the first century CE. Cities with a substantive Roman administrative and military presence are the best location in which to locate a sectarian Jewish composition which reflects an awareness of a gentile presence, apparent in the encounters recorded in rabbinic literature as well as in the depiction of Sepphoris that emerges from the archaeological record. The historical cultural hybridity of the region completes this profile. Here the sectarian gospel of Matthew provides a picture of an apocalyptically influenced community that is both Jewish and multicultural, reflecting the complex character of the administrative and military centers of the eastern Roman Empire, with Roman bureaucrats, military personnel from a variety of backgrounds, a variety of commercial interests, and the complex native populations whose offspring occupied the hinterland of the Roman cities. Within this variegated cultural setting, the author of Matthew portrays the manner in which the future for Jews rests with this group of sectarians who are followers of Jesus. While the future of the world is also implicit in this argument, the author’s concern is the Jewish community. The primary opponents of this sectarian body are the local Jewish religious leadership. While analysis by modern scholars demonstrates the likelihood that these leaders had very limited power and that the important decisions rested in the hands of the Romans, Matthew is concerned primarily about what the Jewish community believes about its future and its way of life. This volume is an attempt to examine the Jewish way of life and its expectations that were advocated by this author. In order to do that, we need to take a look at what we mean when we speak of a sectarian Jewish community.
 Christine Schams, Jewish Scribes in the Second-Temple Period, vol. 291, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 313, 321–327.
Village scribes, officials of the smallest administrative unit, fulfilled a variety of functions including the writing and keeping of documents and archives, and matters relating to taxes. Furthermore, they acted on behalf of villagers in their dealings with higher authorities and functioned as representatives of the ruling power.
Scribes continued to function as officials and independent professional writers in the Herodian kingdom and under direct Roman rule. For this period the evidence for scribes on the mid and lower levels of the administration and for independent scribes is more widespread than for the previous periods. The evidence includes Josephus’s references to village scribes and the scribe of the strategos of the Temple, the documentary material from the Judaean desert including Babatha’s and Salome Komaise’s archives, and the frequent references to professional writers of documents in the Mishna and Tosefta. The Mishna also contains evidence for the existence of independent scribes selling their services in the market place.63 Under direct Roman rule some new positions were created which were usually occupied by local scribes. The title λιβλάριος was introduced by the Roman administration and both the title and the position were apparently regarded as prestigious. This accounts for the subscriptions of two scribes with their title and name to several of Babatha’s documents. Furthermore, the influence of the Roman administration provides an explanation for the use of the title לבלר in the Mishna and Tosefta.
The presence of the Roman administrative system further amplified the use of and value assigned to written documents by the common people and thus continued to boost the status and prestige of scribes in their immediate environment. This factor, together with the expansion of the population, the continuing influence of Hellenistic culture and its interest in books and book collections, and the growing use of letters for communication of private or business matters increased the numbers of scribes. More work for independent scribes was created which in turn further facilitated specialization.
Besides scribes who functioned as officials on the mid and lower levels of the administration, some scribes occupied high official positions during the Roman period. As in the previous periods they were mainly located in Jerusalem and, in keeping with the Near Eastern tradition, some scribes had the reputation of scholars and wise men. Titles were, however, not used rigidly and some individuals with the knowledge and wisdom of educated scribes may have been designated as scribes even if they were not employed by the government or administration or worked as professional writers.68 In any case, the general education, training and study of scholarly and wise scribes will have included the sacred Scriptures, which contained the national traditions and laws and were considered to be the most significant source for wisdom. In this sense some scholarly scribes could be designated as experts in the laws and the Scriptures although this should not be understood as the characteristic of scribes. This model interprets the following evidence as an indication that these educated and wise scribes existed and could be found mainly in Jerusalem: Josephus’s references to Aristeus who was the scribe of the council of Jerusalem, to the sacred scribes, and possibly also to Diophantus, the scribe of King Herod; the Gospel of Matthew’s claim that scribes were among those who interpreted the scriptures and advised King Herod about the birth of the messiah;70 the Gospel of Mark’s association of influential scribes mainly with Jerusalem; and the Mishna’s tradition about the scribe Nahum who had a reputation for expertise in the traditions and the laws and could be found in Jerusalem.72
The model further assumes that the role and functions generally ascribed to scribes in the Synoptics and Acts, the Mishna, Tosefta and the Targumim reflect the type of influential and knowledgeable scribe of the Near Eastern tradition. The discrepancies between the portrayals of scribes in these and other sources can be explained as follows.
First, Josephus and the authors and compilers of the Synoptics and Acts, the Mishna, Tosefta and the Targumim were all selective in their presentation of scribes according to their respective interests. Josephus takes into account his non-Jewish Graeco-Roman audience’s perception of scribes when describing contemporaneous Jewish society. He refers to scribes in a variety of influential official positions with which his audience would have been familiar but does not mention other than writing expertise in association with prominent scribes in Jerusalem. In contrast, the Synoptics refer to the scribes’ authority and expertise in the Scriptures and their influence in society but do not mention official positions. The authors of the Synoptics, especially Luke and Matthew, were not interested in a differentiated portrayal of scribes but only in their stereotyped role as leaders in opposition to Jesus.75 Furthermore, the inaccurate portrayal of scribes as a well-defined group may be ascribed to the same lack of interest and/or the authors’ misinterpretation of the sources. The fact that the Mishna and Tosefta refer to scribes of the past as legal experts but do not mention official positions either, can be understood as a result of the compilers’ sole interest in legal matters.77 Similarly, the Targumic association of scribes with the role of interpreters of the law and the Scriptures is likely to have derived from the translators’ strong interest in the interpretation of the Scriptures. The portrayal of scribes in each of these sources of evidence should therefore be understood as a partial reflection of the variety of their functions and roles during the Second-Temple, resulting from the confined interests of the authors and compilers of these sources.
Secondly, the non-rigid use of titles in combination with specific literary genres accounts for some of the discrepancies between the sources with regard to scribes. The fluid use of titles may be found mainly in literary genres which did not intend to describe the realities of contemporary society accurately. This factor partially explains the application of titles, which usually designate scribes, to certain figures of the past like honorary titles. In all cases the figures are associated directly or indirectly with the writing of the sacred Scriptures or parts thereof. This includes King David in the Psalms Scroll from Qumran who is said to have written songs and psalms, Ezra who according to 4 Ezra indirectly wrote the whole of the sacred Scriptures revealed through divine inspiration, and Moses in the Targumim, whose association with the writing of the law is apparent.
A third factor explains the discrepancy between the role of scribes as described in Jewish sources and the complete lack of references to Jewish scribes in pagan sources. The pagan authors simply did not mention important and influential Jewish scribes in their comments on Jews and Judaism because of their lack of interest in and general ignorance of Jewish society.
Confusion with regard to the role and functions of Jewish scribes in the Roman period can also be partly ascribed to the linguistic situation in Palestine and the different semantic ranges of the terms סופר, ספרא, and γραμματεύς. Semitic writings, such as the Psalms Scroll, the Mishna, Tosefta and the Targumim, as might be expected, reflect the Near Eastern notion of scribes associated with ספרא/סופר. With regard to the Greek sources the situation is more complex. While Josephus’s writings, the documentary evidence, the Kaige-Theodotion and Aquila’s translations reflect the common Graeco-Roman notion of scribes, other Greek sources associate the γραμματεύς with a variety of functions and expertise not usually fulfilled by scribes in the Graeco-Roman world. For example, the portrayal of scribes in the Synoptics creates confusion because these writings portray γραμματεῖς with some functions usually only associated with a ספרא/סופר in accordance with the Near Eastern notion of scribes. The only author of the Synoptics who noticed or was interested in the discrepancy between the semantic ranges of the Semitic and the Greek terms was the author of Luke-Acts. He clarified the roles associated with Jewish scribes in accordance with his own understanding. By using the common Greek word νομικοί and the easily understandable term νομοδιδάσκαλοι as synonyms for γραμματεῖς, he expressed what he understood to be the main function of scribes: expertise in the law/Scriptures. Similarly, Symmachus was aware that other functions and expertise were associated with the title γραμματεύς and he therefore used the term γραφεύς in his translation if the context indicated the function of writing.
A further significant factor of this model is the diversity of late Second-Temple Palestinian Judaism. Many different individuals of varying backgrounds could gain or claim expertise in the interpretation of the Scriptures which occupied such a central place in Jewish society. This allows for some scribes to be associated with expertise in the Scriptures and the law. The diverse nature of Judaism thus provided the context in which individual scribes could gain authority and influence with regard to their expertise in the Scriptures, as is evident from the Synoptics and rabbinic literature.89
Until the end of the Second-Temple period some scribes, designated with the titles γραμματεύς, סופר, ספרא, and לבלר, were associated with authority in the interpretation of the Scriptures and expertise in the law. Model one assumes that in the post-70 period some of these scribes joined the rabbinic movement but were not identical with it. This accounts for the fact that some rules and laws which were enacted by scribes were considered part of the rabbinic legal system but that the rabbis remembered their distinctive origin. In the rabbinic movement these scribes were either designated by others with different names or titles, or they themselves chose to adopt new titles. The use of such titles as רבי, רבן, and the description חכם accounts for the lack of references to scribes as contemporaneous legal experts in the rabbinic sources. Part of the explanation for this change of titles may be found in the shifting settlement patterns after the First and Second Revolt. After the First Revolt, the majority of the rabbinic elite moved to Jabne and Lydda in Judaea, and after the Second Revolt to several cities in Galilee. Most of these cities were characterized by a strong Hellenistic culture. In a Roman-Hellenistic environment, the title γραμματεύς did not carry the same prestige and associations as the titles סופר and ספרא. It is assumed that the Greek notion of a scribe had an impact on the use of the title in contemporary Jewish society and that this is reflected in rabbinic literature. This accounts for the fact that in the Mishna, Tosefta and Targumim the titles סופר, ספרא, and לבלר are only used to refer to legal experts and interpreters of the Scriptures of the past, that is, of the Second-Temple period.
So far this model has mainly described the role and functions of scribes in Palestinian Judaism. Diversity in Diaspora Judaism with regard to the structure and organization of Jewish society makes it necessary to explain the evidence from Egypt and Rome separately.
With regard to Egypt, this model postulates that Jewish scribes functioned as professional writers only. In Alexandria, for example, they served the needs for written documents of the largely independent Jewish community. As already mentioned above, in this role they were of insufficient significance to be mentioned in the extant Jewish writings from Egypt such as the Letter of Aristeas and Philo’s writings. If the Testament of Abraham is assumed to have originated in Egypt it would provide the only tangible piece of evidence for the notion of Jewish scribes as professional writers in the area. Other functions and expertise, for example the interpretation of the Scriptures, were not associated with Jewish scribes in Egypt and it is assumed that from the beginning of the existence of Jewish communities in this country the functions of Jewish scribes were in agreement with those of their non-Jewish counterparts.98
The position of scribes in the Roman Jewish communities was different. All or some of the functions of scribes associated with the Jewish communities in Rome may be understood as an evolution of the Palestinian Jewish notion of scribes. Once the role of Jewish scribes had been exported to Rome as the result of forced and voluntary emigrations of Palestinian Jews, the role of scribes may have developed independently. What had previously been one of many functions of a scribe in Palestinian society may have become an exclusive function in the Roman communities. This may explain why the titles γραμ(μ)ατεύς and gram(m)ateus were used in such a highly formalized way, designating a specific prestigious and probably also influential position in the individual Jewish communities. However, it must be emphasized that the evidence from the Roman Jewish communities is one or two centuries younger than the material from Palestine and Egypt.100