Put the Greater Above the Lesser

Matthew 23 is often termed "the seven woes" chapter due to the seven woes Messiah proclaims against the hypocrites of His day.  Aside from the doom spoken of those hypocrites, I believe there is another lesson we can uncover in this chapter.

The Messiah is prophet (Matthew 21:11), priest (Hebrews 3:1), and king (Matthew 2:2).

The book of Hebrews tells us that He served as our great high priest in the order of Melchizedek to "offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Hebrews 5:1).  We know He is a priest because He offered up one sacrifice for sins for all time (Hebrews 10:12) and intercedes with G-d on behalf of humanity (1 Timothy 2:5).  That is the very definition of a priest.

The Gospels (e.g. Matthew 27:11, 27:37) tell us that Messiah is the King of the Jews.  We know He is their King because He laid down His life for them... and for all who belong to Him (John 10:11, 15, Matthew 27:11).  When He returns, He will reign over all the world.  Every knee will bow and every tongue confess He is Lord. (Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10)

But in what way is Messiah a prophet?

In Matthew 24, Messiah prophesies the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  Because of its prophetic nature, Matthew 24 receives an abundance of attention from Biblical scholars and prophecy watchers.  Books upon books have been written about that chapter and I won't be adding to that pile here.

Perhaps because of the attention given to its neighbor, Matthew 23 has often been lightly regarded in the commentaries throughout history.  This is unfortunate because, although it isn't explicitly prophetic, it is very insightful.  Matthew 23 is often termed "the seven woes" chapter due to the seven woes Messiah proclaims against the hypocrites of His day.  Aside from the doom spoken of those hypocrites, I believe there is another lesson we can uncover in this chapter.



As always, we should consider the context.  In Matthew 21, Yeshua [Jesus' Hebrew name] enters Jerusalem just before the festival of Passover.  This is often referred to as the "triumphal entry".  The crowd before Him spreads out their coats on the road and others spread palm branches in His path.  Those who followed were shouting "Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Matthew 21:9).

Yeshua then drives the money changers out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12-13) and while in the Temple, He heals the blind and the lame (Matthew 21:14). This should have been a clear indication to everyone that He was the promised Messiah of Israel.  He leaves Jerusalem, stays overnight in Bethany, and returns the next day.  The chief priests and elders question Him and Yeshua responds with parables (Matthew 21:23-32).  Yeshua also gives them the parable of the vineyard in which He indicts them for failing to bring about the harvest of righteousness from the nation of Israel.  In chapter 22, He confounds the attempts of the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees to ensnare Him with their questioning.

Turning from those who were trying to trap Him, Messiah addresses the crowds and His disciples in Matthew 23.

First, Messiah acknowledges the scribes' and Pharisees' position of authority (the "chair" of Moses) and tells the crowds to recognize and obey that authority (Matthew 23:2-3).  Second, Yeshua warns the crowds against following the scribes and Pharisees in their hypocrisy and then levels several charges against them in regards to that hypocrisy.

In the last few of these charges, Messiah points out errors in their teaching with a series of comparisons that all focus on a singular problem: putting lesser things above the greater.  He provides an example of their error (or an analogy of their error) and then corrects them:


The Example/Analogy The Scribes' and Pharisees' Problem Messiah Says The Solution
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.' (Matt 23:16)
And, 'Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.'   (Matt 23:18)
They are blind guides.  Who or what are they not seeing?  They are not seeing the proper relationship between a greater and a lesser thing. You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?   (Matt 23:17)
You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.   (Matt 23:19-22)
Put the greater things (or the Greatest One) above the lesser.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.   (Matt 23:23) They are focusing on less important issues while neglecting more important ones. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat [a tiny and often overlooked, unkosher critter] and swallow a camel [an extremely large and obvious unkosher animal]! (Matt 23:24) Put the greater things (justice, mercy, and faithfulness) above the lesser (tithing mint, dill, and cumin) but do both.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. (Matt 23:25) They focus on the outward appearance while neglecting the more important condition of the inside. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. (Matt 23:26) Put the greater things above the lesser and address the inward (spiritual) issues before the outward (physical).
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.   (Matt 23:27) Their outward appearance misleads others into thinking they are clean, righteous, and good. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt 23:28) Put the greater things (correcting the inward hypocrisy and disobedience God) above the lesser (looking good to others).


Hypocrisy can be defined as "the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behavior does not conform; pretense".  The Greek word that is translated as "hypocrite" is the same word as an actor: one who gives a false appearance. [Wait hypocrites = actors?  That's a whole other topic to write about!]

How were the scribes and Pharisees giving a false appearance?

They gave the appearance that they were holy, righteous, and good when in fact they were full of robbery, self-indulgence, and uncleanness.  Although they held a position of authority, their actions gave clear indication that they were unsuited for the job.  Messiah calls them "blind guides" who were unable to lead anyone... including themselves.  The inside of the "cup" and the inside of the "tomb" needed to be cleansed first... and that is a job only G-d can do.


Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.  (1 Tim 1:17)



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