The Jewish Religious Leaders
Claim to fame: Out to destroy Jesus
If Jesus is Optimus Prime, these guys are the Decepticons. They're the big baddies in the story. And they aren't exactly fans of Jesus. In fact, one of their hobbies is following him around and trying to trip him up by asking questions:
- Why is Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners (9:11)? You are who you eat with, after all.
- Why aren't the disciples washing their hands before they eat (15:2)? That's just unclean.
- Why is Jesus healing on the Sabbath (12:2)? Less helping, more resting!
Too bad for them, Jesus always swats down their questions—and points out their hypocrisy for good measure. That probably didn't help them have warm fuzzy feelings for the guy.
All They Need Is Hate
So why do they hate Jesus so much? Well, their gripes with him are twofold. First, he's claiming to have some kind of special authority from God to preach and teach and (seemingly) override Jewish law. Not cool in the Pharisees' book. They also call Jesus out for claiming to be God's son. That's blasphemy, friends.
Sure, they loathe the guy with the passion of a thousand burning suns, but then they have to take it to the next level and plot to kill him. Actually, it's even worse. They frame him, bribe his follower to turn him over, arrest him in the dead of night, force the governor to have him crucified, and then mock him as he's on the cross. Not very nice, guys.
Woe Is Them
In every gospel, Jesus runs up against the religious authorities, but Matthew has a special place in his heart for denouncing these guys. Only he and Luke devote entire chapters to Jesus verbally bashing the Pharisees. And Matthew's is way harsher.
Let's review the seven "woes" he offers up for them in reward for their huge hypocrisy:
- The Pharisees are keeping people from God's kingdom, so they definitely won't be getting in (23:13-14).
- They convert people, but the converts are worse off because the Pharisees are oh-so very wrong about everything (23:15).
- They say oaths can be made on gold of the temple but not the temple itself (23:16-22). Come on guys, don't you know that the temple is more sacred than gold?
- They pay tons of attention to tiny laws, but don't worry their pretty little heads about being actual good people (23:23-24).
- They worry so much about being clean, but they're filled with evil and greed (23:25-26).
- They look like pious men, but they're really hypocrites (23:27-28).
- They claim they'd know a prophet when they see one, but they're totally turning their backs on Jesus (23:29-36). Not cool.
Matthew also lays a pretty serious curse on the religious authorities, along with the Jewish people who are sympathetic to them. When Jesus is being tried before Pilate, the crowd begins to call for blood. Pilate tells them that Jesus's death is on them and they shout back, "His blood be on us and on our children!" (27:25) So, not only are the people who plotted to kill Jesus responsible, but so are their children. It's pretty tough stuff.
But Are They Really That Bad?
It's clear that Matthew has no love for the Pharisees and their sympathizers, but maybe we can have a little sympathy for them. Just a tiny bit? After all, it's true they're power hungry hypocrites, but they're also just trying to follow God the best they can, right?
They've got all these rules that they believe can make you holy. Now some guy comes along and claims that's all bunk. Not only is this making them look bad, it's overturning everything they know and hold dear. And do they really want to take a chance and follow this guy? After all, he could have been sent from Satan here to lead them down the wrong path (9:34). What's a Pharisee to do?
Matthew name drops a lot of different Jewish groups throughout the Gospel. To modern readers, these guys all seem to blend together, but in reality, they would have had a lot different roles and viewpoints.
- Pharisees: Jesus's main foes. They're actually kind of the forerunners of modern Judaism. They also took a more moderate approach to dealing with Rome.
- Sadducees: These guys are the ruling elite. The 1%. They're pretty pro-Roman and in no hurry to change things. They did not get along with the Pharisees—at all.
- Chief Priests: These are the peeps who run the temple, but they also have lots of political and social influence.
- Scribes: They're all about Jewish law. Understanding it, teaching it. The Torah is definitely their friend (Source, 281-82).
It's clear from the Gospel that no matter what conflicts these different groups had with each other, they put them all aside to plot Jesus's downfall. Hey, no one brings people together like Jesus.
Why Is Matthew So Hard on Them?
Sure, there was probably some animosity between Jesus and the religious elites of his day. The people in power generally don't take kindly to people who say they have no power. But Matthew has a lot more bad feelings towards these guys. Why so down, Matt?
At the time this gospel was written, Christians, like Matthew and the people who read his gospel, would have seen themselves mainly as Jews following the Jewish messiah. For them, Jesus was a natural extension of Judaism. In their opinion, every Jew in the world should be following the path that Jesus laid out. Unfortunately for Matthew, not every Jew in the world agreed.
This gospel was written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. The people of Judah were occupied by the Roman Empire and they had risen up and tried to throw off their oppressors. It didn't work. And, since the Romans could be pretty big jerks, they destroyed the temple, which was the religious, social, and political center of Jewish life. It was a huge blow to the Jewish people.
After that tragedy, it was up to the religious authorities, like the Pharisees, to decide just how Jews should progress in the future. Because they emphasized unity among the people, they couldn't have all kinds of little offshoot groups saying whatever they liked about being Jewish. That means Christians were out—other Jews didn't consider them Jewish any more (source, 845)
Matthew is just a tiny bit ticked about this. You can tell because he takes every chance he can get to have Jesus call out the Pharisees on their lack of faith, hypocrisy, and ignorance of God. And even though the Pharisees probably saved the Jewish people by establishing a cohesive identity, Matthew manages to turn their name into a dirty word.
Pop Culture Shout-Outs
The Pharisees and their friends have managed to work their way into most contemporary films, books, and television shows about the life and death (especially death) of Jesus. Usually, their portrayal isn't too flattering. Go figure.
In Jesus Christ Superstar they get to sing several awesome musical numbers, one of which is called This Jesus Must Die (if that tells you where they stand on the issue). In The Passion of the Christ, they're equally wicked. The 1927 silent movie The King of Kings portrays them a bit more sympathetically. But come on, it's silent. All the easier for them not to say nasty things.