A woe is a curse. In the context of Matthew 23. These woes match with the beatitudes, those short sayings at the beginning of the sermon on the mount in Matthew chapter 5. The Greek is οὐαί, meaning not only woe, but also alas, not words we use a lot these days. Jesus is not so much cursing the Pharisees as shaking his head in disbelief that they have studied the scripture but can’t understand that it points to him.
The Gospel of Matthew is written as a series of six narrative sections, telling the story of Jesus’ life, interspersed with five sections of teaching. The beginning of the Gospel links back into the past of the Old Testament. This, the last of the teaching sections, links forward to the future. Advent is a time when we look forward to the return of Christ.
Woe 5 They were clean outside, but filthy inside
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.Matthew 23:27-28 NIV UK
Blessed are the peacemakers,Matthew 5:9 NIV UK
for they will be called children of God.
They exhibited themselves as righteous on account of being scrupulous keepers of the law, but were in fact not righteous: their mask of righteousness hid a secret inner world of ungodly thoughts and feelings. They were full of wickedness. They were like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones.
While this is true of Jesus’ time, we have to take a couple of things (at least) into account when reading this passage:
- The passage is in apocalyptic language, often used when talking about future events.
- The woes to the Pharisees mirror the Blessings in Matthew 5. This is part of a covenant message, the values of the kingdom when Jesus returns as king.
Whitewashed tombs were a literal thing, this may be a figurative passage using the apocalyptic code, yet the Jews did not like to talk about death. Touching a corpse would make them ceremonially unclean, unable to take part in worship. At Passover they would even whitewash the outside of tombs so that no one would accidentally become unclean and not be able to take part in the feast.
This teaching is escalating. What Jesus is saying in each of the woes to the teachers and Pharisees is getting worse, from, “You are like a sued cup, dirty on the inside,” to, “You are full of dead men’s bones,” is a big leap, especially to ritualists like the Pharisees. Jesus is saying you are totally unfit to carry out your role. You are the thing people must avoid if they are to worship God.
Jesus said this at Passover time. These woe sayings to the Pharisees are a preparation for when Jesus will return to reign on Earth as king. A few days previously he rode a donkey into Jerusalem accompanied by cheering crowds, then he turned traders out of the temple area, then he used the temple to teach. In a day or two he will celebrate Passover with a small group of friends, be arrested tried and sentenced without evidence. The whitewashed tombs which people avoided in case they were made unclean will be made clean from the inside by Jesus who will rise from the dead. The place to be avoided, the place that condemns, is the place of God’s greatest ever victory takes place. That is how great and complete the victory of Jesus is.