It has been building up to this. Jesus has been slowly getting stronger in his condemnation of the teachers and Pharisees. When Jesus called them white washed tombs full of dead men’s bones they would have understood it to mean that Jesus was saying that they were not only ritually unclean but the source of uncleanness in others. Ouch!
Bit that was not the burn. This is the burn — he called them snakes.
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 7, They were descendants of murderers
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!Matthew 23:33-36
33 ‘You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.
Blessed are the peacemakers,Matthew 5:9-10
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
I know a man who refused to put a fish symbol on the back of his car. They were popular back then, we were in a church house group which I co-led. The reason for the unmarked car was that he admitted that he was liable to make gestures at bad drivers on the road. Is reason is that his behaviour would not reflect well on Jesus or on Christianity if he advertised his faith on the car.
Another story: I started a job, there were a few of us starting at the same time. One fellow starter made it known that he was a Christian in the first hour. Within a week he was fired for false statements on his CV. Talking about my faith in that place was difficult for the next couple of years. It took that long before it got easier.
The moral of both these stories are that once you let people know that you are a Christian then every thing you do or say reflects on Jesus.
The problem Jesus had with the Pharisees was that as the religious leaders everything they did or said reflected on God. Their adherence to the rules made God look like a god who was nitpicky about rules. They professed a high regard for the dead prophets of old, and claimed that they would never have persecuted and murdered prophets. Yet they were more concerned about appearances and that the people behaved in an orthodox way, as they did. The Pharisees were super orthodox. The problem is that orthodoxy does not like behaviour away from what is normal, it is the same for churches which expect new people to behave like they do, if someone with visible tattoos on hands and neck walked in they would not need to voice their disapproval, the whispering and turning of heads would be enough.
But the Prophets were unorthodox to a man (and occasional woman). Hosea got married to a Prostitute, God told Isaiah to walk around naked and barefoot for six years. Would they have welcomed a naked Isaiah at the synagogue?
Jesus called them out as liars and murderers. They were cut from the same cloth as the persecutors and murderers of the past, they too had murderous blood in their veins. So Jesus dropped the ultimate insult. Snakes.
Matthew’s Gospel is very careful to link Jesus to the past. This is a continuation of Gods plan says the genealogy in chapter 1. Calling them snakes goes back to Genesis 3 and the snake in the garden of Eden. The Pharisees would have known scripture. The Pharisees would have understood the apocalyptic language Jesus was using. There would have been no doubt that Jesus called them Devils or Satan when he said snakes. They are ones who have broken the relationship with God just as the snake broke the relationship between God and Eve.
Covenant trumps commandment. Without the covenant, the relationship of God and people is impossible, but it is not a covenant of rules but of relationship. The covenant had been broken. God, through Jesus was about to renew the covenant between himself and humans.