Jesus and His Opponents in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew


In the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus engages in controversy with His opponents.  These controversy narratives are short encounters, ending with a definitive statement by Jesus. The Pharisees and the Saduccees test Jesus (Matthew 16: 1), and the Pharisees accuse Him of working for Satan (Matthew 12: 22ff).  These two groups, representing different views on the interpretation of the Law, oppose Jesus throughout the Gospel.

Only a few times in Matthew are Jesus’ opponents called brood of vipers, first by John the Baptist.  He condemns the Pharisees and Sadducees for not bearing “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3: 9 ESV) and for relying on Abraham, their ancestor, for their standing before God. Those who do not bear good fruit are “thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3: 10 ESV)  Those who profess strong religious conviction are lacking in repentance, indicated by the failure to bear fruit.

In a lengthy passage in Matthew 23 Jesus condemns the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  At its beginning Jesus advises the people to “practice and observe whatever they tell you–but not what they do. for they preach but do not practice.” (Matthew 23: 2 ESV)  Later in the text they are called hypocrites. (Matthew 23: 13 ESV)  The word, hypocrite, comes from the Greek stage.  The actor was one who hid his own personality as he played a role in the theater.  In the Gospels a hypocrite is one who hides himself behind a mask of pretension, of being something he is not, that is, repentant and obedient to the Lord.  They are motivated by status and praise.

The piety of the Pharisees and the Saduccees was a sham, hiding what they really were. Jesus describes the hypocrite in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others.”  (Matthew 6: 2 ESV)  Jesus’ opponents from the religious establishment hide behind a mask.  In Matthew the epithet is found mostly in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 23 where Jesus emphatically condemns the religious leaders.

The Pharisees are also called blind guides, because they teach falsely (Matthew 15: 10ff).  The scribes and Pharisees are called hypocrites and blind guides in Matthew 23.  There again Jesus accuses them of teaching erroneously.

In Matthew 5: 21ff, verses in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against anger.  He radicalizes the Old Testament commandment against murder by prohibiting anger. Those who do not refrain from anger have opened themselves to judgment.  The same is true for those who insult a brother or call him a fool. But, Jesus also calls people fools.  Does He contradict His own teachings?

In Matthew 25 Jesus speaks of the wise and foolish virgins.  The wise are prepared to meet their Lord when He returns while the foolish are not. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus contrasts the wise one “who hears these words of mine and does them” with the foolish one  “who hears these words of mine and does not do them.”(Matthew 7: 24 ESV)  Fool/foolish are apt words to describe those who do not follow the teachings of Jesus.  The wise/fool dichotomy is found in various places in the Holy Scriptures (see Proverbs).  When used as an insult, such a label as fool is namecalling, but not so when it describes an actual condition of a person who opposes God’s will.

Jesus calls the religious leaders fools, hypocrites, blind guides, and a brood of vipers.  Is this language appropriate when we make a defense?  We could say that since Jesus is Son of God, He does not have to follow the same standards as He calls us to follow. In Matthew Jesus is the lawgiver who teaches according to the divine will.  For Him to transgress what He teaches would make Him liable to the charge of hypocrisy.  But, Jesus calls HIs opposition what they truly are.  On them falls divine judgment, and Jesus announces this judgment.

These epithets, or labels, accurately describe Jesus’ foes.  The opponents are condemned for their disobedience and opposition to the divine will.   They are not names used to make fun of the antagonist and insult HIm.  The names Jesus uses are not intended to ridicule but to warn the religious leaders of divine judgment.  Most epithets do not fulfill this purpose, but are meant to disarm and insult.

In our own encounters when we are called on to make a defense of our faith, we are to refrain from abusive names.  We may use names that are accurate in their description and that call the other to heed the untruth he is promoting.  When we discover that we have been inaccurate or wrong in such use, we are to express our regrets to our opponent.  Such names used to address others in apologetic discourse should be used very sparingly.

MIchael Tavella

July 1, 2019






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