Matthew 23:15 NKJV Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
Matthew 23:14 does not occur in the oldest manuscripts of Matthew. The problem of exploiting the helpless and afterward performing a religious act instead of repenting is cited as a characteristic of misguided Israelites [including leaders] in some Old Testament periods. The problem is condemned. Israel as a nation disgraced God [as well as themselves!] by such practices. [See Amos 2:6-8; 5:10-12; 8:4-6; Hosea 12:1-11; Micah 6:9-16.] Verse 14’s emphasis is consistent with such past practices in Israel: “I wish this religious stuff would quickly end so I can return to making money by taking advantage of the poor,” or, “I will make money by taking advantage of the poor and after-ward make things right with God by a religious act.”
This lesson focuses on verse 15: the conversion of gentiles to Judaism. Let us start by deepening our understanding of proselytes.
Proselytes were gentile individuals who converted to Judaism [the Jewish religion]. In the Old Testament, this continuing stress exists: God is concerned about all people, not just about Abraham’s descendants through Isaac. While it was true God made special promises to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac, those promises do not evidence God’s disinterest in other people. There is the curious incident when Abraham [the lesser] paid tithes to Melchizedeck [the greater] Genesis 14:17-20.) Melchizedeck was called “a priest of God Most High” or a priest of El Elyon. Melchizedeck is God’s priest who is not in Abraham’s lineage.
The book of Jonah emphatically documented God’s interest in people who were not Jews. God sent a Jewish prophet [Jonah] to Nineveh [the capital of Assyria] to declare the consequences of Assyrian wickedness. The Assyrians repented, God forgave them, and Jonah was upset with God for not destroying those gentiles. God explained His concern for the people of Nineveh with these words: “Then God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?’ And he said, ‘I have good reason to be angry, even to death.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up over-night and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” Jonah 4:10, 11.
Some gentile women figure prominently in Jesus’ ancestry. God included in the ancestry of His Messiah Tamar?), Rahab, and Ruth. Certainly two and perhaps three women who were not Jews are listed by Matthew chapter one as Jesus’ ancestors. Women who were not Jews figured prominently in the lineage of God’s Christ.
In Jesus’ day, Judaism had genuine appeal to some gentiles. Judaism taught a superior form of moral behavior and community. Some gentiles viewed the God of the Jews as superior to the idolatrous gods. For these primary reasons [as well as numerous secondary reasons], people who were not Jews by birth were attracted to the Jewish God and His religion. While such gentiles were not welcome in Jewish homes or at Jewish meals, they were welcome in the synagogues. Consider Paul’ visit to the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia Acts 13:14-52). The “men of Israel” v16 were Jews. “You who fear God” were gentiles who believed in the God of the Jews. Verse 43 mentions Jews and proselytes in synagogue attendance. V44-46 notes Paul and Barnabas turned to the gentile community – gentiles were at the synagogue that day! Paul’s explanation: it was necessary for the Jews to hear about Jesus Christ first v 46, but these Jews rejected their God-given responsibility to be a light to the gentiles v47; Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). Note the men of Israel, those who feared God, God-fearing proselytes, and gentiles were mentioned. Also note they all were part of an incident involving the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia.
Today’s Christians would call a gentile becoming a Jewish proselyte a convert. The analogy is not perfect [to most Christians conversion involves no ancestral considerations], but it is similar. How did a gentile with no Jewish ancestry become part of the Jewish community? The process included the following elements.
- instructing in Jewish ways, traditions, and customs. [It was an indoctrination process – “this is what you must do; this is how you must live.”] Jewish teachers/leaders regarded this as essential if such people left idolatrous lifestyles and idolatrous moral practices.
- acceptance of a cleansing by water [an immersion] similar to Christian baptism.
- Males had to be circumcised. For gentile males, circumcision involved an enormous decision. While we would regard the procedure as painful, pain was not the greatest issue. The majority of gentile cultures regarded circumcision to be a mutilation of the physical body. This view regarded any act of mutilation as disgraceful. In many ways, this marked “the point of no return.” It was a physical rejection of past gentile culture and an acceptance of a new culture.
- An expectation to give a gift to the Jerusalem temple [the only Jewish temple]. The transition from gentile to proselyte was demanding and required personal sacrifice. Only gentiles serious about trans-formation endured the process.
While there were numerous proselytes in the first century (see Acts 2:10), not all Jewish rabbis were pleased for Israel to accept gentile converts. Some wanted to “keep Israel pure” by living in isolation and accepting only those of Jewish ancestry. Others felt such people were prone to temptation and evil because of influences in their past. Accepting such people into Israel would morally and spiritually weak-en the nation. Those views are not foreign to some church views. Some Christians prefer for the church to exist in isolation. Some view converts from specific moral problems as suspect, as “avenues to evil through the temptations created by their past.” However, generally speaking, proselytes were welcomed into first century Israel. It was not a matter of Israel aggressively “going out” to pursue proselytes. It was a matter of welcoming gentiles who came to Israel.
What was the Pharisees’ problem that created the hypocrisy of Matthew 23:15? Was not teaching and welcoming converts a good thing? Whether conversion is good or bad is deter-mined by to what was the person converted. The Pharisees insisted gentiles who became proselytes be instructed for a period of time, be cleansed, and be circumcised. When the approved process was completed, they “converted” these gentiles to their ways, not to God. Doing things in ways Pharisees said Israel should follow was more important than devotion to God’s values. The result: everything God abhorred in the Pharisee’s attitudes, motives, and behavior became inflexible positions of faith in their gentile converts. The proselytes the Pharisees taught were devoted to the Pharisees’ views and ways, not God’s views and ways. Jesus said the Pharisees were sons of hell [Gehenna], and their converts were twice the sons of hell. The Pharisees taught these gen-tiles the wrong emphasis! Thus proselytes influenced by the Pharisees emphasized spiritual values God hated!
It is frighteningly easy for Christians to make that mistake!
- Discuss who the proselytes were.
- Discuss the mistake the Pharisees made which resulted in hypocrisy.
- Discuss how Christians can make the same mistake.