Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 33: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 23:13-15; MARK 12:40
LUKE 11:52; 20:47
13. But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you do not enter yourselves, and do not permit those who come to enter. 14. And woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you devour widows’ houses, and that under the disguise of a long prayer; therefore you will be the more severely punished. 15. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you compass sea and land to make 93 one proselyte; and when he is made, 94 you make him twice as much the child of hell as yourselves.
40. Who devour widows’ houses, and that under the disguise of a longprayer. These shall receive a severer condemnation.
52. Woe to you, lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge: you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.
47. Who devour widows’ houses, and by way of pretence make long prayers 95 . These shall receive greater condemnation.
He breaks out into still stronger language of condemnation, and he does so not so much on their account, as for the purpose of withdrawing the common people and simple-minded men from their sect. 96 For though we see frequently in Scripture the judgment of God pronounced against the reprobate, so as to render them the more inexcusable, yet in their person the children of God receive a useful warning, not to involve themselves in the snares of the same crimes, but to guard against falling into similar destruction. Certainly, when the scribes, after overturning the worship of God and corrupting the doctrine of godliness, would endure no correction, and with desperate madness, to their own destruction and that of the whole nation, opposed the redemption which was offered to them, it was proper that they should be held up to the hatred and detestation of all. And yet Christ did not so much consider what they deserved, as what would be useful to the uneducated and ignorant; for he intended, towards the close of his life, to leave a solemn testimony, that no man might, except knowingly and willingly, be deceived by persons so base and wicked.
We know how powerfully a foolish reverence for false teachers hinders simple people from getting clear of their erroneous views. The Jews were at that time deeply imbued with false doctrine, and had even imbibed from their earliest years many superstitions. While it was hard and difficult in itself to bring them back to the right path, the chief obstacle lay in the foolish opinion which they had formed about the false teachers, whom they regarded as the lawful prelates of the Church, the rulers of divine worship, and the pillars of religion. Besides, they were so strongly fascinated, that they could scarcely be drawn away from those teachers but by violent fear. It is not therefore for the purpose of cursing the scribes that Christ pronounces against them the dreadful vengeance of God, but to withdraw others from their impostures. In like manner, we are compelled at the present day to thunder loudly against the Popish clergy, for no other reason than that those who are tractable, and not quite desperate, may direct their minds to their salvation, and, moved by the judgment of God, may break the deadly snares of superstitions by which they are held captive.
Hence we may infer how cruel is the mildness of those who dislike our vehemence. They are displeased to see harshness and severity used towards the wolves, which are constantly, with open mouth, tearing and devouring the sheep; and yet they see the poor sheep deceived by a vain disguise, freely throwing themselves into the jaws of the wolves, unless the pastor who desires to save them, and endeavors to rescue them from destruction, drive them away with a loud voice. We must therefore follow out the design of Christ, by copying out his example in severe threatenings against wicked despisers, and in boldly exclaiming against them, that those who are capable of being cured may be led by the fear of destruction to withdraw from them. For though we gain nothing by addressing the enemies of the truth, yet they must be summoned to the judgment-seat of God, and others must be warned, that they may know that the same destruction awaits themselves, if they do not speedily withdraw from a wicked league with them.
Matthew 23:13. You shut up the kingdom of heaven. Christ pronounces a curse on them, because they pervert their office to the general destruction of the whole people; for since the government of the Church was in their hands, they ought to have been, as it were, porters for the kingdom of heaven. What purpose is served by religion and holy doctrine but to open heaven to us? For we know that all mankind are banished from God, and excluded from the inheritance of eternal salvation. Now the doctrine of religion may be said to be the door by which we enter into life, and therefore Scripture says metaphorically, that the keys of the kingdom of heaven are given to pastors, as I have explained more fully under Mt 16:19. And we ought to abide by this definition, which appears still more strongly from the words of Luke, in which Christ reproaches the lawyers with having taken away the key of knowledge, which means that, though they were the guardians of the Law of God, they deprived the people of the true understanding of it. As, therefore, in the present day, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed to the custody of pastors, that they may admit believers into eternal life, and exclude unbelievers from all expectation of it, so the priests and scribes anciently under the Law held the same office.
From the word knowledge we infer how absurdly the Papists forge false keys, as if they possessed some magical power apart from the word of God; for Christ declares that none but those who are ministers of doctrine have the use of keys. If it be objected, that the Pharisees, though they were perverse expounders of the Law still held the keys, I reply: Though, in respect of their office, the keys were entrusted to them, yet they were suppressed by malice and deceit, so that they no longer retained the use of them. And therefore Christ says, that they took away, or stole that key of knowledge, by which they ought to have opened the gate of heaven. In like manner, heaven is shut by Popery against the wretched people, while the very pastors—or, at least, those who hold that office—prevent them by their tyranny from being opened. If we are not excessively indifferent, we will not willingly enter into a league with wicked tyrants, who cruelly shut against us the entrance into life.
14. For you devour widows’ houses. He now proceeds farther, for he not only accuses them of open crimes which demand hatred and detestation, but even tears away the disguises of virtues, by which they deceived the common people. If it be objected, that there was no need of reproving those things which could do no harm by their example, we ought to recollect that it was impossible to promote the salvation of those who were held bound by the errors of the scribes, unless they turned away entirely from such persons. This reason, therefore, constrained Christ to expose the vain appearance of virtues, which nourishes superstitions.
And that under the pretense of a long prayer. He says in general that, even when they appear to do what is right, they wickedly abuse the pretense of religion. Long prayers contained some evidence of remarkable piety; for the more holy a man is, the more eminently is he devoted to prayer. But Christ says that the Pharisees and scribes were so impure, that even the chief part of the worship of God was not used by them without committing sin, because constancy in prayer was with them, trap for base gain. For they sold their prayers in exactly the same manner as hirelings dispose of their daily labor. 97 Hence also we infer that our Lord does not exactly reprove long prayers, as if in itself it were an impropriety—particularly since pastors ought to be eminently devoted to prayer—but to condemn this abuse, because a thing laudable in itself was turned to a wicked purpose. For when men aim at gain by means of hired prayers, the more fervent the appearance of what they call devotion becomes, the more is the name of God profaned. And as this false conviction had been long and deeply seated in the minds of the common people, on this account Christ employs harsher threatenings; for the pollution of so sacred a thing was no light offense. That it was chiefly widows that were imposed on need not excite surprise, because silly women are more prone to superstition, and therefore it has always been customary for base men to make gain of. them. Thus Paul brings a charge against the false teachers of his age, that they
lead captive silly women laden with sins, (2Ti 3:6.)
15. For you compass sea and land. The scribes had also acquired celebrity by their zeal in laboring to bring over to the Jewish religion the strangers and uncircumcised. And so, if they had gained any one by their false appearances, or by any other stratagem, they gloried wonderfully over it as an increase of the Church. On this account also they received great applause from the common people, that by their diligence and ability they brought strangers into the Church of God. Christ declares, on the contrary, that so far is this zeal from deserving applause, that they more and more provoke the vengeance of God, because they bring under heavier condemnation those who devote themselves to their sect. We ought to observe how corrupt their condition at that time was, and what confusion existed in religion; for as it was a holy and excellent work to gain disciples to God, so to allure the Gentiles to the Jewish worship—which was at that time degenerate, and was even full of wicked profanation — was nothing else than to hurry them from Scylla to Charybdis. 98 Besides, by a sacrilegious abuse of the name of God, they drew down upon themselves a heavier condemnation, because their religion allowed them grosser licentiousness of crime. An instance of the same kind may be seen at the present day among the monks; for they are diligent in culling proselytes from every quarter, but those proselytes, from being lascivious and debauched persons, they render altogether devils: for such is the filthiness of those puddles, within which they carry on their reveling, that it would corrupt even the heavenly angels. 99 Yet the monk’s habit is a very suitable mantle for concealing enormities of every description.
“Afin de gaigner un proselyte;” — “in order to gain one proselyte.”
“Et quand il est gaigné;” — “and when he is gained.”
“Lesquels devorent les maisons des vefues, sous ombre de faire longue oraison;” — “who devour the houses of widows, under the pretense of making a long prayer.”
“De suyvre telle maniere de gens;” — “from following that sort of people.”
“Que les mercenaires et ouvriers ont accoustumé de vendre leur labeur, et se loer à la journee;” — “as hirelings and laborers are wont to sell their labor, and to hire themselves out for the day.”
“Ce n’estoit autre chose que de les oster d’un danger, pour les precipiter en un plus grand;” — “it was nothing else than to rescue them from one danger to plunge them into a greater.” The allusion in the text is to Scylla a rocky promontory on the Italian side of the Strait of Messina, and to Charybdis, a whirlpool opposite to it, on the coast of Sicily. Either of them singly would have rendered the navigation formidable, but their vicinity to ly aggravated the danger; for the very exertions which kept the mariner at a distance from the one unavoidably brought him nearer to the other. This appalling scene meets us frequently in the ancient mythology, in the allusions of poets and orators, and on many other occasions. He who, by avoiding one evil, fell into one still greater, was proverbially said to have avoided Scylla and fallen into Charybdis. — Ed.
“Les anges de Paradis;” — “the angels of Paradise.”