Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 33: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part III, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 23:23-28; LUKE 11:42, 44
Luke 11:42, 44
23. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you pay tithe of mint, and anise, and cumin and have omitted the more important points of the law, judgment, and mercy, and faith. The latter you ought to have done, and not to have omitted the former. 24. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat, but swallow the camel. 25. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outer part of the cup and of the dish, but within they are full of extortion and intemperance. 26. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first what is within the cup and dish, that the outer parts of them also may be made clean. 27. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitened sepulchers, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones, and of all filthiness. 28. So you also outwardly indeed appear righteous to men; but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
42. But woe to you, Pharisees! for you pay tithe of mint, and rue, and every kind of herb, and pass by judgment and the love of God. The latter you ought to have done, and not to have omitted the former. (A little after.) 44. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are as tombs which do not appear, and the men who walk over them are not aware of them.
Christ charges the scribes with a fault which is found in all hypocrites, that they are exceedingly diligent and careful in small matters, but disregard the principal points of the Law. This disease has prevailed in almost all ages, and among all nations; so that men have, in most cases, endeavored to please God by observing with exactness some trivial matters. Finding that they cannot entirely release themselves from all obedience to God, they have recourse to this second remedy of expiating any heinous offenses by satisfactions which are of no value. Thus we see that the Papists, while they transgress the chief commandments of God, are extremely zealous in the performance of trifling ceremonies. Hypocrisy of the same kind is now reproved by God in the scribes, who, while they were very diligent and careful in paying tithes, cared little about the principal points of the Law. To expose more fully to ridicule their offensive ostentation, he does not say generally that they paid tithes, but tithes of mint, and anise, and (as Luke has it) of every kind of herb, so as to make a display of extraordinary zeal for piety at the least possible expense.
But as Christ makes the chief righteousness of the Law to consist in mercy, judgment, and faith, we must first, see what he means by these words; and, secondly, why he left out the commandments of the first table, which strictly relate to the worship of God, as if godliness were of less value than the duties of charity. Judgment is taken for equity, or uprightness, the effect of which is, that we render to every man what belongs to him, and that no man deceives or injures others. Mercy proceeds farther, and leads a man to endeavor to assist his brethren with his property, to relieve the wretched by advice or by money, to protect those who are unjustly oppressed, and to employ liberally for the common good the means which God has put into his hands. Faith is nothing else than strict integrity; not to attempt any thing by cunning, or malice, or deceit, but to cultivate towards all that mutual sincerity which every man wishes to be pursued towards himself. The sum of the Law, therefore, relates to charity.
The word faith, I am aware, is interpreted by some persons differently, as including, by synecdoche, the whole worship of God; but Christ, according to his custom, here brings the true test of holiness to brotherly love, and therefore does not refer to the first table. Nor is it inconsistent with this view that, instead of faith, Luke uses the expression, the love of God; for the design of Christ was, to show what it is that the Lord chiefly requires of us in his Law. It is well known that the Law was divided into two tables, so as to point out, first, what we owe to God, and next, what we owe to men. Luke expresses both parts as if Christ had said, that the chief design of the Law is, that we should love God, and that we should be just and merciful towards our neighbors. Matthew satisfies himself with one part; and there is no absurdity in calling the duties of charity the principal points of the Law, since charity itself is pronounced by Paul to be the perfection of the Law; as he also says, that
the Law is fulfilled if toe love our neighbors,
And Christ, when formerly interrogated as to the commandments of the Law quoted none but those which belonged to the second table.
If it be objected, that in this way men are preferred to God, because charity, which is performed towards them, is reckoned more valuable than religion, the answer is easy. Christ does not here contrast the second table of the Law with the first, but, on the contrary, draws from the manner in which the second table is kept the proof whether or not God is truly and sincerely worshipped. As piety lies within the heart, and as God does not dwell amongst us in order to make trial of our love towards Him, and does not even need our services, it is easy for hypocrites to lie, and falsely to pretend to love God. But the duties of brotherly love fall under the senses, and are placed before the eyes of all, and therefore in them the impudence of hypocrites is better ascertained. Christ, therefore, did not intend to enter into subtle inquiries about the particular parts of righteousness, or their order, but, so far as the ordinary capacity of men allowed, intended simply to show that the Law is kept only when men are just, and kind, and true, towards each other; for thus they testify that they love and fear God, and give proper and sufficient evidence of sincere piety. Not that it is enough to discharge our duties towards men, if we do not first render to God what we owe to him, but because he who regulates his life according to God’s commandment must be a sincere worshipper of God.
And yet the question is not fully answered; for tithes, which Christ places inferior to judgment and mercy, were a part of divine worship, and some part of them was usually bestowed on the poor, so that tithes contained a double sacrifice. I reply: Tithes are not simply compared to alms, and faith, and judgment, but the pretended holiness of the scribes is compared with the sincere and pure feeling of charity. Why were they so ready and willing to pay tithes, but in order to pacify God a, the least expense and trouble? For they did not regard the principal point; and therefore those light matters, by which they attempted to deceive God and men, ought not to be reckoned along the duties of charity.
Matthew 23:23. The former you ought to have done. This is intended to anticipate their calumny; for they might have put an unfavorable interpretation on his discourse, and charged him with setting no value on what the Law of God had enjoined. He therefore acknowledges that whatever God has enjoined ought to be performed, and that no part of it ought to be omitted, but maintains that zeal for the whole Law is no reason why we ought not to insist chiefly on the principal points. Hence he infers that they overturn the natural order who employ themselves in the smallest matters, when they ought rather to have begun with the principal points; for tithes were only a kind of appendage. Christ therefore affirms that he has no intention to lessen the authority even of the smallest commandments, though he recommends and demands due order in keeping the Law. It is therefore our duty to preserve entire the whole Law, which cannot be violated in any part without contempt for its Author; for He who has forbidden us to commit adultery, and to kill, and to steal, has likewise condemned all impure desire. Hence we conclude that all the commandments are so interwoven with each other, that we have no right to detach one of them from the rest. Wherefore it is also written,
Cursed is every one that performeth not all things that are written, (De 27:26; Ga 3:10;)
by which words the righteousness of the whole Law, without exception, is enforced. But this reverence, as we have said, does not take away the distinction between the commandments, or the true design of the Law, to which those who truly observe it direct their mind, that they may not merely amuse themselves on the surface.
24. Blind guides. This is s proverbial saying, by which he beautifully describes the affected scrupulousness of hypocrites about trifling matters; for they utterly shrink from very small faults, as if a single transgression appeared to them more revolting than a hundred deaths, and yet they freely permit themselves and others to commit the most heinous crimes. They act as absurdly as if a man were to strain out a small crumb of bread, and to swallow a whole loaf.
Straining out 101 a gnat, and swallowing a camel. We know that a gnat is a very small animal, and that a camel is a huge beast. Nothing therefore could be more ridiculous than to strain out the wine or the water, so as not to hurt the jaws by swallowing a gnat, and yet carelessly to gulp down a camel. 102 But it is evident that hypocrites amuse themselves with such distinctions; for while they pass by judgment, mercy, and faith, and even tear in pieces the whole Law, they are excessively rigid and severe in matters that are of no great importance; and while in this way they pretend to kiss the feet of God, they proudly spit in his face.
25. For you cleanse the outer part. Our Lord follows out the same statement, and employs a figure for reproaching the scribes with being eagerly bent on this single object of making a brilliant appearance before men. For by the outer part of the dish he metaphorically expresses the outward appearance; as if he had said, “You give yourselves no concern about any cleanness but what appears outwardly, which is quite as if one were carefully to wash off the filth of the dish without, but to leave it filthy within.” That the expression is metaphorical is evident from the second clause, in which the uncleanness within is condemned, because within they are full of intemperance and extortion. He therefore reproves their hypocrisy, in not endeavoring to regulate their life, except before the eyes of men, in order to procure for themselves an empty reputation for holiness. Thus he recalls them to the pure and sincere desire of a holy life. Cleanse first, he says, that which is within; for it would be ridiculous to feast your eyes with outward splendor, and yet to drink out of a cup full of dregs, or in other respects filthy. 103
27 You are like whitened sepulchers. This is a different metaphor, but the meaning is the same; for he compares them to sepulchers, which the men of the world ambitiously construct with great beauty and splendor. As a painting or engraving on sepulchers draws the eyes of men upon them, while inwardly they contain stinking carcasses; so Christ says that hypocrites deceive by their outward appearance, because they are full of deceit and iniquity. The words of Luke are somewhat different, that they deceive the eyes of men, like sepulchers, which frequently are not perceived by those who walk over them; but it amounts to the same meaning, that, under the garb of pretended holiness, there lurks hidden filth which they cherish in their hearts, like a marble sepulcher; for it wears the aspect of what is beautiful and lovely, but covers a stinking carcass, so as not to be offensive to those who pass by. Hence we infer what I have formerly said, that Christ, with a view to the advantage of the simple and ignorant, tore off the deceitful mask which the scribes held wrapped around them in empty hypocrisy; for this warning was advantageous to simple persons, that they might quickly withdraw from the jaws of wolves. Yet this passage contains a general doctrine, that the children of God ought to desire to be pure rather than to appear so.
In rendering the words, οἱ διυλιζοντες τὸυ κύνωπα, Campbell resorts to a circumlocution, who strain your liquor, to avoid swallowing a gnat; and he adds the following note:— E.T. Who strain at a gnat. I do not understand the import of this expression. Some have thought that it has sprung originally from a mere typographical error of some printer, who has made it strain at, instead of strain out.” — The conjecture mentioned by Campbell is strongly confirmed by the earlier English versions. “Blinde leders; clensenge a gnat, but swolowynge a camel.” — (Wyclif, 1380.) “Ye blinde gydes, which strayne out a gnat, and swalowe a cammyll.” — (Tyndale, 1534.) “Ye blynde gydes, which strayne out a gnat, and swalowe a camell.” — (Cranmer, 1539.) “Ye blynde gydes, which strayne out a gnate, and swalow a cammel.” — (Geneva, 1557.) “Blinde guides, that strain a gnat, and swallow a camel.” — (Rheims, 1582.) The coincidence of those versions in supporting the true reading is very remarkable, and the substitution of at for out is more likely to have been the effect of accident than of design. — Ed.
“Et cependant ne faire point de difficulté d’engloutir un chameau tout entier;” — “and yet make no difficulty about swallowing a whole camel.”
“Plene de lie et de bourbe, ou autrement orde et sale;”—full of dregs and of mud, or otherwise nasty and filthy.”