Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 23.34-39
Festival for St. Stephen

Other texts: 

Our Lutheran Lectionary has these Lesser Festivals following the Nativity of Our Lord (December 25):

Pfatteicher (Festivals and Commemorations) associates these three "heavenly birthday" celebrations with the birthday of Christ: "as he was born into this world from that, so they were born into that world from this" [p. 464].

These three festivals are also sometimes distinguished by:

If these festivals are celebrated, they help us quickly move from the sentimentality of Christmas and a "cute" baby, to the dire costs of discipleship.

It is likely that those who will preach on this feast day will center on the Second Lesson: Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60, which recounts the story of Stephen's martyrdom.

I find it interesting that Stephen is the first martyr. He had been selected and ordained (hands laid on -- 6:6) to help manage the distribution of food -- or perhaps, the finances. This "accountant-type" would not stop preaching the word (wasn't that the apostles job? 6:4) and arguing with others about the faith. What might happen to our congregations if all of the elected leaders were as committed to evangelism as Stephen was -- rather than to just limit their activities to the duties assigned to their positions?


Chapter 23 is a discourse from Jesus. Should it stand alone or be included with chs. 24-25? There is a difference of opinions about this among scholars, which can be noted in the way Matthew is outlined in different commentaries. There is a shift in location and audiences in 24:1-3; but there is such a shift in the parable discourse (13:36). Chapter 23 does not end with the concluding formula: "And when Jesus had finished...." (see 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). I'm inclined to agree with Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) that chapters 23-25 constitute the fifth and final discourse of Jesus, centered on the theme of judgment (p. 263).


This speech begins with: "Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples."

The only other time that I find in Matthew that Jesus addresses both crowds and disciples is the Sermon on the Mount (see 5:1 and 7:28).

Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) writes: "The crowds represent potential disciples who are still positive toward Jesus (21:8-9, 11, 26, 46; 22:33)" [p. 430].

Whereas the Sermon on the Mount contains blessings, this speech of Jesus contains woes (23:13-31) -- the opposite of blessings (compare Luke 6:20-26).

Both the Sermon and chapter 23 stress the importance of inward attitudes in contrast to outward actions.

As this chapter is read, we need to remind ourselves that it is not addressed to the "scribes and Pharisees" who are "woed" in the later verses, but these are words addressed to the "crowds and disciples." Rather than attacking the Jewish religious leaders, Matthew uses these words of Jesus as a warning against the Christian leaders.

Although, as Hare suggests, in the original context, Jesus may have used these or similar words against his opponents, and later, they could have referred to the Jewish opponents who tried to thwart the Christian missionaries' message of Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah (p. 264). There were conflicts between the Jews and the Christians from the time of Christ. However, I think that it is better, and more within Matthew's understanding, to apply these words to ourselves. Have we become like those whom we despise? I remember, some years ago, Johnny Carson quoting someone whom he didn't name: "Choose your enemies carefully, for you become like them."

VERSES 29-33

The NRSV has verses 29-36 in one paragraph. Some commentators keep all these verses together as part of the 7th woe pronounced on the scribes and Pharisees followed by a lament in vv. 37-39 (Boring & Funk). Other commentators separate these verses. Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) entitles verses 34-39 as "The Final Condemnation." Smith (Matthew" Augsburg Commentaries) suggests a different division: "All the Righteous Blood" (23:32-36) and "As a Hen Gathers Her Brood" (23:37-39).

There are some connections within the larger section (vv. 29-39). For instance, the word "prophet" (prophetes) only occurs in this section in chapter 23 (vv. 29, 30, 31, 34, 37).

The word for murder (phoneuo) occurs in vv. 31 & 35 (as well as 5:21 and 19:18 where the writer is quoting from the Ten Commendments).

The contrast is presented in vv. 29-31 between the outward actions of the scribes and Pharisees who honor the prophets/righteous by building and decorating their graves; who also proclaim that they would have acted differently than their ancestors, had they been there. Yet, Jesus seems to imply that by these very words, they put themselves in the same category as the murderers and condemn themselves to hell (vv. 31-32).

What have they done so terrible that Jesus condemns them? Could it be their air of respectability and righteousness -- their inability to recognize that they would have murdered the prophets just as their ancestors had done. They are no less sinful.

This week I finished reading Embracing Midlife: Congregations as Support Systems, by Lynne Baab. She has a chapter called, "The Golden Riches of the Shadow." In it, she makes this statement:

This acknowledgement of our potential for evil is a very healthy step of growth. It reduces the arrogance that often characterizes people in the first half of adulthood. It creates compassion for people in need, because we recognize that we are capable of almost any kind of self-destructive or violent behavior. [p. 81]

A little later she expands on that thought and offers suggestions for congregations:

In so many communities of faith, a mask of niceness is valued very highly. Obviously, we need to affirm the value of loving and kind behavior. However, in addition, we need to affirm that self-destructive desires lie close below the surface for most of us. An atmosphere among congregational leaders that affirms some degree of personal honesty will bear good fruit. Hypocrisy will be reduced, people will be affirmed in their midlife journeys, and everyone will have the opportunity to grow in that most wonderful character trait, compassion. [p. 81]


Verse 34 begins with a "therefore -- and it is always worth asking, "What is 'therefore' there for?" The scribes and Pharisees have condemned themselves. Jesus' response to that is to declare: "I -- and 'I' is emphasized -- am sending (present tense) to you prophets and wise people and scribes."

How did the scribes and Pharisees treat the present day messengers from Jesus (speaking like God sending the earlier prophets)? They treated them no better than their ancestors had treated the prophets of old. They kill them. They crucify them. They flog them. They persecute them. As much as they might claim that they wouldn't have murdered the prophets if they had been present in the olden days, they indicate by their actions in the present day towards the messengers from God, that they certainly would have murdered them. They are just as guilty as the murderers of old.

The mention of "Abel" and "Zechariah" is a bit like referring to all of the murdered from "A to Z". Abel is the first victim; Zechariah the last. However, Matthew seems to have his history a bit mixed up. The murder of Zechariah in the temple is in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22 -- the last book in the order of the Hebrew scriptures. His father's name is Jehoiada. Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, is the author of the book called Zechariah (see 1:1).

From the beginning of the human race up until the present time, we have been murderers.

I've heard people express the desire to have lived when Jesus walked on the earth. They are certain that they would have believed in him -- seeing the miracles, hearing his messages, seeing his face. My hunch is that most of us would have called for his crucifixion.

It is also likely that most of us would have been throwing the stones at Stephen had we been there. What happens in our congregations when someone disrupts the status quo? When someone challenges our deeply held beliefs? When someone acts contrary to what we think is right and proper?

When we acknowledge that we would have part of the murderous crowds, then we might begin to understand the richness of God's grace towards us. Perhaps when we acknowledge that some believers would really like to kill other believers, then a congregation might understand and experience the reconciling grace of God. However, I usually find it impossible to express my dislike for other members of the congregation -- or the pain that they may have caused me. I will admit that part of the reason for my reluctance is because I don't want to be reconciled with them. I don't want God to work at making us friends again.


The final verses of our text are also found, nearly word for word, in Luke 13:34-35, which puts them in a different context. However, much of what Tannehill (Luke) says about the Lukan text applies here, too:

Although Jesus is the speaker in verses [Luke 13:] 34-35, some features of these verses are easier to explain if we understand Jesus to be speaking prophetically, so that the "I" in verses 34-35 is not only Jesus, but also God (or the wisdom of God, as in 11:49). "How often" in verses 34 is puzzling in the Lukan context, since Jesus has not yet conducted any mission in Jerusalem. Although Jesus' ministry to this point might be understood as an effort to gather Jerusalem's "children" (in the broad sense of the Jewish people), this does not explain the refusal that has already taken place, in which Jerusalem must have participated. If Jesus, as a prophet, is speaking God's words, however, verses 34b refers to the long history of God's dealings with Jerusalem. The imagery would also fit the scriptural imagery of God's wings as a place of refuge (Ruth 2;12; Ps 17:8; 36:7). (p. 225)

How does Jesus respond to the prophet-killers? To those who will reject and kill him? He wishes to love and protect these people. This is in contrast to them not wishing it -- "You were not willing" in NRSV. Throughout history, God has sought to lovingly (and sometimes toughly) intervene in "Jerusalem's" life through messengers past and present, but they repeated refused God's help. God wants to help them. They don't want God's help.

Verse 38: "Behold your house is left (aphiemi) to you desolate." This might be paraphrased: "You're on your own now. You have refused divine help, so you won't get it." God sends messengers to proclaim the Word of God. The people, at best, ignore the messengers; at worse, kill them -- so God gives them what they desire -- an absence of God's Word (which would also represent God's presence and power -- the "punishment" of a "famine of hearing the words of the LORD" is explicit in Amos 8:11.)

Jesus, knowing their history of prophet-killing and the rejection that awaits him in Jerusalem, still expresses the wish to love and protect these people. In a sense, Jesus doesn't play the game: "Because you don't like me, that means that I won't like you." Instead, he seems to play, "Even if you don't like me, I still want to love you and will do everything in my power to save you."

"Blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord" comes from Psalm 118:26. This is a processional psalm that was sung as pilgrims entered the city of Jerusalem. Nearly identical words were sung by the crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem (21:9). Yet, their use of these words did not mean that they were willing to accept Jesus' caress. His presence brought "turmoil" and the question: "Who is this?"

Those words are part of the Sanctus which is sung/said during the communion liturgy. With that line, do we open ourselves to see and receive "the one coming in the name of the Lord" -- the one who comes to us in bread and wine -- the one who wishes to love and protect us like a mother hen?

Sometime ago there was a TV show where they interviewed a doctor who was treating people with AIDS. To paraphrase one of his comments: There are other doctors in this town who give lectures to dying AIDS victims rather than helping them. "You are just getting what you deserved," is what some doctors have said. Who is in more need of a sign of love and care than a person who has been informed that they are going to die within a short time. The TV program showed the helpful doctor hugging a person with AIDS.

Given its context, we could probably better understand Jesus berating the prophet-killers (and Stephen-killers and us) for their utter rejection of God's messengers and God's message. Instead, Jesus continually expresses his desire to come to the people, to love the people, to save the people. He did and continues to send messengers to sinful humanity.

A final thought: The image we are given in these verses is of God/Jesus as a hen gathering a whole bunch of chickens under her wings. What might that imply about the relationship among the chickens? (Some of whom Jesus accuses of being murderers!) It requires a physical closeness to be packed together under those wings. It implies a learning to get along with one another if we wish to stay packed together under those wings. How do we balance our own comfort level of space with this image of physically gathered together under God's loving wings? being packed together in a pew? rubbing shoulders with others on the way out of church? sharing the peace by touching others with a handshake -- or an embrace (when appropriate) -- or even a kiss between spouses?

I've often thought that the "Theme from Cheers" expresses what congregations should be -- what life under the wings of Jesus should be. I end with that song's refrain:

Sometimes you wanna go where ev'rybody knows your name.
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same.
You wanna be where ev'rybody knows your name.
You wanna go where people know people are all the same.
You wanna go where ev'rybody knows your name.

If we think we're any better than those prophet- or Stephen-killers, we're sadly mistaken. We're all the same.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901