The observant reader of the Gospels will be aware of the fact that this is not the only record of Jesus’ invective against these Pharisees and experts in religious law. Turning to the Gospel of Matthew, we find a similar record in the twenty-third chapter. With Matthew’s placement, we find the words being spoken in an entirely different setting, in both time and place. Though there are numerous similarities and points of agreement between the pronouncing of woes and associated words, there are some differences. At first glance, this may seem to be another instance of disagreement between the accounts of Luke and Matthew. While this may be a possibility, it need not necessarily be the case, as it would be unwise to presume that Jesus only spoke words such as these on just one occasion.
A significant difference is the fact that Matthew has Jesus saying these things after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, whereas in Luke they are spoken while Jesus is en route to Jerusalem, in the section of Luke that is broadly referred to as the “travel narrative.” In Matthew, the speech comes on the heels of Jesus being questioned by the Sadducees, Pharisees, and experts in religious law, all in turn. Following Jesus’ final response, the episode closes with “No one was able to answer Him a word, and from that day on no one dared to question Him any longer” (22:46). In Luke, we’ll find that Jesus continues to be questioned on a number of occasions. Combined with the fact that the diatribe in Matthew is significantly longer and more detailed than what we find in Luke, we can take confidence in the fact that this is a critical speech, with shorter and longer versions, that Jesus delivered on a number of occasions.
Another point of observation is that in Matthew the pronouncement of woes is not directed specifically to the religious leaders, but is said to be directed to “the crowds and to His disciples” (23:1b). Though we can be sure that the religious leaders were present, Jesus appears to be speaking about them, rather than to them, on the heels of a series of what look like challenges to His rabbinic authority. This is not the same situation to be found in Luke. There, Jesus is speaking directly to the religious leaders, and is prompted to deliver the speech by something of an accusation by an astonished Pharisee. With Matthew’s narrative presentation, Jesus moves from His wielding of woes to a lament for Jerusalem, which is then followed by a sustained discourse that begins with a pronouncement of the Temple’s destruction, which Jesus said would mark the end of the age. Luke’s presentation closes with the record of a hostile plot in which an attempt would be made to catch Jesus in His words.
One similarity that may escape notice is that Luke’s particular record of this particular instance of Jesus making this particular speech culminates with what must be interpreted as a growing animosity between Jesus and His challengers. So it would seem that Jesus was attempting to provoke this type of response, setting Himself up for further questions and further challenges. As was previously noted, this was not the case with Matthew, as the damning discourse follows Matthew’s insistence that there would be no more questions. In the case of Luke, the fact that Jesus is being provocative is obvious on the surface. For Matthew, it is a bit less obvious, though it is there. We can look at the fact that Matthew’s record is longer and more detailed, along with the fact that Jesus is now at Jerusalem following His acclaimed entry, together with His words spoken against the Temple (and therefore against the Temple authorities), as Jesus’ attempt to provoke the response that would eventually land Him on the cross.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly as it pertains to our larger project, which is that of fitting these records into our examination of Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea, is the fact that Luke makes it a point to present Jesus as being at a meal when He says these things. Because of the disparities in details between the two accounts that let us know that Jesus offered up these sayings on at least two occasions (which allows us to surmise that Jesus made use of them on more than two occasions), it is quite telling that Luke provides his account of an oft-repeated speech of Jesus with a meal as the backdrop. Though we may seem incredibly far afield from the letter to the Laodiceans, and though this excursion through the Gospels has dwelt on some irrelevant points as we attempt to pin down the real-life and important issues at hand in Laodicea during John’s time, we cannot lose sight of the fact that Jesus insists on the fact that He wants to come in and share a meal. This fact continues to turn all of the meal references within the Jesus tradition into points of weighty concern, and serves to bring the picture being painted by Jesus through John into a consistently sharper focus.
By the time we are finished, we will have done away with useless anachronisms that would have been meaningless to the Laodiceans and therefore meaningless to us as well; and finally, we will have something tangible upon which to grasp so that we might escape an encumbrance in that which gives Jesus a desire to vomit members of His church from out of His mouth.