One of the last things anyone wants to be called is a hypocrite… someone who tells people to do one thing but then does another. Calling someone a hypocrite (which is actually a word that comes right out of the Greek that literally means an ‘actor,’ someone who pretends to be someone else) has always been a harsh criticism… a strong, condemning statement about the core of a person’s character… The first time I listened to the video rendition of our scripture for today it was unsettling for me… especially with that one change… saying ‘Christian’ rather than ‘Pharisees.’ The Pharisees are the poster boys for being religious-hypocrites… they were professionals at teaching one thing and doing another. And I certainly don’t want to have to even think about being similar in character to a Pharisee.
But oddly, this notion that we tend to have about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, that they were all religious pretenders who were actually self-serving, power hungry frauds, isn’t really an accurate picture of the Pharisee’s reputation in Jesus’ day. Today we will be looking at Matthew 23, a passage where Jesus really goes after the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, but in truth, Jesus’ attack on the Pharisees would have come as a surprise to most of the people listening to Jesus that day. You see, the Pharisees were considered by most people to be an honest group of about 5,000 seriously religious men. They were ordinary, common men who’d voluntarily joined the order of ‘the set apart ones’, as the word Pharisee is believed to have meant. And these men had dedicated their lives to knowing and obeying God’s law. In fact, they had a fairly good reputation as people who practiced what they preached. Now, what Jesus says in the chapter we are about to look at certainly tells a different story, at least a different story about some of the Pharisees, and yet it’s important that we keep in mind the reputation they’d fostered: almost everyone thought they were trustworthy, honest, sincere men of God… And yet, as we’ll soon see, what they’d really accomplished was a remarkable job of hiding what was really going on in their hearts. And this is why Jesus will call them hypocrites.
When we meet Jesus in Matthew 23 he’s had quite a week. He’d entered Jerusalem for the Passover festivities greeted by a crowd welcoming him as ‘The Messiah.’ That was a big deal. He’d driven the money changers out of the temple; he’d spoken to very receptive crowds and he’d healed blind and crippled people. He was on a roll… but this notoriety irked many of the religious leaders, namely the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and so they’d questioned Jesus in ways meant to either make him look foolish or ruin his reputation. Now, Jesus had successfully rebuffed their questions and he’d sent these religious leaders running with their tails between their legs, but Jesus knew that these men weren’t finished with him. He knew what was in their hearts; he knew that they wanted to find a way to kill him. And so, in what I believe was a really raw moment just after the religious leaders had left, Jesus turned to his disciples and the crowd that was still gathered around him and he let out all of his frustration with the Pharisees… starting in Verse 2. “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. The stone container that held the scrolls of the Old Testament in the synagogue was called ‘Moses’ seat.’ To sit on that container and teach was a high honor, an honor the Pharisees must have cherished. I think we can add a little action to Jesus’ next line. So you must be careful (wink, wink) to do everything (wink, wink) they tell you (wink, wink). But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see. I’m sure this caught some people by surprise… ‘Pharisees don’t practice what they preach? Everything they do is done for people to see?’ And then after a few more choice words of criticism of the Pharisees Jesus really gets going in verse 13 in a section of Scripture we call the 7 Woes; and boy, is it harsh criticism! Now, just to be honest, it’s not as if the Pharisees thought of themselves as above criticism… even self-criticism. We are told that they had devised a system of self-criticism to keep from becoming, guess what: hypocrites… or as the Pharisees, themselves, called other foolish Pharisees: ‘Blind Guides.’ ‘Blind guides’ were people who shouldn’t be trying to lead anyone because they don’t know where they are going. But Jesus, who knew the hearts of many of these men, had 7 things to say to balance out this system of self-criticism. And he begins with this, ‘Woe, to you, you teacher of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!’ This word ‘woe’ had two meanings: one, was a statement of hard, prophetic judgment… a kind of curse… something like: ‘Trouble is coming your way!’ But the word can also mean, “How could you?” or “I can’t believe you’ve gotten to this place.” And so we have to be careful not to overdo one attitude or the other when we read because I feel Jesus could have meant both meanings when he said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. The doorkeeper was often the most powerful of all of the servants of a large household; doorkeepers determined who could and couldn’t enter the owner’s property. This was a position of great authority and responsibility but it was still the position of a servant. The Pharisees hypocrisy was that the focus of their teaching and their actions weren’t leading people anywhere; in fact, their teaching was so misguided that they were actually shutting the door of the Kingdom in people’s faces… and leaving the people who longed to join God in his Kingdom outside in despair. Jesus was saying, “How could you? Don’t you realize that your job as a servant of God is to help people enter into His kingdom? How did you get to this place?”
And he went on, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” There was a given in the Jewish world that Jews had a responsibility to try and convert Gentiles to Judaism… to lead them to their God. Jesus’ complaint was that the Pharisees weren’t leading people to God; they were converting people into Pharisees. Something I’ve found to be true is that when person converts out of one faith into another faith, they are generally far more aggressive about following their newfound religion than the people who were born into that faith. This is why converts of the Pharisees could be turned into ‘twice the children of hell’... which is a terrible indictment by the way. These converts weren’t being turned into the kind of people God was actually looking for. They were being turned into doubly, overzealous Pharisees… Pharisees whose home and destiny was, as Jesus so unflinchingly proclaims, is hell. Yikes!
And now Jesus gets to what the Pharisees were actually teaching that was so misguided, “Woe to you, blind guides! (Jesus is now using the Pharisees own language) You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it. The circumstances Jesus was describing seems silly to us today… But oath taking rules were greatly debated by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day… debated mostly to find ways to get out of keeping your word. We could spend a good deal of time listing out all of the oath rules and the exemptions that the Pharisees had created, but I think you get the picture. Jesus believed you should mean what you say and say what you mean. And focusing on this kind of meaningless, nit-picking was not only leading people into a legalism that will never result in true righteousness, it was also showing the content of the Pharisees’ hearts. Jesus point: anyone who is continually debating about these little intricacies of ‘the law’ is probably looking for ways to secretly be a hypocrite.
This next woe gets to the very heart of the misguided teaching of the Pharisees. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Most Jews were farmers and they were obligated to tithe a 10th of each year’s crop. So, there were always discussions about what constituted ‘a crop:’ was it just wheat and barley or did it include anything you harvested? Mint, dill and cumin were not cultivated crops. They were generally gathered from the edges of fields as needed. Can you imagine how small 10% of something you gathered from a field’s edge would be? No Pharisee would have denied the importance of justice, mercy and faithfulness if pressed, but in their worrying about the trivial they’d forgotten about these far more important things. The Pharisees also had a rule that if you were drinking a liquid and something unclean fell into your drink that something had to be larger than a lentil before it could make your whole drink unclean. Well, gnats were unclean but they were smaller than a lentil; but just to be on the safe side Pharisees were known to carefully strain gnats out of their drinks. Jesus said, ‘You strain gnats, unnecessarily, but you miss the fact that the largest of the unclean animals, a camel, is floating in your drink. You need to be ridding the world of things like injustice and mercilessness… the bigger problems, not fussing over protecting your own reputations through an over-emphasis on silly rules.” I think we can all understand what Jesus was saying here.
Then Jesus gets to how it could be that such outwardly pious men with such great reputations could so miss the point… “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. There was a huge debate in Jesus’ day over what made a cups and dishes unclean. If only the outside touches something unclean is the inside unclean as well? If you put something unclean in a dish but you don’t get any of the unclean stuff on the outside can you hold it without you becoming unclean? Is the handle of a cup different from the rest of the cup? Now, Jesus has gotten to the essence of hypocrisy: appearing to be completely clean on the outside and yet filled with terrible sin on the inside. It’s no wonder Jesus says that they are blind guides... that they shouldn’t be leading anyone anywhere. He’s really direct here: “If you would work at making sure that what’s inside of you is clean, then the whole of you, the inside and the outside, would be truly clean. But you don’t seem to be worried about the inside!” This is a big accusation: being filthy on the inside and only worrying about looking clean on the surface; Jesus has no time for this kind of hypocrisy. And he proves this by what he says in the next woe!
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. When people died in Jesus world their bodies were wrapped in clothes and placed in a tomb, really a place hollowed out in rock, for a year to rot. Then after a year the bones were gathered and stored in small stone boxes. Families tended to own one tomb and every relative that died rotted there. The greatest source of uncleanliness for the Jews was a dead body and so just to be sure that no one got close to a tomb it was customary to paint the outside of a tomb with whitewash paint to make it clear to everyone that a dead body was nearby. The Pharisees even believed that if just your shadow touched a tomb you became unclean. And since so many people came to Jerusalem for the Passover festivities, that was the time of year for whitewashing tombs. Well, the image is pretty stark! Jesus was saying the Pharisees were cleaned up and spiffy on the outside but inside full of rot…full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Actually the word Jesus used that is translated wickedness is anomia: literally lawlessness. The Pharisees were full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. This would have been a terribly insulting to the Pharisees… they considered themselves to be the most lawful people in the world. Jesus says, “Not on your life!” He was firing with both barrels.
And in his final woe Jesus goes after the Pharisee’s outright rejection of God’s true messengers implying, of course, their rejection of him. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!” Now, just as with the other woes, I don’t have time to cover all that we could here, but take my word for it, he was really putting it to them. The essence of his indictment was that the Pharisees were self- righteously saying they would never have done the terrible things their ancestors had done, but because of the condition of their hearts, they were actually guiltier than their ancestors… and they’d prove this to be true soon when they crucified Jesus.
And all I can say about this ‘7 Woe section’ is “Woe! This is sure a different side of Jesus!” Oddly though, from what we can tell, Jesus said all of these harsh things and yet the Pharisees weren’t even there to hear what he had to say. We don’t know if the criticism got back to them, but if it did, they were already done with Jesus. And so here is a question I’ve been asking: if those who were the target of Jesus words weren’t present to hear what he had to say about their hypocrisy then why was it important for Jesus to even publically voice these criticisms and furthermore, why did Matthew think it was important to include these 7 woes in his gospel? Well, here is my conclusion about this. Jesus was speaking to a crowd that day that included his disciples… people who in just a few weeks were going to replace the Pharisees as the new leaders of God’s people. The Pharisees, with their bad leadership, their attention to nit-picky rules, their legalism, their rotting insides and their tendencies to think they were above sin would soon be irrelevant to what God was doing in the world. But it was important for Jesus’ disciples, who would soon be the center of what God was doing in the world, to hear how vital it was to avoid this kind of hypocrisy. Jesus’ disciples would soon be commissioned to lead others to Jesus…. to be his representatives in a needy world. And so they needed to know that they must be wary of becoming so self-important that they close the door on people who are seeking God… they needed to know that they must be wary of opting for legalism over justice… they needed to know that they must be wary of becoming whitewashed tombs. They must be wary of being hypocrites. Bottom line, hypocrites will never lead anyone to Jesus… I believe that they needed to hear this… and so do we. I am absolutely certain that we have this passage so we will recognize the dangers of becoming hypocrites. We have the same commission as the original disciples: to be witnesses to the world of what we know is true about Jesus… that he is the Savior of the world. Here is the bottom line: the weight of my witness rides on the strength of my character and so I cannot be an actor. The Pharisees that Jesus was talking about had been working hard to fool people, but they couldn’t fool Jesus because he knew their hearts… and we can’t fool Jesus either… nor do I think we can fool others forever. Here is the hard truth that I’ve had to come to terms with whether I want to believe it or not: I am always leading someone all of the time; someone is always watching; I don’t get the luxury of thinking that I can ever say one thing and then do another. I don’t get the luxury of focusing on nit-picky things; I don’t get the luxury of being legalists and I certainly don’t get the luxury of pretending to be all clean on the outside while being filled with filth on the inside. God’s concern, and the reason we have this passage, is that God is calling us to a life where all that we say and do shows others that our message can be trusted… trusted that it will lead people to the truth… lead people to Jesus and for this to be true we cannot be acting. We cannot be hypocrites. And so the questions for me over the last weeks have been pretty down to earth: am I doing anything that might be shutting the door on those who are seeking God? Am I hoping that my influence leads people to honoring Jesus or honoring me? Am I focusing on nit-picky things that don’t really matter? Am I more worried about following rules than I am about justice and mercy? Is there anything in me that could be called rot? Am I making excuses for my sin? If my answer to any of these questions is ‘Yes’ then Woe to me…
Here at Grace we believe that God has commissioned us to go into the world and make disciples of Jesus but we will never be able to accomplish this commission if our lives our wracked by hypocrisy. And so we felt it would be appropriate to just step back and have a few minutes of self-examination… self-examination purposed to make certain that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts are acceptable to our God.