Matthew 23:13-28 – Whoa, Here Comes the Woes!

Pharisees by German painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1912

“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.

“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.

“Woe to you, blind guides! 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.

“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.

“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.

“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. (NIV)

I am not sure if today’s Gospel lesson was purposefully designed to fall on Halloween, or not. If it was, I guess the compilers of the Daily Lectionary wanted to scare the bejabbers out of us with Christ’s chilling pronouncement of woes upon hypocritical religious folk.

Christ’s scathing critique was directed against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, and a controlling religious leadership that stifled the true worship of God. The word “woe” literally means “disaster” “calamity” or “misery.” Jesus leveled seven of them squarely at the religiously committed who had an incongruent faith in which the outside did not match the inside.

“Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees” by French painter James Tissot (1836-1902)

Woe to the Door Slammers

Jesus wanted no slamming the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of ordinary people. The Lord has a zero-tolerance policy for keeping others on the margins and out of the reach of resources and people who could help them.

Several years ago, while working on my graduate thesis in American religious history, I read hundreds of sermons from antebellum southern preachers. Most of them had a uniform biblical defense of the institution of black chattel slavery. Many of the clergymen pastored large churches and led many white people to Christ. Yet, they slammed the door of God’s kingdom smack in the faces of African American slaves, and taught others to do the same.

We might unwittingly door-slam people when we say God’s grace is for all, and then turn around and use policies and procedures to exclude certain people. Typically, behind it all, is a commitment to old-fogy-ism instead of Holy Scripture. 

Woe to the Exporters of Hell

The religious insiders were mission-oriented and wanted to make disciples just like themselves, which unfortunately meant loading others down with a heavy burden of legalistic mumbo-jumbo. In doing so, they were exporting their brand of religion which weighed people down instead of uplifting them.

In contrast to this, Jesus was concerned to form followers in and around the biblical virtues of humility, sensitivity to sin, meekness, purity, mercy, and peace-making. 

Woe to the Misguided Oath-Takers

Oath-taking was an art form with the religious authorities. There was so much complexity with their rules regarding oaths that it was common to make lots of promises to God which were never kept. Chiefly because there was no real intention of keeping them from the get-go. So, Jesus called them on it and railed about their blindness of truth. 

The leaders had lost sight of what is important to God. They either could not or would not distinguish between important and unimportant matters. In Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed the issue of truth and oath-taking by saying, in essence, that if you’re going to play these games about promise-making and promise-keeping, then don’t swear or make promises at all. Just say “yes” or “no.” This was Christ’s way of saying that lies and liars come from Satan, not God. (Matthew 5:33-37)

Woe to Those Who Give to Get

It is good to give – not so good to give from selfish motives and as a means of avoiding other matters. The religious leaders neglected weightier issues of the law while focusing on their superb 10% giving skills. 

The way it worked was this: “Well, I do my part and give 10%, then I get to do whatever the heck I want with the other 90%.” Meanwhile, the things which God passionately cares about, like justice, mercy, and faith, took a back seat. Focusing on frivolous pennies instead of precious life is going to raise the ire of Jesus every time.

Life is supremely important to God. The Lord sees the single mom who struggles to make it; the lonely person who wonders if there is any worth to her existence; and the poor worker who is stuck in a job without a living wage. God cares about the needy persons around us:

This is what the Lord of Armies says: “Administer real justice and be compassionate and kind to each other. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and poor people. And do not even think of doing evil to each other.” (Zechariah 7:9-10, GW)

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NIV)

Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. (Proverbs 31:8, NRSV)

Justice, mercy, and faithfulness all have to do with neighbor love. It is easy to love those who love us back. Yet, the one who loves another, the outsider, the person for whom no one else cares or loves is the one whom Jesus is looking for. We are to have a spiritual vision of living in the world for the sake of the world, without being of the world. Apart from this vision, there is blindness.

Woe to the Squeaky Clean

The teachers of the law had a compulsion for ritual cleanliness. For Jesus, it was an inner issue of the heart, and not about outward washings. For example, having a polished and immaculately clean church building means little if the parishioners within are full of greed and self-indulgence. Christian ministry ought to be centered in cleaning up the human heart, and not just making sure the outside looks good. 

The ancient leaders were obsessed with not making a mistake and becoming impure. In a strict legalistic system, making a mistake equals the unpardonable sin. However, in a system of grace, people are encouraged to freely pursue God, and if they fail, are allowed the grace to try something different or try again.

Woe to Perfect Hair

Okay, that is not quite what the text says, but it is darned close. At Passover, when multiple thousands of people came to Jerusalem, the Pharisees whitewashed all the tombstones to make sure no one would inadvertently step on a grave. Because if someone did, they became unclean and unable to celebrate Passover. 

Jesus said the perfect hair people were like those tombstones – all nice, clean, spiffy, and looking good on the outside, but on the inside full of death. 

Inordinate focus on the outside only prevents one from hearing the cries of people all around us and responding with justice. On the farm, we would say, if there is no manure in the barn, there is no life.

Conclusion

Jesus gave us some telltale signs of the hypocrite:

  • Fails to practice what they preach.
  • Keeps other people out of God’s kingdom.
  • Focuses on externals.
  • Majors on the minors.

The final word, however, is not hypocrisy but grace. At the end of his tirade, Jesus broke into a tear-filled, heart-rending love song for his wayward people. The set of woes from Jesus, then, are not just blast-the-bad-guys. Jesus has a very deep concern for all people to know the true worship of God.

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