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.

Matthew 23:29-36 – “Woe Is Me!”

Ethiopian Jesus
Jesus, from an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, c.1750 C.E.

“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! 

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore, I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you; all this will come on this generation. (NIV) 

I almost feel the need to place a warning label on this blog post: “The writer has determined that a careful reading of this Scripture is dangerous to those who think their current state of Christianity is just fine.”  Jesus stands in a long line of Old Testament prophets as the ultimate prophesier calling the people to see things as they really are and come back to the God of all, not the God of their own making. 

I feel yet another warning is warranted, knowing from years of experience that there is an Enemy of our souls: The dark forces of this world will try every which way to get us to believe these words of Jesus are for other people, not me or you – that you and I are okay and that this is for “those” people [probably ones we don’t like] who are clearly deluded. We, however, are simply fine.   

We all need these words from Jesus and to let them speak to us. Christ’s scathing and damning critique was leveled against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, a controlling leadership that stifled and snuffed-out the true worship of God. Jesus pronounced seven woes on the religiously pious spiritual brokers of his day. Today’s Gospel lectionary contains only the seventh woe. This woe, along with the rest, are not directed toward the irreligious or the spiritually lackadaisical folks among us – the woes are aimed squarely at the religiously committed. 

Ethiopian Orthodox Jesus
Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus

The word “woe” literally means “disaster” “calamity” and “misery.” Jesus pronounced a woe against ultra-religious persons who were obsessed with respecting the tombs and the graves of the ancient prophets. It was considered a terrible travesty to walk on such a grave, even accidentally. The concern about it would be something like today’s respect given to the American flag by many people. 

Here is what Jesus is getting at with his woe on those being so concerned with the tombs of the prophets: Honoring dead people and inanimate objects like graves while ignoring live people is not good. Respecting dead people of the past means nothing if we simultaneously ignore the live people right in front of us. For Jesus, one of the surest ways to hell is to give credence to Christian leaders long dead while flippantly disregarding the prophet or pastor presently in our lives who is taking pains to communicate God’s will and care for God’s people right now. 

Jesus knew quite well the telltale signs of hypocrisy: 1) hypocrites don’t practice what they preach; 2) hypocrites keep other people out of God’s kingdom; 3) hypocrites focus on externals; and, 4) hypocrites major on the minors. Hypocrisy, however, never has the last word – grace does. The final word to everything is God’s grace.  

For all of Christ’s severe words, his heart was filled with a love and a longing for his wayward people. Jesus died for the ungodly with deep concern, intention, and hope that everyone would come to know the true worship of God – filled with an abundance of mercy for the penitent sinner. 

When the prophet Isaiah experienced a vision of God his response was “woe is me!” (Isaiah 6:1-5). The appropriate response to today’s Gospel lesson is repentance – to see and turn from our own propensity toward spiritual and/or religious pride and the tendency to view the “other” as needing to repent, but not me.  

Let us, then, come to the cross of Jesus Christ and there find the grace which absolves us from such sin. Let us approach the empty tomb and find Christ’s resurrecting power of transformation. Let us approach the ascended Christ on the throne with both humility and confidence. Let us intercede for a world which desperately needs the peace of Christ. 

Lord Jesus Christ, you prayed that we would be one as you and your Father are one. We confess our resistance to your prayer. We have failed to maintain the unity of the Spirit. We have broken the bond of peace. For the times we have not listened to each other, when we have spoken in anger, haste, or fear, we are sorry. For the times we have not loved each other, when we have competed, or insulted or judged each other, we are sorry. For the harm that our disunity has done to our witness to the Gospel, we are sorry. Have mercy on us, we pray. Restore us to friendship with you and with one another, through the power of your Spirit. Lord, grant your grace for repentance to spiritual charlatans and victimizers; and, give your power to those distressed and victimized for forgiveness of their abusers, so that all of us together may strive to break the chains of oppression and show the peace of Christ in the world. Amen. 

Luke 11:53-12:3 – Be Careful How You Bake

bad bread

When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed nor hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. (NIV)

One Sunday, many years ago when I was a young pastor, I went to a church to fill-in and preach sermons both in the morning and evening. I had believed my morning sermon went quite well, until I walked into the church building for the evening sermon only to have the deacon at the door exclaim to me, “Man, did you stir up the pot!” When I asked him to explain, he said that a lot of people were upset because I walked around and didn’t stay behind the pulpit, thus losing my authority; and, what is more, I did not preach from the King James Version of the Bible. The deacon went on to explain that some complained I talked too much about grace and not enough about God’s law.

Indeed, much like Jesus in our Gospel lesson for today, I ended up getting deluged with questions before the worship service began. Frankly, I had just been myself, and it caused trouble to the point of families in the church being divided over what I did and did not do. So, I decided on the spot to purposely cause more trouble by preaching the Beatitudes of Jesus while walking up and down the aisle. I, of course, never returned to that church.

In biblical times, yeast was a common symbol for evil, which is one reason why the Jews ate unleavened bread.  Jesus was trying to get the point across to his disciples that, like yeast, just a little bit of duplicitous teaching can have the far-reaching effect of distrusting God.

It takes only a pinch of hypocrisy to work through the whole batch of dough.

Not long before this encounter with the religious leaders, Jesus had done the miraculous feeding of the five-thousand people. With only five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus fed a multitude – and even had leftovers afterwards. The math lesson that Jesus explained to the disciples at the time about the baskets of food they had gathered was that a little bit of Jesus goes an incredibly long way.

A small amount of Christ’s compassion was able to feed thousands of hungry people.

So, the issue really gets down to the ingredients. Are we baking the bread of our lives with compassion or hypocrisy? Speaking from my own experience, dealing with hypocrisy and hypocritical folks is a huge drag. Unless you can be on their page of promoting themselves and their agenda, they can make life downright miserable. Conversely, it feels like the balm of healing to be around compassionate people who are authentic and genuine with no pretense or posturing to get in the way of enjoyable relationship.

Eventually, sooner or later, the little bit of hypocrisy in the bread will get eaten. And it will taste awful. Like Ellie Mae Clampett’s homemade biscuits from the 1960’s show, Beverly Hillbillies, you might not even be able to bite into them because they are so hard and nasty. To avoid this, we need to be vigilant about the preparation process before anything unsavory gets into the oven of our lives. Enjoying a good bite of warm soft compassionate bread happens when we are careful and attentive to Jesus, the real source of mercy and grace. Jesus has the best recipe I know. Hypocritical religious teachers, not so much. Their bread is half-baked, at best, and not fit for consumption.

How do we remain on guard against hypocrisy and attentive to genuine compassion?

  1. Use the cookbook. Becoming familiar with Holy Scripture informs us as to the proper ingredients for baking. A straightforward reading of the Gospels enables us to focus on Christ’s compassionate and finished work, and not hypocrisy and keeping up religious appearances. With the help of the Master Chef we are able to: see the internal pain and hurt behind the outwardly obnoxious behavior of a co-worker; love a relative even though they have offended us; have a spiritual conversation with a neighbor; freely give to others what we have freely received; and, so much more. Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:17, NIV)
  2. Avoid condemning other’s methods. Be a champion of grace, not judgment. When in doubt about what to do or say, always default to grace because the world spins on the axis of mercy and love, not hypocritical judgments. Cooking and eating are meant to be enjoyable experiences, not frustrating encounters. Jesus said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NIV)
  3. Trust your nose. If you intuitively sense something does not pass the smell test, then be wary of putting it into your bread. “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, NIV)
  4. Be vigilant about conversations. The interactions we have with others while making our bread are significant. If you would not say something to someone’s face, then absolutely do not say it behind their back. Secret recipes in the form of hidden agendas are the stuff of hypocrisy. “Don’t let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.” (Ephesians 4:29, CEB)

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pure and pleasing to the Lord our God.

Blessed God forgive me for those times I have been two-faced and hypocritical. I want to honor you with every word that comes from my mouth and every action I take throughout the day. Holy Spirit give me a humble heart that lives to glorify you. Help me to become aware when I am being judgmental of others. Thank you that you have wild and abundant grace for me that will not cease, will not end, and will not let me go. Teach me your ways and help me be receptive to them, so I will not fall through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

Mark 7:1-13 – Unmasking Hypocrisy

09781-mask2

One day some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples failed to follow the Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to—such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles.)

So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old tradition? They eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.”

Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’

For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.”

Then he said, “You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you. ’In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.” (NLT)

As I read this Gospel text for today, I tried to imagine what emotions Jesus might have experienced when confronted about the lack of attention to tradition from his disciples concerning ritual hand washings – maybe frustration, anger, sadness, exasperation, disappointment, irritation, aggravation, or discouragement. Perhaps Christ felt all those emotions. Whatever Jesus was feeling at the time, I can easily see him taking a deep breath and exhaling a great big *sigh* over the religious leaders’ hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is a disconnect between the values we espouse and our behavior. When there is incongruity between what we say is important and how we really live, this is being two-faced and duplicitous. The men who came to see Jesus were plain old insincere hacks who practiced religious quackery. And Jesus saw right through their fake pretension of righteousness.

First off, this narrative is not a dig on rituals themselves but on using ritual to leverage an appearance of religious superiority over others. This type of motivation for engaging ritual ignores the ethical and moral intention of those rituals.

Sometimes folks can get so doggone wrapped up in how faith is represented that they lose sight of the faith itself.

Hypocrisy has to do with our motives – not so much what we do but why we do it. Rituals are good. Why we do them or not, or how we go about doing them, gets at the heart of our objectives for engaging religious practices. Are they truly a worship offering to God, or are they merely mechanisms for keeping up appearances of holiness?

Hypocrisy is acting a part which is not truly us. It is to live from the false self through the attempt of providing an idealized perfect person to the public instead of embracing the true self and realizing our common humanity with one another in genuine devotion to God and service to others. Religious hypocrisy is particularly insidious because it uses what is sacred for selfish purposes. It damages the credibility of the religion, creates idolatry, and covers hate with a veneer of pretentious piety.

The hypocrite is one who is a bundle of disparate parts in massive need of integration to a whole and real self. The cost to facing this is vulnerably exposing oneself as flawed, imperfect, even ugly. Many persons have no willingness to be viewed by others as such, so they maintain their play-acting and continue to seek the attention and accolades as a model religious person.

We all must come to grips with the reality that God cares a whole lot about why we do what we do.

When the forms of faith become tools of oppression and crushing burdens upon others backs, then those forms have supplanted the faith itself. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and from the heart the hands and feet move. Whenever we care more about being and appearing right than getting it right and becoming better, then we have a heart problem. The heart of the issue is the heart itself. Clean up the heart, and everything else follows – not the other way around.

The probity of today’s Gospel lesson is that we might misinterpret what is important to God. We may be playing the hypocrite yet have the belief we are genuine. The capacity for our hearts to enlarge with love is in direct relation to an awareness of the hidden motives buried within those hearts. Evil intentions and motivations are what separate us from God – not our race, class, age, gender, religion, ethnicity, behavior, rituals, or anything else on the outside.

 

log
“You can see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t notice the log in your own eye. How can you say, ‘My friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you don’t see the log in your own eye? You’re nothing but show-offs! First, take the log out of your own eye. Then you can see how to take the speck out of your friend’s eye.” –Jesus (Matthew 7:3-5)

If we find ourselves being nit-picky of others, this is usually a clue that the unconscious self is trying to protect us from facing the pain of our own sins by projecting and focusing on another’s supposed missteps with tradition or ritual.

Fortunately, Jesus came to this earth full of grace and truth. Christ sometimes, maybe oftentimes, set aside niceness and decorum to go for the heart. In shining light on the motives behind the deeds of people, some repented and received the good news of the kingdom of God; and, others resisted to maintain their illusion of control and superiority. None could ride the fence with Jesus around. You either loved him or hated him.

The beauty of grace is that when we squarely and uncompromisingly face our sins and let go of things we consider so important, and turn to God with authenticity, we are welcome at his Table.

Most holy and merciful Father, we acknowledge and confess before you our sinful nature, prone to evil and slow to do good, and all our shortcomings, offenses, and malevolent motives. You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from Christ’s way of grace and truth, in wasting your gifts of compassion and justice, and in forgetting your love. O Lord have mercy on us. We are ashamed and sorry for all the ways we have displeased you. Teach us to hate our errors; cleanse us from our secret faults; and forgive us our sins; for the sake of your dear Son, our Lord. Most holy and loving God help us to live in your light and to walk in your ways according to the commandment of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in the enabling of your blessed Holy Spirit. Amen.