For our sermons during Lent we are going to look at events in the last week of Jesus’s life as they are recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew 21 Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem and he has declared himself to be the Messiah in three symbolic actions. He has entered the city riding on a donkey, as the prophet Zechariah had foretold. Jesus has driven the merchants and the money changers out of the Temple, fulfilling a number of Old Testament prophecies concerning the restoration of the Temple. And he has told the parable of the Tenants in the vineyard, portraying himself as the son of the vineyard owner, the Son of God. Jesus has told the parable of the Wedding Banquet, which tells how those who were invited to God’s banquet all made feeble invitations to avoid attending, and how anybody who wished was welcomed instead.
So we come to Matthew chapter 23 which is devoted to Jesus’s condemnation of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. Over the years I have said surprisingly little about Jesus’s opponents, when you think that the Pharisees are mentioned nearly a hundred times in the Gospels. It can be tempting to think that these passages are not relevant for us, since the Jewish sect of the Pharisees died out in the centuries after Jesus. But Jesus’s warnings about the errors of the Pharisees are still important today. The Pharisees were the leaders of the Jewish religion in Jesus’s time. They were the most knowledgeable and most devoted of Jews. But Jesus reserved his harshest words and greatest criticisms for the Pharisees. They serve as a warning for every generation of the dangers of what can happen when religion becomes more important than faith and outward appearance become more important than our personal relationship with God. Matthew 23 still has important things to say to Christian leaders and to every individual Christian.
Jesus was teaching in the Temple Courts and he starts by warning his disciples against following the bad example of the Pharisees.
Matthew 23:3 …. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach. 4 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.
Sometimes even today church leaders can make this mistake. They can demand much more of their congregations than they do themselves. Every one of us must always make sure we practise what we preach. And the next sin of the Pharisees is also a trap for some church leaders, as well as for many long-established Christians.
5 ‘Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the market-places and to be called “Rabbi” by others.
Doing everything for show. Some Christian leaders are obsessed with fancy titles. Bishop. Doctor. Apostle. We should beware of any Christian preacher or teacher or evangelist who is more concerned for their own reputation than they are for the glory of God.
8 ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi”, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth “father”, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
I am troubled in this age of celebrity by preachers who expect people to look up to them. We are all brothers and sisters. True disciples will not exalt themselves but humble themselves. If you want to stand out, step down.
Matthew chapter 23 continues with seven declarations of “woe” to the Pharisees. Each of these in their own way are warnings to us as well, in case we ever fall into the same sins.
13 ‘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 Pharisees were roadblocks to God’s kingdom. Their greatest sin was hypocrisy. Pretending to be something they were not. An admirer once bumped into the famous actor Robert Redford. “Are you the real Robert Redford?” she asked. His reply was refreshingly honest. “Only when I am alone!” The challenge for all of us is to be the same person in public as we are in private when the temptation is always there to pretend be somebody different. As Mark Twain once said, “We’re all like the moon, we have a dark side we don’t want anyone to see.” We should be WYSIWYG Christians – what you see is what you get. We must beware of the sin of hypocrisy.
The Pharisees were the gatekeepers of the Jewish faith. They set the standards for the people. They decided who was acceptable to God and who was not. But the truth was that not one of the Pharisees ever lived up to what they were demanding of everybody else. As Christians we must make sure that we don’t expect from others more than God in his grace expects of us. Especially towards people who are not yet Christians. God welcomes everybody with his unconditional love and mercy, and we should always do the same.
15 ‘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.
The Pharisees expected their followers to live to the same exacting standards as they claimed to. They did not realise that none of them could ever reach perfection however hard they tried. Everybody needs God’s grace. But by their mistaken teaching the Pharisees were leading everybody else astray.
16 ‘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.” 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 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.” 19 You blind men!
Blind guides! The Pharisees were obsessed with getting the exact wording of their oaths correct. They were blind to the importance of honesty and integrity. We must always be on our guard against legalism which emphasizes superficial details and ignores underlying attitudes and values. Blind guides. The church today has more blind guides than ever before. Anybody can start their own church, collect followers, get rich and lead others astray. Now with YouTube and social media like Facebook and Instagram people can gain an audience of thousands without even leaving their living room, making their followers in Jesus’s words, twice as fit for hell as they are themselves. You will hear me saying this plenty of times. You cannot trust everything you read or hear on the internet. Slick presentation is no guarantee of truth. Facebook is not infallible. Beware of today’s blind guides!
23 ‘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 practised the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
Straining the gnat and swallowing a camel! We tell elephant jokes – Jesus told camel jokes. Here the hypocrisy was obsessing over the small details of how much spice to offer as a tithe. Will you note that Jesus is not saying that the details of our offerings are not important. But that other things in the Law of Moses, like justice, mercy and faithfulness are much, much more important.
Again, when it comes to welcoming new Christians, and people who are not yet believers, we must avoid having our own checklists of things we think they should do and things we think they shouldn’t do. The Pharisees believed that their Jewish religion was all wrapped up in obeying rules and regulations. But they were wrong. And the Christian life is not like that at all. What matters is acting justly and loving mercy and walking humbly with God. (Micah 6:8). Being a Christian is not about following rules and regulations. Being a Christian is about experiencing a personal relationship with God.
25 ‘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. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
Again Jesus is challenging the Pharisees over their concern for outward appearances. Doing the right thing does matter but the inward attitude of the heart is even more important. Jesus uses another simile to press home the point.
27 ‘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. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Whitewashed tombs, pretty on the outside but dead on the inside. As the Message puts it, “People look at you and think you’re saints, but beneath the skin you’re total frauds.” Groucho Marx once said, “The two most important words in the world are honesty and sincerity. If you can fake these you’ve got it made.” Beware the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
29 ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 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.” 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
In earlier times it was the religious elites who had silenced God’s prophets by murdering them. Within days, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the chief priests and the teachers of the Law would plot together to murder Jesus. They would have done this anyway because of his implicit claims to be the Messiah. But his teaching here sealed his destiny. Before the week was over, Jesus would be crucified.
To their faces, Jesus called the Pharisees snakes and vipers, hypocrites blind guides and whitewashed tombs. Scripture records the failings of the Pharisees as a warning to us all to make sure that we do not follow their bad examples. He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches!