June 13: Matthew 23

Martin Downes
Are you really surprised that outwardly religious people can use their religion as a cover for gross evil?  The media still finds the sins of the religious to be sensational, but, perhaps we would be better prepared to account for this reality if we listened to the damning words of Jesus in Matthew 23.

In a tone that takes us aback by its forcefulness, and freighted with the most vivid language, Jesus denounces the Pharisees.  Indeed he pronounces seven solemn "woes" on them for their behavior.  Here we see depravity in action among those claiming to be closest to God.

They are described, in turn, as "hypocrites" (13, 15), "children of hell" (15), "blind guides" (16), "blind fools" (17), "whitewashed tombs" (27), "serpents" and "a brood of vipers" (33).  Should we question the appropriateness of such language being used by the Son of God?  Rather than being shocked at the intemperate language of Jesus we should ask ourselves how serious these sins must be that they call forth such strong words.

There is a fundamental inconsistency in the position they occupy and the path they walk.  They do not practice what they preach (3).  Moreover they are not engaged in errors of insignificant consequence.  They are guilty of shutting "the kingdom of heaven in people's faces" and being an obstacle to prevent others entering it (13).  Theirs is a spreading poison, as the sins of leaders often proves to be.

There is also an inversion of priorities.  They major on the minors.  It is not that the minors don't matter, but it is a shocking state of affairs when obedience to God is satisfied with tithing "mint and dill and cumin" and prepared to neglect "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness" (23).

There is an intoxicating love of having their righteousness recognized by others.  Here is a sordid love of titles and status, a grubby satisfaction in public recognition (5-11).  Jesus said "They do all their deeds to be seen by others" (5) and they "outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (28).

Laurence Rees wrote that "for all time the story of the Nazis will act as a terrible warning."  For quite different reasons the same may be said of the Pharisees.  However, we dare not read these warnings as if they applied to others and were not there to search and examine us.