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The Journey to the Cross - Wednesday

Woe to the hypocrites!

During his time in Jerusalem, Jesus continues to teach those who gather around him. Often, when the crowd gathers, a contingent of religious leaders follows - sometimes to listen but more often to try to fool Jesus into saying something that will get him into trouble.

Rather than just answer their trick questions, Jesus often responds with a question of his own, and with rhetorical brilliance turns their questions around on them to make a broader point about the upholding of the law and true obedience to God’s commands. 
(See: Matthew 15; Matthew 19; Luke 14 & 15; Mark 12/Luke 20)

This response usually left the people astonished at the authority with which Jesus spoke, and it left the Pharisees angry because not only could they not trap him with their questions, but they were shamed publicly in front of all the people.

When we get to Matthew 23 the approach changes. Jesus isn’t defensively responding to questions from civic and religious leaders, rather he sits down to have a chat with all who will listen. And his topic? A warning to his hearers and a handing down of woes to those who think they are righteous on their own.

Here is how Jesus starts:

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.’” (Matthew 23:1-7 ESV)

**Phylacteries are small boxes that the religious leaders would wear strapped to their heads containing bits of the Torah. A broad phylactery was one that could hold many passages of the Torah and outwardly said something about the spiritual rank of the wearer. The long fringes are the outer seam on the outermost cloak or robe. A long hem that was pulled behind someone said something about their high social and/or economic status. Wide phylactery = religiously/spiritually important. Long fringe/hem = socially important.

This is a shot across the bow of the ship of self-righteousness and pride. Jesus says they sit on Moses’ seat so when they read from the law you should listen to them, BUT don’t watch their lives because they are not living in obedience to the same law that they are proclaiming to you. They preach but do not practice.

Two things stand out from the introduction to this rebuke:
1 - These men tell others to do things (even righteous and good things) that they themselves are unwilling to do.
2 - Any good deeds these men do are not done for the sake of obedience to the commands of God, the deeds are done in front of others so the men are seen doing them.

Jesus continues his challenge to them:
Verse 11 - “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”
Verse 13 - “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.”
Verse 15 - “Woe to you…For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte (convert) and he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

Ouch.
But Jesus continues:

Verse 16-19 - “Woe to you, blind guides… You blind fools!… You blind men!”
Verse 23-24 - “Woe to you… you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others… straining out a gnar and swallowing a camel!”
Verse 25-26 - “Woe to you… you clean the outside of the cup and the plate but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
Verse 27-28 - “Woe to you… For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”
Verse 29 - 36 - “Woe to you, hypocrites! (Basically saying, we would not have made the mistakes our fathers made). Jesus continues, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”

Does that seem harsh? Where is the child-hugging, lamb-holding, blue-sash-wearing Jesus we see in all the pictures? When he arrives in Jerusalem he heads to the temple to overturn tables and fashions his own whip to drive out the money changers, and now he takes direct aim at the scribes and pharisees.

Now, if we are honest, we kind of like it when Jesus unloads on the religious leaders don’t we? It is about time that someone puts them in their place isn’t it? And he says some hard things. Not only is their self-righteousness just a thin covering over the wickedness that lurks on the inside, they are actually standing on the precipice of hell with their father, Satan, nudging them ever closer to the edge.

We quietly cheer Jesus on…because we don’t think he’s talking to us.
But what if he is?

Now there are many who are lost and broken, and Jesus doesn’t respond to them with a rebuke but kindness. Both audiences, however, have the same problem.

Jesus has compassion on:
The paralytic (Mark 2:1-12)
The woman at the well (John 4:1-45)
The sinful women (Luke 7:36-50)
The man with a demon, the daughter of Jairus, and a bleeding woman (Mark 5:1-43)
The scribes and pharisees (Matthew 23)

Both the pharisee and prostitute, the scribe and the sinner, are in need. Some cannot conceal their need and so it is clear to everyone that they have a problem. Others can readily hide their need because it isn’t an outward brokenness but an inward brokenness. And Christ’s message is the same message… one of repentance for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

As we hear his message and consider his journey to the cross let’s ask ourselves:

  • Do we respond Jesus’ message with indifference or indignation because we feel as if we are doing pretty good on our own?
OR
  • Do we respond with humble curiosity because we know we’re broken inside and out and Jesus is offering something to us that we can’t attain on our own?

The first response is deserving of woes. Blindness to our need remains.
The second is full of hope because Jesus came for the spiritually sick.

Friends, Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem, his journey to the cross, is an invitation for all of us to agree with his assessment; that we are in need and that HE is accomplishing something FOR US that we CANNOT accomplish on our own.

May we find Jesus speaking to us, not with woes because of the hardness of our heart, but with compassion because we see our need, and we see him as the only one who can do anything about it.