Reading for Wednesday, July 11: Matthew 23
This chapter has to be one of the most sobering in the entire New Testament. Jesus does not mince words as He issues these woes or curses upon the religious leaders of the day. He criticizes them for their hypocrisy (v3), burdensome teachings (v4), and pious showmanship (v5-7). Seeking to exalt themselves publicly, these men have already received the reward they seek. But Jesus teaches His followers a different path: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
It seems the Pharisees and scribes constructed elaborate practices involving oaths that were binding and non-binding (v16ff). But Jesus lambasts them for neglecting the more important matters. “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves,” (v15). These blind guides are experts at leading others to legalism, not the Lord. We might say that these leaders have majored in minors: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For 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,” (v23). By focusing on a few trees, they’ve lost sight of the spiritual forest. I think this is a real danger in our day as well. We would be wise to heed Jesus’ words as warning and instruction.
I’m struck by the tone of Jesus’ comments. To modern readers, His statements sound very “judgmental”, which is the cardinal sin of our day. But Jesus is speaking unvarnished truth here to these wicked men, calling them whitewashed tombs and a brood of vipers. Jesus is unafraid to confront this spiritual hypocrisy — and it surely will cost Him His life. But this kind of truth-telling is always about more than just reaming somebody out. We would also do well to see these words as an expression of love. You have to love someone an awful lot to talk to them this way, don’t you? Hard as it may be to hear, these kinds of words come from someone who loves us enough to hurt our feelings — not because they enjoy it, but because we need to be corrected.