Whoa or Woe

Matthew 23 is at the same time a very familiar and a very strange text where Jesus pronounces a series of “woes” on the toxic religion of the Pharisees. We know the Pharisees as the “heavies” in the story of Jesus who opposed His ministry at every turn. But our view of the Pharisees has been tainted through these condemnations to the point where we don’t fully appreciate how radical these condemnations by Jesus really were.  The Pharisees were the most respected religious teachers of the Jews. They took the Old Testament very seriously and they followed the traditions of the elders passed down to them religiously. Jesus begins this section by acknowledging that then people should listen to the Pharisees as the interpret and explain Moses—“the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” They problems was in their exegesis; their problem was in their application and in their life. Notice the kinds of things Jesus says in this text as he gets wound up warning against the influence of the very teachers who knew Moses best—

  • Their traditions make it harder for people to see God, and they do nothing to help people serve God. They are more interested in their status as seen by others than in their service of others (23:5-7)
  • This services to slam heaven door in the faces of the very people who most desire to God, The Pharisees will circumnavigate the globe to make a single convert to their party, but when they do, they make that convert theirs and not God’s (23:13-15)
  • They are so locked into their legalistic interpretations and when it’s OK to swear and not keep an oath and when an oath is totally binding that they don’t realize that this entire system is one of their own making and has nothing to do with God and truth. (23:16-22)
  • They are so focused on getting the letter of the law correct in all of its excruciating detail (making sure every little herb in their garden gets tithed) that they leave undone the :more important matters of the law” like justice, mercy and faithfulness, those things which are at the very heart of God. (23:23-24)
  • They are so concerned about their religious image that commands the respect of others, that they aren’t aware that their hearts are quite far from God and that before the One who sees hearts, they are whitewashed tombs and unwashed cups (23:25-28).
  • They take such pride in their heritage as follows of the prophets that they don’t realize that their hard hearts and haughty pride is exactly what led their ancestors to murder the very prophets they now venerate… and would lead them to kill the very Messiah who stood before them (23:33-36)

If you do more than just give Matthew 23 a cursory reading, this becomes a very scary text. When you take the time to really look at it and make all the requisite historical and cultural updates in order to apply this to the church today, one thing is clear. Jesus is talking to us. We tend to trust in the very same things in which the Pharisees trusted—our use of the Bible, our traditional church practices, our insistence on traditional morality and ethics, our success in projecting a holy image. The Pharisees would point and say, “Yeah, had all of that and more.” Jesus says, “That’s not what I’m looking for; in fact, all that just gets in the way and confuses people who are diligently seeking me.” And Jesus says “Whoa!” If we don’t listen to that “Whoa” then we just might get a “Woe!”