Whoa or Woe?
Jesus was very patient and forgiving when dealing with sinners. It fact, several times He defends sinners who are condemned by the “holy people.” Others dismissed sinners like the sinful woman (Luke 7), Zacchaeus (Luke 19) and the adulterous woman (John 8), but Jesus comes to their defense and offers them grace. Our reading today from Matthew 23 shows us the kind of sinners Jesus openly condemns—those who take pride in their own holiness. Here Jesus pronounces a series of "Woes" on the Pharisees. Why?
- Pharisees extolled telling the truth... and had a system that let them lie when they needed to do so (23:20-22)
- Pharisees focused on the external rituals of religiosity while ignoring real spirituality to the point where they strained the gnats of tradition while swallowing the camels of sin (23:23-24).
- Pharisees were so focused on externals that they are compared to whitewashed tombs and half-washed cups. They look good on the outside... but not on the inside. (23:25-28).
- Pharisees extol the memories of the prophets while acting just like the people who martyred them (23:29-32)
The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were such obvious and open sinners. No, the problem is that they looked EXACTLY like holy people. Their desire was to get religion right, and there is nothing wrong with that. That is UNLESS you think you have gotten it all right and are saved because it is all right. The Pharisees focused on tradition and completely missed God. Jesus told them that though they searched the scriptures, they missed the whole point (John 5:39). They got so focused on the right rites that they became dead wrong.
The main character in John Grisham's novel The Last Juror visits many different types of churches in rural Mississippi. While he notes many obvious differences from church to church, he also is struck by the central core that all shared in common. Perhaps this view from an outsider can help us to refocus on the part that matters.
The denominations were varied and baffling-- how could Protestants, all of whom claimed to follow the same basic tenets, get themselves so divided? They agreed basically that (1) Jesus was the only son of God; (2) he was born of a virgin; (3) lived a perfect life; (4) was persecuted by the Jews, arrested and crucified by the Romans; (5) that he arose on the third day and later ascended into heaven; (6) and some believed-- though there were many variations-- that one must follow Jesus in baptism and faith to make it to heaven. The doctrine was fairly straightforward, but the devil was in the details."
Yes, the devil really IS in the details. And when we fuss and feud over traditions and interpretations to the point where the body of Christ is harmed, that most certainly is the work of the devil! It is so easy to be so proud of ourselves because we are so right while others have it so wrong. Just like the Pharisees.
Whenever we get to the point where we pride ourselves on how well we do Christianity, we’d better tell ourselves “Whoa!” Or we might find Jesus telling us “Woe!”