Before we really get into the actual Seven Woes, where Jesus really hands it to the religious leaders, we need to explore who the Pharisees are first.
For your reading pleasure, I give you Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
With that being said, it is easy to read the Bible and disconnect it from yourself. You think, oh, religious leaders? Ugh, those pastors had better watch themselves….or ourselves? Man, it’s hard to read the Bible and understand it in the culture that it was written, but the truth is that if you identify yourself as a Christian, you’re in the minority now and people are watching you. YOU!
I got the chance to see Jen Hatmaker speak on Sunday. Her message was, exactly as I expected, awesome. She talked about how our materialism is inextricably linked to the perception of us by people outside the faith. Jesus, who dined with sinners and had no place to lay his head, has modern followers who spent inordinate amounts of dough on things that they don’t need.
Here’s a small excerpt from her book, 7:
I wondered if the American church was like well-mannered nice-talkers, sitting in a living room sipping coffee, talking about choir practice,while the world burns down outside our windows. While the richest people on earth pray to get richer, the rest of the world begs for intervention with their faces pressed to the window, watching us drink our coffee, unruffled by their suffering. (page 90)
Can I be honest? That imagery haunts my nightmares. And it’s apparently bothered God for quite some time because I hear a similar vein of thinking in the verses above.
Pharisees and scribes were concerned with rule following. They knew what the Scriptures (Old Testament) said; they knew what the oral tradition was. They were like the Wikipedia of Jesus’s generation; they had all the answers.
They completely and utterly missed the point. God gave the law to the Israelites so that they would have an example of what it means to be righteous. It was a set of standards that helped them understand God’s heart. But they missed the point too. That’s why the discussion of meaningless sacrifices comes up over and over and over again in the Old Testament. The people of Israel took God’s law, made it into a list of rules, and thought that just doing those would make them righteous.
Good Christians ________
A) Go to church every Sunday
B) Vote Republican
C) Donate a little money
D) All of the above
The Pharisees thought they had it all figured out. They knew the path to righteousness and so they were “righteous”. They could do no wrong. They were not humble. They alienated people who didn’t meet their high standards. They forgot love and justice.
Just like we do today.
The good news is that there’s an easy (and really difficult) fix. Just a chapter earlier, in Matthew 22, a Pharisee asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. Of course, he wanted something like “Don’t eat pork” or “Wear your phylacteries proudly” but Jesus boiled the entirety of the Old Testament law into two simple rules- Love God and Love people.
That’s all we have to do. Yes, we get bogged down with our own righteousness and our own comfort. Yes, sometimes Jesus needs to read us the riot act, but there’s good news. We have grace and forgiveness on our side.
Lord, help us as we learn to fight the Pharisee within ourselves.
(PS-Phylacteries were these boxes that the religious leaders wore on their left arm or their heads. Inside the box were slips of paper with scriptures on them, taking Deuteronomy 6:8 to heart (“And you shall bind them as a sign on your arm, and they shall be as frontlets on your head between your eyes.”) The practice developed into a competition where those with the biggest phylacteries were the most righteous.)