Matthew 23.13-36

The worship leader at the church I grew up in used to complain about worship songs with too many ‘woahs’ in. Well Jesus gives seven here, although they’re woes of the rather less joyful kind.

Following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he has been challenging and confronting the religious establishment. The religious leaders have been testing Jesus and trying to catch him out with tricky questions but at the end of chapter 22 Jesus asks a question of his own and ‘no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.’ 

Now in chapter 23 Jesus goes on the offensive, and it is highly offensive: ‘hypocrites’, ‘blind men’, ‘whitewashed tombs’, ‘brood of vipers’.  When we encounter Jesus in the gospels, he often doesn’t fit into the box we’d prefer to keep him in. If we think Jesus was always gentle and tender and would never have a bad word to say about anyone, we find ourselves mistaken. Jesus didn’t shrink back from calling out, with holy anger, hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

Our reaction is likely two-fold. Part of us winces with the force of Jesus’ statements. Yet we may also find ourselves rubbing our hands with anticipation. We love to see hypocrisy being challenged, injustice exposed and the haughty brought low. We find pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees almost as easy as chuckling at the clueless disciples.

The American pastor Paul Washer once preached a sermon to a youth conference in America which became well known (or at least, well known amongst people like myself: Christians who need to get out more – although I suppose we all fall into that category now) for forcefully calling out the hypocrisy of the young people there who claimed to be followers of Jesus but who acted nothing like it. His sermon contains the infamous line addressed to the congregation, ‘I don’t know why you’re clapping, I’m talking about you.’  When we rub our hands with anticipation as Jesus lets loose on the Pharisees, we might expect to hear the same thing directed at us. As Andy said in his sermon on this passage on 15th March (a sermon it’s well worth (re)listening to on the church website) if we don’t think self-righteousness is a problem for us, it’s probably a sign of our self-righteousness. Pride blinds us to our pride. I don’t know why we’re rubbing our hands, Jesus is talking about us. ‘Our pride isn’t like the Pharisee’s’, we protest. The doctor gave me a prescription for my phylacteries and I haven’t had a fringe since the ‘90s! Yet the woes which Jesus proclaims from verse 13 here are all derived from the attitude of heart he diagnosed earlier on in verse 5: ‘they do all their deeds to be seen by others.’

How many of our deeds are done to be seen by others? How much of our discipleship, service and worship is done with an eye on who is watching? How do we seek man’s empty praise? And where does our practice not match our preaching? Do we preach grace yet live in legalism, or forgiveness but hold a grudge, or sacrifice and still act selfishly? And in our present seclusion, hidden from the sight of others, how are we using our time? We’ve been commanded to go into our room, close our door, but are we praying? (Matt 6:6) The Pharisees and Scribes were also blind to their pride. They claimed ‘if we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ They were certain that if a prophet were sent to them, they would play no part in killing him… The irony is deafening. And their assumption of moral superiority testifies to the very fact that they were no better than their ancestors. Rebellion infects the whole story of humanity – the Hebrew Bible begins and ends with the shed blood of the righteous: Abel’s was murdered at the start (Gen 4:8) and Zechariah at the end (2 Chronicles 24:21). But we glimpse in the final verses of this chapter the heart of God which our pride and rebellion breaks. ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’ Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, knowing that he would suffer that very same fate. The blood of the Righteous One was shed because of our rebellion, but that same blood secured our redemption. Here I find hope, because this is hope for the hypocrite who recognises his hypocrisy, repents of his pride and comes to the Lord in humility.

The last point of Andy’s sermon was to come to the one who wants to embrace self-righteous hypocrites like you and me. We have a father who wants to embrace the self-righteous older brother just as much as the prodigal younger brother, if only we will recognise our sin, lay down our pride and come to him in repentance and faith.

Father, we’re sorry for our hypocrisy and self-righteousness and we’re sorry for when we have been and still are blind to it. Please forgive us for the inconsistency of our lives and for when we value the praise of men above the praise of you, and our own glory above your own. Thank you that you died and rose to take the penalty of our sin and to give us your true righteousness. Help us by your Spirit to follow you faithfully, with humility and integrity.