Jesus Criticizes Unjust Leaders
Read: Matthew 23.1-39
[Jesus said] “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”
Matthew 23.2-3 (NRSV)
Matthew Chapter 23 contains the most scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees found in the gospels. For thirty-six verses, Jesus issued both a word of woe to the Jewish leaders and a warning for all who would be led by them.
When Jesus spoke directly to the scribes and Pharisees, seven times he began his indictment with the word “woe.” “Woe” is not just an expression of sadness; it is a groaning from the gut, a deep release of grief. It carries the thought of judgment but also has a tone of pity. Even as Jesus expressed these truths about the scribes and Pharisees, he was sorry the wrath headed their way. Jesus expressed that sorrow in Matthew 23.36-39; he wanted to gather God’s disobedient people under his wing, but they would not let him. Six times Jesus called these officials “hypocrites.” This was the word for a Greek actor. The performers on the Greek stage wore masks to hide their true faces and project the character they were portraying. This allowed actors to play several parts at once. The job of an actor was to be a pretender, to hide his real self behind a mask. Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of teaching one thing but personally practicing another. They were pretenders, teaching the law but looking for loopholes for their own behaviors. They were more concerned with properly measuring spices that dispensing justice (v. 23). They dressed well, ate well and insisted on the seats of honor at banquets but their actions were all designed to gain favor and praise (vv. 5-7). They were clean on the outside but rotten at the core (vv. 25, 27). Jesus admonished the crowd not to follow the example of these “blind guides” (v. 16).
We may think Jesus’ words to his adversaries are not directed toward us but his caveat is intended for anyone who says one thing and does another. Perhaps our faith needs “a little less conversation and a little more action.” Saint Francis of Assisi, a thirteenth century monk and mystic, is reputed to have said, “Do all you can to preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words.”
Reverend Steven B. Lawrence