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Woe is a groaning expression of pain. Jesus, full of disappointment, felt that pain. So did the humiliated scribes & Pharisees. To avoid these woes, get real.
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites: For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. Woe to you! For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.
"Woe to you, for you travel land and sea to win one proselyte and make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves. Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.'
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites? For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You cleanse the outside of the cup, but inside you are full of extortion and self-indulgence. You are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.
"Woe to you because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers in the blood of the prophets.'
"Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?"
Matthew 23:13-33 NKJV, condensed
If you don't like hypocrites, you're in wonderful company; Jesus didn't like to see pretense on the program either. A hypocrite is a play actor who pretends to be something he or she is not. The word was originally used to describe Greek actors who spoke through masks during their performances.
This text is harsh. It's a severe beating. Jesus didn't use blistering language when speaking to the crowds or his disciples. He never called the Romans "the sons of hell," nor condemned the notorious sinners of his day to eternal judgment. His words of woe and shame were saved exclusively for the hierarchy of religious leadership!--a fact we must not miss.
The scribes were scholars and experts of the Law of Moses. The Pharisees separated themselves from ordinary people by their dress and habits. They were a religious sect who built a fence of rules around the many individual laws, supposedly so people would be in less danger of disobeying them. The scribes and Pharisees knew more about the holy Scriptures than anyone else, but ironically didn't seem to know much about God.
The seven deadly sins, according to Jesus, are full of hypocrisy. Here's his list: 1) Blocking the doorway to the kingdom of heaven. 2) Taking advantage of the poor and vulnerable and using religion as a cover up. 3) Spreading one's own evilness through proselytizing. 4) Manipulating the rules and being honest only when under binding oath. 5) Highlighting lesser laws while neglecting more important commandments. 6) Looking good (righteous) on the outside but being filthy dirty inside. 7) Honoring dead prophets while destroying the current One in their midst.
There are some interesting parallels between the happy message of Jesus on that special hillside by the sea in Galilee at the beginning of his public ministry, and this woeful utterance near the end at the temple in Jerusalem. In the beatitudes, Jesus opened up the kingdom of heaven to all. In this text his enemies are closing the door and locking it. The hunger and thirst for righteousness in the earlier days is replaced with the deceitfulness of hiding one's sinfulness behind a religious camouflage.
Blessings on the pure in heart, the merciful, and the peacemaking children of God were bountiful in the countryside around Capernaum, but are in short supply among the leadership at the Passover festival in the capital city. Here at the end of his ministry, we recognize the persecutors who shamefully make life difficult for the very ones Jesus commended--the poor in spirit, the meek and those who mourn. Blessing leads to life and happiness; woe is a warning that disaster looms ahead.
How does it happen that people who start out with such lofty intentions can end up so corrupted? Jesus called them blind guides, leading everyone into the ditch. He said they strain out the pesky gnat, but then turn around and swallow a camel! They'll serve you a drink in a glass that looks beautiful on the outside, but inside it's full of crud. And they didn't have a clue. What is it with these people! They seem to be carefully following their sacred writings, but in reality it's all show and no substance.
Jesus was talking to those who governed the temple in Jerusalem and those who provided leadership at their local houses of worship. They couldn't see their sins any better than we see ours. From the little brown church in the vale to First Church on the metro, our prayer needs to be, "Lord, show us our sins and our hypocrisy."
What do we look like to others? More importantly, how does God see us? Jesus gave these religious leaders a gift that was hard to take. So they didn't say, "Thank you." Neither did they show signs of repentance. The pronouncement of woes knocked them off their pedestal and onto the ground where they connived against Jesus like a brood of poisonous snakes with fangs unfurled. Their venom silenced his lips, but the truth lives on.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: Do you enjoy putting on a mask? Why or why not? Share a story about wearing a mask.
Make a list of words you associate with authenticity and another list of words you associate with hypocrisy. Are all the words on the first list positive and all the words on the second list negative? Whether yes or no, what does this tell you?
Do we today still hide our sins behind religious rituals? Where and how do you see evidence of this? Do you do privately what you claim publicly? Do you practice daily the words you profess at your house of worship?Is there anything about our liturgy which can't be carried over into daily living?
In Paradise Lost, John Milton claimed that hypocrisy is "the only evil that walks invisible, except to God alone." Do you agree with Milton? Why or why not?Why are religious people so susceptible to the charge of hypocrisy?
Go down the list of the woes expressed by Jesus and give examples of what these sins look like in real life.
Jesus was being very honest when he told the scribes and Pharisees what they looked like to him. If Jesus did the same for you, would you be grateful or offended? What are some things you think Jesus might mention about you?When have you been grateful to someone who told you the truth even though it was painful to hear?
Jesus didn't say these things directly to the face of the scribes and Pharisees. He said them to the crowd, within hearing of the scribes and Pharisees. Why would he choose that method for delivering this message? In the midst of all the seriousness, do you see anything comical? What role does humor play in truth-telling?
Seven woes for seven days--do some soul searching. Take one woe a day for the next week and use it for personal reflection and prayer. When have I closed the door of God's kingdom in someone's face? When have I taken advantage of a vulnerable person and pretended like it was nothing? I spread my own evil by . . . . Continue this pattern for all seven woes.