“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside of it may also become clean.
The proof of spiritual maturity is not how “pure” you are but your awareness of your impurity. That very awareness opens the door to God’s grace.
To be a hypocrite is to give others the impression that we are holier than we actually are. It is the same as being false, or telling a lie. Jesus pronounced a curse on hypocrites seven times in Mt. 23:13-29. It is possible to tell a lie without even opening our mouths. Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit without saying a word – when he pretended to be a wholehearted disciple of Jesus (Acts 5:1-5).
Jesus told the Pharisees that their inner life was “”full of self indulgence”” (Mt. 23:25) – which meant that they lived only to please themselves. Yet they gave others the impression that because they knew the Scriptures well and fasted and prayed and tithed their income, they were very holy. They appeared very pious externally. They prayed lengthy prayers in public, but they did not pray at length in private – just like many today. It is hypocrisy if we praise God only on Sunday mornings, but do not have a spirit of praise in our hearts at all times. God looks at our hearts.
It has been said that hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core. While Jesus makes it perfectly clear that hypocrisy is morally wrong, why is it? Why are hypocrites especially despised by others? Sometimes we hear people say, “I may have this shortcoming or that, but at least I’m not a hypocrite.” As we have seen, hypocrisy involves: dishonesty, deception, and self-deception. It is insincere and disrespectful of others. It is unjust because a hypocrite attempts to receive good by doing bad. It kills the moral spirit by undermining the incentive to live morally. It flouts God’s standards.
We could say that hypocrisy is hydra-headed; it is many sins in one. No wonder it justifies the extreme repugnance that it provokes or the strong resistance we have in being accused of hypocrisy.
We read Jesus calling people hypocrites and read that as saying that they said one thing, but did another. That may be true and may be part of what Jesus is saying. But the hypocrite charge, used in Matthew 23, by Jesus, is actually worse.
I learned and you may have also learned that the word that is written here means ‘play actor’ or one that wears a mask, a fake, a fraud. In a word, Jesus was calling the Pharisees here, ‘frauds’. Frauds say one thing and do another. They are liars, two-faced.
A ‘play-actor’ plays a part which is assumed for the occasion, who is not their true self. Jesus was not saying that all Pharisees for all time are hypocrites, but that these particular ones were.
Jesus’ hypocrisy charge was worse than that these ones were just fakes. They were false teachers.
Jesus says, in a sense, “You frauds!”, and then lays out seven charges or indictments. These people were worthy of the charge and we need to understand what Jesus meant, in order to identify what or who this sort of fraud is today.
This is a note I wrote, while listening the Scot McKnight: “Jesus’ hypocrisy charge against the Pharisees is not best understood as a contradiction between what a person teaches and what they do, BUT was that they were false teachers, leading people away from God’s will, God’s true will.“
Jesus called these Pharisees ‘whitewashed tombs’. At that time, they would paint and repaint tombs, so that people would not touch them, and become unclean. The whitewash did not attract you, but repulsed you.
Jesus was saying to these guys, that they beautified their outward appearance, but that this was actually a sign that on the inside, they were corrupt. The way that they taught had a positive or attractive presentation, but was dead, below the surface. In other words, their hearts and souls were bad. In legal terms, they had bad faith.
The bad faith charge means that their way that they taught in not the way of God, not the way of Christ. Their way is immoral, in that ultimately they are the law unto themselves. They are making it up as they go. They were, at best, majoring in the minors.
Alexander MacLaren wrote this:
So He would say, with terrible irony, that the apparent holiness of the rulers was really a sign of corruption, and a warning to keep away from them. What a blow at their self-complacency! And how profoundly true it is that the more punctiliously white the hypocrite’s outside, the more foul is he within, and the wider berth will all discerning people give him! The terrible force of the figure needs no dwelling on. In Christ’s estimate, such a soul was the very dwelling-place of death; and foul odours and worms and corruption filled its sickening recesses. Terrible words to come from His lips into which grace was poured, and bold words to be flashed at listeners who held the life of the Speaker in their hands! There are two sorts of hypocrites, the conscious and the unconscious; and there are ten of the latter for one of the former, and each ten times more dangerous. Established religion breeds them, and they are specially likely to be found among those whose business is to study the documents in which it is embodied. These woes are not like thunder-peals rolling above our heads, while the lightning strikes the earth miles away. A religion which is mostly whitewash is as common among us as ever it was in Jerusalem; and its foul accompaniments of corruption becoming more rotten every year, as the whitewash is laid on thicker, may be smelt among us, and its fatal end is as sure.
This is what NT Wright wrote about Matthew 23:
Jesus’ criticisms were primarily against those of his own time who, he could see, were leading Israel astray, causing Israel to look in the wrong direction, at the very moment when its hour, and indeed its Messiah, had come. The main reason he is taking the trouble to denounce them in such detail is because they are distracting attention from the crucial moment Their particular failings are simply extra evidence that they are not in fact the true guides that Israel needs at this fateful moment in its history.
Equally, some have supposed that Jesus, whom we think of as kindly and loving, could never have denounced anyone, least of all his fellow-Jews, in such sharp tones… This present chapter consists, in fact, as a solemn, almost ritual, denunciation of them for their hollow piety and misguided teaching.
Anyone who supposes, however, that these failings were, or are, confined to one religion, culture, or group should look at their own society, and (alas) at their own church, and think again…
…There were saints in that tradition, all right.
But we have every reason to suppose that there were many, probably the majority, who went along for the ride, or more particularly the political agenda that the Pharisees adopted. They like the idea about being rigorous about the Torah because it suited their nationalistic ambitions. But when it came to the actual moral and religious struggle to make the inside of the house match the outside, they hadn’t even begun.
Once again, this whole attack on the Pharisees only makes sense within the larger picture which Matthew is drawing. Jesus is on his way to accomplish the real covenant renewal (see 26:28) which all the Pharisees’ intensification of Torah could not achieve… It would be a bad mistake to read a chapter like this as simply a moral denunciation. It would be still worse to read it as a moral denunciation of somebody else. That’s halfway to committing the very mistake that’s being attacked.
Having said that, we shouldn’t miss the note which emerges at the end, and points to what is to follow. Jesus sees the present self-styled teachers of the law as fitting in exactly to the pattern of previous generations: killing the prophets and truly righteous people of old.
How do I sum this all up? The Pharisees Jesus castigated were the Puritans of their day. They were high minded in their brand of separatism, but at the core, they were corrupt murderers.
Just like the Puritans who executed other believers they branded as heretics, the Pharisees had that kind of corruption. The irony is that such a religion is a true heresy against God.
Take a look at how Christians have persecuted other Christians throughout history and into today. Disavow it and don’t be a part of it.
Perhaps the worst people are those who claim to represent God, but do not. They do not fool God and they are some of the only recipients of excoriation by Jesus.
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, that ends Matthew 23, is one of the most poignant and revealing statements in the Bible. He came to save a people who despised, rejected, and killed him.
Today, Jesus is still calling people out of the ‘Christian in name only’ religion, that rejects the living Christ.
Jesus calls us to a life that is being transformed on the inside and might look messy or not make sense on the outside. We are transparent and don’t have all the answers, ask a lot of questions, are loved, and trust God no matter what. We are little people with a big God. We are inviters, includers, gracious, and hospitable. And we know how to rest in Christ. We are generous, forgivers, optimistic, and dreamers. And we live with God and each other in the reality of the already and the not yet of the kingdom.
The Great Pretender! (The Anatomy of Hypocrisy), Steven C. Riser
Pharisees Then and Now, Scot McKnight; Kingdom Roots podcast
MacLaren’s Commentary, (Expositions of Holy Scripture) 32 Books in 1 Volume
The painting above:
Brooklyn Museum – Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees (Malheur à vous, scribes et pharisiens) – James Tissot (1836-1902)