Matthew 23:1-15, 23-24
Kingdom Stories: Woes
Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending time with my brother Todd’s girlfriend, who was home visiting from Indiana. Todd and Andrea moved to Indiana this summer so Todd could pursue his Master of Fine Arts in Acting at Purdue. Todd’s first production is coming up in a few weeks – he’s playing Santiago, a Cuban man, in Anna in the Tropics, which means he has to sport this lovely mustache for the next couple of months. I told Andrea at least she doesn’t have to worry about other women flirting with Todd – not with that mustache! Todd and I have long teased each other about our respective career paths. When I was in college, my major was pre-theology, a seminary prep curriculum. Todd always teased me about me majoring in-pre-the-study-of-God, theology’s literal translation. What’s pre-God, Todd would ask? But as an acting major, I told Todd he was just studying pretending and dress-up at the college level. Since Todd specializes in Shakespeare, you’re more likely to see him in tights than me in tights! We have an agreement though, since I’ve done some theatre and Todd’s done a little preaching – if Todd ever leaves acting to become a pastor, I have to leave ministry to become an actress, and vice versa – to keep things balanced.
The word hypocrite is from two Greek words that mean “under” and “decide or judge” – so a hypocrite was a person who was subpar, below the radar, so to speak, when they were talking. In other words, someone who was presenting themselves falsely. Actually, the word hypocrite in Ancient Greece referred to stage actors! Stage actors were supposed to be hypocrites. The people who can dress up and play let’s pretend in order, actually, to reflect the sometimes unspoken truths of a society. Hypocrites in the best way. The word hypocrite gained a negative connotation when it was applied to people who weren’t stage actors, but who were behaving like actors, that is, presenting themselves falsely, pretending to be something they weren’t. Claiming to be one thing, and doing another. Hypocrisy.
About five years ago, a book called unChristian hit the circuits, being read and discussed by many pastors and churches. Unchristian shared the results of a study of perceptions held by 16-29 year olds of the church. The results were not flattering. A broad spectrum of young people described their encounter with Christianity as judgmental, only interested in converting people, homophobic, out of touch with reality, sheltered, boring, and, number one, hypocritical. Young people tolerate a lot – they’re so much more comfortable with diversity of all kinds than adults are – their world is and has always been multicultural and multiracial and multi-religious. But one thing that young people really grate against is hypocrisy. Lack of authenticity. I try to share this with people who want to work with youth ministries, or with people who assume that young people only respond to and connect with young adults, young leaders, young pastors. Young people aren’t looking for faith leaders who are cool, although kudos to you if you happen to be cool. They’re looking for real. Aren’t we all? Last week I attended the Drew Alumni Lecture Series, where one of my colleagues, Drew Dyson, said that in his research he’s found that it isn’t that young people find church so repulsive or distasteful. It’s that they just don’t find it to be anything at all. A declining institution that still doesn’t want to let just anyone be part of the community, young people find the church too hypocritical to even get stressed about.
Today, in our last week of our theme, Kingdom Stories, we read a selection from Matthew that is usually referred to as the Seven Woes. This passage from Matthew comes fairly close to the end of Jesus’ teachings. His parables have been increasingly pointed, and his interaction with the Pharisees have been frequent. In the chapter before this one, we read that the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus, and they, along with other religious leaders keep trying to tangle him up with questions they think he can’t answer. After a series of these interactions, Jesus unleashes on the Pharisees. He warns the crowds and his disciples against them. He tells them, “the scribes and Pharisees are in the line of Moses, and they know the commandments, so listen to them, and follow as they teach, but don’t do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Jesus then continues on to accuse the scribes and Pharisees of several hypocritical behaviors in his words to the crowds. He accuses them of not practicing their own teachings. He accuses them of laying burdens onto others that are hard to bear, without offering to “lift a finger” to help ease the load. He accuses them of making a show of their
faith. He says that they “make
their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Phylacteries were boxes that
were tied to the arm and forehead that contained words of scripture in them,
and fringes were part of a garment worn by Jewish men. The long fringes and
phylacteries would be worn not by common people, but by the Pharisees, as a
show of their devotion, and some of them made sure to have the largest
phylacteries and the longest fringes, as if that made them more devout. Jesus
insisted that it was actually a show of pride in their own piety, rather than
an act of devotion to God’s word. And Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being
obsessed with titles and positions and places of honor. Jesus warns the crowds
and disciples that they need only one father and instructor and rabbi – Jesus.
That’s just the beginning.
Jesus next says “Woe to you” with seven statements, seven reasons, to the scribes and Pharisees – one of which we read in our text today – but one gives the sense of all of them – because each of the seven woes Jesus pronounces relates to hypocrisy:
1) The scribes and Pharisees taught about God, but didn’t love God, evidenced by their keeping others from entering the kingdom.
2) They preached about God, but converted people to a dead religion, making people “twice as fit for hell as they themselves were.”
3) They taught that oaths were binding if they were made on special, lavish, expensive parts of the temple, not the temple itself.
4) They neglected the most important parts of the law – practices of mercy, faithfulness, and justice, but obeyed – and insisted on everyone else obeying – minute details of the law – like tithing spices, but not being so concerned about poverty, health, welfare of women, children, orphan, foreigner, widow, etc.
5) They presented themselves as clean on the outside, but were dirty and corrupt inside.
6) They presented themselves as holy, but were full of wickedness and unholy thoughts, like beautiful tombs that cover decaying bodies.
7) They claimed regard for the prophets, insisting they would have received the messages and teachings of the prophets, and yet, they have murderous intents toward Jesus. (1)
Jesus says “woe” to you when you’re pretending to be something before God and one another that you’re not. Woe to you, hypocrites and blind guides. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say “woe to you” if you are “sinful” – if you’re a tax collector or prostitute or woman caught in adultery or Zacchaeus or a Roman centurion or a woman with many husbands or diseased person or a possessed person – all of the things that society would have named as woeful situations. No, Jesus reserves his scathing “woes” for the Pharisees and scribes – the most ostensibly religious people of the day – because their pretending to be holy while still failing to seek after God with their hearts is much more offensive to Jesus than never claiming to be holy to begin with.
What can we take from this? The easiest take-away is to think: Man, those Pharisees were really ba-ad. Jesus really told them! But as I’ve said before, one of our best strategies for reading the scripture is to remember that when Jesus is talking, he is talking to you, to me, about you, about me. What if you replaced “scribes and Pharisees” with your own name in this passage? Or filled in Jesus’ comments with words about your own life? Woe to you, Beth, you hypocrite, for you say this, but you actually do this. What woes would Jesus call out in your life?
The worst behavior, in Jesus’ mind, is when, by your actions, and not just your actions but your actions done in the name of God, you actually push others away from knowing God, make it harder for them to get to know God. It is one thing to choose for yourself to put distance between you and God, to put on a show for others and to pretend with God that you’re holier than you really are – as if God will buy that – but it is another thing entirely when our behaviors, our actions, don’t just fail to live up to Jesus’ description of discipleship but rather masquerade as discipleship that never touches our hearts or changes our lives - all while proclaiming to be Jesus-followers – it is another thing entirely when our putting on a good show of Christianity causes others to miss hearing the good news.
We’ve been talking about justice, about righteousness and getting “set right” with God, lining up our lives, our actions, our behaviors, our values, with those of God, so that others can see in us God-in-our-midst. We’ve talked about the good news that God’s kingdom, God’s reign is right here, right now, for us to live into with God. Our mission is to announce this good news and to help work for the continual unfolding of God’s realm in our midst. I think another way we can think of that good news – the coming of the kingdom – is that we experience God’s righteousness when we are real with God, and so in turn we are able to experience the reality of God. The kingdom of God is experiencing God’s reality for us right now. But you can’t experience God’s reality by being fake. Being sinful, Jesus can work with. Making mistakes, messing up, getting it wrong – God can transform that mess. But if you won’t stop pretending you’ve already got it all right all on your own, if you won’t stop faking having it together, if you won’t stop pretending, well: Woe to us, hypocrites. How can God show us the real thing if we insist our fake stuff is the real thing already?
Just following these “woes,” Jesus laments over Jerusalem with words of longing: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem – how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gather her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus is longing, like a mother hen, scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites though we may be, to gather us in, gather us up. Jesus is longing to be real with us. That’s what Jesus wants – the real us. The real you. The real me. Because that’s the way we can experience the real living God, the real life Jesus promises, the real reign of God in our midst. Let’s stop pretending. Jesus already knows who you really are. And he’ll take you anyway! Thanks be to God. Amen.