THE LANGUAGE IN Matthew 23 is frankly shocking. Jesus repeatedly pronounces his "woe" on the Pharisees and teachers of the law, labeling them "hypocrites," calling them "blind guides" and "blind fools," likening them to "whitewashed tombs" that "look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean."
They are "sons of hell," a "brood of vipers." What calls forth such intemperate language from the Lord Jesus?
There are three primary characteristics in these people that arouse Jesus' ire.
The first is the loss of perspective that, with respect to the revelation of God, focuses on the minors and sacrifices the majors. They are ever so punctilious about tithing, even putting aside a tenth of the herbs grown in the garden, while somehow remaining unconcerned about the massive issues of "justice, mercy and faithfulness" (22:23). Jesus carefully says that he is not dismissing the relatively minor matters: his interlocutors should not neglect them, for these prescriptions were, after all, mandated by God. But to focus on them to the exclusion of the weightier matters is akin to straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. Similarly, carefully crafted rules about when it is important to tell the truth and when and how one can get away with a lie (23:16-22) not only overlook that truth-telling is of fundamental importance, but implicitly deny that this entire universe is God's, and all our promises and pledges are before him.
The second is love for the outward forms of religion with very little experience of a transformed nature. To be greeted as a religious teacher, to be honored by the community, to be thought holy and religious, while inwardly seething with greed, self-indulgence, bitterness, rivalry, and hate is profoundly evil (23:5-12, 25:32).
The third damning indictment is that because they have a major teaching role, these leaders spread their poison and contaminate others, whether by precept or example. Not only do they fail to enter the kingdom themselves, they effectively close it down to others (23:13-15).
How many evangelical leaders spend most of their energy on peripheral, incidental matters, and far too little on the massive issues of justice, mercy, and faithfulness — in our homes, our churches, the workplace, in all our relationships, in the nation? How many are more concerned to be thought wise and holy than to be wise and holy? How many therefore end up damning their hearers by their own bad example and by their drifting away from the Gospel and its entailments?
Our only hope is in this Jesus who, though he denounces this appalling guilt with such fierceness, weeps over the city (Matt. 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44).