Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Larry Maley at Dardenne Presbyterian Church on March 19, 2017

“Valuable Lessons from Hypocrites, Fools, Blind Guides and Snakes”

Scripture: Matthew 23:13-36 and Isaiah 5:18-24

        What is the greatest threat humanity faces? It is not Republicans or Democrats; it is not Communism or ISIS, or any other political entity; it is not an ecological disaster, nuclear holocaust, or an asteroid hitting the earth. All these things could lead to painful circumstances and even result in widespread death. But even physical death is not mankind’s greatest enemy for that is only a transition into Eternity. It is what will happen to you in Eternity that is most crucial!

        The greatest threat a person faces is that which keeps them from receiving God’s gift of mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. Certainly things like materialism, secularism, hedonism and false religion are serious threats because they distort God’s Truth. However, the greatest threat to our Eternal life comes from those who claim to speak for God, but, in fact, lead people away from God.  The greatest threat to the human soul are false religious teachers who convince people that they teach the truth, when in reality they are leading people to Eternal damnation.

Severe words you say! Absolutely! However my disparaging words are intended to help you understand why Jesus, who was tender and kind to all others, so harshly and fiercely condemned the false religious teachers of His day. Jesus observed how the Jewish religious leaders were loveless and uncaring; proud and arrogant; made hypocritical demands of their followers; and put on pretentious displays of piety.

Jesus warned His followers to be wary of false religious leaders who display any of those characteristics. Seven times in verses 13 through 29 of the 23rd chapter of Matthew, Jesus says about them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (vs. 13, 15, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29). More than any other group, the Jewish religious leaders were Israel’s false teachers. Admittedly, there were a few who were true to God (John 3:1, 12:42). But the majority traded in the truth of God for the wisdom of men (Jn. 8:44-46, 18:19-23, Acts 20:30).

Jesus’ chastisement of the scribes and Pharisees began with the word “Woe.” In thirty-three New Testament verses we hear the word “woe.” In thirty-two of those verses, the word comes from the lips of Jesus. People today seem to have forgotten the serious implications of that simple three letter word, W-O-E. When Jesus pronounced “Woe” to the teachers of the law (“scribes”) and Pharisees in Matthew 23, He was pronouncing divine judgment against sinful men who refused to turn from their evil ways.

A college psychology professor was teaching a lesson on emotional extremes. He began his lecture with a question to a young lady from Missouri. “What is the opposite of depression?”  The bright girl from Missouri replied, “Elation.” Turning to a young man from Texas, the professor said, “What is the opposite of woe?” In a blink of an eye the young Texan replied, “Sir, I believe that would be ‘giddy up.’”

That simple story challenges us to think seriously about that neglected Bible word, “woe.” The word is used in two ways in the Bible. Sometimes it expresses grief and lamentation (Job 10:15; Isaiah 6:5; Jeremiah 4:31), as is heard in the expression “Woe is me.”  Other times, God and Jesus use it to threaten judgment (Jeremiah 23:1-2; Habakkuk 2:6,9; Matt. 23) upon people who are rushing headlong away from God and His Word. What would God say to 21st century American culture where evil is defined as good, darkness is termed enlightenment, and people are in full speed “giddy-up” galloping into sin? To such people God still issues the warning, “Woe!”

         After each pronouncement of “Woe,” Jesus proceeds to explain His reason for condemning the religious leaders. Six times He accuses them of “hypocrisy” (Matt. 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). The word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek word (“hypokrites”) which describes an actor who places a mask over his face to perform a part. A hypocrite is one who pretends to be something she or he is not, and really has no intention of becoming. Outwardly the Jewish religious leaders appeared to be of high virtue, but inwardly and privately they proved to be immoral. As if that negative assessment was not bad enough, in the same verses Jesus five times described the scribes and Pharisees as “blind guides” (23:16-17, 19, 24, 26); “fools” once (23:17); and “snakes and vipers” once (23:33). Those critical allegations which modern political writers and television commentators call the United States President amount to child’s play compared to what Jesus was calling the religious authorities of His day.

Exactly what were the religious leaders doing that provoked Jesus’ wrath?  If you study all of Matthew 23, you will discover nine indictments Jesus makes against the scribes and Pharisees. (See the supplement on page 4 for summary of all nine indictments.) Today, we will examine just three in verses 23-31. Those three are:

(1)  Ignoring the “more important matters of the Law”: vs. 23-24  

                         (2)  Focusing only on the “outside of a person”: vs. 25-28

                         (3)  Behaving like their “murderous ancestors”: vs. 29-31

(1)  Ignoring the More Important Matters of the Law:  verses 23-24

         The Pharisees were notorious for their meticulous obedience to the rule on tithing (Leviticus 27:30; Micah 6:6-8). Their precise tithing practices went so far as to donate a tenth of their spices: “mint, dill and cumin” to the Temple. Jesus wasn’t opposed to tithing spices, however, He condemned their failure to attend to the “more important matters of God’s Law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” (v. 23). Jesus taught that we must do both for obeying all God’s commands are necessary – be it tithing or promoting justice!

It strikes me as horribly incongruous that Presbyterians nationwide take pride in our opposition to injustice in this country and around the world. Yet, the average Presbyterian in America contributes 2.3% of their income to Christian work. Jesus said “You should practice the latter without neglecting the former” (v. 23). Today, to whom would Jesus say, “Woe to you, hypocrites!”

(2)  Focusing Only on the Outside of a Person:  verses 25-28

Concerned with obeying the 613 rules for ritual cleansing related to food, funerals, family life, festivals and daily life, the religious leaders focused on the  outside of a person. Ironically, they willingly tolerated self-indulgence and lawlessness. Jesus compared this hypocrisy to cleaning the outside of a cup and dish, but ignoring the filth on the inside (v.25).

We can be guilty of the same hypocrisy in this church. If we accept people as members because they share our social status, skin color and political preferences, we are guilty of “cleaning the outside of the cup, because inside we are full of greed and self-indulgence.”  If we want to avoid creating a church of hypocrites, we must emphasize genuine repentance, obedience to God’s Word, and a life of discipleship. Otherwise, to whom would Jesus direct the words, “Woe to you, hypocrites!”

(3)  Behaving Like Their Murderous Ancestors:  verses 29-31

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day honored the ancient “prophets and righteous men” (v. 29). To display their esteem for the saints of old, the religious leaders proudly insisted that, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” (v.30). Jesus denounced their hypocrisy by telling the religious leaders that they were identical to their ancestors who murdered the prophets. “Go ahead, and complete what your ancestors started” (v. 32), which was a prophecy that they would soon kill Jesus.

 We learn a great deal from the hypocritical Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. They were the religious crowd in Palestine in Jesus’ day, and we represent the religious crowd in America today. They honored the Old Testament heroes: Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and David, but they didn’t demonstrate the faithfulness of their heroes. Today, we honor the New Testament heroes: Jesus, Mary, Peter and Paul, but are we willing to live what they preached? Do we take up our cross and follow Jesus? (Matt. 16:24-25).  To whom would Jesus say today, “Woe to you, hypocrite!”

          Speaking of hypocrites, some people avoid attending church because “there are too many hypocrites in church.” Yes, there are hypocrites in the church, but is that a good reason not to follow Jesus? Does the presence of hypocrites on the golf course keep you from golfing? Does the presence of hypocrites at Cardinal games keep you from going to the ballpark? Did the hypocrisy of Judas Iscariot permit the rest of the apostles to quit Christianity? The Christian Church may be the only place where hypocrites can admit that they are sinners in need of forgiveness (Romans 3:23).

         Besides, which is better, to spend a short time with hypocrites in church, or spend Eternity with hypocrites in hell? Remember Jesus’ incisive question to the hypocrites in Matthew 23: “How will you escape being condemned to hell?”  (23:33)


Summary of Jesus’ Indictments of Hypocrites in Matthew 23

  1. Binding on others what one is unwilling to do 23:1-4
  2. Doing work for purpose of being seen by others 23:5
  3. Seeking attention and special treatment 23:6-7
  4. Failing to show others the Kingdom of God 23:13-14
  5. Drive people away from God’s kingdom 23: 15
  6. Making distinctions where God has not 23:16-22
  7. Ignoring the more important matters of the Law 23:23-24
  8. Focusing only on the outside of a person 23:25-28
  9. Behaving like their murderous ancestors 23:29-31