Day 4 - Wednesday

Jesus was harsh.  There’re no other words to describe his response to the scribes and Pharisees that had been hounding him for the last three years. Every now and then, they would set some traps for him, asking some difficult questions hoping that he would answer something that would compromise him.  They were good at it.  Keen experts in legal wrangling and in nuanced arguments. Now that Jesus is in Jerusalem with his disciples to celebrate the Passover, these religious leaders try again.  They have this inner sense of obligation to prove Jesus is wrong.

Starting with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, there are seven tense dialogues between Jesus and religious leaders in Matthew 21 and 22, and they culminate with one last dialogue in chapter 23.  This is the dialogue that seals Jesus’ fate.  In this last one, the table is reversed, and it is Jesus now who takes on the religious leaders. The chapter is drenched with pent up frustration from all these confrontations.  The water is boiling over.  It is as if Jesus has had enough.  

Jesus begins by warning his own disciples against these religious leaders. “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.  Everything they do is done for people to see.”  Matthew 23:2-5 NIV

Not all Pharisees were bad.  Paul was a Pharisee (Acts 26:5) and we are told that many Pharisees accepted Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 15:5).  But what Jesus has issues with is their religious hypocrisy. Jesus enunciates seven dramatic and mournful woes.  The ultimate point is the coming judgment on Jerusalem predicted at the end of the chapter.

The first two woes touch on entry into the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13, 15). Jesus denounces how Pharisees go out of their way to make converts as disciples of their own confused interpretation of Scripture.  They attract people to themselves. For Jesus such a religious leadership is deceptive and self-centered.  It has an image of fervor and devotion, but it is only human.

Four times in the third and fourth woes Jesus calls the Pharisees blind guides to deceive others (Matthew 23:16-24).

The fifth and sixth woes use the illustrations of a cup and a tomb to emphasize the relationship between inside and outside, internal and external (Matthew 23:25-28). What Jesus is driving at is simple: outside appearances are just that, appearances.  What matters for God is what’s inside a person’s heart and mind.

The last woe is the strongest critique, the climax. Jesus uses a simple syllogism to make his point (Matthew 23:29-32).

If A = B  and  B = C,  then A = C.

  1. Ancient prophets of God were killed by their own people;
  2. Pharisees are descendants of those who killed the prophets; so
  3. Pharisees are guilty of killing the prophets.
Then Jesus clenches the argument in verse 32: “Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!” Jesus reveals openly that the Pharisees are planning his death.  They pretend to be different from their ancestors but they’re not.  They are planning the death of another prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.

Today, the term Pharisee is a most pejorative word to refer to religious hypocrisy.  By calling someone a Pharisee we mean a hypocrite. Pharisaism is a state of mind and heart.  It is not something you can touch; it is something you live. The spirit of Pharisees is alive and well in any religious organization that focuses on external religious behavior.  And ours is in danger of doing this.

Now to be clear, Seventh-day Adventists are not the only group of Christians who emphasize correct and proper behavior. Plenty of Christians talk about behavior.  And Jesus certainly did as well. The problem with Pharisees is the reason and the motivation for correct behavior.  That’s what Jesus has issues with. Any culture has some forms of conservative behavior that religious organizations support and feed. Respect for cultural norms is an important part of a conservative lifestyle.

In a conservative community, it is crucial to be perceived as faithful to all the community standards in order to be accepted and promoted through the ranks of authority or hierarchy.  Recognition and prestige depend on conformity. Thus, we see appear a most powerful impulse that is very hard to resist:  The impulse to pretend to be on the outside what we are not on the inside. This impulse has all the making of hypocrisy.  And religious organizations are most prone to fall into this trap.  It is a most dreadful spiritual disease.

Jesus’ woes and warnings to the Pharisees is one for us too. It’s a warning to take seriously our relationship with God.  No need to pretend God says.  In fact, do not pretend.  Be true.  Be honest.  Be who you are.  That’s the way God loves us.

By Denis Fortin

Listen to a reflection on this topic from the One project gathering in Seattle, 2016

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