In Matthew 23, Jesus seems to go ballistic.
Ever since the Triumphal Entry, his opponents in Jerusalem have been needling him. Matthew describes a long series of confrontations: his opponents carp at him for letting children run around the temple courts shouting “Hosanna” (21:15-16), publicly question his authority (21:23-27), and try three times to trap him into saying something controversial (22:15-40). Along the way, we’re treated to a veritable parade of challengers: it begins with the chief priests and elders; then the Pharisees are added to the mix; then the Pharisees involve the Herodians; then the Sadducees step in and fail; and finally, the Pharisees give it one last shot. But Jesus silences them with a question that exposes the thinness of their understanding of the Messiah (22:41-45), and “from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions” (22:46, NIV).
You’d think that this would be a good time for Jesus to take a break. But in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus takes the opportunity to go on the offensive in a way unparalleled in Mark and Luke, repeatedly lambasting the Pharisees and those who teach the law of Moses for their hypocrisy. By the end of that chapter, there can be little doubt of just how much these people would want him dead.
Why the vicious diatribe? Has Jesus just been holding it all in, finally getting fed up and letting them have it? Hardly. He hasn’t shrunk from confrontation, and has bested them at every turn.
Rather, I take the reason to be this: in the final week of his earthly ministry, he has a message he wants to get across about the kingdom, and the message is impossible to absorb for those who consider the Pharisees to be religious exemplars. Here’s how he says it in chapter 23:
The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matt 23:11-12, NIV)
This is not a new theme. Jesus has been emphasizing humility ever since the disciples asked him who would be the greatest in the coming kingdom, and Jesus responded by drawing a child into their midst (Matt 18:1-5). It was the punchline of his conversation with the disciples over their astonishment that the rich and powerful weren’t shoo-ins for the kingdom (Matt 19:23-30), and of the teaching parable that followed (Matt 20:1-16). And it was the lesson he drew from the embarrassing incident of the mother of James and John trying to secure places of importance for her sons (Matt 20:20-28). All of this takes place on the way to Jerusalem.
When they get to Jerusalem, the theme doesn’t change. But the audience does, and so does the context. They are amongst thousands of pilgrims who have come to David’s city, the home of the Temple. The people of power and influence are there; they are the ones who resist Jesus’ authority and try to put him in his place.
If Jesus is going to get the crowds to understand the nature of true devotion to God, he will have to challenge the false devotion of those counted as religious leaders. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t flatly reject the teaching of the Pharisees, at least to the extent that they legitimately teach the law that he came to fulfill (Matt 5:17-19; 23:1-3a). What he criticizes is their hypocrisy, “for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt 23:3b, NIV).
The fundamental problem is that “Everything they do is done for people to see” (Matt 23:5, NIV): they wear ostentatious symbols of piety, sit in places that declare their social status, and love to be honored in public, particularly by having people address them admiringly by lofty titles. But it’s all self-centered show. Jesus is telling the crowds, “Don’t be fooled. Don’t be like them. The kingdom is not merely about being religious on the outside, but about the character that God sees on the inside.”
The way Eugene Peterson renders Jesus’ words against the Pharisees is particularly striking:
Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’ (Matt 23:5b-7, The Message)
Those words bring me up a short. As a professor and teacher, I’m a guy whose official public role is to be a Smart Person, or even a Smart and Really Religious Person. And honestly, some people expect me to be more knowledgeable than I really am–if I show that I know something, they think I must know everything (especially when they find out I have a degree in math, for crying out loud).
At the start of each academic year, I actually address the issue of titles with my students. What should they call me? Being a good Californian, I tell them that my preference is to be called by my first name, because–well–it’s my name. But I also know that many of them are coming from cultures (including my own) in which addressing your professors that way would be unthinkable, so I tell them they don’t have to call me “Cameron” if it makes them uncomfortable, or if they think their mothers would hit them for doing so. “Doctor Cameron” is a frequent happy compromise.
The truth is, part of me likes being called “doctor” or “pastor” even while the another part of me pushes it away. And in the realms of academia and the church, there are plenty of opportunities for just such public recognition. It’s seductive. There’s nothing specifically wrong with recognizing one another’s accomplishments or gifts, but it so easily slides from celebrating God’s goodness into celebrating ourselves.
Haven’t you ever prayed a “flowery prayer” just because someone other than God was listening? And then, when you realized you were doing it, did you shift the language to sound more humble? Or have you ever envied others the public recognition they received? I’ve done all these things.
We can’t dismiss the Pharisees from the story as clueless hypocrites. The same thread of sin that ran through their hearts runs through ours.
And it’s what God sees in our heart of hearts that matters, more than the show we put on for others.