Woe, woe, woe

No, that’s not the background refrain of a Beatles song (that would be “yeah, yeah, yeah”).  It’s shorthand for one of the hardest-to-take passages in the gospels.  We might prefer a kinder, gentler Jesus, the one who heals people and hugs children.  Here, what we get is an in-your-face Jesus who calls people out publicly for their religious posturing.

In a previous post, we saw Jesus’ condemnation of the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, who love the social perks that go with their religious reputation.  In Matt 23:13-39, the condemnation continues.

We might remember that the first great block of teaching in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, begins with the Beatitudes, a series of statements about what blessedness means in God’s kingdom (Matt 5:3-12).  But here, in the last block of teaching, we’re given seven woes instead.  The language is harsh.  Seven times Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites (once indirectly).  Five times he calls them blind.  Once he labels them as fools.  And twice he suggests that they’re destined for hell.

And nowhere does he say, “Have a nice day.”  Not even close.

The first two woes chastise the Pharisees for the spiritual damage they’ve done to others.  Reading between the lines of verse 13, we might imagine that some people who wanted to enter God’s kingdom were inclined to follow Jesus but didn’t, out of deference to the Pharisees.

The third and fourth woes take them to task for the clueless way in which their legalistic nitpicking missed the whole point of God’s law.  “You blind guides!” Jesus thunders.  “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matt 23:24, NIV).  They carefully followed certain religious rules down to the smallest detail, but ignored the things that truly mattered, such as being people of justice, mercy, and faith.

Similarly, the fifth and sixth woes condemn the Pharisees for being clean on the outside but unclean on the inside.  Jesus calls them “whitewashed tombs,” referring to the practice of making burial places more visible, so that the multitudes of Passover pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem wouldn’t accidentally come in contact with them and be rendered ceremonially unclean.  Jesus pulls no punches: “on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matt 23:28, NIV).

In the final woe, Jesus demolishes their self-serving delusion that had they lived in ancient times, they would not have been among those who persecuted the prophets.  He calls them the “brood of vipers” (Matt 23:33, NIV)–in other words, “the child of a snake is still a snake”–and predicts how they will continue to beat, persecute, and kill the messengers God sends them (see also the parable of the tenant farmers, Matt 21:33-46).  They will bear the guilt of all the righteous martyrs from A to Z, from Abel to Zechariah, the first and last stories of martyrdom in the Hebrew Scriptures.

But lest we think Jesus is simply venting his spleen in exasperation, the passage ends with a heartfelt lament over Jerusalem:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  (Matt 23:37-39, NIV)

Those who fancied themselves the teachers and guardians of God’s law should have known better.  The Messiah was in their midst, and wanted to shelter them from the coming destruction.  But soon, he would be gone, and would not return until another far off day when they would finally declare his lordship.  Whether in faith or by compulsion, Jesus doesn’t say.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, it’s easy to read such passages and dismiss the Pharisees as the witless villains of the story.  But the “we would have known better” attitude is precisely what Jesus condemns here.  We cannot say for certain that if we had been in Jerusalem on that fateful day, we would not have called out with the rest of the crowd for Jesus’ crucifixion.  Even the disciples, who had spent years at their master’s side, failed him: thinking bravely that they would willingly suffer with Jesus (e.g., Luke 22:33; John 11:16), they fled in terror at his arrest, and cowered in hiding after the crucifixion.

Reading a passage like this makes me grateful for the incredible gift of the Holy Spirit, without whom we would know only woe and not blessing.  But still, we are not passive in the process of our sanctification.  It begins with recognizing the truth about ourselves.  So here’s the uncomfortable question: how much energy do we put into being religious on the outside, while doing little to nothing about the people God wants us to be on the inside?

Jesus, Savior, take us under your wing, for we perish without you.