During His ministry, Jesus healed many sick people. Once a group of men carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be healed. When they couldn’t force their way through the crowd to the house where Jesus was, they climbed up onto the roof, and cutting their way through the ceiling they lowered their friend down right in front of Jesus.
When Jesus saw this display of faith he said to the hopeful man at His feet,
“Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5 NIV).
Having declared his sins forgiven, Jesus then also healed his paralytic limbs so that the man was able to walk home on his own two legs, carrying the mat that he had so recently required to be carried on.
This is the Jesus that many people think of. The soft spoken, accepting, forgiving healer of body and soul. Indeed when we look to Jesus in faith, this is the Jesus we aught to think of.
But in our sermon text for today, Jesus is not soft spoken or accepting at all. His words are harsh and painful. He has no word of forgiveness for those He is addressing, but only rebuke.
His tone has changed so radically because the men He is addressing here are not humble and faithful. They are arrogant and godless. Jesus has no word of forgiveness for the hypocrite. For to comfort the hypocrite is itself hypocrisy. To the hypocrite Jesus has only a word of shame and sorrow.
Matthew 23:23-27 (NIV)
23“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
25“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
Instead of pronouncing blessings to the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, “Woe to you”. In other words, Jesus says, “Shame and sorrow” is yours. Why is shame and sorrow is their rightful inheritance? They are hypocrites.
In the Greek, the word “hypocrite” means “under decider”. Hidden under their reputation was a person with very different morals, convictions and beliefs. They were only pretending to be righteous followers of God.
Jesus first reveals the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees by pointing out their complete miss-ordering of priorities.
They would set aside ten percent of their income to give to God as an offering. But they didn’t stop there. They even tithed from their herb gardens.
We can imagine them carefully weighing out ten percent of their spices on little scales to take to the temple.
But after weighing out 30 grams of mint, they let the guilty criminal go free. After weighing out 20 grams of dill, they refused to have mercy on the neighbor who owed them money. After weighing 10 grams of cumin they passed their own traditions off as God’s commands.
They paid careful attention to the insignificant, and completely abandoned justice, mercy and faithfulness to God. There was nothing wrong with tithing from every little corner of their income. But they should not have done it at the expense of following God’s will as expressed in His Word.
In a phrase, the Scribe and Pharisees were “majoring in minors”.
Can you see a bit of Pharisee in yourself? Ask yourself: “When do I major in the minors? In what area of my life are my priorities completely backward? When do I expend my time and energy on things trivial at the expense of things spiritual?”
Jesus teaches us how to order our priorities when He says,
“…Seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33 NIV).
And more than teaching us to order our priorities, Jesus plasters over all our sinful choices with His perfection. He gives us His life of perfect choices to cover our dismal failures.
As people who sin daily, it is very comforting to remember that Jesus not only died to take our sins away, He also lived to cover our sins with His holy life.
No doubt, the reason why the Scribes and Pharisees bagged their spices up was for an outward show of piety and goodness when they brought their offerings to the Temple.
In verse twenty-five, Jesus moves on to reveal the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees by pointing out their preoccupation with their image.
“25“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:25-26 NIV).
The Scribes and Pharisees were not satisfied with God’s laws. They added hundreds of laws and regulations His. They claimed that by setting up all these extra laws they were building a “hedge” around God’s laws so that they would not be broken.
Some of these extra laws concerned ceremonial washings. When the Pharisees came from the marketplace, they wouldn’t eat unless they first washed their hands in a ceremonial way. They might have unknowingly touched a Gentile, or something else that was unclean. They extended these “washing laws” to cups and dishes, pitchers and even to dining room furniture.
These washings weren’t done for sanitary purposes, but for religious reasons. But these washings weren’t commanded by God’s law. They were completely manmade traditions.
They took great care to follow these traditions of cleansing, but at the same time, their hearts were unclean. They were greedy men. Self-indulgent men. Men more concerned with appearances, keeping up the traditions of their fathers, than with maintaining a relationship with God.
Jesus compares them to a cup whose outside is carefully washed clean, but whose inside if caked with filth.
If they would have only taken care to actually BE devoted to God in their hearts, their lives would have reflected this devotion on the outside as well.
Do you see a bit of the “washing Pharisee” in yourself? Ask yourself: “When do I focus on my image before people, ignoring what I look like to God?”
Jesus points us to our inward filth also. He wants us to see our sinful hearts, and come to Him for cleansing. In the forgiveness that Jesus gives we are washed clean on the inside. Then the Holy Spirit also takes up the task of cleaning our reputation.
The apostle Paul spoke of this inner and outer cleansing when He said to the Corinthian congregation:
“9Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV).
The Pharisees preoccupation with their image was deadly because it ignored the real problem. They may have seemed righteous to men, but to God they were dead in sin.
Jesus describes the essence of a hypocrite when He compares the Scribes and Pharisees to a shiny white tomb.
“27“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28 NIV).
Tombs can be magnificent on the outside. The Pyramids of Egypt are tombs. The tombs of many rich and powerful men and women are decorated with finely carved statues and ornate images. Caskets can be sanded and lacquered and polished to a high shine. But none of these things change the fact that inside lies nothing but dead, moldering, rotting remains.
In the same way, outward decoration and pristine reputation cannot change the reality of a heart that is sinful and dead to God. No matter how many people a hypocrite can fool, he can’t fool God, for God sees the inner heart. As it says in First Samuel,
“…Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7b NIV).
We were all born into this world sinners, just like our parents before us, and their parents before them. We would have remained just like the Scribe and Pharisees, dead to God, if it were not for the life and love of Jesus. Through faith in Him, God breathes new life into our spirits and makes us dead in sin no more.
The hypocrite may not experience shame and sorrow in the eyes of his neighbors. But, before God he does. Now and in the judgment to come God will not be fooled by the elaborate words and deceptive actions of the pretender.
Let us pray.
Father, Your Son spoke a word of harsh rebuke to the Scribes and Pharisees who pretended faithfulness to You. Teach us through these words of Jesus not to be hypocrites. Because of Jesus’ genuine faithfulness and perfect sacrifice in our place, forgive us for the times we have acted as hypocrites. Cleansed by His blood, renew our faith in Your great love, and give us inner life and true devotion to You. We pray this in Your Son’s Name.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.