Woe to You

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
14 [“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]
15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’
17 “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?
18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’
19 “You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering?
20 “Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it.
21 “And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it.
22 “And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.
(Matthew 23:13-22)

I have mixed feelings about this chapter. On the one hand, I love it because it obliterates the image of Jesus as a dull, boring, serious guy with no sense of humor. There are exclamation points everywhere (at least there are in translations other than the NASB, which I quoted here). He calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites and blind guides. He uses hyperbole and sarcasm to drive his points home. I can just imagine spectators with their mouths agape or snickering into their hands as Jesus verbally undressed these men who took themselves entirely too seriously. On the other hand, I hate it because it exposes my own Pharisaical heart. It’s hard to laugh too much at Jesus’ exaggerations and insults without wondering if they are aimed at me as well.

In verse 13, Jesus begins pronouncing 7 (or 8, depending on your translation) “woes” upon the scribes and Pharisees for actions that motivated his use of the word “hypocrite” to point out that they were appearing one way while acting another. Their very attempts to give the appearance of righteousness showed their lack of righteousness, and today Jesus goes beyond their appearance to expose their hearts. This entire section reminds me of James 3:1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The Pharisees failed to correctly teach and lead the people God had entrusted to them, and Jesus judges them harshly. Let’s look at why.

“…because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.”

The Pharisees had failed at the very core of what they were charged with: they not only failed to reveal the kingdom of heaven, they actually hindered people from finding it. Their poor leadership and false teachings placed burdens on people that they couldn’t bear. Law was elevated over grace. Outward conformity was more important than inward submission. Sacrifice was preferable to obedience. The simplicity of the gospel was lost. It reminds me of what Martin Luther wrote in Concerning Christian Liberty:

For if works are brought forward as grounds of justification, and are done under the false persuasion that we can pretend to be justified by them, they lay on us the yoke of necessity, and extinguish liberty along with faith, and by this very addition to their use they become no longer good, but really worthy of condemnation. For such works are not free, but blaspheme the grace of God, to which alone it belongs to justify and save through faith. Works cannot accomplish this, and yet, with impious presumption, through our folly, they take it on themselves to do so; and thus break in with violence upon the office and glory of grace.

“…because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers”

Verse 14 does not appear in early manuscripts, but it is similar to what Jesus says in Mark 12:40 and Luke 20:47 so Jesus definitely said it in a similar context even if Matthew did not record it here. The scribes and Pharisees viewed long prayers as a sign of spirituality so they made a big deal of reciting them in public; yet they oppressed widows, something James said conflicts with true and undefiled religion (James 1:27).

“…because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”

Instead of simply teaching God’s word, the Pharisees were more concerned with winning people over to their way of thinking and acting. They would rather win an argument with one person than help a multitude enter the kingdom of heaven. The result was that instead of making disciples who were rooted in the word and God’s grace, they were creating disciples who were even more legalistic than they were. And just to reiterate how offensive legalism is in the sight of God, Jesus calls the Pharisees’ converts “sons of hell.” … I think it’s safe to assume that heaven is not populated by unrepentant legalists.

“…who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’”

Jesus points out the distinctions the scribes and Pharisees had made in the law (to benefit themselves) that didn’t even make sense. They taught that if one swore by the temple or the altar, it meant nothing (other than the fact that they could give the appearance of making binding oaths without actually being bound by them), but if one swore by objects in the temple or on the altar, he would be bound by them. Jesus points out the obvious fact that temple and everything in it constituted God’s dwelling place on earth, which makes any oath sworn on it or anything in it a contract with God. Whether the scribes and Pharisees thought they were bound or not (or whether they told the people they were bound or not), they were in fact bound.

“But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (James 5:12).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the woes Jesus pronounces on the scribes and Pharisees are so reminiscent of verses from the book of James, which focuses on the relationship between faith and works. James made the point that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). I think Jesus is reminding us that so are works without faith.

Fun stuff. I think these few verses demand that we pause to evaluate our own hearts.

Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:

1. Are my acts of worship motivated by a love of God, his word, and his grace or by a love of attention? Do I want to appear humble in the sight of God or righteous in the sight of others?

2. If I hold a teaching or leadership role, do I recognize the full responsibility that God has entrusted to me?

3. Am I more concerned with helping people enter the kingdom of heaven or with convincing people that my way of thinking is correct?

4. Am I more concerned with obedience or sacrifice? Do I think outward signs of spirituality make up for oppressing or ignoring the needy?

5. Have I constructed a “proper” way to worship God that I hold people to (even if only in my own mind) but is actually focused mostly on making me look good?

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