Hypocricy of the Pharisees
Pentecost 24 Matthew 23:1-12
Hypocrite. We all know the word, “hypocrite.” What is hypocrite? A phony. A two-faced person, pretending to be a friend but is really an enemy in disguise.
A hypocrite is a pretender, pretending to have love for you but does not. Saying the pretty words of love. Making the motions of love. Putting on a good face of love. Being totally charming and loving. But that person does not really love you. Pretending to have strong feelings for you but it is all a farce.
I remember that love song by The Platters from the fifties about “The Great Pretender.” The song begins, “O yes, I’m the great pretender.”
Hypocrites give the illusion, the pretense, the deceit of authenticity, but it is all an illusion.
We all know what fake jewelry is. We know what fool’s gold is. It looks like gold but it is not. It fools you. The fake gold necklace. The face gold ring. The fake gold earrings. You look at the price tag and you know it is fake gold. The necklace, ring and ear rings give the appearance of genuine gold but it is not.
We also know about the fake diamond. The fake ruby. The fake pearl. Sometimes you look closely at a diamond or ruby or pearl and say, “Is it real? Is it genuine? Is it the real thing?”
Another example. People like me love to go to the theater and see plays. If the play is exceptionally fine, it is usually because there are great actors and actresses on the stage. These great actors and actors play their parts so well that you think that he or she is actually that person but it is all “make believe.” So are the sets on the stage: the sets are all “make believe” to give the illusion that you are really there.
I remember years ago, in the 1980s, when Dustin Hoffman played the role of Tootsie in the movie TOOTSIE. He was so good. He played so many different parts, wearing different costumes. When Dustin Hoffman dressed up like a woman and acted like a woman, you would swear he was a woman. Hoffman was and still is a great actor.
Sometimes, when seeing a play, an actor or actress is incredibly believable in their role. The actor or actress seems so authentic, so genuine, so real that it is hard to comprehend that it is all “make believe.”
The English word, “hypocrite,” comes from the Greek word, “hypocresis” which is the Greek word for “actor.” A good “hypocresis” is a good actor.
A good actor is good at playing a part, playing a role, playing a character.
That is what the story from today’s gospel is all about. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the symbol of hypocrisy, the symbol of phoniness, the symbol of pretense and duplicity. If anyone was a religious fake, it was the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They pretended to be genuinely religious but it was all a sham, a charade. It was a deceit, a deception. Like any good actor, they were all “make believe.”
In Matthew’s gospels, Jesus’ words against the phoniness of the Pharisees are enormously confrontational. Unlike any other place in the four gospels, his words against the Pharisees drip with intensity and scathing indictments.
When we get to chapter 23 in the Book of Matthew, it is as if his feelings have come to a boiling point. You know about water coming to a boiling point. Think of a pan of water on the stove and you turn the burner on high and slowly the water becomes warmer and warmer and begins to give off steam. And then, there are a few bubbles in that water and those few bubbles come to the service. And pretty soon the water in the pan is rolling with bubbles because the water has come to its boiling point.
So it is with the words of Jesus in Matthew 23. His words come to a boiling point. This is the angriest that you will ever experience Jesus in the Scriptures.
In the following phrases from Matthew 23, Jesus reaches a climax of intense anger towards the Pharisees.
Listen carefully to Jesus’ feelings that are boiling and roiling against the Pharisees in Matthew 23.
-They preach but they do not practice.
-They lay burdens on others shoulders but they do not lift a finger to help.
-They do all their deeds to be seen by men.
-They love the places of honor at feasts and greetings in the market places and being called rabbi.
Then the gospel text switches from “they” to “you.” In both English and Greek, there is emphasis on the “you” in each of these statements. Talk about being in your face. Talk about calling a spade a spade. Talk about boiling and roiling. A person can hear the “you”s that drip with sarcastic indictment.
-Woe to you scribes and Pharisees for you shut the kingdom of heaven. You do not enter the kingdom and you prevent others from entering it.
-Woe to you Pharisees, you blind guides, you blind men.
-Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you tithe on the trivia but you neglect the weightier issues of law, justice, mercy and faith.
-Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for outwardly you appear beautiful but inwardly you are full of dead men’s bones.
-You are the sons of those who have murdered the prophets.
-You serpents and brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?
That does not feel like the Jesus of our imaginations, Jesus meek and mild, gentle Jesus who would never say anything harsh to anyone.
Jesus was deeply offended by the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.
Let’s take a moment and do a Bible study on the text for today. Would you please pull out your bulletin insert and grab a pencil or pen to make notes, underline and draw circles around certain words.
The text is from Matthew 23 and this text is uniquely Matthean. That is, the other three gospels do not record these teachings in Mathew 23:1-12.
-Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, Jesus was not only addressing his disciples but the crowds as well. This debate and confrontation had been going on with these Pharisees from the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry and was now reaching the boiling point. Chapter 23 is the boiling point.
-"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; The scribes and the Pharisees pretend that they have the authority of Moses. They pretend that what they do is the Law of God. The Pharisees imply that their words and actions have the authority of none other than Moses. There may have been an actual seat in the synagogue which was the teaching place for the local rabbi.
therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.This was the essential problem. Underline the phrase, “they do not practice what they teach.” Write the words, “hypocrite, phony,” above that phrase. Write the number “6” by the word, “hypocrite.”
The word, “hypocrite,” is not found in the first twelve verses of Matthew 23, but is repeated six times in the rest of Matthew 23. Yes, six times in the next few verses. Hypocrite. Hypocrite. Hypocrite. Hypocrite. Hypocrite. Hypocrite. This particular text from Matthew 23:1-12 does not use the word, “hypocrite” but Matthew 23 is all about hypocrisy as the phrase, “you hypocrite” is used six times.
The Pharisees were a bunch of phonies who did not do what they preached. This whole section of verses in both Matthew and Luke is a commentary on Isaiah 29:13, “This people honors me with their lips (talk a good talk), but their hearts are far from me.” The big issue in Jesus’ day was hypocrisy, especially as embodied in the lives of the Pharisees.
The Greek word for hypocrite means “actor.” Sometimes, when seeing a play, an actor or actress is incredibly believable in their role. The actor or actress seems so authentic, so genuine, so real that it is hard to comprehend that it is all “make believe.”
So it is with many people of faith: on the outside and the showy parts of their lives, they give a good performance of being a Christian, but it is all “a front.” Inside, their hearts are far from the love of God/Jesus and neighbor.
An important issue of our day is still hypocrisy. Jesus still hates hypocrisy.
-They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Near the words, “heavy burden,” write the number 613. We remember that the Pharisees counted and they counted 613 laws from the Old Testament that the people were to do in order to live lives that were pleasing to God.
By focusing on these 613 religious rules and regulations, the Pharisees neglected the weightier issues of love and justice. The Pharisees maximized the 613 rules and regulations in the Old Testament and minimized love, mercy and justice that God wanted from them.
The lawyers and Pharisees had developed laws for every situation. For example, we recall the Pharisaic laws that regulated the observance of the Sabbath. The Pharisees taught laws that the Jews could not pick grain on the holy Sabbath nor heal a sick person on the holy Sabbath. The lawyers among the Pharisees developed laws that interpreted what it meant to do work on the Sabbath. All of these social regulations added up to immense burdens on the Jews for their day-to-day lives.
Imagine the weight of your religion on your shoulders if you thought that you were “religious” only if you obeyed all those 613 rules from the Old Testament. What a heavy load. Think of the number 613 attached to the shoulders of the shirt that you are wearing. To be religious, you had to carry 613 rules and regulations and do them.
-They do not eat unless they purify themselves. Above the word, “purify,” write down, “washed their hands properly.”
A tradition in the ancient Jewish faith was that the Jews were to wash their hands before meals, with a cup of water the size of an “egg and a half.” The Jews were to hold their hand down, with fingers pointed downward, and drip that cup of water down their wrists and the water was to run off their fingertips. This was a tradition that had become holy and sacred and was to be done by all “good and faithful” Jews before mealtime. We can easily visualize the Pharisees ceremoniously pointing their fingers downward and letting the water drip off their fingers…as if such behavior was holy.
The Pharisees would eat when they were properly purified. These religious traditions were more important than doing the mercy, love and justice that God wanted from them.
There are many other traditions which they observe: Underline the phrase, “many other traditions.” Yes, the Pharisees had many traditions which they observed.
Today, in our Christian faith, we also have our traditions. We learn to love the “old traditions” that are part of our Christian faith. We love the “old favorite traditions” of Christmas, Christmas hymns, Easter, Easter hymns. Most congregations (and individuals) have numerous traditions that are not part of their constitution, by-laws, or any legal documents. Nor are these numerous traditions part of the Scriptures or even our denominational heritage. Rather, within the congregation, there are traditions that become holy, sanctified, and “don’t you mess with our way we of doing things around here.” In other words, don’t mess with our traditions. In fact, too many Christians will hold fast to our human traditions more than the commandments of God to love God and love one another.
The washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze. After the word, “washing,” write the phrase, “the outside.” The Pharisees were good at washing the outside of cups and pots and not the inside.
In other similar teachings of Jesus, he emphasized that the Pharisees were good at washing the outside of cups, pots and other vessels.
At our house, the washing of dishes is a situation for potential conflict between my wife and myself. I like to wash the dishes but hate to dry them. As an experienced dishwasher, I am keenly aware of how easy it is to wash the outside of cup and plates. But it is another matter to wash the inside of kettles that have been used for cooking. The insides of those kettles and cooking dishes are occasionally blackened or crusty hard from the heat on the stove. Far too often, I will say to my wife, “Let’s let the kettles soak for a while and then they will be easier to wash.” My wife pulls out the scrubber and indicates for me to go to work and do the hard work of cleaning the insides of the pots and pans.
The Pharisees were similar: that is, they wanted to do the easy work of looking good on the outside and looking good in their public behavior. They did not want to repent and clean out the burnt crud from the insides of their lives. In other words, they did not want to repent and “be washed clean on the inside.” (as was demanded by John the Baptist). They were not willing to address the extortion, greed, rapacity and wickedness that were inside their inner hearts.
-They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. Underline the phrase, “They do their deeds to be seen by others.” This was the fundamental motivating principle of the Pharisees. They loved to be seen by others. They were attention getting showoffs who tried to show off their religious manners and behaviors.
Circle the word, “phylacteries” and write the words, “little leather boxes, wear on forehead.” Phylacteries were made of leather. They were leather pouches with Bible verses from the Old Testament in them. We recall God’s commandment in Deuteronomy 11:18, “You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.” The Pharisees wore these leather boxes on their foreheads and arms. Phylacteries were easy to see and proved right away how religious and devout you were. Common people like shepherds and fishermen did not wear them.
We talk about “wearing your religion on your sleeve.” The Pharisees literally wore their religion on their foreheads and arms for everyone to see.
Circle the words, “long fringes.” They also liked to wear long tassels. Again, it was a means of showing off how religious they were. This is another example of them maximizing the minutia of the law and minimizing the great commandment for God and neighbor. From Leviticus 15:37-39, “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes.”
We can imagine the Pharisees loving to wear their outer garments with long blue fringes. This was the essence of religiosity for the Pharisees.
Write down the following phrase: They maximized minutia and minimized mercy.
-They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. How we can see these Pharisees in our minds. They loved to have places of honor at banquets. We all know where the places of honor are at the banquets we attend. The Pharisees always wanted to be up at the front table. They also had the best seats in the house, there at the synagogue. We know the best seats in the house at basketball games and football games and concerts. The best seats in the house are the most expensive and most of us never sit there. The Pharisees loved to be greeted with respect at the marketplace, the equivalent of our shopping mall. They loved when people greeting them by calling them “rabbi.” There was a slight deference, a lilt in the language, subtle but noticeable respect like when we are talking to someone who is obvious richer than we are. It would be like today someone being addressed as doctor, professor, pastor, president, etc.
-But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. Underline the words, “one teacher and you are all students.” Circle the word, “all.” Jesus wanted it to be known that he was the principle teacher of life. Jesus is our teacher and we are all his students. Another word for student is “disciple.” A reason we come to church and Bible class is to be students of Jesus and learn from him. His life is our model, our pattern, our example for the way to live.
We immediately ask the question, “Are we not to call the Jewish leader of a synagogue by the name of Rabbi (Abrahamson) when everybody else does?”
Let’s proceed to the next similar teachings and thereby answer our question.
-And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. We immediately ask the question, “How about my father? My father wants to be called father. Lots of people can call my father by his first name but only we his children can call him “father.” That word is sacred in our family. The word, “father,” is one of the most sacred titles in the world, along with the title “mother.” Is Jesus teaching us not to call our fathers “father?” Is that what Jesus is teaching?
Or how about calling a Roman Catholic priest a father? That is the title of the position of a leader of a Roman Catholic Church. Father Halloran. Or Father O’Malley. Or Father O’Brien. That is the proper way to address a leader of a Roman Catholic congregation. Is Jesus telling us not to call priests, Father So and So?
-Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. Jesus wants us to know that he is our teacher, our instructor, our leader, our mentor, our guide, our shepherd.
-The greatest among you will be your servant. Circle the words, “greatest” and “servant.” And one of the finest and most persistent teachings of Jesus is that we are to be servants. The greatest Christian is the person who has learned to be a servant, to have the heart of a servant, the attitude of a servant, the actions of a servant. In the foot washing on Holy Thursday, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and shocked them all with his action and attitude of humility. Jesus himself was the model servant and called us to be servants of one another.
-All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. This was the problem of the Pharisees of old and people in every generation and often people today like you and me. We want to exalt ourselves and make ourselves important. Sometimes, the greater the sense of “inferiority” inside our souls, the greater is the need to exalt ourselves and try to let other people know that we are important.
Rather than exalting ourselves as the Pharisees did, we are to be humble.
Humble servants. That is what Jesus wants us to be.
This ends our Bible study. This ends our sermon.
We recall that Jesus reached his boiling point in Matthew 23 when he boiled and roiled against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t like it then. Jesus doesn’t like it now.
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