Rules for today. Don’t offend anyone. Provide trigger warnings if something may cause anxiety for someone. Avoid micro-aggressions. Always say things with a positive spin. I noticed the other day that the Governor of Florida did none of those things as a Category 4 hurricane called Matthew was aiming to slam against his state. There were no warnings that what he was going to say may frighten. He didn’t put out a positive spin as he encouraged one million folks to evacuate their homes. He was instead forthright, honest, blunt, and forcefull as he warned folks with dire tones of the danger that was heading their way. Jesus had a similar forecast has he pronounced woes concerning the Jewish religious leaders of His day.
The full passage is Matthew 23:13-33 which contains eight warnings or woes. For the purposes of this article, we are going to look at the last four, verses 23-33. In these final four woes, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes. We often gloss over this passage, it doesn’t seem to apply to us since we’re not Pharisees or scribes. But what Jesus is warning about still happens in the name of religion and following Jesus. In fact, these verses form a “what not to do” truth that powerfully demonstrates what it means to walk with radical integrity.
Jesus said, ““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. “You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23–24, NASB95) Folks often get it in their heads that giving 10% to God is the height of obedience. A litmus test to determine the faithful. By that measure, the scribes and Pharisees were extremely faithful because they even tithed one out of every ten leaves from their herb garden.
Tithing, however, is not the height of faithfulness but a necessary part of its foundation. Jesus’ point is that they should continue to give but do so without neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Justice is more than fairness. It means having equal weights when it comes to business. Merchants of old would often have two sets of weights to measure the produce they were selling. An honest weight for friends and a dishonest one for others they thought they could cheat. Dishonest weights are one of the few things which God denounced in the Old Testament with the strong word of abomination. This thought is embodied in the symbol for judicial justice – a blindfolded lady holding a scale in one hand and a sword in the other. The Pharisees erred in this by wrongly judging the value of the others around them.
Mercy, on the other hand, triumphs over judgement (James 2:13). Mercy and grace often run together to the point that we can’t tell them apart. Justice may say that someone is getting what they deserve. Mercy and grace see a higher purpose and are willing to get dirty to help someone up. There is value in working toward social justice (although we have to be careful what meaning we pour into those words), but I wonder if we don’t need to take it further and embrace social mercy.
You would think that faithfulness would not be a problem for the Pharisees since they excelled at faithfully keeping the Law. But here’s the problem. They trusted their own works and their own law-keeping to make them right with God instead of on having faith in God. Faithfulness is more than just meeting a set of minimums, it is following Jesus in every aspect of life.
Jesus rightly chides them with the pointedly comical expression, “who strain a gnat and swallow a camel.” They’ve gone to great lengths to be pure, to the point of straining out the smallest insect that would make them unclean and unfit for temple worship. Yet they’ve swallowed the camel of self-sufficiency, self-righteousness, and pride which makes them unworthy in a different way.
In the next woe, Jesus compares them to cups that have been painstakingly washed on the outside while the inside is crusted with robbery and self-indulgence. ““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. “You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.” (Matthew 23:25–26, NASB95) Have you ever noticed that legalism, no matter its form or purpose tends to create this effect? Whether it’s legalism born of religion, of cultural acceptance, or of political correctness as folks are forced to appear or act a certain way the garbage just gets stored deeper in their hearts. That’s the problem with forced attempts to correct the human condition, they never really deal with the heart. It’s only when we let Jesus wash us on the inside that we become clean on the outside.
Similarly, Jesus takes the woe about dirty dishes a giant leap further and compares them to whitewashed tombs. ““Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27–28, NASB95) Tombs, cemeteries, headstones, and urns are designed to be attractive as we attempt to hide the ugliness, pain, and corruption of death. Jesus is saying that they may appear attractive, perhaps even peaceful on the outside but the inside, their secret thoughts, and the desires of their heart are filled with death, decay, corruption, and uncleanness. A stench that would make one vomit. They strove to keep the law on the outside but were without law in the reality of their hearts.
In the final woe, Jesus chides them with an irony that perhaps they never understood. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’” (Matthew 23:29–30, NASB95) What they failed to see is that someone greater than the prophets was standing in front of them at that very moment. Their hypocrisy was declaring that they wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past, but they were doing exactly the same thing at that very moment.
Jesus concludes the woes with the blistering statement, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?” (Matthew 23:33, NASB95) Definitely not a politically correct statement free from micro-aggressions designed to enhance or affirm someone else’s self-identity and self-esteem. These were warnings of danger and death.
What About Us?
As stated above we often gloss over this passage, read it in a way that doesn’t apply to us. But it does. We may not be Pharisees or scribes. But we do tend to have a problem with integrity. In the simplest terms, integrity means that we are the same on the inside and out. That our visible life and words match the thoughts and desires of our heart. We are not fractionalized but are whole. Jesus is calling everyone that chooses to follow Him to have a radical integrity.
Breaks in our integrity can take many forms. We can be seen as givers but be stingy and miserly. Like the tithe is just a tax and everything else is ours. In reality, it’s all God’s. We are no longer our own, we have been bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We break integrity when we do the right things, but only at certain times and in certain places and for certain people. We can break our integrity by living a double life. One life that everyone sees, and the other that we hide from everyone else and would be embarrassed if others knew. The problem is that like the scribes and Pharisees we are often blind to our broken integrity. We declare that we wouldn’t treat others like our forefathers did but might be doing the same thing right now.
Jesus calls us to radical integrity. It means having an exposed heart where folks can help us see our own hypocrisy. It means lettings others see our secrets so that they, with grace and mercy, can help us find healing. It means humbly acknowledging that we don’t always have it all together. It means living as a whole in a “what you see is what you get” kind of way. It means letting Jesus clean both the inside and the outside of our lives. It’s not easy, but it is well worth it. Maybe that should be our rule for today, to let Jesus reign in our hearts and lives all the time.