In the forty years of my active pastoral ministry, I have not preached on the “woes to the
Pharisees” appearing in Matthew 23. They are not in our lectionary for suitable sermon material. Read them and you can understand why. Back in the 60’s there was a classic Italian film, titled, “The Gospel According to Matthew”. It followed pretty much the text of the gospel, but all in Italian. All in black and white. Unforgettable were the scenes in black and white of Jesus ranting against the sins of the religious ones. At the time I thought there is nothing like getting a scolding in the Italian language!
The disturbing thing we learn about Jesus is how little patience Jesus had with good people. People who wanted to be good and right and proper. The woman caught in adultery received more affection and regard than the religious ones. The ones carrying the stones were the ones Jesus shamed. Read one of the rebukes Jesus seems to be shouting (Matthew 23:27-28)
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but insider are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
Little wonder the church crowd was offended and looked for reasons for Jesus to be silenced. I have wondered what it was about the acknowledged “good people” that offended Jesus. Recently a read a phrase that seemed to define the problem. They were “addicted to self-righteousness.” They were so sure they were right, and that others were wrong. They tried to do the right things, and their pride made it obvious to them who the real sinners were.
An addiction is a habit that we will defend and won’t feel guilty for. An addiction creates a person to live in denial. To judge the speck in the eye of my neighbor but ignore the splinter lodged in my own eye. This addiction has taken its toll on the church and on the culture. No matter which side of the political or ecclesiastical fence we are on, we too easily become addicted to self-righteousness that tears apart the community.
In these verses from Matthew, self-righteousness drove Jesus to lose his temper. Faith that matters requires humility. Not long ago, at a family table conversation about something controversial, I became a little heated and sure of myself. Afterwards, Judy said, “You should be ashamed of yourself” (or something to that affect). And I was. Being “righteous” does not mean being “right’. As the prophet reminds us, it is a matter of “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.”
Maybe the reason we don’t often preach from the 23rd chapter of Matthew is that we think Jesus isn’t speaking to us. That is also probably a sign of my addiction!
Rev. Robert McQuilkin, Author