Matthew 23 is a barn burner, a scorched-earth sermon.
Chronology in the Gospels is hard to nail down. Jesus certainly taught some of his material on several occasions, and our obsession with a precise timeline was not a principal concern when the Gospels were written.
However, surely Jesus’ sermon recorded in Matthew 23 came toward the end of his ministry because he made a list and checked it twice. While he didn’t pass out coal, he did pass out words of judgment.
I wonder if any of the popular preachers who revel in the bigness of their steeples and the awesomeness of their sermons have spent much time in Matthew 23?
From this chapter, we learn that Jesus has little patience with religious hypocrisy. Actually, that is a profound understatement. He had no patience with hypocrisy because he saw the damage it did to people.
What is the hypocrisy he points out? Jesus has listened for three years, and volleyed back the questions the religious leaders contemptuously threw at him, often with an attitude of “who do you think you are?”
Then, in this sermon that was likely voiced later in his ministry, he proclaims seven “woes” that address the hypocrisy of religious leaders.
These leaders demonstrate their hypocrisy in talking the talk but not walking the walk; in being burden bringers not burden-lifters; in being loud outside and unholy inside; in loving being in the front of pretty much everything — camera on and mike hot — for the sole purpose of garnering attention and praise.
And then, Jesus gets down to business.
The religious leaders’ hypocrisy is also seen in reckless living which shuts the door in the faces of those who seek God; in a zeal for converts which become a worse example than their teachers; in a petty, pedantic swearing on holy things without any regard for the holiness of what they use to support their swear.
Moreover, there is hypocrisy in preferring to meticulously count their financial offerings while ignoring the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness; in well-dressed clothes that cover an impoverished soul.
And there is hypocrisy in paying more attention to appearances while neglecting substance; in believing you would treat Jesus and the prophets any differently than those who persecuted and killed them.
Since there was no price for admission to this piercing, penetrating and powerful proclamation, I’m sure some left with their ears burning. Instead of repenting of their hypocrisy, they adjourned to finish building the case against Jesus in a confrontation that would lead to his arrest and execution.
Matthew 23 is one of the significant chapters that those who preach or teach should use as a mirror of the soul. It offers a check of the heart, an accounting of the internal, and an inventory of thought, intent, will, heart and action.
These teachers of the law did not just wake up one morning and decide to be hypocrites. Like many religious people today, they were schooled in it, swam in it and prayed in it, and they shaped it around themselves like a fine garment.
Their hypocrisy is our warning. It is too easy to forget to search our hearts because we are so busy weighing the hearts and motives of others.