WELCOME back to our exploration of Matthew. I hope it has been thrilling for you to open a 2000-year-old sacred text and hearing God’s heartbeat for you.
Today, I want to preach the message
One day, I was speaking at a Catholic conference in the United States.
During the lunch break, I walked to a nearby restaurant and saw some of the attendees there. And four guys invited me to sit at their table.
Over fish-and-chips, our conversation went to sharing our life goals. One guy said he wanted to put up a small business, another said he wanted to move to Italy, and another said he wanted to put up a shelter for the homeless.
The last man who spoke up was the oldest guy in the group. He had a huge silver cross dangling around his neck.
And he said, “My goal in life is to be holy and go to heaven.”
It’s obvious his friends were used to him. They bowed towards his direction and said, “Oh Master, we’re not worthy to be in your presence.”
And they chuckled as friends do.
The conference was four days long, so I bumped into those guys again and again. And I enjoyed talking to them. Except one. Ironically, I had a difficult time talking to the guy whose life goal was to be holy and go to heaven.
First, he kept talking against his three friends. He said unlike them, he didn’t watch secular movies nor listen to worldly music. Unlike them, he went to daily Mass and did adoration a solid one hour a day.
Second, it seemed like he was always angry. He was always ranting about the depravity of the world and the evils of this and that. He made me feel like he was the only one who was holy.
Do you know what scared me? That he meets someone who didn’t know God and sincerely wanted to know God—and then he gets to talk to this fourth guy. What a bummer. He’ll get the wrong idea of who God is. He’ll get a picture of a God who was rigid and judgmental.
This man reminded me of what we’ll talk about today: The Pharisees.
They Started Really Good
First things first. The Pharisees were not bad people.
During the time of Jesus, there were four major sects: Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and the Pharisees. And the Pharisees were Teachers of the Law who wanted to please God and call Jews back to God.
But like Israel itself, they lost their way.
Remember how the Old Testament started with God creating man in His Image. Image also means Representative. And man did a horrible job. So God raised up Israel to be His new Representative.
But that didn’t work too well, either.
And the Pharisees, who were supposed to be God’s Representatives to Israel, were representing Him poorly.
God’s Love Is Tender and Tough
Today, we’re going through the entire chapter of Matthew 23. And obviously, we can’t dissect all 39 verses, but our goal is to get a sampling and listen to what Jesus is telling us.
In this entire chapter, Jesus is not the gentle guy we know Him to be. To adulterers and tax-collectors, He was so warm and welcoming. But to the Pharisees, He didn’t mince His words. He called them “white-washed tombstones” and “brood of vipers”. Woah!
Here’s my observation: Jesus was always tender towards sinners, but He was very tough on leaders who prevented sinners to receive God’s Love.
Mathew 23 contains Jesus’ Seven Woes to the Pharisees, because He begins each statement with “Woe are you”. In the Bible version we’re using, it’s translated, “What sorrow awaits you”.
But scholars say this is not primarily an expression of anger but of real grief. Jesus was sad for them. Note that Jesus loved the Pharisees. Love is both tender and tough, depending on what the person needs. And this is what they needed.
Today, I pray you’ll receive the love that you need.
Are you ready?
Let’s start reading:
Here’s my feeble attempt to summarize Chapter 23…
Five Deeds Jesus Didn’t Like About the Pharisees
Jesus respected their position as teachers. He told people to “obey whatever they tell you”.
But teaching well doesn’t mean they live well. That’s why He said, “Don’t follow their example.”
That’s why scandals of religious leaders are so shocking. When famous preachers commit adultery or when they misuse the funds of the church for themselves.
I was talking to a priest who served under a “holy” bishop who fathered two children. He told me that what made the scandal very painful for him was his bishop was known to be very strict with them. He constantly demanded his priests to maintain very high moral standards.
But this self-righteous façade is common. I read of an evangelical pastor of pastors who was very loud in condemning homosexuals whenever he preached, but later on, he was caught soliciting sex from a man.
Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites. The original word means stage actor.
Because they’re just pretending to be someone else.
My wife Marowe and I watched the popular Kdrama, Hospital Playlist.
In this Netflix series, the five main stars were all very skilled surgeons. And their acting was so superb, I wouldn’t be surprised if, once in a while, these actors would be walking on the street and people would stop them to ask about what to do with their father’s heart condition or sister’s liver disease. But they’re not doctors. They were superb actors.
In the same way, the Pharisees acted like God’s Teachers. But in reality, they were just great actors.
Later in the Chapter, Jesus said: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs— beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.
You’re Called To Be God’s Template
Hey, this message doesn’t only apply to preachers like me.
If you’re a parent, you know this too well. How many times do we demand our kids to respect us, but we don’t respect them?
More than teachers, the world needs living templates. We need mentors whose most important audio-visual teaching aid is their daily life.
That’s why St. Paul said, “Imitate me” (see 1 Corinthians 11:1).
This is what it means to be His Image, His Representative.
Pope Paul VI said the same thing in Evangelii Nuntiandi:
Let’s pray: Lord, help me to represent You well.
Jesus gives us a peek into their motivations:
The prayer boxes with Scripture verses are called phylacteries found in Exodus 13 while the Tassels are found in Numbers 15.
Here’s a big lesson: Some people think that just because they follow the Bible, they’re okay. Not true. Because you can be following the Bible for the wrong reasons.
Friend, are you too obsessed with your appearance? Your image? Your brand?
Warning: You’re walking on a slippery road.
Mark these words:
They prevent people from seeing the real God because they reflect a twisted version of God.was talking to a 16-year-old guy who told me,
“Whenever I picture God, I imagine Him to be angry at me. Because that’s what my mother told me. That I was a bad boy and He was angry at me.”
So, it was a total shock to him to walk into the Feast. Because He met a God that was not angry at Him. He met a God that was madly in love with him.
Accept it. It’s easy for religious people, I included, to focus on form vs. essence. Form is easy to spot. It’s easy to measure. And therefore to play judge and label who’s in and out.
For example, when I meet two Catholics debating which Mass liturgy is the right liturgy—the modern one that we use today OR the traditional one with the Latin and chants and the priest facing the altar—and then condemning each other for preferring this or that liturgy—I wonder if God is pointing to a wounded, broken, poor person beside the debaters, and saying, “The best liturgy is the one that moves you to die to yourself and serve the suffering.”
But they do end up killing Jesus.
Matthew makes this clear ten chapters earlier when he said:
This isn’t unique to the Pharisees. Religious leaders who vow to love God, if they are not careful with their ego, end up fighting God and killing His plan.
How did this happen? The Pharisees were so good in fooling other people, they ended up fooling themselves.
May I go back to the Hospital Playlist actors? Imagine one of the actors got into his role so much, he actually believed he was a surgeon and walked into an operating room to perform heart surgery.
This is scary. But this is how religion becomes evil. Because of this, we must never be spiritually complacent.
One of the ways to avoid this is to practice daily examination of conscience.
To pray each day:
Let me end with this huge question: If the Pharisees were Bible nerds who memorized the Bible from cover to cover and studied it their entire life… if the Pharisees were obsessed in becoming holy and wanted to check every little box in their checklist—and still they got it all wrong—what more for us? Won’t we get it wrong too?
That’s why we need Jesus.
Don’t try to be holy on your own terms.
Don’t try to be holy with your own effort. Get Jesus.
He gave Himself to you on the Cross.
Receive His Love.
Surrender your life to Him.
Let Him be the one to make you holy.