There is nothing like this chapter in all the Gospels for sustained denunciation of religious people who are shams and hypocrites, those who for all their pious noises are not real in their religion. In today’s Church this must be primarily aimed at those of us who would regard ourselves as `orthodox’, or `traditional’, or `evangelical’, for there were none more so in their day than the Pharisees. The Lord Jesus warns against religious people marked by the following characteristics:
1. They like to impress vs 5-11
Of course they do! They are actors! They love (and that is the key thought, not just that they do these things, but that they badly want to) special clothes (v.5), special seats (v.6), special titles (v.7)/ It was sobering to hear of one man who, on reading these verses soon after becoming a Christian, wasn’t sure that he ought to attend an Anglican church.
2. They impose burdens v.4, vs 13-22
They make it harder for people to believe by giving them extra rules and obligations. These superfluous conditions become so important that such people busily proselytise those who are already believers, giving them extra hurdles to overcome. The principle must be that we should never lay on somebody else’s discipleship anything beyond what scripture enjoins. So the first mark of the true leader is that he is characterised by self-effacing lowliness, the second is that he sets people free.
3. They major on minors vs 16-24
The clear implication of our Lord’s teaching here is that there are `weightier’ matters of the law, issues that are more central and more decisive than others. The appeal is to the balance and proportion of Scripture. This becomes difficult when we feel something is primary but others regard it as secondary. The general principle is that if an issue is only mentioned once, or even twice in Scripture, it is unlikely to be of prime importance. God of course, only needs to say something once for it to be authoritative, but because we are so stupid he tends to say things several times so the we can take them in. The `weightier’ matters of the law include justice, working for a fair and equitable community where people are not exploited; mercy, quick to restore an erring brother or sister; faithfulness, utterly trustworthy in keeping promises and commitments…obviously applying to marriage but also to Christian service.
4. They lack integrity vs 25-28
There is a mismatch/. The outward show doesn’t correspond to the inner reality. They are punctilious in their observance of all the church functions, but at home there is slamming of doors and banging of pans. They sign protests against permissive bishops but their eyes linger on the top shelf at the newsagent’s. They make big claims about honesty, yet their expenses claims are questionable. They make great claims about the Bible being the word of God but they rarely read it on their own.
5. They honour dead heroes vs 29-32
Although such men were vilified in their day, now form a safe distance they are feted. But the hypocrite won’t stand alongside those who are currently fighting for doctrinal and moral truth. He is liable to say `I agree with what they are fighting for but I don’t like the way they are doing it…so I’ll keep my distance” The mark of the faithful leader is that he will be prepared to put his head above the parapet.
6. What’s the verdict? vs 37-39
Although the warnings are very severe – woe, woe, woe – when the verdict comes it comes from a weeping judge: ‘You religious people, I love you so much, you’ve had so many privileges. Yet you love to impress, you’re show-offs. You impose burdens, you’re pocket tyrants. You honour dead heroes, you’re gutless. How I long that you could be marked by self-sacrificing service, a desire to set men free, wholesome common-sense, real integrity, true courage’.
Jonathan Fletcher is a minister in the leadership team at Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon.