Red Letter Year: 5/21

Matthew 23:13-26

13 “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.

14 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! You shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, you will be severely punished.

15 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!

16 Blind guides! What sorrow awaits you! For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’ 17 Blind fools! Which is more important—the gold or the Temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 And you say that to swear ‘by the altar’ is not binding, but to swear ‘by the gifts on the altar’ is binding. 19 How blind! For which is more important—the gift on the altar or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 When you swear ‘by the altar,’ you are swearing by it and by everything on it. 21 And when you swear ‘by the Temple,’ you are swearing by it and by God, who lives in it. 22 And when you swear ‘by heaven,’ you are swearing by the throne of God and by God, who sits on the throne.

23 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. 24 Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!

25 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! 26 You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.”


This makes for some tough reading. Where is the guy who was riding on a donkey and enjoying the children singing in the Temple? Where is the humble, servant-leader Messiah? This sounds familiar to us. Like when our boss chews us out or our parents fuss at us or a teacher scolds us. We’re used to people in power expressing disappointment and judgment, so we read this as such because it is so negative and it’s Jesus talking, the ultimate authority figure. We need to rethink this because Jesus made it clear with the donkey that he was not using power in that way. This is not the rant of someone in power directed against those under him. Jesus had no political power (as we will shortly see), so this is more accurately the prophetic rant of one not in power directed against those who are in power. This is a call for justice and mercy, from one outside the system, just like Isaiah (see chapters 5 and 10), Jeremiah (see chapter 13), Amos (5.18-24), etc.

Understanding it this way is important for a couple of reasons. First, if we are going to follow Jesus, we have to position ourselves similarly – as ones who refuse worldly power in order to speak prophetically to it. Second, it is in the nature of prophetic speech to carry meanings across generations. Jesus was not just speaking against the abuse of religious power in his day, he is also speaking against the abuse of religious power now. Our religious leaders make the same sort of moves as the Pharisees did. As Bono sings, “I can’t tell the difference between ABC News, Hill St. Blues, and a preacher on the old-time gospel hour, stealing money from the sick and the old.” Stealing money from widows and other vulnerable people didn’t end with the Pharisees. Neither did playing games with what counts as sacred. We move those around to suit our cultural preferences just as they did. We’re also just as good at making a big deal out of little things while completely ignoring the actual big things. We swallow our share of camels and our filthy coffee mugs sure look clean on the outside.

See, it’s a good idea to try and read all these woes as still coming from the gentle, donkey-riding Jesus, because they are directed at us. More tomorrow…

The New Living Translation (NLT)Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.