Quick, name three of the greatest speeches of all time. 

I bet your three are included in the eight speeches listed below (if one of your speeches is not listed below, tell me so that I can make amends!)

  • Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech (“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”)
  • Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. . .”)
  • Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”)
  • John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”)
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Inauguration Ceremony (“The only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself.”)
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy speech (“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy. . . .”)
  • Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty” speech (“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”)
  • Lou Gehrig’s “Farewell to Baseball” speech (“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”) [Great speech, good guy – even though he was a Yankee.]

I am also going to bet that in your list of top speeches, you never once (no not once) thought about including Jesus’ speech in Matthew 23 (“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!”). Now, to be fair, I did see one of Jesus’ speeches show up on someone’s list of the top 35 speeches of all time, but it was the “Sermon on the Mount” and not the “Sermon of Woes” in Matthew 23. And if we had to choose one of the two, we would all agree – “Give me the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ or give me death!” Why? Because the “Sermon of Woes” feels like it crosses the line; and at least in my opinion, it is hard to wrap one’s head around what Jesus is doing here.  Consider these problems:

  • In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns his disciples not to judge others (Mt. 7:1-2). In the “Sermon of Woes,” Jesus was all judgment, all the time, repeatedly calling the Pharisees and the Scribes names like hypocrites, blind guides and white-washed tombs. 
  • In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands us to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). In the “Sermon of Woes,” Jesus responds to the attacks of the Pharisees and Scribes with an attack all of his own, saying (Mt. 23:33): “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (In my opinion, that’s not exactly a turn-the-other-cheek response). 
  • In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blesses the meek, saying they will inherit the earth (Mt.5:5). In the “Sermon of Woes,” Jesus is anything but meek. Try to find an example of meekness in verses 31-32 where we read: So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!” 
  • In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt. 5:43-44). In the “Sermon of Woes,” we don’t feel a lot of love. The first two woes set the (negative) tone (Mt. 23:13, 15): “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”

In short, this whole passage sounds very unlike Jesus! But it gets worse. Note the setting: Jesus has been disputing various groups in the temple grounds since chapter 21; but in each confrontation, Jesus is the clear victor (21:27, 45-46; 22:22, 23, and 46). In fact, Matthew 22:46 seems to be a summary statement of how the day went for all of Jesus’ opponents (“No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”). Now, having vanquished all his enemies, one would have thought Jesus would have been content to walk away from the crowds as the clear champion.  But no. Let me quote Rodney Reeves: “Yet that is not what happened. Rather, Jesus acted like he couldn’t let it go, emptying both barrels of his shotgun against the Pharisees, skewering them one last time with the red-hot poker of his righteous indignation.” Can I just insert this quick thought? This is not the Jesus that I learned about in Sunday School. 

But we’re not done. Obviously, Jesus is taking on the role of an Old Testament prophet here, announcing “woe” at every turn. And yet, when the prophets pronounced woe, it was usually addressed to combat “big sin,” things like idolatry, rebellion, injustice and murder (see for yourself — Isaiah 1:4; 3:8-15;  5:20; 10:1; Jer. 13:27;  23:1; Ezek. 13:3-8; 34:2; Hosea 7:13; Hab. 2:12; Micah 2:1-2; Zeph. 3:1 and 11:17). And Jesus starts off well, railing against the sin of hypocrisy (23:3: “for they do not practice what they preach”). Now, we would all agree that hypocrisy is a big sin and that Jesus was in the right to condemn it. But then, two strange things happen. Jesus starts to nit-pick, and Jesus goes really Jewish.  Let me say it this way: Every sin that Jesus focuses on, after hypocrisy, seems relatively minor, seems very irrelevant and seems to be part of an intramural debate. Jesus castigates the Pharisees for . . .

  • placing the burden of obedience to the whole law on the people (vs. 4); 
  • loving public recognition and the place of honor (vs. 5ff); 
  • seeking verbal loopholes when taking oaths (vss. 16-22);
  • their approach to tithing (vs. 23-24); 
  • ceremonially cleaning cups and dishes so that they can adhere to the purity laws (vss. 25-26); 
  • striving to do the right thing and be righteous, without having an equal, if not greater, level of devotion in their hearts (vss. 27-28); 
  • decorating the tombs and graves of the righteous and standing with those martyrs and against their ancestors (vss. 29-31); 
  • And for what they may do in the future (vss. 33-36 — they will seek to kill Jesus’ followers). 

I’m sorry, but to me, it just doesn’t sound like these were “big sins.” But try Isaiah on for size (5:20-24):

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light  and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.
Therefore, as tongues of fire lick up straw and as dry grass sinks down in the flames,
so their roots will decay and their flowers blow away like dust;
for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel.”

Wow! Now, compare Matthew 23:16:

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing;
but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’”

Really? That’s an issue for Jesus? And that’s an issue for Matthew who chose to include it in his gospel? I’m sorry, I just don’t get it. 

But it is even more complicated. Obviously, hypocrisy is a huge deal, but the bulk of Jesus’ other criticisms don’t concern sinful acts, but sinful motives (and for most of us, that’s hard to pin down).  Jesus’ other complaints deal with how the Pharisees were trying to live out their faith, how they were seeking to follow the traditions of their ancestors and how they were striving to keep the law in a way that was faithful to the Torah. And while we may criticize them as being misguided and even wrong, they weren’t evil. They weren’t rebelling against the God of Israel. They weren’t introducing foreign gods or compromising their faith. In fact, if we were transported back to the first century, the Pharisees would look like the good guys in the land. Had Jesus attacked their bad behaviors, we would feel differently, but he doesn’t. Instead, he focuses on their hidden motives and their veiled self-righteousness which led them to reject him. Yes, Jesus criticizes them for ignoring the more important matters of the law (vs. 23), but he never “points out exactly what they were doing wrong” (Rodney Reeves).  The whole “Sermon of Woes” ALMOST (underline almost) comes across as if Jesus was saying, “In their commitment to live out the Law and in their daily practices, you can’t do much better than the Pharisees, BUT don’t follow them in their hypocrisy – practice what you preach!” After all, isn’t that basically what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount? In Matthew 5:20, we read: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” So, in Jesus’ opinion, the Pharisees . . . were really righteous? Or at least, they were righteous in their external obedience and in their striving to seek God’s will, but not so righteous in their innermost motives, their self-righteousness and in their failure to practice all that they were preaching. In short, if it wasn’t for their hypocrisy, the Pharisees would have been all right.

But what type of hypocrisy are we talking about here? See, not all hypocrisy is created equal.  Some hypocrites know they are hypocrites. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be good while they are evil (if the wolf analogy doesn’t work for you, think of a faith-healer on TV). In this case, the hypocrites know they are lying, but no one else does. A second form of hypocrisy deals with those who believe they are in the right, but are self-deceived. These people are blinded to their sin because of their high position and their importance (in the church, in society, or in the academy).  The problem is, most people can see through their ruse and are quickly able to point out the double standard. These hypocrites say one thing, but do another. However, they can’t see it because they are self-deceived. So, when charged with the sin of hypocrisy, they can’t see it all, but everyone else can. The third type of hypocrisy is more subtle. Here, the hypocrites behave in a holy manner and believe that they are acting in the best interests of others. And the people believe they are good (who wouldn’t? They are doing great things for others). The problem is, these hypocrites can’t see that all the good things that they are doing are motivated by selfish desires. They want to be in the spotlight, to hear the applause and to receive the accolades of others. Sadly, while they look good, these hypocrites are only in it for themselves. So, of which form of hypocrisy is Jesus accusing the Pharisees? In the first form of hypocrisy, the hypocrite knows, but the people don’t, which makes it the worst sin of the three. In the second form of hypocrisy, the hypocrite doesn’t know, but the people do, which also makes it a serious sin.  And in the third form, both the hypocrite and the people don’t see any duplicity, which to me is the lesser sin of the three (but I may be biased – what if this is me?????).

I would argue that Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of the third type of hypocrisy. The Pharisees thought they were in the right, and most people agreed with them. And compared to the other major groups of the day (the Sadducees, the high priests and the Herodians), there was no question. They stood for the Law, for Moses, for the health of the nation and for the spiritual health of the people.  While the other power-brokers were all about compromise, the Pharisees were about commitment and bringing the ancient law to bear upon the people in their daily lives. And that is not all bad. In fact, it might be an apt description of the evangelical church today!

But that raises another question. If the Pharisees were not conmen or hypocrites (in the sense of having a double-standard – see number 2 above), what was Jesus’ main objection with them? It seems that there are only two answers. We could focus on the fact that their hearts were sinful and corrupt (a situation only God could see) or we could argue that THE issue was that the Pharisees were opposed to Jesus. Now, if that is the case, and that Jesus’ real objection to the Pharisees was that they refused to accept that he was the Messiah, then it seems to me like Matthew 23 is slightly unfair and a little misleading.

Now, it does help to understand that Matthew 23 takes place during passion week and that Good Friday is merely hours away. And it does help to know that, almost since day one, the Pharisees have been “attacking” Jesus and only now is Jesus retaliating (although there were a few minor skirmishes before this).  And it is useful to see that Matthew 23 follows Jesus’ seemingly never-ending debates with Jewish authorities bent on discrediting Jesus (in Matthew 21 and 22) and is part of a larger context aptly named, the temple disputes. And there were disputes. During Holy Week, Jesus goes to the temple to teach, but is constantly interrupted by his critics trying to dishonor him. In these three chapters, Jesus has disputes with these groups: 

  • The chief priests and the elders (21:23 — “By what authority are you doing these things?”). 
  • The chief priests and the Pharisees (21:45-46 – “They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.”). 
  • The Pharisees and the Herodians (22:15ff — “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” 
  • The Sadducees (22:31-32 – “But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”)
  • The Sadducees and the Pharisees together (22:34-40 – “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”)
  • The Pharisees – yet again (22:42ff — What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”)
  • The Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law (23:5 – “Everything they do is done for people to see.”)

In other words, Jesus is confronting all the leaders of the nation who refuse to believe and not just the Pharisees (which may indicate that when Jesus uses the word, “Pharisee” he is casting his net over all who do not — and will not — believe and not intending us to understand that every single Pharisee is an evil hypocrite). It also seems that this is Jesus’ last warning to the leaders of Israel to turn from their sin before they take that one final step and crucify God’s messiah, thereby bringing God’s judgment upon the nation. That certainly could explain Jesus’ harshness here. The leaders of the people (all of them) refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah when he spoke quietly and peacefully. They refused to listen to him when he challenged them and made them confront the Scriptures. They refused to believe in Jesus when he warned them sternly. Maybe now, when Jesus spoke words of woe and doom to them, they would finally repent. 

And yet, in my mind, there are still a lot of questions.  For example, if at least some of the Pharisees were good (Nicodemus, for instance), how can Jesus throw them all under the bus like he did here? And why don’t Mark, Luke or John include a section in their accounts where Jesus speaks “woe” to the Pharisees during Holy Week? Why was Matthew the only gospel to include this exchange? And why does Mark specify that Jesus only condemned the Teachers of the Law for their hypocrisy and never mentioned the Pharisees by name? And is there any background information that might help us better understand all the social dynamics here? As I said, there are many questions that we have not yet considered, but we will save them for next week. But be assured, we will not leave them unanswered. Instead, we will answer them on the beaches, we shall answer on the landing grounds, we shall answer in the fields and in the streets, we shall answer in the hills; and we shall answer, for we shall never surrender.