Summary: The danger of the Pharisee tendency today

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Matthew 23

Keeping Up Appearances


We all know Hyacinth Bucket from the television sitcom ‘Keeping up Appearances’. Now although it may not be politically correct to make judgements about people, we all know that we all do it. And we can all make a judgement about the character. For Hyacinth Bucket is not what she seems. For despite her airs and graces, we soon find out that her origins are somewhat more humble. Hyacinth Bucket portrays it exactly what it means to be a hypocrite. The word hypocrite is an entirely Greek word, which really means an actor. Now you may recall that we talked about this on another occasion, that actors at that time used masks to denote different characters. And so what this word has become to mean is that it is someone who has an artificial character hiding the reality of the person. It is somebody who is pretending to be what they are not.

And we have that judgement in this passage by the bucket load. For we have repeated time and again the word hypocrites.

So this is the judgement that Jesus is making, not about Hyacinth Bucket, but about the scribes and the Pharisees. He is calling them hypocrites. He says it seven times. For he says in v3 ‘they do not practise what they preach’. They say one thing, but the reality of their lives is another. They are hiding behind a mask. They are acting. They are hypocrites.

Before we go too much further, we need to know who the scribes and Pharisees are. We need to know who it is that Jesus is giving such a hard time to. Well, the Pharisees were a relatively small group, possibly no more than 6,000 of them. Scribes, whose job was writing in a world where most people didn’t read or write, were very often Pharisees, so they tended to get lumped together by Jesus. Pharisees were the religious people who studied the scriptures and taught the faith.

So what had the Pharisees and the scribes done to deserve Jesus anger and condemnation?

First of all, despite their study of the Scriptures, he says that they are spiritually blind. In fact he calls them blind guides v16. But he says that they are spiritually blind because they have not seen the truth of God in their studies. And because they have not seen the truth they have shut themselves off from it. He says that they have shut the kingdom of heaven v13 not only to themselves, but worse to others.

Secondly, he says that they are guilty of spiritual complication. vv16ff and 23ff. They have become so wrapped up in the legality and the details that they have missed the heart of God’s revelation to man. And is so doing they have complicated the faith to the point that it has become unbalanced and disordered.

Thirdly, they are guilty of spiritual ostentation. V5ff, v27. So although it was right and proper to perform the religious duties and ceremonies that the law required, it is not right and proper to do that in such a way as to emphasise yourself rather than the worship itself. Whilst it is right and proper that certain people are authorised to act as priests, or as teachers, it is not proper that those positions should be abused for personal ostentation.

Fourthly they are guilty of spiritual shallowness. V23. For they have concentrated on the details of the law and omitted the application of the principles. They have concentrated on the details of tithing, but forgotten the principles of justice, mercy and faith.

Finally, they are guilty of spiritual selectiveness.v29. For on the face of it, they appeared to venerate the prophets of the past, but failed to listen to the prophets of the present.

So this is a fairly damning indictment of the Pharisees. This is a judgement that goes straight to the point. It’s a judgement that doesn’t mince it’s words, and makes it clear that the consequences of this kind of hypocrisy are eternal separation from God. v33.

But what has this to do with us? We have no Pharisees to-day. Well, before we congratulate ourselves, we need to have another look at the Pharisees. You see, it is very easy to write them off on the basis of these few verses. But that is to take them out of the context of the gospels as a whole. And if we look at that wider view, we find a more rounded picture. We find that there was much upon which they were in agreement with Jesus. For example, we find earlier in Matt 5:20 that to Jesus said ’unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven’. Clearly the picture is not quite as clear as it might at first appear.

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