I once worked in a treatment facility for adolescent addicts. Some of our clients would be placed in treatment by their parents, and they’d angrily fight the treatment program for weeks before beginning to work on the issues they needed to deal with. The smartest of our clients, though, would very quickly settle into the routine and begin to act like everything was wonderful – that they’d seen the light. They’d decided the quickest way to get out and get back to their drugs was to play along – to say all the right things, even if they didn’t mean it, and try to convince us they were “well” and could go home.
The psychologist who was the clinical director of the unit had two phrases he’d use as he talked to those teens that seemed to make an overnight change. He’d ask them, “is it live, or is it Memorex?”. Referencing a popular commercial at the time that demonstrated how hard it was to tell the difference between a real singer and a recording on Memorex cassette tapes, he was asking them, “are you real, or are you pretending?”. In the end, we couldn’t tell for sure just from what they said, so that’s when his second phrase would be used: “that’s OK, I’ll listen to the words, but trust the behavior”.
When it came to the Pharisees, Jesus could have asked the same two phrases.
In Chapters 21 and 22, the religious leaders have challenged Jesus’ authority to do what he’s doing, and have attempted to discredit him among the people so that they can have him arrested without having to fear the crowds. Jesus, in turn, told three parables that illustrated how they would lose their place to others because of their unbelief, their refusal to give God his due, and because they ignored the invitation of God. As they attempted to “trap him in his words” and discredit him, he deftly handled each question and escaped their traps, eventually silencing them all. In the end, his authority is displayed and his credibility is enhanced, while the religious leaders’ credibility is diminished in the eyes of the crowd looking on.
Now Jesus turns to that crowd, and proceeds to describe exactly what is wrong with the mentality of their religious leaders. Just as Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ ministry begins with a sermon that listed blessings and promises for those with the kingdom heart, in this discourse Jesus has a list of woes directed to the teachers of the law and Pharisees for their hearts are lacking. Nothing here is new – each of the shortcomings that Jesus lists here has been raised before, but his condemnation of their practices has now reached a climax.
He begins with a summary of the things that are wrong with the religious leaders. They are hypocrites that don’t practice what they preach. They are of no help to those they burden down with their teaching and rules. Their primary concern is with religious show – play-acting their religion. The exalt themselves and are most concerned with their position and the honor paid them by others. By contrast, Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd that from them, he wants obedience and humility.
The woes – things of great sorrow or distress – expand on these themes, reaching a crescendo at the end where Jesus describes the judgement they are subject to. Repeatedly, Jesus describes their spiritual blindness and calls out their hypocrisy, and names it for what it is.
- Rather than helping people find the kingdom, they are obstacles to people entering the kingdom.
- Rather than helping people to a better spiritual condition, they make their condition even worse.
- Their rules and interpretations make no sense. They’re not people of integrity, whose word can be trusted; they make up ways to get around being people of their word.
- They lack justice, mercy, and faithfulness – core conditions of the kingdom heart. Instead, they focus on minor things of little importance.
- They focus on external appearances – looking the part – while inside their hearts are greedy, self-indulgent, and wicked.
- They say one thing, but their behavior doesn’t match. They condemn others’ past practices, and hold themselves up as different, when in reality they behave as badly, or worse.
- They are deaf to intervention of God through his prophets, sages, and teachers. They are a murderous people.
Jesus’ condemnation of this kind of behavior could hardly be stronger. He calls them “hypocrites”, “blind guides”, “snakes”, and the “brood of vipers” – language reminiscent of John the Baptist. Little was more offensive to these Jews that a dead body and the uncleanness associated with a corpse, and yet Jesus says that on the inside that’s what they were like. These were not things they were used to hearing, and Jesus is saying this in front of the crowd.
Yet, at the same time, Jesus’ tone is one of sorrow and regret that this is the situation. As the passage ends, he laments the condition of Jerusalem, its leaders, and its people. He makes it clear that he and his Father wished it otherwise, and had made every effort to reach them.
Was it live, or was it Memorex? Sadly, it was largely the latter. As Jesus “watched the behavior”, he had at least seven major complaints of the religious leaders of the day. Question is, how many of those things would he find in his church today? He might use different examples. He might word things a little differently for us. But would he pronounce any woes as he watched our behavior?