“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of seeking to appear righteous while neglecting their spirit. He compares them to a whitewashed tomb. No matter how beautiful you make its outward appearance, it is filled with rotting flesh and bones. A second time Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He then counts them about their ancestors who executed the very prophets they are building temples to honor.
Growing up I was taught not to call people names, like hypocrite, and not judge people by their family – only their own actions. Jesus would have gotten in trouble with my Mom, had she been there, for what he says to the scribes and Pharisees. Granted the scribes and the Pharisees are church leaders, and leaders are subject to public criticism – but goodness, his words are harsh.
If, however, we back up and read the background to these verses, we will know that the Pharisees had just sent a lawyer to “test” Jesus, which is to say, set a trap for Jesus. Jesus handles the lawyers question with ease, then asks the Pharisees a question which stumps them. From that day forward, we are told, no one dares ask Jesus any more questions.
Jesus turns to the crowd and instructs them to do whatever the scribes and Pharisees teach them, but “do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Jesus then begins a series of teaching on religious principles, all but one which begins with “Woe to you.”
The teachings for today are two of these lessons and the first to do with the outward and inward nature of our faith. Jesus is not objecting to the effort to make the outward appearance beautiful, he is objecting to doing so without regard to our inward nature. Yes, we need to take care of our worship space, but the outward appearance should be a reflection of the inward grace we have received.
A few years ago, Bishop Benfield produced a top ten ways to grow a church. On that list was taking care of the physical appearance of our building and grounds, and being authentic. I imagine we can all think of someone who is what we might refer to as “too slick,” meaning only skin deep. They might be attractive, articulate, but they lack sincerity and substance. Bishop Benfield was not suggesting we can attract members by addressing the appearance of our building alone, the appearance of our building must be supported by the depth of our faith.
Jesus, too, is referring to the importance of authenticity in these passages today. The scribes and the Pharisees do need to be openly challenged, because they are is positions of trust and leadership. Jesus wants the people to follow the teachings of the church, but to do so as an expression of their love of God. When we sincerely care about our relationship with God, it is reflected in our worship and how we care for our worship space. The love of God is, of course, what is most important.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, we give you thanks for filling us with your love. Help us to shine forth your love in all that we do, that we might draw others to you. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.