Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”—Matthew 23:1-3
Jesus didn’t mince words when it came to hypocrisy. He went hard after it. The language of this passage is unparalleled in all the words that came from Jesus’ mouth—and we can’t read these verses attentively without feeling just a little uncomfortable.
The first verses create a backdrop for everything that follows. Jesus began by acknowledging the rightful role of the religious leaders of the day. They wielded Moses’ authority, but they were supposed to be guardians and teachers of the Law. They had no license to revise or rewrite what God had said.
Once He acknowledged the scribes’ and Pharisees’ position, Jesus issued three warnings:
First, He cautioned against thoughtlessly obeying them.The Pharisees could quote Scripture perfectly, but their personal lives contradicted what they preached. In essence Jesus cautioned, Focus on their words, because their works will lead you astray. As long as the Pharisees delivered the Word they could be trusted, but when they added to God’s rules, they overstepped their role.
Second, Jesus warned against their hypocrisy.“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4). Picture someone filling a large backpack with rocks, tying awkward, heavy items all over the outside of the pack, and then instructing you to pick it up and carry it cheerfully while that person stands back and watches you stagger down the road. No thanks.
Third, Jesus cautioned, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others”(Matthew 23:5). The Pharisees were famous for putting on a good show in public while exempting themselves from their own rules in private. Failure of integrity at the leadership level leads to a casual and even arrogant attitude toward integrity at other levels. People naturally think, If the leaders can get away with these choices, then why not the rest of us? Unchallenged, sham-living at the top results in sham-living all the way to the bottom.
Yet even as Jesus confronted hypocrisy, He did not use the leaders’ failures as an excuse for the followers’ lack of integrity. The Pharisees He was chastising were some of the most religious people of their day. They were the equivalent of Bible-carrying believers—and as those who consider ourselves into God’s Word, we more than anyone are the possible contemporary parallel for the Pharisees.
In reading Matthew 23, our goal is not to learn how hypocritical the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were but to grab a mirror and examine ourselves. While a pastor or leader’s failure today may cause a destructive ripple effect through a congregation, each of us is still responsible for our own choices. We must check ourselves against the standard Jesus used.
The value of recognizing hypocrisy is not so we can relish pointing it out in others but so we can spot it in our own lives. No human leader is beyond failure and hypocrisy, and we must imitate our leaders thoughtfully and carefully. Our ultimate model is only Jesus.
What are some clues in your life that point to hypocritical behavior?
When God makes you aware of hypocrisy in yourself, what do you do?
Lord, I realize hypocrisy is often that splinter I see so clearly in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in my own eye. Hypocrisy can be easier to deny than almost any other sin. I need Your help to see myself clearly. Through the mirror of Your Word, please show me my own, specific hypocrisy—thank You that Your forgiveness covers even that. In Jesus’ name, amen.