Why did Jesus shame Jerusalem’s leaders? (Matthew 23:13-32)

Hypocrisy: the shame of acting as if you’re in charge when that honour is reserved for God’s Son. That’s how Jesus used the word in Matthew 23.

Asked to describe his music career, James Morrison began, “Well, I don’t want to blow my own trumpet.” Tall poppies promoting their own honour don’t go down well in Australia. We honour those whose actions speak, like the 500+ firefighters fighting a blaze just a few kilometres from my home (Feb, 2021). 86 homes have been lost, but no lives. You guys are our heroes.

We react instinctively to honour or shame people. Check your social media account to see who you’ve honoured or shamed. Honour/shame is a big deal in our culture, and an even bigger deal in many others.

But when it comes to the gospel, Christians often think in terms of guilt/innocence rather than honour/shame. We’re guilty (sinners), yet God declares us innocent (justification), so that’s good news for us. That is a part of what’s going on, but the gospel addresses so much more than individual guilt. It’s good news for the world that’s being restored to God’s sovereign authority (the gospel of the kingdom), through his anointed (the gospel of the Christ) who is Lord of all (the gospel of the Lord). Ultimately, the gospel is about honour (the glory of God). The gospel brings God’s honour to the realm that has not always honoured him.

Try reading Scripture from that angle and you’ll see fresh things. When Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites, was he assigning them personal guilt, or was he undermining their honour in the eyes of the community? There may be some of both, but what was Jesus’ primary intention? Guilting them, or shaming them?

Matthew leaves us in no doubt. Jesus silenced his enemies (22:46) and turns to the crowd (23:1) to warn them about the rabbis and teachers who pretend to hold the authority of the Law (23:3). They’re just seeking their own honour (23:5-7). Jesus is publicly shaming them. God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that (23:8-12).

In calling them hypocrites, Jesus is portraying their authority as a sham. Hypocrite literally meant a performer, someone playing a role. These actors want a leading role in the community not to honour God but to hoodwink people into honouring them. They act to be honoured by others (Matthew 6:2). They dress for the part. They take the best positions because they love the place of honour (23:6). Jesus is not accusing them of a lack of personal piety; he’s shaming them as sham leaders who will destroy the leader God has appointed (23:32) and destroy the community they mislead into following them (23:38).

That’s the essence of Jesus’ seven critiques of these con artists:

  1. They’re blocking heaven’s reign for the community (23:13).
  2. They’re coaching for the wrong team (23:15).
  3. They twist things for whatever suits them, so you can’t trust their guidance (23:16-22).
  4. They appear dedicated, but they don’t care about the community’s well-being (23:23-24).
  5. They present a clean face, but the inner dirt is their craving to plunder you without restraint (23:25-26).
  6. They look like a well-kept tomb to honour the dead, and they’re full of the same rot (23:27-28).
  7. They’re the people who kill for power, and they’ll lead the community to destruction (23:29-39).

That’s called shaming them publicly. Why? The reason is clear in the first critique. As long as the community plays along with their act, they’re blocking God’s reign over them (through his Christ).

By the seventh critique, we realize how deadly their power game is. The true king is warning his city against those whom they treat as honourable leaders. These leaders are bandits, a den of robbers who will murder God’s anointed for the sake of the honour they crave. Their shame is acting as if they are God’s leaders to gain honour for themselves. They will be brought down, until they honour the one God has appointed (23:39).

The reason Jesus is making such a big deal of this is that it’s exactly what’s wrong with the world. The problem isn’t restricted to Jerusalem. You can trace the world’s problems back to people acting as if they’re gods (Genesis 3:5). The dark shroud over the earth flows from minds that refuse to honour God because we imagine what we could do with that power (Romans 1:21).

The Messiah’s task was to liberate the world from that oppression, into the glorious state it was designed for; reflecting our Father’s glory. He started with Jerusalem. The good news is his leadership: Jesus is Lord is the hope of the world.

That’s why Jesus shamed the sham leaders. The goal of the gospel isn’t primarily to address personal guilt; it’s to return the earth to God’s reign, his honour.

Is that how you read this text?

Matthew 23:13-32 (my translation, compare NIV)
13Woe to you scholars and Pharisees, play-actors, because you block heaven’s reign when it’s right there in front of people. You not only refuse to go in; you prevent those who are going in from going in.

15 Woe to you scholars and Pharisees, play-actors, because you cross sea and dessert to make one convert, and when it happens you turn him into twice the son of Gehenna you are.

16 Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If someone swears by the temple, it’s nothing; but if someone swears by the gold of the temple, they must pay.’ 17 Are you blind and stupid? Which is greater? The gold, or the temple that made the gold holy? 18 And ‘If someone swears by the altar, it’s nothing; but if someone swears by the gift on it, they must pay.’ 19 You’re blind! Which is greater? The gift, or the altar that makes the gift holy? 20 Someone who swore by the altar takes their oath by it and by everything that’s on it, 21 and someone who swore by the temple takes their oath by it and by everything within it. 22 and someone who swore by heaven takes their oath by the throne of God and by the one seated upon it.

23 Woe to you, scholars and Pharisees, play-actors, because you tithe your garden herbs — mint, dill, cumin — and overlook the weighty matters of the Law: justice, mercy, faithfulness. Sure, you need to do your things, but not at the cost of the others. 24 Blind guides! Filtering out the gnat, but swallowing a camel.

25 Woe to you, scholars and Pharisees, play-actors, because you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish that still hold plunder and anarchy inside. 26 Blind Pharisee! First cleanse the inner face of the cup, so its outer face becomes clean too.

27 Woe to you, scholars and Pharisees, play-actors, because you’re like whitened tombs: shiny and stately outside, holding dead bones and unclean rot inside. 28 That’s you: superficially presenting people with what’s right, but inside you’re all pretence and lawlessness.

29 Woe to you, scholars and Pharisees, play-actors, because you construct tombs for the prophets and maintain the tombs of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we’d lived in our ancestors’ time, we would not have been participants in the blood of the prophets.’ 31 You’re giving evidence against yourselves: you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Complete what your ancestors started!

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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