The twenty-third chapter of Matthew is an indictment on the scribes and Pharisees. Many times throughout this chapter he says to them, Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites.” If there is anything the Lord hated more than anything else it was hypocrisy. Men are no different either. Nobody likes a hypocrite and one of the worst names a person can be called is to be called a hypocrite.
This chapter of the bible more than any other shows up the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. It is unfortunate that today we still see many of these hypocritical attributes in the modern church. There is much to learn and much to be gained by a study of this chapter.
In these first few verses Jesus tells his disciples to listen to the words of the Pharisees and scribes when they preach the law. He recognised that they were the keepers of the law and were responsible for teaching it. They had the experience and practice to do so. But Jesus also warned them that although the scribes and Pharisees had this charge, they themselves did not keep the law. Thus they were hypocrites and thus the Lord said to the disciples to listen to their words, but not to do what they did. They did not practice what they preached.
One of the great problems Jesus saw with these men was that they made life difficult for the people. They bound the people up in laws, statutes and ordinances but did not give the people relief or a way of escape. As he said, “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger.” (Verse 4)
They used the Law of Moses as a means of control and power. They used it to lord it over the people. But the law was given to Moses not as a burden, but to teach the people right from wrong. No man could keep the law, but through the law all men could learn the wisdom of God. All men could look into the law and understand that by keeping the law of God, man could live a better life. And God was compassionate to mankind for even within the law he made allowances for the fact that man would make mistakes. Yes there were punishments for breaking certain laws, but there were also offerings and sacrifices that could be given to atone for sins. God was not so intolerable that he did not allow for the frailty and humanity of men.
But the Pharisees did not teach the law in this way. They used it to gain advantage and influence over the people. They were overbearing and burdened the people, and as Jesus showed, would not lift a finger to lighten the burden. They were legalistic in the most negative sense of the word, and this brought only bondage and suffering. Compassion would have provided release, but these men chose to rule with an iron fist so they could retain control over the people.
We see a classic case of their legalism in the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus. They said to him that under law she was to be put to death, but sought what he would do to test him. Jesus showed compassion by saying, “Let him who is without sin be the first to cast a stone,” and one by one they all left from the eldest to the youngest. Jesus did not condemn the woman but showed her compassion. But there was a condition. She was to go and sin no more.
The Pharisees could have equally shown compassion to the woman, but they did not. Their immediate response was to stone her, and they were within their right to do so, but Jesus showed that through love and compassion there is a better way. We do not know the details of the case and whether this woman had been entrapped or whatever. Still the Lord gave her the benefit of the doubt on the proviso she did not continue to sin. I am sure if she were caught again the verdict would have been much different.
The hypocrisy of the Pharisees still remains in the church today. There are still those who would stone those caught in sin rather than offer compassion and release that comes through Jesus Christ. We are fortunate that Christ has provided a way to be free from sin and the law. And we will see as we go through the rest of this chapter some instances where the hypocrisy of the Pharisees remains in the church today.