Matthew 23 – Bad Religion

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Today’s PassageMatthew 23

Having bested his opponents among the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other Jewish religious leaders in a series of dialectical sparring matches, Jesus spends an entire chapter dunking on them. Matthew 23 is one big vitriolic criticism of the scribes and Pharisees, a warning from Jesus to his disciples and the multitudes not to fall into their traps.

The Pharisees are often taken as poster boys for favoring religion over relationship, and we certainly shouldn’t prioritize practices, rules, and institutions over people. But I’d like to remind you all that Jesus is dunking on the first-century Jewish religious authorities, not religion as a whole. He begins his address with a command to his audience: “All that [the scribes and Pharisees] tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them” (23:3). The Pharisees are abusing their prestige, saddling the masses with burdensome rules and creating exclusive privileges to be enjoyed only by the religious elites. Their religious principles are often sound, Jesus notes. Their religious practices? Not so much.

Y’all know me, fam. I won’t excuse religion’s abuses, but I’m quick to forgive, and I’m the first to jump to religion’s defense, even in the instances where its detractors are purely hypothetical people who exist only in my mind. So even when Jesus is criticizing the bathwater of religious elites, I’m going to be the guy who points to the part where he says not to throw out the baby that is religion. It may not be true, contrary to Christopher Hitchens’ book title, that religion poisons everything. But I think it would be fair to say that religiosity poisons everything.

Well, even that’s not true, if you go by the dictionary definition of religiosity: “Strong religious feeling or belief” (thanks, Oxford Dictionaries). But the variety of religiosity that’s concerned only with appearance, that looks only for honor and distinction, that is “like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (23:27)? That brand of religiosity is pure poison.

Its practitioners will only serve their fellow man as long as it makes them appear good in others’ eyes. You may recall the Pharisees’ precept “Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,’ he is not to honor his father or his mother” (15:5-6). They give the appearance of holiness by seemingly prioritizing God over family. But God made human beings in his own image, creating them as valuable and worthy of honor, and moreover, he explicitly commanded us to honor our parents. It’s one of the ten commandments, people. Actual integrity goes out the door the minute these religionists have an opportunity to appear holier than the unwashed masses.

I do think it’s worth noting that when Jesus or the gospel authors refer to the Pharisees, they don’t mean “every Pharisee ever throughout all of time and space, the end.” It’s important to consider the context when the accounts bring them up. We even see exceptions to the rule, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. But the religious elites of Jesus’ day, as a group, were sufficiently corrupt to merit an entire chapter of criticism from the Son of God himself. We’d do well to do as they say, not as they do.

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