“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites”

In Matthew 23:13-22, Jesus has a message for those whose hearts are more attuned to wealth and possessions and leading others to seek the same, leading them astray.

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You lock the Kingdom of heaven before men.
You do not enter yourselves,
nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You traverse sea and land to make one convert,
and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna
twice as much as yourselves.

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say,
‘If one swears by the temple, it means nothing,
but if one swears by the gold of the temple, one is obligated.’
Blind fools, which is greater, the gold,
or the temple that made the gold sacred?
And you say, ‘If one swears by the altar, it means nothing,
but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated.’
You blind ones, which is greater, the gift,
or the altar that makes the gift sacred?
One who swears by the altar swears by it and all that is upon it;
one who swears by the temple swears by it
and by him who dwells in it;
one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God
and by him who is seated on it.”

Beware those in positions of authority who place their emphasis on wealth and the fine things that wealth provides over God’s law and the fidelity it brings. That’s the message of this passage. Jesus addresses it in particular to the scribes and Pharisees — the priests, pastors, ministers, preachers, and church leaders of His day. They are those who “traverse sea and land to make one convert.” Woe to you, He says , “you lock the Kingdom of heaven before men and you do not enter yourselves.”

If your heart is in gold (wealth), if your heart is in the gift (possessions), if your heart is in the obligation (keep the wealth and the possessions coming), your heart is not in God, Jesus explains. Rather, it is the things of God (the altar, the temple, heaven and the throne of God) that are important. Among those things that are also of God are His commandments, and the greatest of these, we have seen Jesus say before, is love — love of God and love of neighbor.

I won’t point fingers at individuals, but there are supposed men and women of God who spend their days raising a lot of money and as a consequence living in large homes, driving expensive cars, wearing fine clothes. Some have even asked their congregations to raise funds for private jets! They justify it by twisting God’s words and God’s intentions. Furthermore, many encourage their congregants to seek out wealthy lives themselves.

We live in a world of excess. Yet there are people around the globe who are starving, who live in single room hovels made of flimsy cardboard or ramshackle metal or dried mud, who are lucky if they get a meal a day, who lack medical care, who lack clean water, who are ravaged by disease and war and famine and starvation. Yet these modern day scribes and Pharisees build megachurches and wear fine clothes and tell their congregations it’s just fine to live life large.

But how did Jesus and His disciples live? They traveled from town to town by foot. They carried only the clothing on their backs and the sandals on their feet, stayed with those who invited them into their homes, ate from the goodness of strangers, and shared from their abundance.

It’s not a crime to be rich. But when asked in another Gospel story what an otherwise conscientious but wealthy man needed to do to reach the Kingdom of heaven, Jesus said he must sell all he owned and give to the poor. He further said it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. It’s not being rich that is the problem but in keeping it for one’s self.

Woe to you “scribes and Pharisees,” said Jesus. Woe to you who put your stock in the things of the earth like gold and possessions. And woe to you who lead astray those who seek the Kingdom of heaven by the attraction to such wealth. Seek first and foremost those things which are God’s, and most important of those are to love. To love and care for others.

Turn off the TV evangelists. Shun the men and women of the cloth who wear only fine cloth. Indeed, woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites, even to this day. Don’t send them another dollar. Give your dollars to the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the disabled, the orphans and widows, the displaced, the least among us. These are the people to whom Jesus gave his blessings.

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