Today’s Passage: Matthew 23: 1-39
Why did the crowds turn on Jesus? What happened between their cheers of excitement on Palm Sunday (21:1-11) and their cries for Christ’s crucifixion on Friday morning (27:21-25)?
Perhaps today’s passage helps us understand. On Palm Sunday everyone thought they were welcoming a new king who would expel the occupying Roman forces and take control of their national destiny. Instead, Jesus offers critiques of their own religious life – the life of his own people. While the whole week is marked by a variety of conflicts with leaders, the long speech that makes up today’s passage focuses on hypocrisy.
There’s no other form of hypocrisy more repulsive than religious hypocrisy. Remember, Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice? Or Angela from The Office? Some Christians resent these popular portrayals of religious hypocrisy; and maybe there are a disproportionately negative number of Christian portrayals in modern stories. But, Jesus would also have us reflect deeply about the pervasive temptation toward hypocrisy.
Back in 1669, Thomas Brooks offered the motivations of hypocrisy: “Pleasures, profits, and honors, are the hypocrite’s all he aims at in this world; they are his trinity which he adores and serves, and sacrifices himself to.” There could hardly be a more apt description of what Jesus saw. These leaders loved the attention and accoutrement of being respected for their religious behavior.
Moreover, in the seven “woes,” Jesus sounds imitates the prophets of the Old Testament. The pronouncements are biting! Shutting the kingdom in others’ faces! Blind guides! Whitewashed tombs! Perhaps the most pointed is the final criticism. They believe that they honor the prophets by decorating their tombs, but in a sinister irony they’re acting just like their forefathers who killed the prophets. They will prove it by Friday morning.
Instead of public performances of obedience fueled by fame and fortune, Jesus wants those who humbly serve (vv 11-12). In fact, the deepest test of hypocrisy isn’t moral failures – those are obvious enough. Rather, it is the attitudes of someone’s heart. Those attitudes can be somewhat concealed from acquaintances, but not from those close to you. Our attitudes of superiority and entitlement always become clear to those who really know us.
In a twist worthy of the prophets, he refuses to leave his people with mere criticism. Instead, he mourns for them. Jesus longs to cover them from judgment – to be the very sheltering wings of the Lord. More importantly, Jesus’ mourning takes practical shape in his own self-sacrificial love. Jesus acts to humble himself and serve others.
It turns out that Jesus’ sacrificial love is the key to learning humility. Understanding Christ’s sacrificial love for us leaves no room for pride, and it clarifies the true spiritual economy – a way of being in the world that trades on sacrificial love rather than self-importance. Learning humility begins at the cross.
Rev. Jeremy M. Mullen is a Harvard Chaplain, and the campus ministers for Reformed University Fellowship. He advises Harvard Undergraduate Fellowship (HUF).