Baseball legend Mickey Mantle did not rise to his fame without a few bumps along the way. As a teen in the minor leagues, he went through a time where his playing became less than stellar. Discouraged, Mantle called his dad, pleading with him to come and bring him home. When his father arrived, rather than sympathy, he said to his son:
“Son, if that’s all the guts you have, you might as well just come home with me right now and get a job in the mines.”
The startling lack of sympathy and stark honesty of his father’s words were a wake-up call for young Mantle. Instead of leaving with his father, he stuck out that year and went on to be the legend he is today.
Sometimes the truth hurts. And sometimes speaking the truth, even out of love, can sting. When Jesus begins his famous “Woe to you…” phrases in Matthew 23, they are some tough words to swallow. Yet, like Mantle’s father, Jesus spoke a hard truth in the hope that those listening might turn from their ways and do what God was calling them to. I can’t help but think of actor Bruce Marchiano who, in his portrayal of Jesus declared these woes with no uncertain authority, but with tears of pleading rolling down his face. We need to hold this in mind as we read the woes. First, because Jesus is pleading with us as we commit the same failings as the Pharisees. Second, because when we find ourselves in a place of needing to correct others, our posture should be equally loving and gracious.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation” (Matthew 23:13, 14).
How did these men block entry into the kingdom of God? These were men whose words and expectations were not matched by their actions. Further, they used their positions of authority to require adherence to rules that did not lead people into the kingdom but burdened them, making them hypocrites themselves. We are reminded, instead, of the inner transformation of the heart that leads into the kingdom:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3,4)
Therefore, any “righteousness” that is not the result of remorseful repentance (as we mourn our poorness of spirit) is inauthentic. These men are attempting to achieve external proofs of godliness without hearts transformed by genuine repentance. They raise themselves into positions of power and perceived holiness by embracing legalism—adhering to strict external behaviours and isolating themselves against the contamination of contact with the unclean—especially unclean people. Further, they interpreted the law in ways that justified their behaviour, while minimizing or ignoring certain requirements.