How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You lock the door to the Kingdom of heaven in people’s faces, but you yourselves don’t go in, nor do you allow in those who are trying to enter!
[Throughout Chapter 23 Jesus delivers a long and detailed critique of the religious institution and practices of Jesus’ day. In this section I look at my own very subjective perceptions of today’s Christian practices and see how I think they measure up according to the words of Jesus.]
What is Jesus warning the Jewish leaders against in this one? I would call it negativity and judgmentalism.
Right from the beginning Jesus has been warning people about the Pharisees and other religious leaders. While Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on many things (see Day 77), he disagreed with them about their approach to the Law of Moses. Right away, on Day 23, Jesus says, “I tell you, then, that you will be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven only if you are more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (Matthew 5:20).
Jesus goes on to say that the Pharisees get it wrong because they are fixated on superficial legalism and sacrifices and the administration of punishments instead of focusing on positive things like love and kindness and healing and encouragement. For example, the Pharisees believed in strict adherence to Sabbath law without exception, even if observance of certain rules caused people to suffer. On Day 114 Jesus says “I tell you that there is something here greater than the Temple. The Scripture says, “It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.”
Also, it seems that the Pharisees believed that the only way to enter the Kingdom of Heaven was through strict obedience a complicated maze of laws – the ancient laws of Moses as well as myriads of new ones that were continually being adopted. Jesus, however, said that you enter the Kingdom of Heaven through faith and humility.
I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven. The greatest in the Kingdom of heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child. And whoever welcomes in my name one such child as this, welcomes me. (Day 158: Matthew 18:3-5)
I tell you, I have never found anyone in Israel with faith like this. I assure you that many will come from the east and the west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of heaven. But those who should be in the Kingdom will be thrown out into the darkness, where they will cry and gnash their teeth. (Day 67: Matthew 8:10-13).
Because they believed that God demanded strict obedience to the Law, the Pharisees were always judging people. Jesus did not approve:
Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others. (Day 54: Matthew 7:1-2).
Why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? How dare you say to your brother, “Please, let me take that speck out of your eye,” when you have a log in your own eye? (Day 55: Matthew 7:3-5).
The problem is that because they were always fault-finding, they created a negative atmosphere of criticism and complaint. Jesus, on the other hand, said that God wanted everyone to have a positive, hopeful attitude. He taught that, “for God everything is possible.” (Day 171: Matthew 19:26). Jesus said that God’s blessings are not the direct result of strict obedience to the Law. Instead, God’s blessings are released through our faith. He referred to God as “our Father” and taught that God provides for us and protects us simply because he cares for us:
So do not start worrying: ‘Where will my food come from? or my drink? or my clothes?’ (These are the things the pagans are always concerned about.) Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things. Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things. (Day 52: Matthew 6:31-33).
Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks will receive, and anyone who seeks will find, and the door will be opened to those who knock. (Day 57: Matthew 7:7-8).
It was because you do not have enough faith I assure you that if you have faith as big as a mustard seed, you can say to this hill, ‘Go from here to there!’ and it will go. You could do anything! (Day 155: Matthew 17:20).
So, because of these and other things, Jesus taught that the Pharisees were totally clueless about what God really wants. They had no concept of what the Kingdom of God was all about, so Jesus therefore felt they were unqualified to teach others. Instead of teaching the truth about God our loving father, they deceived people into believing that God was angry and demanding. Instead of encouraging people and offering them hope, they discouraged them from believing that the Kingdom of God could be a present reality. Instead of being kind and loving they were harsh and cold and judgmental. The perpetuation of this false teaching to a new generation caused Jesus great distress:
You hypocrites! How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! ‘These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!’ (Day 136: Matthew 15:7-9).
Every plant which my Father in heaven did not plant will be pulled up. Don’t worry about them! They are blind leaders of the blind; and when one blind man leads another, both fall into a ditch. (Day 138: Matthew 15:13-14).
If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose his faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the deep sea. How terrible for the world that there are things that make people lose their faith! Such things will always happen—but how terrible for the one who causes them! (Day 159: Matthew 18:6-7).
So, given that this has been a theme of his entire ministry, it’s no surprise that Jesus directly accuses the Pharisees and other religious leaders of incompetence. He believes that they promote a false religion that does more harm than good.
And what about today? There are a lot of churches that strive to follow the teachings of Jesus. They are called “liberal” because they are kind and loving, not legalistic and exclusionary. But there are many so-called “conservative” churches that still have a pharisaical, legalistic approach to religion. They close the door to heaven by telling people that they will go to hell if they don’t obey certain rules, especially those regarding sexuality. I have heard of funerals in Black neighborhoods where the pastor says in his homily that the deceased is going to hell because he was a gang member. And of course there are many evangelical churches that teach that heaven’s doors are closed to those who resist their invitation to publicly “make a confession of faith in Jesus Christ.” Their way, using their words, at their command. And anyone who has lived in Chicago has certainly been confronted with someone telling them that if you are not a Roman Catholic, to hell you shall go. I’ve had people say it to me, even though they know I’m a committed Christian. “No offense,” they say. “None taken,” I reply, because I’m pretty sure I’m getting in but I wonder about them. But in our hearts I think we would all like to see everyone get in.
Another way that many churches – both liberal and conservative – close the door to heaven is by casting doubt on anything that smacks of mysticism. When churches systematically work to destroy people’s faith in miracles or healing or the power of love or the goodness of creation they are not doing what Jesus wants them to do. Jesus wants his disciples to encourage people in their faith so they can release the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit into the world.
I think a good church – one that is following Jesus – should strongly encourage peace and kindness and social justice. It must rein in any legalistic Pharisee-types and make sure they aren’t bullying people. No one should ever tell anyone else that they are going to hell. Ever. No one has the right to curse someone like this.
When it comes to matters of faith all opinions should be received and respected. Civil discourse should be encouraged, information should be exchanged, but heated arguments or coercion are highly inappropriate. When people share their spiritual beliefs they should be affirmed, even if they are in a season of doubt or unbelief. Even if they think like a Pharisee, they should be able to express themselves. Love and affirmation have a way of opening up closed minds.
And when it comes to spirituality and sin and eternity and the mysteries of life, people should be assured that no one has all the answers. God is the one and only gatekeeper to heaven. He’s the one who decides who’s in and who’s out. God never gave anyone the right to slam to door to heaven closed in anyone else’s face because, according to Jesus, with God all things are possible. And God’s a lot more forgiving than humankind.
Does this scripture say to you?