Why all the Woes?
                        by Lois Tverberg

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean." Matthew 23:27

Jesus has many angry words for the Pharisees in the Gospels, so it has been assumed by many that entire group was corrupt. It may surprise people to know that Jesus' theology and teaching style was actually very similar to theirs. They were a movement among laypeople to study God's word and apply it to their lives, and many of them later were followers of Jesus. Out of their passion for study they raised up rabbis who traveled the land to teach, just as Jesus did.

When we read Jesus' seven statements of "Woe to you" it is hard not to conclude that there was nothing redeemable about the bunch. It is surprising to many to find out that Jesus' words are directly paralleled in self-critical sayings of the Pharisees themselves. The rabbis used to talk about both good and bad kinds of Pharisees:

There are seven kinds of Pharisees: the "shoulder" Pharisee, who ostentatiously carries his good deeds on his shoulder so all can see them; the "wait-a-moment" Pharisee, who wants you to wait while he performs a mitzvah (good deed); the bruised Pharisee, who runs into a wall while looking at the ground to avoid seeing a woman; the "reckoning" Pharisee, who commits a sin, then does a good deed and balances the one against the other; the "pestle" Pharisee, whose head is bowed in false humility, like a pestle in a mortar; the Pharisee who asks, "What is my duty, so that I may do it?" as if he thought he had fulfilled every obligation already; the Pharisee from fear, like Job; and the Pharisee from love - like Abraham.

This passage shows that the Pharisaic movement practiced its own honest self-examination and could see that some in their ranks had fallen into those errors. They describe things very much like what Jesus was saying - pride, hypocrisy, and legalism. But still they say that there is at least one type that is good - the ones who obey God's word simply out of love for him.

Several commentators have suggested that Jesus' statements might be more like the "seven kinds" saying in another way. They suggest that instead of accusing every person of all of the sins that he speaks of, that instead each "woe" is is pointed at only the people are falling into those sins. Instead of saying "Woe to all of you - you're all greedy, legalistic, and hypocritical" he was saying something like, "Woe to you who are greedy, and woe to you who are legalistic, and you who are hypocritical!" Rather than condemning the whole group, he's pointing out the errors, just as the rabbis did.

It is easy for us to read these passages smugly, as if only the foolish Pharisees could ever have fallen into these problems. Instead, we should see Jesus' and the rabbinic sayings as wise words to anyone who is passionate about obedience to God. There are so many ways to go wrong - by slipping into pride, or legalism, or by becoming hypocritical. And we also need to examine our rationale too. Is the reason we are aiming for obedience only because we are terrified by God and what he will do to us if we don't do everything perfectly? The only reason we should follow God's laws is out of love for him, not for any other.

     
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