Jesus comes down hard on the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. They are guilty of hypocrisy as “they preach, but do not practice.” They lay heavy burdens upon the people, yet they will hardly lift a finger. These leaders love to soak up all the attention that their positions bring, presenting themselves outwardly as righteous. But in their hearts they are sinful. As leaders they are blind guides who close the doors of the kingdom on people, and under their leadership people fall further from the truth.
One illustration Jesus uses works perfectly as an object lesson, one that I remember as a kid helping my mom get ready for a youth group session. Jesus says, “you clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of reed and self-indulgence.” To recreate this, I went out in my backyard and was tasked to play in the dirt. A great task for a young boy. One cup was to be dirtied on the outside, but clean inside. The other was to look spotless externally, but filthy on the inside.
The trouble with the pharisees is that they work hard on the external appearances and do nothing in regards to their hearts. But Jesus has already taught that it is what comes from within that makes us clean (Matt 15:11). What is within them is unclean. If attention was paid to cleaning the inside, then the outside could truly be clean, as well. An even more severe description is then applied to these leaders. Jesus says that on the outside they appear freshly painted with new coats of clean, white paint. But this paint is only a thin facade that hides the fact that within is a tomb, full of bones and uncleanness. They are full of death, yet are tasked with helping the people live!
Their hypocrisy is the double standards that they apply and the two-faced life they live. They look one way, but act another. They instruct people to live in ways completely different from how they live themselves. They are hypocrites as they boast in themselves, yet they truly have nothing worthy of such boasting.
Certainly it is possible for Christians to be guilty of hypocrisy in just the same way. But Christians should not make claims about having attained righteousness on our own, nor having made ourselves completely void of sin. In a way we ought to know better than others just how sinful we really are. We then can’t boast in the ways the scribes and Pharisees do. We can only boast in Christ. Only he can make us clean. Only he can bring us to life, as though he were opening those tombs and giving life to dead bones. That’s what we boast in. Therefore it makes no sense to seek celebrity and fame for ourselves, looking for places of greater honor.
These woes are still warnings for us today. We should be on guard against such sinful tendencies we all have. We ought to preach and practice, humbly doing so with a gospel that is firmly rooted in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, not our own. And as God does accomplish his transforming work within us, we can’t allow ourselves to be puffed up with pride. From start to finish it is God. Pride only interferes with that. Humility opens a person up to his work.
Humility also confronts hypocrisy as it is not afraid to let others see our weaknesses, since humility is not concerned with receiving praise. Rather in our weakness, humility knows that it is only God who is seen as strong.