We always think of Jesus loving people. But do we ever stop to wonder what he despises? Spiritual pride, hypocrisy, injustice.
Years ago, I was engaged in a public debate at a secular university with a leader from another religion. Early on, he posed what he took to be a “conversation-stopper” question: “Do you think I’m going to hell?” Such answers are beyond my pay grade, so I responded in Lesslie Newbigin-esque fashion: “This much I can say by way of an honest response: Jesus is Lord. God makes the decisions. I don’t. Moreover, there will be many surprises.” Regarding surprises, I quipped that Jesus railed against the tax collectors and sinners. No! If anything, they were the ones who came to him in repentance and faith (See Matthew 9:11-13; Matthew 21:28-32), as did the Samaritans and Gentiles (Luke 17:11-19; Matthew 15:21-28). It was the religious leaders of his own spiritual tribe (people like me!), whom Jesus claimed to be in great danger of hell and condemned their spiritual pride, hypocrisy, and unjust practices. Consider Jesus’ harsh rebuke to the religious heroes of Israel in Matthew 23:1-36 in contrast to the Beatitudes addressed to his rag-tag group of Jewish disciples recorded in Matthew 5:1-10. No one could figure out why Jesus went after these religious leaders who were held in the highest regard. But Jesus knows the heart (See John 2:23-3:21), including yours and mine.
The Beatitudes (often rendered blessings) in Matthew 5 reflect what Jesus esteems, including spiritual humility, a passion for righteousness and purity of heart, and the pursuit of just peace. The curses in Matthew 23 have been taken to parallel the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and serve as book ends to Jesus’ public teaching ministry. In this way, together, they run parallel to the blessings and curses recorded in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s Gospel (See Luke 6:20-26).
Here is what Jesus despises then. They are called the seven woes (to be contrasted with the eight beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-10):
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in (Matthew 23:13-14; ESV).
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves (Matthew 23:13-15; ESV).
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath” (Matthew 23:16).
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness (Matthew 23:23; ESV).
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence (Matthew 23:25; ESV).
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:27-28; ESV).Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. (Matthew 23:29-31; ESV).
How we respond to these woes reflect our own spiritual trajectory. The “in-crowd” often challenged Jesus, putting him to the test. In response to one of their attacks recorded two chapters earlier than the seven woes,
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:31-32; ESV).
Two chapters after the seven woes, we are faced with Jesus’ teaching on the sheep and the goats. Perhaps the most unsettling part of the story to those with spiritual pride (if they/we can swallow it for just a minute in the face of eternity is that the goats thought they were sheep, and the sheep had no idea they were sheep! (See Matthew 25:31-46).
Where does all this discussion leave us? It takes me back to Matthew 23, and to the verse preceding the first of the seven woes: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12; ESV). For those of us who are unsettled to lay aside our pride in view of what Jesus despises, take to heart what Jesus never loathes. Psalm 51:17 puts in succinct terms a cardinal virtue, also reflected in Matthew’s Beatitudes, which God and Jesus never despise: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (ESV). There is hope for the hopeless, even the self-righteous and hypocrite who finally comes clean and repents. Lord, have mercy on me.
See Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), page 79. See also chapter 15, “Dead Metaphors and Living Hell,” of my book, Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), for the broader discussion in which the story is presented (page 194).
See N.T. Wright’s discussion of the beatitudes and curses in Matthew 5 and 23 respectively and his linking of them to the blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 27 and 28 in The New Testament and the People of God, Volume One, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pages 386-388. See also the comparison and contrasts of the blessings and curses in Matthew 5 and Matthew 23 in K. C. Hanson’s article, “How Honorable! How Shameful! A Cultural Analysis of Matthew’s Makarisms and Reproaches,” in Semeia 68 (1996): 101-104.