Jesus said, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
‘Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.” You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say, “Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.” How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it.’
I wonder what you make of the phrase: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! To our ears those words sound as harsh and aggressive as they must have when they were first uttered. Perhaps they seem even harsher to us because of what we know of the person who uttered them … Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day. They were the ‘go to’ experts on Jewish law and practice. They were the arbiters of good and appropriate behaviour. They were the custodians of ‘true’ Judaism. But, Jesus also called them hypocrites, the Greek word for actor. Jesus did not challenge their knowledge, but he did challenge their sincerity. No one could doubt their knowledge of the ancient laws, or their enthusiasm for enforcing that law, but their motivation could certainly be brought into question.
We live in a world of self-appointed ‘experts’. So many people express their opinion and their certainty on the many issues that challenge the world from day to day. Even when we have no expertise or knowledge whatsoever, we do not hesitate to let anyone who will listen into the open secret of our thoughts and conclusions. Everyone whose decisions affect the lives of others are the constant recipients of abuse and the ‘wisdom’ of the ill-informed. Every teacher is confronted by those who think they know so much about how education should work. Every lawyer and politician knows that their every word will be analysed by the inexpert and the self-interested. Even the clergy are subjected to the same level of well-meant, but often misguided, advice and criticism. We live in a world of self-appointed ‘experts’.
The danger of all this amateur expertise rises to the surface when others take it seriously. Then, our ‘armchair’ wisdom turns into a threat. Then, others can be led away from that which is true and safe. So many of us respond to what the media has to tell us with a gut-reaction that is based on emotional instinct, rather than factual analysis. We hear a tiny part of the story, much of which is a ‘best guess’ designed to ‘fill in the gaps’, and then we react. Those who are more eloquent are likely to be heard by a wider audience and, if that audience becomes large enough, public opinion can be swayed. Suddenly the enthusiastic amateur becomes the ‘pundit of choice’. Then the gullible and the weak can be led into very dangerous territory, both physically and spiritually.
Today we are being warned to consider carefully how we share our personal opinions, and we are being urged to consider the effect our words may have on the lives of others. Let us pray that we might be still and listen when we feel our emotions being charged in a negative way. Let us pray that we might seek the facts and pray for wisdom in order that we might not be led astray, and that we might not lead others down a path that will lead them away from God.