Jesus' woes are the angry laments of wounded love, incited by compassion for those whom religious leaders have led astray (see 23:37). Second-century rabbis, probably passing on many ideas from the Pharisees of Jesus' day, harshly condemned hypocrisy (for example, t. Yoma 5:12). Christians today often think of "Pharisees" as hypocrites and hence do not feel threatened when hearing them denounced. But the Pharisees' contemporaries thought of them as very devoted practitioners of the Bible, and of the scribes as experts in biblical laws. In today's terms, Jesus was thundering against many popular preachers and people who seemed to be living holy lives—because they were practicing human religion rather than serving God with purified hearts.
I suspect that much of what passes for Christianity today is little more than human religion with the name of Jesus tacked onto it, because like most of the religion of Jesus' contemporaries, it has failed to transform its followers into Christ's servants passionately devoted to his mission in the world. When rightly understood, Jesus' woes may strike too close to home for comfort. When religion becomes a veneer of holiness to conceal unholy character, it makes its bearers less receptive to God's transforming grace.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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