Christ’s Admonishing of the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew


This Lent we have already read some harsh condemnation of the Pharisees in the gospel. One of the more recent ones was Matthew 23:1-12. This section could be seen as a condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Among other things, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees seems to consist of indifference, ostentation, and status seeking. To make my points clearer, I plan to use Pope Francis’ writings throughout.


The Pharisees do not want to help anyone else, although they say that they do. Jesus says “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matt 23:4). In an address to the world’s priests during chrism Mass in St. Peter’s on Holy Thursday of last year, Pope Francis told priests around the world that the shepherd should have the “smell of the sheep.” Priests and lay people alike should not follow the example of the Pharisees who refuse to get dirty or involve themselves. The Pharisees prefer to look on and judge. They enjoy telling others what to do but when it comes to shepherding their flock, they only think of themselves.

Ostentation and Status Seeking

The Pharisees are constantly putting on a show of holiness. Christ describes this farce saying, “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues” (Matt 23:5-6). This showiness is closely connected to another element of their hypocrisy, status seeking. Along with their tassels and phylacteries, “they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others” (Matt 23:7). The Pharisees lord it over those around them, seeming to exist on a higher plane.

The sin of the Pharisees is similar to that of the executive who flaunts his power and salary. It might also be the vice that couples fall into when they put more into the externals of the marriage ceremony than into the intention of their vows. In Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis speaks of a culture of externals. He tells young couples “Don’t let yourselves get swallowed up by a society of consumption and empty appearances” (AL 212). Perhaps, it is still easy to be caught up in the externals of being Catholic.

Christ is Speaking to Us

Christ’s criticism of the Pharisees is meant to be a criticism of all of us. We can easily apply Christ’s rebuke “So, you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach” (Matt 23:3). It would be a mistake to imagine that the failings of the Pharisees are unknown to us. How can we avoid the indifference, ostentation, and status seeking of the Pharisees? I suggest three points about which to think this Lent in order to escape the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

Follow Your Own Advice

We live in a world of self-help books in which almost everyone has some nugget of inspiration to impart. Most of us enjoy giving advice, solicited or not, but do we follow the advice that we give others? This question seems worth asking. At least in my own case, I know I love being asked for advice. I usually have some to give. I am not so sure that I am so quick to see the same mistakes in myself and to apply my advice to my own life.

Act Rather than Speak

Of course, there is a place for words, but words should not be everything. Pope Francis like his predecessors wants an active church that reaches the marginalized and the lost. Clearly, Catholics must act. Much of the actions demanded of Christians simply comes from their surroundings. In the School of the Holy Spirit, Jacques Philippe says we do not need a mystical experience to know God’s will for “We know God’s will as expressed in a general way through the commandments of Scripture, the teaching of the Church, the demands that are part of our vocation, and those that come from our job, for example” (p. 31). The actions demanded by God often lie hidden in plain sight. We may imagine that God’s will is some huge, almost impossible task when it might simply be going about our work with a smile.


Since all fall short of the mark, humility must accompany a dedication to holiness. Pope Francis writes in Amoris Laetitia that “if we are to understand, forgive and serve others from the heart, our pride has to be healed and our humility must increase” (AL 98). If we carry grudges around in us, chances are we are filled with pride. If we find it hard to put our own interests aside for the good of the family, pride is probably to blame.

How can we foster humility in our lives? I believe praise is key. Philippe writes “Praise purifies the heart and prepares it marvelously to receive divine grace and the motions of the Holy Spirit” (p. 29). By praising God for the gifts he sends us–whether crosses or joys, we can remove ourselves from the center of the universe and begin to see the needs of others.

Who Are the Modern-day Pharisees?

We always seem to ask this question when we think about the Pharisees. If we can blame someone else ‒ organized religion, our neighbor, or someone at Church ‒ then we feel justified. Obviously, this name calling misses the mark completely since Jesus looked for positive change not merely insults and threats. Yet, perhaps this question should lead us to question ourselves. This lent we must strive to follow our own advice, act more, and respond to others and ourselves with humility.

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7 thoughts on “Christ’s Admonishing of the Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew”

    1. Yoikes is quite right. Let’s not forget that some Pharisees, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathia and others, I’m sure, were good people. Of course there were the other kind also as Jesus pointed out. All in all, with exception of some added technology, little has changed with the authority crowd in most civilizations in two millennia. Sadly, that includes the proportion of the good and conscientious to the self centered, power hungry dictator types.

    2. Hi, I think you are right: human nature doesn’t change that much. It’s also a good point that some Pharisees were good people who were striving to be sincere followers of God.

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  2. Let us all humble ourselves and realize that the Pharisees believed they were doing right by God. They thought they were living by the Law, keeping all observances. They fully believed in their “righteousness”. Now someone (even though it was Jesus) tells them they are hypocrites and to them Jesus was just a lowly holy man. Can our church, the RCC, humble themselves when wrongs and hypocrisies are pointed out? If any man believes that the RCC is without blemish in its dealings, behaviors, then they are just as hypocritical. May the Lord grant true humility to His Church and the conviction of their faith to change themselves where needed.

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for your comment. I think you are right: we must strive for humility as a church. I think that humility gives us authenticity.


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