“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! ....” (Matthew 23:13)

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13)

What does 'woe to you' mean?

Jesus is confirming that the priests and Pharisees of the politically-driven temple institution did not represent God. But here he is also condemning them. Why?

Because they were deceiving others with their teachings.

"Woe to you" comes from the Greek phrase, οὐαὶ δὲ ὑμῖν. The word οὐαί (ouai) relates to grief or denunciation. Having grief in something relates to being exasperated at that thing. But this exasperation also comes with condemnation - to denounce something or someone.

Jesus is denouncing their activities, but also their doctrine. Their ritualistic interpretation of the Prophets' teachings, which they claimed was the only correct interpretation. And their fanatical approach to their assemblies.

They also criticized Jesus' teachings, effectively dissuading many people from following Jesus.

Jesus understood these activities prevented their followers from growing spiritually. These teachers were blocking followers from coming to know and love the Supreme Being.

Has this hypocrisy continued?

Misinterpreting the Prophets has continued through this day by those institutions that followed the Pharisees and chief priests. And ironically, a similar ritualistic misinterpretation of Jesus' teachings has also arisen by many institutions that have claimed to follow Jesus.

Jesus predicted this scenario:
Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matthew 7:21-23)
We have seen many "fruits" among many institutions claiming to follow Jesus over the centuries, including imprisoning or murdering people who didn't join their institution. This history documents many burnings at the stake, for example. And more recently, we have discovered priests abusing young children who came into their church. Instead of offering spiritual guidance, these teachers abused followers.

These actions exemplify Jesus' discussion of hypocrites.

How does hypocrisy take place?

There are different levels of hypocrisy. In the physical world, it is hard to live on a practical basis without committing some level of hypocrisy. Dealing with the practical side of life in order to live within the world is part of our education process.

That is because we are each eternal spirit-persons living temporarily within a physical body. And the physical body and physical world place many demands upon our time and attention.

But this is not the type of hypocrisy that Jesus is speaking of. He is speaking of the kind of religious hypocrisy that harms others.

Religious hypocrisy comes from those who seek to take advantage of others by gaining positions of power and authority for a self-centered purpose. Once they achieve power and authority within a religious institution or assembly, they begin to deceive people in order to gain more power and authority. 

This leads them to take advantage of their followers in order to reap the benefits of their position, whether it means wealth, gaining followers, or otherwise.

This can only take place within an institution that has accommodated a system that rewards those who gain positions of power with various forms of honor, salaries, housing, and other perks.

Once an institution begins to pay their priests and give them luxurious housing and stations of honor and authority, those who seek those things begin to seek that role of priest. Those rewards begin to attract those who want to take advantage of such opportunities offered by those institutions.

For example, if a person sees that priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, gurus or popes are making a healthy living from their preaching positions while being highly regarded by others, they can become motivated to gain those things. They might attend the seminary or otherwise be trained so they can gain such a position and begin to reap material benefits including a nice salary, a nice home, and the respect of others.

This is not religion. It is a business decision. It is contrary to service. This is what Jesus was railing at - priests who sought to gain positions of power instead of serving God and serving others as Jesus was doing.

Those who abuse others once they gain positions of power do not have real authority anyway. Those positions were not God-given. They were politically developed, after playing the politics needed to be appointed for the job.

They may have begun with a seemingly noble purpose. They may have initially wanted to help others. But prestige, power, and authority in the physical world come with an interesting caveat. They can come with a price of religious hypocrisy. This is when that prestige and authority turn inside out and they begin to feel the authority belongs to them. This leads to feeling some sort of right to have power over others.

Once this consciousness takes hold, the person becomes infected by power, just as a body can become infected by a virus.

Once a leader of a sect or church begins to feel powerful and exert power over their followers or congregation, things can become dangerous for those followers. Their blind trust in the leader can expose them to the potential for abuse in one respect or another.

Human history is littered with religious leaders who have abused their followers in one form or another. In some cases, the abuse may have simply been philosophical. But for others, physical and mental abuse have resulted, causing years of torment and psychological damage for followers.

How can we tell if a teacher may become abusive?

There are a number of signs for a potentially abusive teacher. While this doesn't mean they definitely have or will become abusive, these signs do not bode well for followers who seek the Truth. Signs of a possibly abusive teacher include one or more of the following:

-They seek a position of authority.
-They want a prestigious title.
-They are concerned about their appearance.
-They seek fame for themselves.
-They want to make a name for themselves.
-They seek to gain a large following.
-They see themselves as better than others.
-They want others to praise them.
-They want followers to blindly follow their instructions.
-They become angry when someone questions their authority.

Often, in order to achieve this authority, they will invoke the name of Jesus or some other recognized authority. This is described by Jesus in Matthew 7:21 above. They might even say to their followers, "In the name of Jesus ..." This makes them appear authoritative.

Another sign of a potentially abusive teacher is they seek to gain a prestigious title and position of authority in an institution. Perhaps it is a priest, or cardinal or bishop. For other sects, it may simply be gaining the position of "reverend" or "pastor" in a church with a considerable congregation. In other sects around the world, other titles may be sought, such as rabbi, imam, guru and so on.

A more obvious action is once they have gained such a position, they seek to achieve an even loftier or more prestigious position or title. For example, a priest may seek to become a cardinal and so on.

Many institutions elect these positions through councils and electorates. These may be appointments from a council of deacons, or a group of cardinals or bishops. 

Such institutions typically pay those priests and other positions with healthy salaries from money given by followers. This effectively converts the institution into a business. Was this sanctioned by Jesus?

What about paid teachers?

If turning the church into a business by doling out and collecting salaries is condoned by Jesus, why did Jesus turn over the tables of sellers at the synagogue? Why did he say:
“Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16)
We must therefore ask: What is the difference between church bazaars and bake sales and rummage sales - and a priest collecting a salary - and this market in the courtyard of the temple?

Jesus also condemned the practice among the temple priests of collecting from the households of widows after their husbands died:
"They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely." (Mark 12:40)
Paying priests and reverends from the coffers of followers helps produce the ability for these teachers to feel they have the authority to take advantage of their followers. Because their services are ultimately paid for out of the donations of their followers, professional teachers begin to see their followers as sources of income.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!"

The reason why Jesus rejected these ecclesiastical temple officials - even though they claimed to follow the teachings of the prophets as Jesus did - the temple officials abused their authority, being focused upon maintaining their authority and the authority of their institution rather than upon serving the Supreme Being.

"You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces."

How does an ecclesiastical teacher shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces, blocking them from entering?

With their words. It is done by misinterpreting scripture. It is done by bending and twisting the teachings of Jesus, Moses, David, Jacob, Samuel, Job, Zechariah, Abraham and Joshua, and other representatives of God. It is done by misrepresenting the lives and teachings of God's loving servants, in other words.

It is also done by focusing people upon fanatical sectarianism in the name of one of God's representatives - instead of upon their actual teachings. Trying to trick people into thinking that if they join their fanatical sectarian organization, they will somehow become one of God's chosen actually distracts them from focusing on trying to come to know and love God. In other words, such a teaching, emphasizing joining a particular group and practicing certain rituals as though they are the end in itself - blocks their follower's ability to progress spiritually:

"You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” 

We see this fanatical sectarian approach cultivated by many institutions over the centuries. These institutions are not founded upon coming to know, love, and serve God: They are built upon maintaining authority for those who organize and run the institution. They are no different than the temple institution of "teachers of the law and Pharisees" that Jesus was speaking of.

Such institutions seeking authority teach a corrupted interpretation of Jesus' teachings and life, namely that Jesus was God-become-man who died for our sins and all we have to do is accept that and we are saved, effectively washing off our sins onto Jesus (to "bathe in the blood of Jesus" as they often preach). Did Jesus teach this doctrine? No.

Jesus taught us what true authority is. True authority comes from God. Jesus represented God and wielded great authority, but he taught that his authority was given to him by God:
For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. (John 12:49)
Jesus' teachings were about loving God. Not about gaining authority over others, or tricking others into thinking that we are saved. And being saved is not accomplished by joining a church or sect or proclaiming being saved. It is accomplished by coming to know and love the Supreme Being.

This was Jesus' teaching. He stated this clearly:
“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matt. 22:37-38)