When we see a conflict in the Gospels, it's usually between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. And we don't have to look too hard to understand why Jesus was so frustrated with them. Mathew records a sequence of seven woes that Jesus calls down upon the Pharisees and teachers of the law that help us understand His anger.
Here's what bothered Jesus about the religious leaders of his day.
1. They set up obstacles to the kingdom of God
The kingdom of God was at the heart of Jesus' teaching. Not only did His parables focus on helping people understand how this kingdom functioned, but He also encouraged people to make it their priority to seek this kingdom.
This is why Jesus had a problem with the Pharisees.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to" (Matthew 23:13).
God's kingdom was not the priority for these leaders, and because of that, they made it harder for others to enter it, too. Their focus tended to be on elevating themselves and receiving praise rather than actually leading people to God. They weren't there to serve others. Others were there to serve them.
2. They spread their unhealthy attitudes
The religious leaders in Christ's day did their duty. They even worked hard to create converts to Judaism, but this was a problem for Jesus.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are" (Matthew 23:15).
As we know, a tree can only produce fruit after its own kind. James confirms this in his Epistle, "My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs" (James 3:12a)? Even when these leaders created converts, they just became carbon copies of themselves.
3. They trivialized faith
"Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?
You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.' You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?
Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it" (Matthew 23:16–22).
The religious leaders had created an entire complicated system for binding oaths. This allowed them to parse out which religious oaths were actually binding or not. If a Pharisee promised something by the temple, it wasn't valid, but if he swore by the gold of the temple, he was bound to that oath.
This simply muddied the water when it came to the true meaning of the law. And these kinds of rules are the reasons Jesus said:
"Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.' But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.
And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one" (Matthew 5:33–37).
4. They neglected what's important
The Pharisees focused on the letter of the law, but they ignored the spirit behind God's law.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" Matthew 23:23-24).
While God asked for a tithe of grain, wine, oil, and flocks, He never asked for spices like mint to be tithed. These leaders were so proud of themselves for their willingness to go above and beyond what was expected, but they didn't care about the needs of people. Their faithfulness was merely theater.
5. They focused on appearances over character
By focusing on ritual practices, Pharisees paid attention to the wrong thing.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness" (Matthew 23:25–28).
It was easy to approach the law in a way that made people look like they had it all together. They could perform all the religious practices faithfully but never address the inward issues of the heart. They might tithe regularly but be full of greed or offer the proper sacrifices but still be arrogant and proud. The law was not addressing their inward pollution and sickness.
6. They killed the prophets
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started" (Matthew 23:29-32)!
By this point in Christ's ministry, the chief priests and Pharisees are already looking for ways to get rid of Jesus—and He knows it. In fact, He addresses the fact that He's going to be murdered in the Parable of the Tenants.
But the Pharisees assume that they would have been champions for the Old Testament's abused prophets; Jesus knows better. Not only would they have been just as guilty, they're going to kill God Himself. The corruption inside is leading them to a decision that they'll never be able to take back.
Learning from the Pharisees
Modern Bible readers are fairly used to seeing the Pharisees as the villains of the Gospels, but we need to be wary. If we're not careful, we can find ourselves guilty of many of the same sins. We're just as prone to focus on externals, to trivialize faith, to neglect things that Jesus cares about, and to persecute the faithful.
When we see Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees, we need to become reflective. We need to ask God to reveal areas where we might be guilty of similar behaviors or attitudes. And when we recognize that ugliness and repent, we can be thankful that in Christ, God is quick to forgive.
For additional consideration check out, "How Can Our Righteousness Surpass the Pharisees'?"