Woe, woe: Toxic behaviour

How much do you and I have in common with Pharisees? Does it have to be that way?

Service ,, , Evangelical Free Church congregation Leichlingen

, automatically translated


The Christmas season, Advent, is now beginning and the theme that caught my eye last week when I was reading the Bible may not really fit into this time.

Or maybe it is.

During the Christmas season, we meet more and more with various relatives and sometimes it is not without tension. And perhaps a reflection on today's Bible text will help to make things a little less tense in some situations. Maybe you don't have any problems in this respect.

The Bible text is Matthew 23, where Jesus massively criticises the Pharisees, the so-called cries of woe. Actually, the text is about toxic behaviour and I would like to reflect on this with you.

I wanted to read out a definition of toxic behaviour at the beginning, but there is no Wikipedia article on it.

You know the word "toxic", I think. It means "poisonous" or "harmful" and it probably comes from ancient Greek. "tò tóxon" means something like "the bow", which the Greek fighters used as a weapon. "Toxikòn phármakon" was then the poison in which the warriors dipped the arrowheads.

And that can be quite a striking image, because toxic behaviour can hit you like a poisoned arrow.

But the main problem with toxic behaviour is that it is usually seen in the other person. I would like to go through these cries of woe with you today, because Jesus goes into detail about this toxic behaviour of the Pharisees.

The term "behaviour" has to be understood a little more broadly; one could use the new German word "mindset" here, i.e. the fundamental way of thinking and acting in one's life. Perhaps the term "mentality" also fits.

What to do

I begin with Matthew 23:1-4; NL

1 Then Jesus said to the crowd and to his disciples: 2 "The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' chair as interpreters of the Scriptures. 3 Therefore, keep what they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they do not act according to what they teach you. 4 They gag you with unfulfillable religious demands and do not do the least thing to lighten your burden.

I think that's a pretty blatant statement: "Stick to what they say, but don't follow their lead."

Perhaps the proverb "preach water, drink wine" also comes to mind here.

It is not uncommon for us to judge others more harshly than we judge our own behaviour. We find a similar statement in Matthew 7:3; NL

Why are you upset about a mote in your neighbour's eye when you yourself have a beam in your eye?

The tricky thing is that you usually think you don't have a beam in your eye because you don't see it.

What helps to change this toxic behaviour is to realise that we only know a little. In 1 Corinthians 13:9, the Luther translation says so beautifully: "User knowledge is piecemeal.

We know little and the beam in the eye symbolises the much that we do not know.

Now we find more toxic behaviour here: "do not do the least thing to lighten your burdens." This seems to me to be a very interpretive translation, because other translations say that they do not think of even touching these burdens with a finger.

But the toxic behaviour is clear. The other needs pressure, absolutely!

Maybe an example from politics: I don't know if you have been following this discussion about the citizen's income. The CDU attached great importance to the possibility of sanctions right from the start. The government wanted a trust period of six months, which has now been overturned. I can't judge the decision itself, but I find it remarkable that some MPs distrust social welfare recipients on principle, but claim quite nice lump-sum allowances for themselves, in addition to their salary, for which in part nothing has to be proven. There is a one-time lump sum of 12,000 euros for office equipment and there is also a monthly lump sum of four and a half thousand euros, which MPs are allowed to spend without any proof. There are other allowances, some of which require proof, but I find these sums quite crass and then demand sanctions, monitoring and pressure.

I therefore advise great caution when people demand pressure for others.

I noticed another toxic behaviour in this passage. Jesus says: "Keep to what they say".

We often tend not to listen to people who act like asses, even though they may say the right thing on some points.

I think that even with statements from such people, one must approach them with the attitude: "Test everything and keep what is good."

Of course, that's really hard, you don't want to do it, but it's a sign of mature thinking if you judge statements rationally.

A question of status

Let us move on to the next section (v.5-12):

5 Everything they do, they do only outwardly. They wear extra-large prayer straps on their arms, and they have extra-long fringes on their robes. 6 And how they love to sit at the head of the table in the place of honour at banquets and in the best seats in the synagogue! 7 They enjoy the attention they receive on the street. They especially like to be addressed as 'Rabbi'. 8 Never let anyone call you 'Rabbi'. You have only one master, and you are all equal, like brothers and sisters. 9 And do not call anyone 'father' here on earth, for only God in heaven is your spiritual father. 10 Nor let anyone call you 'teacher', for there is only one teacher, and that is the Christ. 11 The greatest among you must serve others. 12 But those who put themselves above others will be humbled, and those who are humble will be exalted.

Applause and recognition as a driving force for any behaviour is certainly toxic.

It's all right to get recognition and applause, but if that's the central motive for action, then it's bad. Then you subordinate more important things to it. Maybe you start telling people what they want to hear in order to keep getting applause, maybe you start scheming in order to keep being in the foreground in front of others.

I think that, rationally speaking, it is clear to everyone that such behaviour is unhealthy.

But let's think a little more broadly. It starts with:

"Everything they do, they only do outwardly."

The phrase "What will people think!" came to my mind. That goes beyond applause and recognition.

How much space do you give in your life to this sentence: "What will people think!"? At what point does it become toxic?

What I have often heard is that there is a fear among free church members of being mistaken for a sect. That is why it is very important to be involved in all ecumenical activities. "What are people supposed to think!"

So, you can of course participate in ecumenical activities if you think they are meaningful.

What is it like, for example, to take a stand on some social issues? For example, abortion? Of course it is important that there is help available, there are special cases when the mother's life is in danger, etc. but human beings from the beginning. Abortion is wrong. "But what are people supposed to think!"

Of course, it's not about putting people down, the tone makes the music, friendly in language, authoritative in substance, but the question remains: "What are people supposed to think!" When does it become toxic?

Let's go back to the recognition. Do not call anyone your master, your father, your teacher. That is, of course, a somewhat strange-looking text. Of course, if I were an apprentice, I would call my master my master, and I also call my father father, and I also had to deal with people in my school days who I would still call teachers today.

I don't know who translates this text down to the last word. I once knew a Jehovah's Witness who was called by his first name by his young son. However, I never asked him if this was related to this Bible passage, I just assumed.

My children also call me Dad, which I don't find bad now.

I think it is about the use of these terms in the context of dominion and superiority as the Pharisees understood and lived it. V.11 says that the greatest among them must serve the others.

Jesus introduces the perspective here: What benefits the other? Ultimately, to serve means to do what benefits the other.

And without this perspective on what benefits the other, domination and superiority become toxic. In some cases, it is difficult to agree on what benefits the other, and that of course makes it difficult.

The other opinion

Let us move on to the next verses (vv. 13-15):

13-14 You scribes and Pharisees will suffer greatly. You hypocrites! For if you do not let others into the kingdom of heaven, you will not be let in either. 15 Yes, bad things will happen to you scribes and Pharisees. You travel over land and sea to convert a man, and then you make him a son of hell twice as bad as yourselves.

As you can clearly see here, Jesus Christ could also be angry. He stood opposite the people and witnessed live what their behaviour caused.

I want to look at it a bit more emotionlessly, because I don't have anyone directly in front of me now.

The Gospel was already a nuisance in the beginning. You don't have to do everything right, you can bring your guilt to God and you can accept before yourself that you are guilty and become free through Jesus Christ.

This is, of course, a nuisance for people who want to determine exactly what one should and should not do.

This also applies more generally: when people who abide by many rules get angry at those who live more freely with few rules, this is toxic behaviour.

Don't get me wrong, I think rules are basically good. But you have to stick to the rules that you yourself find sensible and helpful.

If you only stick to it because others stick to it, then you quickly get on this track: If I stick to it, then the other person has to stick to it too! Then a certain envy of rules develops and that is definitely toxic.

Furthermore, the text is also about who determines what the truth is. And it is also about the fact that others should necessarily accept this truth without reservation.

We as Christians, I am convinced, have one truth, the Gospel, which is summarised reasonably well in the Apostles' Creed. Personally, I still miss the truth of the Bible in it, but otherwise, I think that is the truth that all Christians can and should agree on.

Everything beyond that: How do we put it into practice, what rules do we find good for our everyday life, how do we live our faith in a very practical way? This is what we have to wrestle with, with our limited cognition and limited knowledge. We are on the road with our imperfections, we often err, we sometimes misunderstand the Bible, but we trust in Jesus Christ.

When we become arrogant and think we always know exactly about everything, it also becomes toxic.

A wrong attitude leads to wrong teaching

Let us move on to the next section (v.16-22):

16 You blind leaders! Bad things will befall you! You claim that it has no meaning to swear 'by the temple of God' - such an oath can be broken quietly. And in the same breath you claim that if you swear 'by the gold in the temple', you must keep it. 17 You stubborn fools! What is more important, the gold or the temple, through which the gold becomes holy? 18 You say that an oath 'by the altar' can be broken, but an oath 'by the offerings on the altar' is binding! 19 You are blind! Which is more important, the offering on the altar or the altar which makes the offering holy? 20 If you swear 'by the altar', then you swear by the altar and everything on it. 21 And if you swear by the temple, you swear by the temple and by God who dwells in the temple. 22 And if you swear by heaven, you swear by the throne of God and by God himself who sits on that throne.

I don't want to go into detail here, but one basic rule becomes clear:

If you think you have the truth, then you will eventually say stupid things.

That should be enough for this section now.

What is essential?

V. 23.24

23 Bad things will happen to you scribes and Pharisees. You hypocrites! You are careful to tithe even the smallest part of your income, but you do not care about the truly important things of the Law, such as justice, mercy and faith. You should tithe, certainly, but you must not neglect the much more important things above. 24 You blind leaders! You strain your water so that you do not accidentally swallow a mosquito, and then you swallow a camel!

That is an exciting question: What is essential and what is not?

The Pharisees, for example, when they took a spice like parsley for their meal, brought a tenth of it to the temple. That was a huge expense and who benefited from bringing a few crumbs of parsley into the temple.

Justice, mercy and faith, that's what matters. If you leave that out, then actually all behaviour becomes toxic. Tithing is fine, of course, but this small-mindedness without the right attitude is toxic in any case.

Inside and outside

V. 25-28

25 Bad things will happen to you scribes and Pharisees. You hypocrites! Carefully you make sure that your cups and plates are clean on the outside, but inside you are rotten to the core - full of ill-will and intemperance! 26 You blind Pharisees! First wash the inside of the cup; then the outside will be clean by itself. 27 You scribes and Pharisees will have it badly. You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs - with a clean, tidy exterior, but inside full of bones and dirt. 28 You give yourselves the appearance of righteous people, but your hearts are full of hypocrisy and contempt for the law.

The problem here is clearly the lack of self-reflection. I am good and there is no problem with that, that is what they thought of themselves. But Jesus looks deeper and reveals the reality here.

You have to be willing every now and then to reflect on your own attitude and behaviour, bring your mistakes to God and be ready for change, otherwise you have here another source of toxic behaviour in your life.

Well, I never...

Let us move on to the last passage considered today (vv. 29-31):

29 Bad things will happen to you scribes and Pharisees. You hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets who were murdered by your ancestors and decorate the tombs of the godly and righteous people who were killed by your ancestors. 30 And then you brazenly claim: 'We would never have taken part when they murdered the prophets.' 31 Thus you yourselves confirm that you are the descendants of the prophet murderers.

"Well, I would never have...", that is toxic thinking. It's similar when you judge people's behaviour harshly in dictatorships. From a distance, everyone thinks they are resistance fighters.

Let us be aware of our weakness, our vulnerability and our temptability. We need Jesus Christ with whom we can cope with our everyday life, with whom we can get through difficult situations and to whom we can always come.


I will conclude by briefly listing the individual points once again: