Matthew 23:29-39 – Against Hypocrisy

You religious teachers are nothing but show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You build monuments for the prophets and decorate the tombs of good people. And you claim that you would not have taken part with your ancestors in killing the prophets. But you prove that you really are the relatives of the ones who killed the prophets. So, keep on doing everything they did. You are nothing but snakes and the children of snakes! How can you escape going to hell?

I will send prophets and wise people and experts in the Law of Moses to you. But you will kill them or nail them to a cross or beat them in your meeting places or chase them from town to town. That’s why you will be held guilty for the murder of every good person, beginning with the good man Abel. This also includes Barachiah’s son Zechariah, the man you murdered between the temple and the altar. I can promise that you people living today will be punished for all these things!

Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Your people have killed the prophets and have stoned the messengers who were sent to you. I have often wanted to gather your people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you wouldn’t let me. And now your temple will be deserted. You won’t see me again until you say,

“Blessed is the one who comes
    in the name of the Lord.” (Contemporary English Version)

Christ’s scathing and damning critique is against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, a controlling leadership that stifled and snuffed-out the true worship of God.

Here is what Jesus is getting at with his woe on the leadership who are so concerned with the tombs of the prophets: Honoring dead people, while ignoring live people, is not good.  Respecting the prophets and pastors and godly people of the past means nothing if we ignore the prophet and pastor that is right in front of our face. 

The surest way to hell is to give credence to those long gone yet fail to honor their teaching and the people keeping the true spirit of that instruction. It is to call evil good, and good evil.

The telltale signs of hypocrisy include:

  • Not practicing what they preach, rather than embodying and modeling the message.

The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. So, all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16 Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached. Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. (Philippians 3:14-17, CEB)

  • Keeping people out instead of inviting them in.

I tell you for certain that I am the gate for the sheep. Everyone who came before me was a thief or a robber, and the sheep did not listen to any of them. I am the gate. All who come in through me will be saved. Through me they will come and go and find pasture. (John 10:7-9, CEV)

  • Focusing on externals and refusing to do one’s own inner work.

God does not see as humans see. Humans look at outward appearances, but the Lord looks into the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7, GW)

  • Majoring on the minors through upholding the letter of the law while forsaking the spirit of the law.

You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics! —you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons? (Matthew 23:23-24, MSG)

Despite the presence of hypocrisy and the misplaced energy of people, the last word to everything is God’s grace.

At the end of his tirade, Jesus did something we would do well to follow: He broke into a tear-filled, heart-rending love song for his wayward people. Today’s Gospel lesson is not just a blast-the-bad-guys message; it is a deep concern for people to know the true worship of God.

Keeping the law only truly happens when we can connect our action to a face. For example, if we follow safety protocols at work because we have to, someone will get hurt sooner than later. But if we do it with the faces of people in mind, desiring to do what is best for them, there will likely be fewer incidents.

Jesus wants people to honor God’s law so they will live well. The Lord sees faces and the stories behind those faces. He doesn’t want people damaging one another with their detached sense of moral superiority.

So, let’s be gracious, merciful, and kind – not only because we must – but because we desire to be compassionate toward our fellow humanity, as well as honor our God.

Merciful God, help us to realize when we’re being judgmental of others. Lord, I confess I am neither above you nor the master of all things. I am your servant and your child. Thank you that you have wild and abundant grace for me. Teach me your ways and help me be receptive to them, so I will not fall. I surrender all my ways, thoughts, opinions, perceptions and decisions to you, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Matthew 17:23-32 – Parable of the Two Sons

The Parable of the Two Sons by Jorge Cocco

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you – the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (New International Version)

The people entering God’s kingdom may not be the ones we expect. 

That’s because God’s kingdom is an upside-down kingdom. The spiritual insiders are really on the outside, while the spiritual outsiders are the ones inheriting the kingdom.

Today’s Gospel parable is a warning to all the spiritually serious to beware, lest their energies be spent entirely in correctness, believing the right things, and making obedience to Christ of secondary importance. 

This parable also encourages moral failures with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

That’s because talk is cheap. Only what one believes, one will do.

Lip service to God, without loving service, is hollow and means nothing.

The Warning: Don’t Assume

Christ’s parable warns those who arrogantly assume they have an inside track by their belief, when in reality they aren’t obeying God, at all.  It’s a bit hard for us to imagine how offensive this story was to the religious authorities of the day, so here is a restatement of the parable in a more contemporary form:

What do you think? There was once a man well-respected in the community. He had two sons. The one son grew up and also became a respectable member of the community. This son was a successful businessman, and willingly gave a lot of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the football field – which was no small cost. He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque on each of the light poles with his name on it. 

The other son was not so successful.  He was the one in school of whom the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”  There was nothing spectacular about this son. In fact, he lived an alternative lifestyle and seemed to always be the talk of people behind his back. 

One day the father said to him, “Son, go and work at my place of business today. I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on so that I can get away.” “I will not,” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he had spoken to his father and decided to go to his place of business and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father also went to the other son, the well-respected one, and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will. Anything you need I will do.”  However, that son did not follow through and go do the tedious work. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.

After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding church leaders and people listening, “Which of the two sons did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they all answered.

Then, Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For you have had heard hundreds if not thousands of sermons about grace and the true way of righteousness, and you did not believe by putting the Word of God into practice; but they did. And even after you saw how grace can transform a life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

For Jesus to tell such a story was so incredibly scandalous that it could get him killed – and it did. Simply believing the right things and living as an upstanding citizen is not the way of salvation. Tax collectors and prostitutes were the most despised people in Christ’s time. It was assumed they were on the outside and could never come to God, much like some might believe it unthinkable that a Muslim terrorist could be saved by Jesus. 

The proof of genuine belief is not in talking a good line; it is in actively obeying God when no one is looking to see what a good person you are.

Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. After all, those who don’t love their brothers or sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen! This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.

1 John 4:20-21, CEB

The Christian life hinges on obedience to the words and ways of Jesus. It is to be a blessing to a lost world in need of the grace and love of God.

There was once a Pastor in the 1890’s, Pastor Wright, who pronounced from his pulpit and wrote an article for his denomination’s newsletter on how people flying was both impossible and contrary to the will of God.  Pastor Wright had two sons named Orville and Wilbur. The Pastor was so sure of himself, but he was surely wrong.

The Invitation: Walk Through the Open Door

This parable is more than a warning; it is also a story that opens a door of grace and mercy for unlikely people, far from God, who have said “no” to God. It is a wonderful invitation for all us screw-ups and people with little to no faith to come to Jesus, and he will give rest.

One of my favorite Old Testament references is from the life of David. It is rather obscure and tucked away where no one notices it in Scripture. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was trying to capture him, even though he had done nothing wrong:

David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)

This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king. These were the men, referred to later, as David’s mighty men, people on the cutting edge of bringing Israel into prominence. 

Jesus, Son of God, Son of Humanity, came and clearly identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me.
    He has chosen me to tell good news to the poor.
He sent me to tell prisoners that they are free
    and to tell the blind that they can see again.
He sent me to free those who have been treated badly
    and to announce that the time has come for the Lord to show his kindness.” (Luke 4:18-19, ERV)

In Christ, there is no lost cause and no person too far to be rescued and redeemed. And if we believe that, we will participate with God’s desire to reach the outsider.

Conclusion

Practicing the words and ways of Jesus happens when we locate ourselves within this parable. For the true outsider, this is the most wonderful news possible – that Jesus is reaching out and bringing you to himself – that changing a “no” to saying “yes,” entry to life is possible. 

Yet, maybe some of us need to locate ourselves as the insider who needs to get a clue before we miss out on the grace of God in Christ.

Take heart, for Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost. It is time to act on what we believe – to affirm truth and right doctrine, and to embody it with obedience to God’s call on our life.

Matthew 17:14-21 – Use Your Faith

At the foot of the mountain, a large crowd was waiting for them. A man came and knelt before Jesus and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son. He has seizures and suffers terribly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. So, I brought him to your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.”

Jesus said, “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Then Jesus rebuked the demon in the boy, and it left him. From that moment the boy was well.

Afterward the disciples asked Jesus privately, “Why couldn’t we cast out that demon?”

“You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.” (New Living Translation)

As we reflect on today’s Gospel lesson, let’s keep in mind that any time we see Jesus exorcising demons, we need to resist the idea that anyone having similar symptoms today is demonic in origin. Any chronic health condition a person experiences, without seeing any healing take place, does not necessarily mean the condition is due to the person’s lack of faith.

Conversely, it is also possible to relegate such healing accounts to a different time and place. My own view of Scripture, along with personal experience, informs me that demonization is real. We may underestimate how influential and widespread demonization occurs in this modern time and place.

The nature of faith is not located in its amount or intensity but in its object. All of life requires some faith. Even sitting in a chair. When I sit, the amount or intensity of my faith isn’t the issue – the object, the chair, is the issue. If a leg on the chair breaks and I flop to the floor, its not reasonable for me to conclude that it happened because of my lack of faith.

The disciples’ inability to heal the boy.

I’m not sure what is more difficult: to be the person suffering, or to observe a loved one suffering. The father is desperate and hurting, watching his son suffer with seizures. The man is utterly discouraged because Christ’s disciples were not able to help.

So, the desperate father approached Jesus and knelt, begging him to have mercy and help his son.

Our Lord’s response, I admit, is not likely what my response would be. I would be more like, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. This is terrible. Let’s take care of this.” Jesus did honor the father’s request and healed the boy, but not before he had some words.

Jesus was exasperated, and he let everyone know about it. Why was he so disappointed?

Because his disciples knew better. The disciples were not ignorant or unable. They had what they needed to deal with the boy and his father. Jesus already equipped them to do this kind of ministry: 

Jesus called his twelve disciples together and gave them authority to cast out evil spirits and to heal every kind of disease and illness… “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received!” (Matthew 10:1, 8, NLT)

The reason for the disciples’ inability to heal was their lack of faith.

Jesus was perturbed with his disciples because they were not utilizing faith.

Jesus is bothered when believers don’t believe.

Up until this encounter, the disciples were healing people and doing the work Jesus gave them to do. Yet now they cannot. What changed? They relied on their own power, abilities, and experience, instead of relying on the power of God to heal. 

The Gospel of Mark includes Jesus saying that this kind of demon can only be dislodged through prayer (Mark 9:14-29). In short, the disciples didn’t pray. They didn’t tap into God’s power. They didn’t use the authority Jesus gave them. Rather, the disciples rested on their own laurels.

Their lack of prayer translated into a lack of power. 

If we are unable to do the work God has called us to do, it isn’t because we lack the authority or ability. It is a lack of faith.

Effective ministry happens because of faith.

The power of faith is in the person to whom it is directed. If we trust solely in ourselves, we will fail. However, if we trust in Jesus, then even the tiniest of faith will be able to do the impossible.

The power is not in particular words, or in a certain formula – the power is in faith rightly directed toward Jesus. Most demonic manifestations are much more subtle – such as thoughts of how I am not enough, how I have no right to try and help another, and how unable I am to do the will of God.

Conclusion

Here is a simple observation of Christ’s words: We are not told that if we have faith as big as a mountain that we can move one. Instead, Jesus tells us that if we have any faith at all, even as small as a tiny seed, directed toward God and not ourselves, the sky is the limit – we will have all the ability we need to do the will of God.

So, what is that impossible thing that could be done in your life with properly directed faith? 

What miracle, healing, or resistance to a bad spirit needs to take place around us? 

Discouragement is the most common tool of the devil in keeping us from realizing genuine manifestations of faith. Jesus has already accomplished victory over sin, death, and Satan. We must, then, claim all the will of God for today.

Resist the devil and he will flee from you (James 4:7). Step out in faith and do the will of God. The first step is always one of prayer….

High and Holy One, because your mercy is everlasting and your truth endures from generation to generation, show mercy to the sick and infirmed of either body or soul. Grant them deliverance from mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical illness. Blessed Lord, keep them under your care, for only in you can we live in safety and wellbeing. Visit them with your saving health. Do not let their hope be taken away, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Matthew 15:21-31 – Sense the Urgency

Woman of Canaan by Sadao Watanabe, 1965

Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So, his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”

The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.

He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. (New International Version)

Not much happens until something becomes urgent.

A doctor, a financial planner, or a preacher can tell us something until they are blue in the face, but it usually doesn’t mean much without a sense of urgency that a change must occur – that the way things are isn’t going to cut it any longer. 

We can say eating healthy is of value, yet unless there is a sense of urgency to it, it is difficult to do. Someone can proclaim that retirement savings is important, yet unless there is a sense of desperate action, it likely won’t happen. 

Christians say prayer is important, lost people matter to God, and ministry to youth is the hope of the world. Yet without a sense of urgency, there is procrastination and talking, resulting in zero change.

It’s the difference between law and gospel, or between duty and grace. The law and duty are important elements of the Christian life. The law shows us our sin and gives us direction how to live. However, law and duty can only take us so far – it cannot effect real and lasting change. Only the gospel of grace can do that. 

Law and duty alone won’t do it. And when we figure out it doesn’t work, we try and hide our struggle by keeping up the appearance of being a good Christian. Then, we boil down the rules of the Christian life to merely being nice and attending church (law). Our deep hurts and damaged emotions are handled by burying them in layers of law in order to protect ourselves from any more disappointment.

Nothing could be further from today’s Gospel lesson. We have a Gentile Canaanite woman, who is as far from God as one can get in the ancient world. She is neither concerned about appearances nor hiding to mask her pain. The woman cares about her daughter’s terrible suffering from demonization. She recognizes Jesus as the Promised One and seeks him out.

Only grace, not law-keeping, will save, deliver, or heal anyone.

Grace is bestowed to the humble who recognize the great urgency of needing Jesus – in God’s good timing, not ours. Faith is exemplified by a willingness to beg. It’s demonstrated with dogged persistence in the face of the slimmest of odds.

The Canaanite woman screams for help.

Her daughter is suffering. The region of Tyre and Sidon is demon territory – the home region of the Old Testament character, Jezebel – a place far from the covenant people of Israel’s ways. 

The woman has no leverage, no ground of appeal, and no spiritual pedigree. There is no way to approach Jesus by any other means than crying out to him with her deeply felt need. In her sense of urgency, noise and humility is all she has.

Jesus is silent.

Have you ever felt like God is silent, as though your prayers were doing nothing but bouncing off the ceiling? 

God is often silent. Yet, let’s not misinterpret this lack of response as thinking God didn’t hear, or doesn’t care, or something is wrong with me. Silence from God is just that – agonizing divine silence….

A superficial reading of the story may lead us to believe Jesus is aloof, or elitist, that maybe he isn’t interested in certain people. It seems to me, a better way of interpreting the silence is through the lens of our patience and perseverance, a sort of faith testing.

There is some mystery to this story we may never fully grasp. However, the story lets us know Jesus is not a coin machine where we can slip in a dollar and get immediate change. Jesus is a person, not a mechanism to figure out, to get what we want from him. This is not the way of grace.

The disciples want Jesus speaking to get rid of the screaming obnoxious woman.

“Holy cow, Jesus, just give her what she wants so she’ll go away!”  They wanted a healing, but it wasn’t out of a sense of compassion or grace. “After all, we’ve got important Jesus-work to do here, and we don’t need this woman upsetting the peace, rocking the boat, challenging the status quo, making waves, and ruining our sanctified party.” 

The disciples labeled the woman as loud and undeserving. Frankly, they may have been right. But they were operating out of law, not grace.

Jesus and the Canaanite woman, from Saint Germain-l’Auxerrois church in Paris, France

Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is not give everybody what they want, right away. 

Jesus did not come to this earth to ensure everybody gets their way and stays happy so that no one is upset. In fact, Christ did quite the opposite. Jesus sought to do his father’s will by establishing the kingdom of God on this earth – teaching values that weren’t part of the religious culture, telling the most “godly” people of the time they were a brood of vipers, and generally offending a lot of people who claimed to know God.

Jesus cared enough about the woman to not immediately give her what she wanted. She had to go hard after Jesus, to keep going after him, to exercise her faith muscle. 

Jesus doesn’t give the disciples what they want, either.

Two different petitions were given to Jesus, and his response doesn’t really address either one of those asking’s.  He just says he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel. Yet the woman responds as if she doesn’t even hear what Jesus just said.

The chosen nation of Israel was meant by God to be a missionary people. All nations on earth are blessed through Abraham, through the Jewish people. It has always been God’s design to have the Gentiles come to faith, and the way that was to happen was through Israel being a great missionary people proclaiming God and being a light to the nations. 

I tell you that Christ became a servant of the Jews to show that God has done what he promised their great ancestors. Christ also did this so that the non-Jewish people could praise God for the mercy he gives to them. The Scriptures say,

“So, I will give thanks to you among the people of other nations;
    I will sing praise to your name.” (Romans 15:8-9, ERV)

And that is exactly what happened. I am a Gentile Christian today because a small group of Jewish persons took the gospel of grace given them by Jesus and fulfilled their role as a missionary people.

The woman worships and tries Jesus again.

Jesus never said “no” to the woman. This was the basis for her asking again. She reasons much like an infatuated teenager who asks the girl of his affections, “so, what kind of chance do I have going out with you?”  The girl responds to the teenage boy, “a million to one.”  And the boy responds to her, “so, what you’re saying to me is that there’s a chance!”

Slim as the woman’s chances seem, she saw an opening where others might not. This is precisely the nature of true faith – it sees possibilities where none seem to exist.

This is raw, real, and persistent faith. If we don’t resonate with this kind of faith and persistence, there is not a sufficient level of urgency in our lives. The bald fact is: If we don’t pray, it’s because there is no desperation. We are still more fixed on law than gospel. Duty only goes so far.

Jesus still doesn’t answer the woman’s request, but gives her a metaphor about dogs, instead.

Jesus is restating what he said about the Jews: Salvation is through the Jews, not around them. We cannot ignore or get rid of the Old Testament because the gospel comes through it.

The woman still doesn’t give up but works with the metaphor.

She doesn’t argue with Jesus about being a dog; doesn’t insist she ought to be an exception; doesn’t say she has a right to be like the Jews; and doesn’t claim Jesus is being unfair or uncaring.

The woman simply accepts Christ’s words. Then, replies that even as a dog she would be allowed to receive a few crumbs from the table of the children. She might be a dog, but she’s still in the house, even if it’s under the highchair. The woman is looking for mercy as expectantly as my own dog looks at me with those sad brown eyes while I’m eating.

Jesus honors her faith.

Why? Because she humbly looked for grace. We need not write an essay to God about why our requests should be answered, as if Jesus needs convincing. We just need to seek the mercy of God.

Faith, coupled with urgency, doggedly persists. It believes Jesus will deliver. Great faith overcomes discouragement, despite the odds. It doesn’t listen to naysayers who want us to shut up and quit bothering them.  Urgent prayers are an unabashed begging before Jesus because only he can help. Begging isn’t sexy. It isn’t comfortable. But it’s needed.

So, pray. Pray like it’s the only thing that will make a difference. Pray with a sense of urgency.