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.

James 2:1-13 – Don’t Show Favoritism

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (New International Version)

Being an Outsider

It’s awkward feeling like an outsider. As a young pastor in Michigan, I once went to make a hospital call on one of my parishioners. He was having a procedure done at Ford Hospital in Detroit. I had never been there before. I parked my car and walked into the hospital, just like I had done at several hospitals before. 

Yet, there was something different that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then, I realized, I didn’t see any other Caucasian people. Every person I encountered was African-American.

Up to that point in my life, I was never a minority in any situation. Although everyone in the hospital was polite and respectful, it was still weird for me. I distinctly remember thinking to myself in the midst of that experience, “Huh, so that’s what it feels like for my African-American friends!”

Imagine being a visitor to a church worship service.  You are just a normal person trying to make ends meet, without much money or resources, and only a few clothes with none of them being very dressy.  You have never been to this church before.  You pull up in a fifteen year old car that has a few rattles to it and park. “Wow, that building is big!  I don’t know anybody here, except Mary.” 

Mary isn’t here today.  You gin-up the courage to get out of the car and walk into the building. “Where do I go?  Will anybody notice me?  How am I supposed to act?  Where do I sit?”  All the things we take for granted are at the forefront of your mind. 

Favoritism is Insider Judgment

Not everyone thinks or lives the same – and that is the point the Apostle James is trying to get across to us.  If we are only attentive, aware, and care about people who look like us, think like us, and live like us, then we are playing favorites. And God calls that being judgmental.

The word “favoritism” comes from an idiom literally meaning, “lifting up the face.” That is, taking something merely at face value.  To make a biased judgment based on only surface impressions is not good. It is not the way of Jesus, who associated with people of dubious morality and came into close contact with ostracized persons, like lepers. Discrimination based on limited understanding is soundly condemned in Scripture. 

Those who show favoritism aren’t good.

Proverbs 28:21, CEB

Be fair, no matter who is on trial—don’t favor either the poor or the rich. (Leviticus 19:15, CEV)

Times change; God’s heart doesn’t. The Lord cares for all kinds of people, not just insiders.  Peter had to get that into his head and heart concerning Gentiles, whom he considered inferior. He took for granted they were to always be outsiders. It took a series of visions from God for Peter to get this testimony into his life: 

“Now I understand that God doesn’t play favorites. Rather, whoever respects God and does what is right is acceptable to him in any nation.” (Acts 10:34-35, GW)

A poor woman once wanted to join a church.  She went to the pastor, and he told her to pray about becoming a member.  The pastor did not see the woman for months and then one day met her on the street.  He asked her if she had been praying and what she had decided about joining the church.  She said, “I did what you asked me to do, and one day while I was praying, the Lord said to me, ‘Don’t worry about getting into that church – I’ve been trying to get into it myself for the last twenty years!’”

The church the Apostle James addressed had the mistaken notion certain persons were better than others because of their ability to financially contribute and wield influence.  Put yourselves in the shoes of those ancient church folks. 

These are refugees trying to make it in a strange country.  It was tempting and easy to suck-up to the rich persons who came to their meetings.  They needed some stable donors, and not some poor people who were going to drain their already short resources.  Showing preferential treatment to the wealthy only made sense to them.

Favoritism is a Heart Problem

For the Apostle James, showing favoritism reflected a terrible malady of the heart: a divided loyalty between God and the world. When things got rocky, the church turned to money and those with it, instead of coming to the Lord and seeking God’s unlimited resources. Inattention to the poor and needy might make good business sense but will result in spiritual death when Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead.

Far too many Christians believe poor people are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work. There are certainly lazy people in this world, and maybe we are some of them – too spiritually lazy to take the time and effort to get to know persons in poverty and those very different from ourselves.

In the third century, a church deacon named Lawrence was in charge of the church’s treasury (benevolence fund) in Rome. One day the prefect (mayor) of the city asked Lawrence to gather up and give him “the wealth of the church.” Lawrence sent back a message: “I will bring forth all the precious things that belong to Christ, if only you will give me a little time to gather everything together.” The prefect agreed, as he dreamed of what he could do with the money, gold, and silver.

For three days, Lawrence walked through all the alleys and squares of Rome and gathered the church’s real treasure—the poor, the disabled, the blind, the homeless, and the lepers. The people he gathered included a man with two eyeless sockets, a disabled man with a broken knee, a one-legged man, a person with one leg shorter than the other, and others with grave infirmities.

Lawrence wrote down their names and lined them up at the entrance to the church at his appointment with the prefect. “These are the treasures of the Church of Christ!” Lawrence declared, as he presented the ragged crowd to the astonished prefect. “Their bodies may not be beautiful, but within these vessels of clay they bear all the treasures of divine grace.”

The ground is level at the foot of the cross.  Jesus was not an upwardly mobile and tech-savvy Jew; he was a king who chose to serve and get into the lives of the poor, the pitiful, the wretched and the marginal folks of society – just as he did with the rich and influential.

Growing up, I had a dog named “Sam.”  Sam loved being on the farm.  One time he tussled with a skunk.  I could barely get close enough to him to clean him up because he stunk so badly.  Favoritism stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others.  And he is going to clean us up when he smells the stench of discrimination on us.

Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence that the dog is running away from the bath of grace.  To develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice.

Three Reasons Why Favoritism Stinks

1. A theological reason: Jesus doesn’t show favoritism to the rich.  

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18, NIV)
 

In the Old Testament, God said:

There will always be poor people in the land, so I command you to give freely to your neighbors and to the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11, NCV)

God is looking for humble persons, giving grace to people who cannot offer something in return.  It is easy to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs. It is altogether a different thing to give without any expectations of response.

2. A logical reason: Favoritism comes from a materialistic heart.

Money does change us. Research by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found that even the mere suggestion of getting more money makes people less friendly, less sensitive to others, and more likely to support statements like “some groups of people are simply inferior to others.” 

Another series of studies from the University of California at Berkley concluded that wealthier people tend to be less compassionate towards others in a bad situation than people from lower-class backgrounds.

Some people are willing to put up with being treated unfairly, just so they can be the recipients of a rich person’s wealth and position.  Favoritism ignores the sin in others in order to gain something from them.  That is stinking thinking.

3. A biblical reason: Favoritism is a violation of God’s law. 

The entire law is summed up in two commands: Love God. Love neighbor.  Favoritism is a violation of loving our neighbor. Therefore, to discriminate on any basis is to disobey God. 

Who is my neighbor?  The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that any needy human being we encounter – no matter their social or economic status, their ethnicity, race, gender, religion, or anything identifying them as different – is to be helped when we have the opportunity to do so.

Ernest Gordon was a P.O.W. who wrote a book about his experiences in a Japanese concentration camp in 1942.  The Japanese were ruthless and horribly treated their prisoners.  With barely any food to survive, the law of the jungle ruled amongst the prisoners.  But a Christian prisoner operated with a different set of rules.  He continually shared his food with other prisoners to the point where he actually starved to death because of it. 

The other prisoners could not understand why this guy would do such a thing, until they found a Bible in his few belongings.  One by one the prisoners read his Bible and found in it the principle of love and not showing favoritism.  Eventually, the entire camp changed and came to know Christ because of one man’s humble spirit to be generous with what he had.

Speak and Act with Mercy

Words are important, and are to be full of grace, seasoned with salt.  An active faith without merciful words is not really faith at all – it is an excuse to keep a galloping tongue going.  Showing mercy, instead of favoritism, is the way love expresses itself.

The stench of showing favoritism goes away with a cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. God is the expert in:

  • Turning people from only associating with those they are comfortable with, to lovingly reaching out to people very different from themselves.
  • Changing people from the stinking thinking about what they can continually obtain and consume, to people who are loving and generous with their words and their physical resources.
  • Putting to death a proud spirit that looks to get ahead and accomplish an agenda by any means possible, to giving new life through humble repentance.

Let’s make it our goal to give grace, to be like Jesus.  Amen.

Galatians 6:1-10 – Fulfill the Law of Christ

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (New International Version)

Its all about grace. God’s grace. In Christ, lived by means of the Holy Spirit. Its not about hard black-and-white lists of rules or principles to live by. The Law of Christ is to help each other in our troubles, no matter what.

Overwhelming physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual burdens can become even more heavy through failing to live up to someone’s or some group’s or a church’s unwritten list of rules. “Keep a stiff upper lip.” “Everything is possible for those who love God.” “Stay positive.” “Just have faith and trust God.” Or worse, silence…. These and hundred other phrases communicate to people with crushing loads that they will have to carry them alone.

The letter to the Galatian believers spells out what is to truly characterize Christian interactions, and what it means to walk in the Spirit. Believers in Jesus are to emulate the behavior of Christ, the ultimate burden-bearer, who came to restore sinners, not condemn them.

We have a responsibility to rescue, renew, and revitalize persons who have lost their way. We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.

Someone caught in the crosshairs of a bad decision, or ensnared by making a wrong step, who is now in over their heads, needs help. In such a case, we are to restore, not punish. The person’s wound needs spiritual cauterizing. The broken spirit needs to be set back into place to heal properly.

The tone and the attitude which we do this important work of restoring people is through gentleness (meekness). We are to have a mindset and heart stance which understands there is no moral superiority with me. I could easily be the person in need of restoration.

When we have a gentle spirit, then we discern we are not above falling into the same trouble. We, too, are ethically and morally vulnerable. So, the church has a corporate responsibility to bear one another’s burdens.

There are other people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in over their heads, too. Their health and mental health challenges, the emotional weight of hard circumstances, and their broken spirits require others to help shoulder the load so that the weighted-down person is not crushed.

Nobody in any faith community is above doing this work of burden-bearing. And it isn’t appropriate for an individual to boast about the burden-bearing work of others, as if it were theirs. You and I are to take responsibility for our own actions and attitudes without taking credit for someone else’s efforts.

A mature spiritual community of people are able to distinguish those loads which individuals must bear for themselves, and those burdens where help is sorely needed. We are accountable to carry our own backpack. And we are also accountable before Christ to share our load with others when it becomes too heavy for us.

If we choose not to allow others to assist us when we need it, then we will reap what we sow – we’ll feel the full weight and consequences of our silence. The planting and harvesting metaphor isn’t just for those who have engaged in wrongdoing. It is also for those who don’t put any seeds in the ground to begin with. They shouldn’t expect a harvest, at all.

Grace lived out in real experiences knows when to get under a load and help carry it. And grace also knows when to be kind to self and share the heavy burden with others who can help shoulder it for a bit. This is Christianity which relies on the enablement of the Spirit, made possible by Christ, who carried our crushing weight of guilt and shame for us.

Our Christian freedom in Jesus is to be stewarded wisely through carrying one another’s burdens, and so, fulfilling the Law of Christ.

God of all comfort, our help in time of need: We humbly pray to relieve and restore persons in need, people for whom are tired, sick, weary, or unable to continue as they are. Look upon them with the eyes of your mercy; comfort them with a sense of your goodness; preserve them from the temptations of the enemy; and give them patience under their affliction. In your good time, restore them to holistic health, and enable them to live their lives to your glory; and may they dwell with you in life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 119:113-128 – How to Change Our Spiritual Taste Buds

I hate anyone
whose loyalty is divided,
    but I love your Law.
You are my place of safety
and my shield.
    Your word is my only hope.

All of you worthless people,
    get away from me!
    I am determined to obey
    the commands of my God.

Be true to your word, Lord.
    Keep me alive and strong;
    don’t let me be ashamed
    because of my hope.
Keep me safe and secure,
    so that I will always
    respect your laws.
You reject all deceitful liars
    because they refuse
    your teachings.
As far as you are concerned,
all evil people are garbage,
    and so I follow your rules.
I tremble all over
when I think of you

    and the way you judge.

I did what was fair and right!
    Don’t hand me over to those
    who want to mistreat me.
Take good care of me,
    your servant,
    and don’t let me be harmed
    by those conceited people.
My eyes are weary from waiting
    to see you keep your promise
    to come and save me.
Show your love for me,
your servant,
    and teach me your laws.
I serve you,
so let me understand
    your teachings.
    Do something, Lord!
    They have broken your Law.
Your laws mean more to me
    than the finest gold.
I follow all of your commands,
    but I hate anyone
    who leads me astray.
(Contemporary English Version)

Some people try to avoid doing wrong and always try to do right. Others either bulldoze or sleepwalk through life, doing what they will, with impunity. Yet others try to steer clear of egregious sin, while indulging in so-called minor sins. 

Sin is messy business. No matter the form or the attempt at dealing with or without sin, the bottom line is that we all sin because we like it. We might not like the consequences of sin, but it tastes good while doing it.

That’s why we need a complete re-orienting of our hearts to hate every way contrary to God’s good commands. The psalmist proclaims and affirms that all God’s precepts are right, hating every false path which deviates from the true and good. 

If we sin because we like it, the way to avoid sin is learning to hate it – to loathe it so badly that it’s like a nasty stench in our nostrils. Hating sin comes from the acquired taste of loving God’s commandments. When we come around to cherish and desire God’s Word, then sin gradually becomes so odious that we want nothing to do with it.

The reason the psalmist could proclaim such an extended love song to the commands of God, is that he tasted how good they were. And it caused him to forsake every dubious way to human enjoyment. 

The reason I constantly encourage myself and others to read Scripture every single day, with a solid plan of spiritual rhythms, is that it really does have the power to change our taste buds. Sustained, consistent, daily eating of the psalms will teach us to want God and God’s ways – while forsaking the dark path of insolence and oppression.

The psalmist committed himself to avoiding worthless situations, as well as steering clear of harmful people with the propensity to doing wrong. These are fickle, double-minded people, divided in their loyalties. On one side of their mouth, they talk a good line about faith; and then talk out the other side of their mouth, spewing a bunch of worthless gobbledygook which, at the least, adds no value to anything, and, at worst, wrecks good plans and harms others.

If there are people in authority over us who don’t give a wit about our most cherished values, we will likely find ourselves tasked with doing things which rub against our understanding of God’s Word. In this state of moral distress, we are pushed, pulled, and tested in our single-minded devotion by the double-minded person to do what we are uncomfortable with.

In the stress and crucible of trouble, we need the courage to speak up, despite the fear of repercussions. And that strength will only be possible if we have a resilient spirit with the capacity to sustain our personal integrity in the face of our distress. That is, we need God and God’s Holy Word.

Scripture and fellow believers provide support because we need to care for one another as a community of redeemed persons who seek to live into the words of ways of almighty God.

It can be tricky business, wisely trying to discern between what we must accept and what we need to pushback against. Yet, with God, God’s Word, and God’s people, we possess all the resources required in living the spiritual life and navigating the sinful world we inhabit.

God Almighty, I pray that you will deal with me according to your steadfast love and teach me your statutes.  I am your servant; give me understanding so that I might know and live by your commands and forsake the evil of the world, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.