The Heart of Giving (Luke 20:45-21:4)

As all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ property, and as a show make long prayers. They will receive a more severe punishment.”

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.” (New English Translation)

Holy Scripture is replete with contrasting characters. A common teaching device of the ancient world, as well as Jesus, was to make clear narrative contrasts between different persons or groups. In the telling of the story, it would be evident that one is virtuous and the other not. In contemporary terms, we refer to such characters in a story as the protagonist and the antagonist.

It is abundantly clear, in today’s Gospel lesson, who is the godly virtuous person and who is not. Jesus is the one who illumined the contrast because it was not evident to the crowd of people.

You often cannot tell a fake by the external appearance. 

A pious religious person on the outside may not necessarily be a genuine Christ follower on the inside. And, conversely, a poor, old, bedraggled person may seem unimpressive on the outside, yet has a lush garden for a soul on the inside.

The religious experts in Christ’s day liked to do things for a show, for the attention. They were important and respected people, desiring and enjoying the accolades of others. They lived to be noticed. 

In reality, however, it was all a façade, a carnival sideshow. The outside and the inside were incongruent to each other. Their very selves were fragmented, not integrated; disparate, not synced together. The false self, displayed for others, hid a darkened true self underneath.

But Jesus saw them inside-and-out. He named the hypocrisy and condemned it.

There is a marked contrast between the rich and respected religious experts and the poor overlooked widow. Whereas the rich men put a wad of money in the temple offering for everyone to see, the impoverished widow put barely anything in. Yet, it was everything she had to give. 

The widow’s outward giving and inward disposition were perfectly matched. She gave everything out of the abundance of her heart. There was integrity, congruence, and a complete synthesis of the inner and outer person.

And Jesus saw her, inside-and-out. He named the genuineness and affirmed it.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of outward eating and drinking and ostentatious displays of spirituality; it is rather a matter of inner righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)

We are to beware of those who do things for a show – who try and appear pious, while on the inside, they only have self-serving agendas. For the hypocrite, giving is more like a business transaction; I give money – you give respect and attention.

Remember that the person who plants few seeds will have a small crop; the one who plants many seeds will have a large crop. You should each give, then, as you have decided, not with regret or out of a sense of duty; for God loves the one who gives gladly. (2 Corinthians 9:6-7, GNT)

But giving is not designed by God to be done so people will admire and see what wonderful Christians we are, or so that others will know that we have done our proper duty. 

If our motive for giving is for others to admire us, then we will likely receive exactly what we want – and nothing more. There will be no reward from God because God isn’t even in the picture.

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So, when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-4, NIV)

Giving is important and, I believe, needs to happen much more than it does. And there is also much more to the act of giving than placing money in an offering plate, supporting humanitarian causes, or donating resources; it involves the heart and the motives behind it. 

If I give because I want people to see how generous and benevolent I am; or to gain attention and approval; or to let people know how they need to act or change; then I have ceased to truly give. 

If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.

1 Corinthians 13:3, CEB

Let’s call it something else: “The Me Show.” Tuning into “The Me Show” is not good. Giving is not supposed to be a circus with me in the center ring of the big top. Instead, giving is to be a heartfelt, genuine connection with both God and our fellow humanity. If it isn’t this, then we are spiritual clowns who think we need to perform more than we need to steward our God-given resources.

Yet, if we will but aim for the heart, the hands will follow with sincere generosity and grace.

Loving God, my heart longs to worship you with everything I possess. Transform me from the inside-out so that all my thoughts and motives may humbly express my words and actions, to the glory of Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are One God, now and forever. Amen.

Luke 11:37-52 – Calling Them Out

Pharisees by German painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1912

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so, he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them. So, you testify that you approve of what your ancestors did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore, this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

“Woe to you experts in the law because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” (New International Version)

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”

Socrates

An outward showy spirituality means little to nothing – and it actually results in injustice and a lack of concern for others. Conversely, paying attention to the inner person has the effect of making our outer actions helpful and healing.

As you can tell from today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus had no use for the showy kind of spirituality. He was looking for a generous spirit of love and justice, willing to share with others from altruistic and benevolent motives. Instead, he got bupkis.

The woes Jesus pronounced on the showy spiritual charlatans were a kind of grieving and lamenting of how far astray the religious were from genuine heartfelt spirituality.

Unfortunately, there are pious people today who claim the name of Christ and slam the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of others by:

  • Saying God’s grace is for all, then turning around and avoiding certain people, calling them “sinners.”
  • Having explicit written statements or rules that exclude people from serving God.
  • Binding people to human traditions and practices instead of Holy Scripture. 
  • Declaring the seven deadly words of the Church: “We’ve never done it that way before.” 

Jesus called the religious leaders out. And rather than listening and changing, the leaders just felt insulted and offended. They refused to hear that their nit-picking religious obsessions and criticizing judgments of others kept people from accessing God’s love and justice.

The Lord’s words are pointed and hard. Jesus talked to them this way, it seems to me, because they probably wouldn’t have heard it any other way. In other words, Christ talked their language so they could hear him.

The Pharisees often get a bad rap. But they were faithful givers. They rightly and deservedly gave a tenth of everything they had. However, the problem was that they did it so they could feel really good about themselves, thereby feeling justified in neglecting the weightier matters of the law, the stuff they really didn’t want to do. 

This is the kind of mental gymnastics which is still done today, by saying, “Hey, man, I do my part. I give,” but all the while having no intention of focusing on weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. It is essentially using money and stuff to buy off God. It is focusing on the minutia of pennies and dimes, instead of saving lives.

The weighty matters of the Law were there in the Old Testament. They just got ignored….

“This is what the Lord All-Powerful said:
‘You must do what is right and fair.
    You must be kind and
    show mercy to each other.
Don’t hurt widows and orphans,
    strangers, or poor people.
Don’t even think of doing bad things to each other!’”

But they refused to listen
    and refused to do what he wanted.
They closed their ears so that they
    could not hear what God said.
They were very stubborn
    and would not obey the law.
The Lord All-Powerful used his Spirit
    and sent messages to his people through the prophets.
But the people would not listen,
    so the Lord All-Powerful became very angry. (Zechariah 7:9-12, ERV)

Righteousness is profoundly social. It has to do with pursuing right relationships with people, not just people I like or who I feel deserve it. Jesus mentioned justice and love because these terms really have to do with our neighbors, not only our buddies and cronies. 

Any evil person can love those who love him; but the one who loves Jesus, loves the people for whom no one else cares or loves.

As God’s people, we are meant by the Lord to be forthright, frank, genuine, honest, humble, open, real, truthful, authentic, just, righteous, sincere, and upright in all our relations with others. To do otherwise is to be hypocritical.

Hypocrisy does not practice what it preaches, keeps people out of God’s kingdom, focuses on externals, and majors on the minors. Jesus loved the Pharisees enough to call them out and call them back to the true worship of God.

Because anything less than a deep concern for all humanity is not true religion.

Blessed God and Father of the universe, I am not above you and I am not the master of all things. Instead, I am your servant and your child. Help me be quick to look at myself when I am prone to look over to others. Thank you that you have wild and abundant grace for me that will never end nor let me go. Teach me your ways and help me be receptive to them, so I will not fall. I submit to your rule and reign over all things, including all my thoughts, opinions, perceptions, decisions, beliefs, and actions, through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

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 23:29-36 – “Woe Is Me!”

Ethiopian Jesus
Jesus, from an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, c.1750 C.E.

“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! 

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore, I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you; all this will come on this generation. (NIV) 

I almost feel the need to place a warning label on this blog post: “The writer has determined that a careful reading of this Scripture is dangerous to those who think their current state of Christianity is just fine.”  Jesus stands in a long line of Old Testament prophets as the ultimate prophesier calling the people to see things as they really are and come back to the God of all, not the God of their own making. 

I feel yet another warning is warranted, knowing from years of experience that there is an Enemy of our souls: The dark forces of this world will try every which way to get us to believe these words of Jesus are for other people, not me or you – that you and I are okay and that this is for “those” people [probably ones we don’t like] who are clearly deluded. We, however, are simply fine.   

We all need these words from Jesus and to let them speak to us. Christ’s scathing and damning critique was leveled against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, a controlling leadership that stifled and snuffed-out the true worship of God. Jesus pronounced seven woes on the religiously pious spiritual brokers of his day. Today’s Gospel lectionary contains only the seventh woe. This woe, along with the rest, are not directed toward the irreligious or the spiritually lackadaisical folks among us – the woes are aimed squarely at the religiously committed. 

Ethiopian Orthodox Jesus
Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of Jesus

The word “woe” literally means “disaster” “calamity” and “misery.” Jesus pronounced a woe against ultra-religious persons who were obsessed with respecting the tombs and the graves of the ancient prophets. It was considered a terrible travesty to walk on such a grave, even accidentally. The concern about it would be something like today’s respect given to the American flag by many people. 

Here is what Jesus is getting at with his woe on those being so concerned with the tombs of the prophets: Honoring dead people and inanimate objects like graves while ignoring live people is not good. Respecting dead people of the past means nothing if we simultaneously ignore the live people right in front of us. For Jesus, one of the surest ways to hell is to give credence to Christian leaders long dead while flippantly disregarding the prophet or pastor presently in our lives who is taking pains to communicate God’s will and care for God’s people right now. 

Jesus knew quite well the telltale signs of hypocrisy: 1) hypocrites don’t practice what they preach; 2) hypocrites keep other people out of God’s kingdom; 3) hypocrites focus on externals; and, 4) hypocrites major on the minors. Hypocrisy, however, never has the last word – grace does. The final word to everything is God’s grace.  

For all of Christ’s severe words, his heart was filled with a love and a longing for his wayward people. Jesus died for the ungodly with deep concern, intention, and hope that everyone would come to know the true worship of God – filled with an abundance of mercy for the penitent sinner. 

When the prophet Isaiah experienced a vision of God his response was “woe is me!” (Isaiah 6:1-5). The appropriate response to today’s Gospel lesson is repentance – to see and turn from our own propensity toward spiritual and/or religious pride and the tendency to view the “other” as needing to repent, but not me.  

Let us, then, come to the cross of Jesus Christ and there find the grace which absolves us from such sin. Let us approach the empty tomb and find Christ’s resurrecting power of transformation. Let us approach the ascended Christ on the throne with both humility and confidence. Let us intercede for a world which desperately needs the peace of Christ. 

Lord Jesus Christ, you prayed that we would be one as you and your Father are one. We confess our resistance to your prayer. We have failed to maintain the unity of the Spirit. We have broken the bond of peace. For the times we have not listened to each other, when we have spoken in anger, haste, or fear, we are sorry. For the times we have not loved each other, when we have competed, or insulted or judged each other, we are sorry. For the harm that our disunity has done to our witness to the Gospel, we are sorry. Have mercy on us, we pray. Restore us to friendship with you and with one another, through the power of your Spirit. Lord, grant your grace for repentance to spiritual charlatans and victimizers; and, give your power to those distressed and victimized for forgiveness of their abusers, so that all of us together may strive to break the chains of oppression and show the peace of Christ in the world. Amen.