Luke 6:1-5 – Lord of the Sabbath

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (New International Version)

We Christians tend to be rather hard on the Pharisees. Yet, most of them, much like us, were just trying to uphold their understanding of God’s commands. They wanted to do God’s will. And so did Jesus.

The problem in the New Testament Gospels is that Jesus and some of the Pharisees (not all of them, e.g., Nicodemus) were at loggerheads about how to view and interpret the Law. Jesus wanted them to see the purpose of the law, the heart and spirit of the law, and who was the lord of the law. For Jesus, many of the Pharisees were spiritually blind. They either would not or could not discern who Jesus was and what he was all about.

So, when we refer to spiritual blindness, let’s have a bit of humility about it. Although for the Apostle Paul, a dramatic event happened in which the scales of blindness (both physically and spiritually) fell from his eyes, most folks have a gradual ability to see, an awakening which requires a process of time and growing awareness. This was true of Christ’s original disciples. They believed, yet their faith was an extended process over three years. It wasn’t until after Christ’s resurrection and Pentecost that their faith became complete.

Christ and the Pharisees by Belgian artist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)

Jesus didn’t like it that those who should know better, those persons for whom the light of God’s truth ought to be clear and present, were in darkness. When leaders are blind, then we have the blind leading the blind, and nobody finds the door of God’s kingdom.

Many of the Pharisees in the New Testament, most of the heretics in the early church, and some of the spiritual phonies of today are actually not charlatans, that is, they are not deliberately trying to deceive or lead others astray; they are not trying to keep people out of God’s kingdom – they think they are doing the right thing when they are actually leading others astray. 

One of the eye-opening realities I discovered, when I first began studying church history, is that the early heresies condemned at the church councils were doctrines promoted and put forth by men who were not evil bad people – they were just sincerely misguided. They thought they were helping the church better understand the nature of God and Christ, when in fact they were promoting unhealthy doctrine – unintentionally closing the door of God’s kingdom to some people. 

And later when I worked on my master’s thesis in nineteenth century American religious history, I read hundreds of sermons from southern preachers before the American Civil War. I learned that they had a biblical defense for the institution of black chattel slavery. Many of them were pastors of large churches and led many people to Christ, that is, white people. They were slamming the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of African-Americans, and teaching others to do the same.

We can unwittingly slam the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of people when we say God’s grace is for all and then turn around and avoid particular people; or whenever we have explicit written statements or rules that exclude people from serving or being served; or when we bind people to human traditions and practices instead of Holy Scripture. 

The seven deadly words of the Church, believing it is doing the Lord’s will, is, “We’ve-never-done-it-that-way-before… We cannot have somebody out in the field picking heads of grain and rubbing them in their hands. That’s reaping; it’s work; and you can’t do that on the Sabbath.”

Never mind that there are people trying to eat or attempting to enter the kingdom of God. So, we lose sight that the Law was meant to benefit people, to help them thrive and flourish, to lead them into the grace and knowledge of God. The Law gets turned on its head by becoming a heavy burden to carry instead of an easy yolk which brings freedom.

No matter the issue, the last word to everything is grace, God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  

Just as the priest in David’s day was gracious in giving him and his men the consecrated bread meant only for the priests, so Jesus was gracious in giving himself, the Bread of Life, for the benefit of the whole world.

For the Christian, the Law points to Christ, who is the Law’s fulfillment. Now, we carry one another’s burdens, and in doing so, we fulfill the Law of Christ.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful: Make us holy through your abiding divine presence. Enlighten the minds of your people more and more with the light of the everlasting Gospel. Bring erring souls to the knowledge of our Savior Jesus Christ; and those who are walking in the way of life, keep them steadfast in faith to the end.

Give patience to the sick and afflicted and renew them in body and soul. Guard those who are strong and prosperous from forgetting you. Increase in us your many gifts of grace and make us all fruitful in good works. This we ask, O blessed Spirit, whom with the Father and the Son we worship and glorify, one God, world without end. 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 23:13-28 – Whoa, Here Comes the Woes!

Pharisees by German painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1912

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but, on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (NIV)

I am not sure if today’s Gospel lesson was purposefully designed to fall on Halloween, or not. If it was, I guess the compilers of the Daily Lectionary wanted to scare the bejabbers out of us with Christ’s chilling pronouncement of woes upon hypocritical religious folk.

Christ’s scathing critique was directed against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, and a controlling religious leadership that stifled the true worship of God. The word “woe” literally means “disaster” “calamity” or “misery.” Jesus leveled seven of them squarely at the religiously committed who had an incongruent faith in which the outside did not match the inside.

“Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees” by French painter James Tissot (1836-1902)

Woe to the Door Slammers

Jesus wanted no slamming the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of ordinary people. The Lord has a zero-tolerance policy for keeping others on the margins and out of the reach of resources and people who could help them.

Several years ago, while working on my graduate thesis in American religious history, I read hundreds of sermons from antebellum southern preachers. Most of them had a uniform biblical defense of the institution of black chattel slavery. Many of the clergymen pastored large churches and led many white people to Christ. Yet, they slammed the door of God’s kingdom smack in the faces of African American slaves, and taught others to do the same.

We might unwittingly door-slam people when we say God’s grace is for all, and then turn around and use policies and procedures to exclude certain people. Typically, behind it all, is a commitment to old-fogy-ism instead of Holy Scripture. 

Woe to the Exporters of Hell

The religious insiders were mission-oriented and wanted to make disciples just like themselves, which unfortunately meant loading others down with a heavy burden of legalistic mumbo-jumbo. In doing so, they were exporting their brand of religion which weighed people down instead of uplifting them.

In contrast to this, Jesus was concerned to form followers in and around the biblical virtues of humility, sensitivity to sin, meekness, purity, mercy, and peace-making. 

Woe to the Misguided Oath-Takers

Oath-taking was an art form with the religious authorities. There was so much complexity with their rules regarding oaths that it was common to make lots of promises to God which were never kept. Chiefly because there was no real intention of keeping them from the get-go. So, Jesus called them on it and railed about their blindness of truth. 

The leaders had lost sight of what is important to God. They either could not or would not distinguish between important and unimportant matters. In Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed the issue of truth and oath-taking by saying, in essence, that if you’re going to play these games about promise-making and promise-keeping, then don’t swear or make promises at all. Just say “yes” or “no.” This was Christ’s way of saying that lies and liars come from Satan, not God. (Matthew 5:33-37)

Woe to Those Who Give to Get

It is good to give – not so good to give from selfish motives and as a means of avoiding other matters. The religious leaders neglected weightier issues of the law while focusing on their superb 10% giving skills. 

The way it worked was this: “Well, I do my part and give 10%, then I get to do whatever the heck I want with the other 90%.” Meanwhile, the things which God passionately cares about, like justice, mercy, and faith, took a back seat. Focusing on frivolous pennies instead of precious life is going to raise the ire of Jesus every time.

Life is supremely important to God. The Lord sees the single mom who struggles to make it; the lonely person who wonders if there is any worth to her existence; and the poor worker who is stuck in a job without a living wage. God cares about the needy persons around us:

This is what the Lord of Armies says: “Administer real justice and be compassionate and kind to each other. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and poor people. And do not even think of doing evil to each other.” (Zechariah 7:9-10, GW)

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NIV)

Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. (Proverbs 31:8, NRSV)

Justice, mercy, and faithfulness all have to do with neighbor love. It is easy to love those who love us back. Yet, the one who loves another, the outsider, the person for whom no one else cares or loves is the one whom Jesus is looking for. We are to have a spiritual vision of living in the world for the sake of the world, without being of the world. Apart from this vision, there is blindness.

Woe to the Squeaky Clean

The teachers of the law had a compulsion for ritual cleanliness. For Jesus, it was an inner issue of the heart, and not about outward washings. For example, having a polished and immaculately clean church building means little if the parishioners within are full of greed and self-indulgence. Christian ministry ought to be centered in cleaning up the human heart, and not just making sure the outside looks good. 

The ancient leaders were obsessed with not making a mistake and becoming impure. In a strict legalistic system, making a mistake equals the unpardonable sin. However, in a system of grace, people are encouraged to freely pursue God, and if they fail, are allowed the grace to try something different or try again.

Woe to Perfect Hair

Okay, that is not quite what the text says, but it is darned close. At Passover, when multiple thousands of people came to Jerusalem, the Pharisees whitewashed all the tombstones to make sure no one would inadvertently step on a grave. Because if someone did, they became unclean and unable to celebrate Passover. 

Jesus said the perfect hair people were like those tombstones – all nice, clean, spiffy, and looking good on the outside, but on the inside full of death. 

Inordinate focus on the outside only prevents one from hearing the cries of people all around us and responding with justice. On the farm, we would say, if there is no manure in the barn, there is no life.

Conclusion

Jesus gave us some telltale signs of the hypocrite:

  • Fails to practice what they preach.
  • Keeps other people out of God’s kingdom.
  • Focuses on externals.
  • Majors on the minors.

The final word, however, is not hypocrisy but grace. At the end of his tirade, Jesus broke into a tear-filled, heart-rending love song for his wayward people. The set of woes from Jesus, then, are not just blast-the-bad-guys. Jesus has a very deep concern for all people to know the true worship of God.

Matthew 16:1-4 – Interpreting Jesus

Christ the Ruler 400 C.E.
Christ the Ruler, from the Santa Pundenziana Basillica in Rome, c.400 C.E.

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (NIV)

It is a mystery that two persons who come from the same family, have the same training and experiences, can take such different perspectives on God, and go in completely different directions in their lives. Maybe it is not so much about shared events and circumstances as it is about how those experiences are interpreted by each person.  One gives herself to God, the other doesn’t. I believe the fulcrum of history rests on the person and work of Jesus Christ. In saying that, I just offered an interpretation of Christ which many people do not share.

We all have our slant and analysis of Jesus and his ministry in some way. Everyone has epistemic assumptions and metaphysical presuppositions which inform the way they look at the world, and how they discern Jesus.

The Jewish sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the ancient world took a different metaphysical spin on Christ’s ministry than did his disciples. The two groups were skeptical and wanted incontrovertible evidence of Messiah credentials from Jesus in the form of a sign.

It is important to note about the Pharisees and the Sadducees that they came from opposite ends of the political and theological spectrum.  The Pharisees were the Jewish conservatives, greatly concerned for Scripture and tradition. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were the liberals of their day, much more concerned with the Temple sacrifices and controlling all aspects of Jewish worship.  Most of the priests in the first century were Sadducees, whereas most of the scribes (who copied the Scriptures) were Pharisees.  They did not see eye to eye on much of anything, except Jesus.

To them Jesus was an untrained, sinner-loving, non-Temple endorsed teacher from lowly Nazareth who could not possibly be the Messiah.  The Pharisees did not like how Jesus handled the Torah; and, the Sadducees didn’t like all the nonsense Jesus was spouting about identifying himself as the true Temple.  In short, Jesus was a threat to the status quo.

So, they “tested” him, that is, they tried to tempt and trap Jesus into giving them a sign – they wanted him to do something dramatic to prove his credentials as Messiah. Just as Satan tempted Jesus to jump from the Temple and demonstrate he is Super Messiah, so the Pharisees and Sadducees asked for something that Jesus would not give them.

Instead, Jesus let them know they completely misinterpreted who he is and what he is doing. In fact, Jesus said they have all the evidence they need with the prophet Jonah.  Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so Jesus would be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.  Just as Jonah would rise from certain death, so Jesus would rise again.

Jesus insisted they needed to rightly decipher and act on the evidence they already had – which raises (pun intended) some critical questions for us, as well: Are we searching for something more than Christ’s resurrection?  Are we looking for some sign or some more information before we will act?  Do we think we need a class on spiritual gifts before we can serve?  Are we obsessed with how to do any kind of ministry or mission, instead of satisfaction with knowing what it is we are to do?

No further sign is given because we already have the redemption of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God.  We have everything we need to do the will of God.  So, we must discern our situation appropriately and cease believing we need all the answers to God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christian ministry.

It is imperative we go out and be missional people with an action/reflection model of obeying what we already know and then reflecting on it so we can go back out and do it again better. For the best interpretations come from a lived experience of putting our metaphysical notions into practice and trying them on for size – and finding that Jesus is enough.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.