“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 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.
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.
In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.…
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you. (NIV)
It is grace which teaches us, enabling and ennobling us to forsake ungodliness and embrace hope. Grace is the scandalous and radical blessing of mercy, forgiveness, and love to those undeserving of it. Judgment is no teacher; it only condemns with criticism leading to self-contempt. Grace inoculates us from the self-despising words of the inner critic, whereas the judgmental voice heaps derision upon the soul and agrees with anyone who comes along and ridicules, despises, or scorns us.
God’s grace in Christ is redemptive. It challenges the notion we are not enough in comparison to others. Grace makes us better instead of telling us we should be better. The redeemed person, made over with abundant grace, accepts herself as a precious child of God, and so, becomes impervious to the critical rejection of others. After all, she has been received and adopted by the Lord of all. Grace enables us to advocate for ourselves and others, since we have an Advocate alongside us continually.
The shame of our past, the struggles of the present, and the stress of a perceived future all begin to melt next to the warm and purifying fire of grace. Jesus has snatched us back. We belong to God. Eager to be upright and holy in all things, and patiently waiting for the return of Christ, every good thing Christians are and do is because of grace.
The grace of God empowers us to choose the good and eschew the bad. It lifts us with encouraging love and support while simultaneously strengthening our faith to chuck the ungodliness. It is imperative we get interested in the truth of grace as it pertains to self. In fact, the Apostle Paul began his letter to Titus with an emphasis on what is true:
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time. (Titus 1:1-2, NIV)
God is gracious. God is true. Therefore, grace is truth. The believer leans into and relies upon the unmerited and undeserved mercy and kindness of God, who does not merely speak truth but is truth itself. “I am the truth,” Jesus said to his disciples, as the very embodiment of honesty and veracity. (John 14:6)
There is a significant difference between doing good because of arm-twisting and living a godly life because of grace. Being cajoled into living the straight-and-narrow is accomplished typically through shaming another to the point of conformity. This is not the way of Christ. Grace bestows renegade love to extravagant sinners. Such a gift is so incredibly overwhelming that gratitude with delightful duty is the typical response.
Furthermore, grace is to be the example given to others. The Christian’s life is to be a model of saying “no” to unconscionable behavior and “yes” to a mindful righteousness which has awareness of the ways of grace. Like changing a filthy set of clothes, we are to put off self-condemning lies and put on the grace of the Lord Jesus. We are to put off the old ratty garments of judgmentalism and put on the new clean raiment given by Christ which is worthy of a royal child of God. Well, of course, we do not deserve this – which is why it is grace.
God is shaping and forming a people of grace in faith communities, distinct from and in stark contrast to judgmental persons in unjust structures of the world – a holy people, a special and treasured possession of the Lord, committed to observing divine ways of grace. (Deuteronomy 26:16-19)
Grace is one-way love. Watch other people you respect as examples and consider their happiness. You will see it over and over: one-way love lifts-up. One-way love cures. One-way love transforms. It is the change agent of life.
Almighty God and ever-present Lord of grace, you have brought me in safety to this new day. Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity. And in all I do today, direct me to the fulfilling of your gracious purposes through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.
That same night the believers sent Paul and Silas to another city named Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was true. The result was that many of them believed, including many important Greek women and men.
But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was telling people God’s message in Berea, they came there too. They upset the people and made trouble. So, the believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea. Those who went with Paul took him to the city of Athens. They returned with a message for Silas and Timothy to come and join him as soon as they could. (ERV)
Everywhere the Apostle Paul went on his missionary journeys he experienced both acceptance and opposition. Determined to spread the good news of Christ’s redeeming work, Paul found a receptive audience and was able to establish churches. However, by doing this, he also upset the religious status quo wherever he went, as well. As a result, there were times when Paul and his colleagues needed to steal out of town before an angry mob could get their hands on him. Sometimes, the furious cabal got a hold of him, and Paul forever carried the scars of those beatings on his body.
So, it must have been a refreshing experience for Paul to arrive in the city of Berea (located at the base of the Olympian Mountains in southwestern Macedonia) and discover a different spirit than he typically found in other places – a willingness to investigate, scrutinize, and grapple with the message presented.
To spiritually thrive and flourish in this life we all must embrace the noble character of remaining open-minded with a teachable spirit. Just as the body grows, changes, and matures over time, so the human spirit does the same. This means there is continual spiritual development. To become closed-minded and believe all questions are answered and settled is to cut off oneself from truth and reality.
The Apostle Paul, I believe, is a good model of what it takes to be open-minded and a lifelong learner. The following are some ways he kept alive to spiritual truth:
Paul found his motivation. He went on missionary journeys because he wanted to make Christ known in places where he wasn’t. “It doesn’t matter if people are civilized and educated, or if they are uncivilized and uneducated. I must tell the good news to everyone. That’s why I am eager….” (Romans 1:13-14, CEB)
Paul went to new places. Getting stuck in a rut comes from never doing anything new or going to new places. We don’t have to be missionaries like Paul to do some movement and discover personally unexplored places, both literally and spiritually. Habits and routines are good. Sometimes we just need to create new ones so that we see a different perspective and have new experiences. The inability to see another’s viewpoint comes from an unwillingness to entertain any kind of change.
Paul avoided speculation. He did not superimpose his own experiences onto others. Paul was remarkably open to people everywhere he went, instead of being afraid and expecting trouble and/or abuse. In other words, the Bereans were open to Paul because Paul was open to them. Paul avoided looking at them as Thessalonians or Philippians, both places where he got into loads of trouble just before coming to Berea. A contemporary way of stating Paul’s attitude and practice is that he was free of prejudice and discrimination.
Furthermore, notice the intellectual characteristics of the Berean people:
They were curious to hear what Paul thought.
They were able to have their ideas challenged.
They didn’t get angry when new ideas were presented.
They practiced both intellectual humility and mental empathy.
They believed Paul had a right to share his arguments, beliefs, and thoughts.
Today, in our intellectually and politically polarized world, far too many people are uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. So, they are unwilling to wrestle with spirituality by eliminating all mystery from their religion. When that happens, oppression is born. These are the folks who could not tolerate Paul’s ideas and gave him such a hard time. By rejecting alternative ideas that might challenge the status quo, people may be able to minimize uncertainty and risk – or at least their perception of risk – yet, the closing of their minds to other’s thoughts opens them to abusing the bodies of those same people.
When people are intellectually and spiritually proud, they wrongheadedly believe that they already know all there is to know, and so, they refuse to listen. At best, this limits the potential for learning; at worst, it forms a cognitive bias which blinds them to their own ignorance and blunts their ability for compassion. Instead, it is imperative we be humbler about our knowledge and that there is always more to learn.
Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom. As the source of all light, enlighten our spirits. Pour out on us the spirit of understanding so that our hearts and minds may be opened. Amen.