Honest Liar or Dishonest Priest?


Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’  So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.  You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:   “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'” Matthew 15:1-9 ESV


And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”…. Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled?  But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” Matthew 15:10-11, 17-20 ESV

Jesus leveled his criticism at people who seemed to honor God in the way they spoke and acted, but they didn’t honor God in their hearts. He quoted the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel who carried a similar theme in their writings. The prophets were as harsh on the religious and political leaders of their day as Jesus was in his day.

The statement, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, seems to miss the mark in light of the importance Jesus places on the heart, does it not? Not that what we do isn’t important. It’s just that what we do starts with who we are, and who are is in our hearts.

Continue reading “Honest Liar or Dishonest Priest?”

Inner Realities and Outer Reflections

Sun Thru the Leaves (2)Jesus looked past appearances everywhere he went. He ate with “tax collectors and sinners”; he rescued the prostitute being stoned; he answered people according to their thoughts, and not the questions that came from their lips. That inner focus was a common theme for his interactions with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were religious leaders of the day. Though Rome governed the region, the Pharisees governed the everyday culture of the Jewish people. They were showy in their religious practice. It was a different culture than the culture we experience in the United States. Although the state was ruled by secular Rome, local cultural life was dominated by religious leaders, much like a modern day Syria or Egypt (until recently).

It was “fashionable” to be religious then, unlike modern life in the United States or most of Europe. People who were not sufficiently “religious” were ostracized and marginalized. Over many years, the Law passed down from Moses had been embellished with myriad intricate practices that people were expected to follow to show their adherence to the Jewish faith. Penalties for failing to follow the required religious practices were stiff. We would call it a very legalistic society today.

That was the context in which Jesus walked the earth, and He stood in sharp contrast to it. Jesus was most critical of the Jewish leaders. We do not see him criticizing the Roman leaders. In fact, he had little interaction with them. Jesus did not completely ignore the secular culture, as we see him interacting with the Roman centurion, and even praising him for his faith. Jesus did not focus on the outward reality; He was looked through the appearances at the inward reality.

The Old Testament is nothing, if it is not the story of God’s revelation of Himself to a particular people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the descendants of David, the Jewish people of the day. It is no mistake that Jesus was born of the line of Abraham, and God became flesh and appeared to the people of Israel in keeping with the ancient promises to his Abraham and his lineage. That the Jewish nation was God’s “chosen” people, however, belied a larger plan for revealing Himself to the world through hHis interactions with that people group.

In Luke 11, a Pharisee invited Jesus to have lunch with him. Being a Pharisee observant in the ways of the law, it was not long before his attention was drawn to Jesus’ lack of deference to the religious legalities of the time. Jesus did not perform the expected ceremonial washing before reclining at the table. The Pharisee was quick to notice the deviation from the religious norms that all devout Jews were expected to follow and called it to Jesus’ attention. Jesus responded (Luke 11:37-44)

“[Y]ou Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness.”

This reaction seems a bit harsh toward the Pharisees. It was visceral and seemingly extreme. He called the Pharisees foolish (Luke 11:40) followed by three statements that begin with the words “Woe to you Pharisees”! He criticized them for tithing while disregarding “justice and the love of God”; He criticized them for loving the front seats in the synagogues and “respectful greetings in the market places”. (Luke 11:42-43) He called the Pharisees “concealed tombs” that people walk over unaware of the lack of life in their religious show. (Luke 11:44)

The extreme response signals the gravity of the situation. Thinking themselves models of godliness, the Pharisees were in reality far from God.

We see Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees today with the benefit of hindsight vision. His reaction seems obvious as we read the text. We are tempted to cheer him on, but that might be a dangerous reaction. Jesus has a way of taking us where we least expect and to turn the tables on our way of thinking.

Today, we live in a different world. Legalistic practices are viewed by many as Neanderthal, superstitious and ignorant. People who espouse a belief in the literal meaning of scripture are marginalized as religious fanatics. We live in a very different culture, and that difference may cloud the significance of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees 2000 years ago.

We live in a largely secular world with secular leadership that marginalizes and minimizes the significance of religious practice in our modern lives. Our cultural leadership is irreligious. Outward signs of religious practice today are met with indifference or smirks or angry intolerance.

To be sure, the error of the Pharisees still exists. Self-righteous showy Christians may be as empty in their practices today as the Pharisees’ in Jesus day and as judgmental in their views of others. Some people live in a cloistered church environment, but most of us do not live such an insulated life.

The broader cultural norm displays a different kind of self-righteousness. The arrogance of intellect rules the discourse of the cultural leaders today. The hidden tombs are found on college campuses preaching a different kind of “faith”. They preach devotion to each their own, and anything goes and morality is relative. Political correctness and “tolerance” are practiced today with same zeal of the Pharisees’ rituals. They practice a kind of “tolerance” that makes no room for adherence to the Bible and biblical values. Against that back drop, hiding our religious convictions may invoke the charge that we are embarassed to be associated with Jesus.

Regardless of whether you live in a cloistered religious segment of society or the broader culture of secular society, or a combination of both (which is most likely the case for most people), there is no life in anything other than God. There is no life in religion or irreligion. Jesus instructed the Pharisee in Luke 11:41 to “give that which is within as charity” and to observe “justice and the love of God” without neglecting the outward things. Jesus wants you! He wants the sacrifice of your self, your heart, your values, your love. He wants the inner reality to be reflected in the outward actions of your life.

Jesus does not want us to be conformed to this world or to be conformed to any cultural norm. His message was to make sure the inner man is aligned with the outer man in devotion to God the Father. A person’s actions are not profitable toward God unless they flow from an inner reality of love for God. Embarassment to be associated with Christian believers may just be the other side of the Pharisaical coin.

Today we may be more inclined to err in our lack of outward acts of devotion due to the culture in which we live that tends to marginalize showy religious behavior. Consider the cultural fate of Tim Tebow. We should be careful not to become comfortable with our ability to line up with cultural norms, whatever they are, and neglect our inner orientation toward God.

I do not exclude myself from this reality. Pray that our inner reality reflects a love of God and that our actions are a reflection of that love. May we be real as Jesus was real. May we be conformed in our thoughts and desires by God to His reality, and not the emptiness of modern cultural observances in whatever form they take. May our outward actions flow from the inner reality of God’s love. Lights are not meant to be hidden; they are meant to reflect the Giver of Light; and actions do not reflect a life devoted to the love of God unless those acts are motivated by the Lover of all mankind.

The Contents Are All that Matter

3rd Grade Faberge EggThe old saying, “you cannot judge a book by its cover” has the ring of truth. Jesus said essentially the same thing, “Do not judge by appearances….” (John 7:24)

One difference between God and people is that God sees the heart; we only see the deeds. “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” Jeremiah 17:10 When we judge others, we can’t see what God sees. We enter dangerous territory. We tread into the territory of God. Indeed, we trespass on the province of God.

Even though we cannot see into the hearts and minds of other people, we sometimes act as if we can. We spend much time and energy analyzing and dissecting the specs in other’s eyes, ignoring or missing the logs in our own eyes. We go where angles dare not tread.

At the same time, we spend much time and energy making ourselves look good. We do things for others to see because we want approval and a pat on the back. Jesus judged the Pharisees for doing exactly that. He called them “whitewashed tombs”. They looked good on the outside, but they were dead on the inside. The people who pray eloquently for others to hear or give publically for others to see have received their rewards, Jesus said. The approval, acceptance and praise of other people is the reward, but the ultimate reward from God is lost in the process.

Does that mean that any public prayer or gift is of no consequence? I don’t think so. It all depends on the attitude of the heart and mind. It depends on the things that only God sees. God searches our hearts and examines our minds to judge our deeds. If the heart and mind is right when we pray and when we give, our blessing comes from God.

It seems to me that the same principle must work in reverse: that a person who only prays alone and only gives when others are not looking, but does it out of a heart and mind of pride and self-righteousness, is no better off than the person who prays and gives in public to be recognized by others. Again, what matters is what God sees, not what other people see or do not see. What matters is the heart and mind. Our deeds will be judged and rewarded according to the attitudes of our hearts and minds.

If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we do not always do what we know we should do. We fail to do the right things sometimes even when we want to do the right things (or at least think we want to). We sometimes have a hard time recognizing the truth about ourselves. We condemn ourselves when Jesus says there is no condemnation. We judge others when we are quick to forget our own shortcomings. Frankly, we are not well equipped even to judge ourselves accurately. Who, then, are we to judge other people, let alone their motives?

If we are trusting in ourselves and the good things that we do and have done, we are trusting in the wrong things. Yes, God judges and rewards us according to the things we do, but God searches our hearts and examines our minds in order to reward us according to our conduct. It is not the conduct, itself; it is the heart and mind of the person that counts. We can’t even be certain of our own motivations. Thus, we must pray: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! … see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24)

What a state we are in? But that is precisely where God wants us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) If we could judge ourselves accurately, wouldn’t we also become proud of that fact? The truth is that we are utterly dependent on God even for the most basic of things.

Jesus said, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:37-38) Jesus suggests that we will be judged and measured by the same standard we judge and measure others. If we live our lives by that premise, we will give generously and forgive unconditionally and spend no time judging or condemning others.

If God is in the business of rewarding people according to their deeds, we can trust the judging to God. We are not in the position to judge even ourselves. That will free us up to get about the business of doing what God wants us to do: love God with all your heart and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. There is no higher calling. It does not matter what is on the cover; the contents are all that matter.