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.