As we read the Gospels, we come across passages where Jesus says the same thing, but not in exactly the same context. It seems to me that in those occasions we are coming across sayings, proverbs, that were favorites of Jesus. Like His parables, they are statements easy to remember, concise and maybe – on the surface – obvious but, inside, they are full of meaning because they reveal an important Kingdom Truth.
One of those sayings has to do with recognizing the times we are living in.
In Luke 12, we find a passage whose central message is the importance of being prepared for the coming of the Messiah. Every Jew in Jesus’ audience would have said ‘Amen, to that.’ They were all anxiously awaiting the coming of the Messiah, the coming of the King of Israel who would defeat all their enemies and return them to the status of being God’s unique Kingdom on Earth. And most of them assumed that, by virtue of being Jews, they automatically would become part of that triumphal kingdom.
But not everyone understood what that Kingdom would look like or what it takes to be able to enter in. Yet that is precisely what Jesus (and John the Baptizer before him) came to reveal. So, the first thing He tells the crowd gathered all around Him is this:
What matters to God is the real you.
Your high social position does not matter. That you think you are wise does not matter. That you say you are holy and righteous does not matter. Jesus could have said it that way and the crowd would have understood whom he was talking about: The Pharisees. But here, at this point in His ministry, when dealing with a subject so crucial as being ready for the Messiah, he does not mince words. Everyone needs to understand it clearly:
Luke 12:1-3 In those [times], the myriads of the crowd being gathered together, so that they trod one on another, he began to say to his disciples first, Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy; but there is nothing covered up which shall not be revealed, nor secret that shall not be known; therefore whatever ye have said in the darkness shall be heard in the light, and what ye have spoken in the ear in chambers shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.
The Pharisees prided themselves on their knowledge of the Law, on keeping (externally) every little regulation, of being the guardians of the conscience of Israel, self-righteously condemning all the sinners around them. But Jesus called them to account many times because, as Isaiah prophesied of them, it was all a lie:
Isaiah 29:13-14 And the Lord saith, Forasmuch as this people draw near with their mouth, and honour me with their lips, but their heart is removed far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught of men; therefore, behold, I will proceed to do marvellously with this people, to do marvellously, even with wonder, and the wisdom of their wise [men] shall perish, and the understanding of their intelligent ones shall be hid.
Their righteousness was all for show. But God sees the heart, and that’s what He cares about. All their wisdom, all their learning, availed them for nothing because they were treating it as if it were the teachings of man.
You see, if a man teaches you something, he can’t verify that you really learned it or believe it. You can just parrot it back to the teacher to get a good grade. And the fact that you passed the test proves nothing because we know there are a whole bunch of ways to cheat in an exam. BUT if these are the words of God, AND if He is the one who is going to administer the test, we are sunk… because no one can cheat God. Nothing is hidden from Him.
And Jesus says: if that’s the way you live, pretending you love God, but inside you are full of yourself… beware, because that lie, that hypocrisy, is like leaven. It is like yeast which all you have to do is mix a little bit into the flour, hide it in there where nobody can see it (you think), and from there it spreads and ferments on its own, eventually filling up all the dough.
If I choose to live ignoring the reality that God sees and judges my heart, then the darkness of that choice in me just engenders more darkness:
Matthew 29:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye pay tithes of mint and anise and cummin, and ye have left aside the weightier matters of the law, judgment and mercy and faith: these ye ought to have done and not have left those aside.
When all my heart is full of is me, myself, and I, it has no room left for loving my neighbor (with justice and mercy.) In fact, it has no room for God; faith can’t even fit in there. Why does this leaven spread so quickly inside me? Because I chose it. There is no worse blindness than the one we choose for ourselves. We cannot blame anyone else for it. We cannot claim we were fooled, that we didn’t know any better.
Matthew 29:24-26 Blind guides, who strain out the gnat, but drink down the camel. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but within they are full of rapine and intemperance. Blind Pharisee, make clean first the inside of the cup and of the dish, that their outside also may become clean.
Blind guides: Isn’t that a weird combination of words? Imagine walking down the street and seeing a blind man. You recognize him by the white and red cane he’s using to tap the ground before him, or maybe you recognize the seeing eye dog leading him. That sight would not shock you. That man has overcome his physical challenge and has found a way to live his life. But what would be shocking is to see that man holding the hand of a little child who is holding the hand of another little child and so forth… a whole line of school children being led along by a blind man trying to cross the street. Would that sight make sense to you?
What would you say to that man if you saw him do that? Doesn’t he know better?
The Pharisees took pride in knowing the Law intimately, in keeping every letter of the Law. Gnats were unclean insects; you were not supposed to eat them. So, they strained their water through a cloth filter before drinking it. But the laws that really mattered, of loving God and loving your neighbor, they ignored. In comparison it was like swallowing a camel while spitting out a gnat.
Again, the yeast just grows. They think they leave unclean things out but inside they abide worse uncleanness: their greed for whatever they can get from others (rapine) grows to the point that their conscience can no longer keep them in check, there is no moderation (intemperance).
Matthew 29:27-28 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye are like whited sepulchres, which appear beautiful outwardly, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Thus also *ye*, outwardly ye appear righteous to men, but within are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Do you know any Pharisees?
The first place to check is in the mirror. If I call myself a Christian, I really need to ask myself, what do I mean by that? What is it that I believe? What is it that I stand for? What is it that I do and say that proves I am a Christian? And every answer that I give myself, needs to be tested with the question: Would God agree?
I can say all sorts of things and find all sorts of people to agree with me; people that will claim they are just as Christian as me. And I bet you, I can get them to rally around me; and together we can band against all the evils we see in the world that disagree with our “Christianity”; not only turn against those evils but fight them, fight all those people who are trying to take away our “Christian” rights.
But is that what being Christian means? Is that what God is looking for when He looks inside my heart, and your heart?
What does He see when He looks in there?
Does He see His Son, Jesus, in me? Does He see someone whose first priority is to love God above all things (above money, above power, above country, above democracy, above family, above myself)? And then, does He see someone whose second priority is to love his neighbor, everyone and anyone around me, the way Jesus loved us all?
What is God expecting to see when He looks into our heart? Isn’t that the bottom line? If what I value, if what I use to define and validate my avowed Christianity, is not the same thing God is looking for, then I am just a modern-day Pharisee.
What does the Lord require of me?
But to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God (Micah 6:8).
This is the chain of righteousness.
That answer from the prophet Micah is all over the Sermon on the Mount. That is what proves whether or not I am a disciple of Jesus. It starts with the Beatitudes…
Am I poor in spirit? Do I recognize that before God, the Almighty, the Holy One, Creator of the universe, I am poor, needy, destitute? Do I know how short I fall of His goodness and righteousness? Or do I go around strutting my Christian righteousness in every Tweet I make?
Does the realization of my sins and my failures lead me to mourn? It is impossible to repent without mourning. Because every sin I have committed against God or one of his children should be unthinkable if I truly understand who this God is: The One who made me, and the rest of humanity, out of nothing… just because He loved us.
And maybe just as important as my sin: Does the reality of sin in other peoples’ lives also lead me to mourn? And in that mourning for them, am I moved to pray for them? Isn’t that the first thing to do? For I know personally the devastation that sin left unhealed will bring. That’s why Jesus told us: Beseech the Lord of the harvest, therefore, that He might send out workmen into His harvest (Matthew 9:38). The harvest, in Jesus’ eyes, has always been lost humanity; people enslaved by sin.
Maybe, more than anything else, how I respond to that lost humanity is the crucial test of the sincerity of my claim to be a follower of Christ. I can mourn and pray over them and then figure out how to bring Jesus to them or I could reject them. That is the alternative: I could call them out as sinners and gather myself a crowd of like-minded “Christians” and pass out the stones…
Sometimes I think that one of the best things we could ever do when facing challenges in our Christian walk is to ask ourselves: What would a Pharisee do?And then do the exact opposite.
I truly believe the right response to sin in this world, mine and yours, begins with mourning. That is why it is there in the Beatitudes. It is part of the chain of righteousness. Sincere mourning is a sign that my eyes have been opened to the reality of my position in this world.
With open eyes I can recognize that the main driving force behind my sins (and all the suffering they have brought) has been futile attempt after futile attempt to satisfy the yearnings of my soul with the things of this world.
Mourning should lead me to realize that I and this world I am living in are incompatible. Why? Because I was made in God’s image. And this world is not God’s Kingdom. That means that it makes no sense to spend all my energy trying to “get ahead” in this world.
Then, how should I walk in this world? Meekly. For there is nothing in it to be proud of. There is nothing to be gained by becoming powerful in the ways of this world. On the contrary, that pursuit of worldly power more often than not leads to destruction.
From walking in meekness, rejecting the power of this world, it is a small step to also reject the riches of this world. And so, instead of lusting after what I can have in this world, I am able to hunger and thirst for the true riches of the Kingdom of God. And when I do, I find out they all come from the righteousness of God.
Instead of destruction, this pursuit for the Kingdom of God leads to transformation. Because just as the leaven of hypocrisy multiplies itself to our ruin, the freedom from this world that comes from seeking the Kingdom multiplies the blessings in us. Hungering for the righteousness of God, makes us merciful. It grows in us a desire for purity of heart. It allows us to seek peace for all humanity, the same peace Jesus came to offer to all that would have it; not just those we like, or those we agree with. This is the chain of righteousness laid out in the Beatitudes at the beginning of Matthew chapter 5. It is the way we, on purpose, reject the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.