March 27, 2011
Matthew 23:1-7; 23-27; 37
Now, But Not Yet
I See Dead People
In 1999 one of the most popular movies was The Sixth Sense. You may have seen the movie, which starred Bruce Willis as a psychiatrist and Haley Joel Osment as a young boy who saw people who had died. There is a scene where the psychiatrist asks this young boy about the people he sees. The young boy makes several comments, the most interesting being they don’t know they are dead. Seems like a pretty big thing to overlook if you ask me.
I think of that line when I read this passage from Matthew’s gospel, a passage where Jesus just rips into the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus also saw dead people, and those people also didn’t know they were dead. They were alive physically, but when Jesus looked upon the scribes and Pharisees he pronounced them to be people who were spiritually dead, and tragically they had no clue they were spiritually dead. In their minds, they were righteous and were living exemplary lives; they believed themselves to be the very embodiment of religious people. Kind of scary to think about, isn’t it, being blind to the reality of being spiritually dead.
When I read a passage such as this I wonder, what if there are things about my life that I don’t recognize? What if there is spiritual deadness in my life and I can’t see it? Could I be as blind as the scribes and the Pharisees in recognizing spiritual deadness?
There are few things worse, I think, than cold, dead religion; except perhaps, not being able to recognize that cold, dead religion is prominent in your life.
Jesus takes on the cold, dead religion of the scribes and Pharisees in this passage. One of the reasons Jesus ratchets up his criticism of the scribes and Pharisees is because it was only days before his crucifixion. Jesus is already in Jerusalem, the Triumphal Entry having taken place just a day or so earlier. Being only days from his crucifixion, Jesus turns very serious as he draws a distinction between dead religion and a living faith. He has only a few days remaining with his followers so he is very intent in this passage to peel away the layers of lifeless religion that dominated the landscape of faith at this time in history.
So let’s go through this passage, the highlights of which we read, as we discover what constitutes dead religion. Jesus groups his criticisms under a couple of categories, the first of which is –
Dead religion is legalistic and imposes a burden upon others.
I have talked about legalism on more than one occasion, but it always bears repeating that legalism is a dangerous distortion of faith and seeks to drain the life out of genuine faith. Legalism is the desire to create lists of rules and regulations about how we are to live and then seeks to impose those rules and regulations upon others. Legalism is not content, for instance, to say that one should honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy. That is too simple and leaves too much room for personal interpretation about what it means to honor the Sabbath. Legalism will define in very minute details how others ought to behave on the Sabbath and if those rules aren’t followed the legalists become very condemning.
One of the best examples I can think of for legalism is Barney Fife. We all love the character of Barney, don’t we? Barney was a legalist – he arrested almost the entire town of Mayberry when Andy was out of town for just eight hours, and it was for offenses such as jaywalking – jaywalking, in Mayberry! Can you imagine what a horrendous crime that would be? Andy sits down with Barney and tries to explain to him the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law.
Jesus was very hard on legalism and always condemned it. Early in Matthew’s gospel he says Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). In today’s passage he is more direct, saying of the scribes and Pharisees do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to life a finger to move them (verses 3-4).
Legalism is when we are all about form, and we are rigidly and unbending about form and forget about the intent and purpose behind the form.
The scribes and Pharisees were merciless in taking a rather basic tenant of faith and expanding it into a myriad of rules and regulations. Jesus simplified faith down to two basic elements – love God and love our neighbor. That is simplified in the sense that there are two basic commands, but it’s not simple to actually live those commands. The scribes and Pharisees felt compelled to make long lists that governed every conceivable behavior and then codified those lists into religious law, with the effect being that people were weighed down with the burden of the innumerable laws and regulations.
Faith is often challenging, but that is not the same as being weighed down by the burden of rules and regulations. Faith is not meant, Jesus says, to weigh us down as a burden. Faith should lift us up and bring life, not crush us under the weight of legalistic regulations.
It is extremely discouraging, I think, when you enter some churches for worship only to be beaten down with the weight of their legalistic rules and regulations. It’s what causes many people to look at churches and say that’s exactly why I don’t go to church.
The spiritually dead are hypocritical.
A hypocrite, someone has said, is someone who complains about the amount of sex and violence on their VCR.
We don’t like that people complain that churches are full of hypocrites, but Jesus pointed out that the religion of his day had its share of hypocrites. Five times in this passage Jesus calls the scribes and the Pharisees hypocrites. Five times! Can you imagine how they must have been fuming! But we can also imagine the people listening who were nodding their heads in agreement with Jesus. Lots of people recognized that the scribes and Pharisees were hypocritical; Jesus had the nerve to point it out.
Hypocrisy is the attempt to present one’s self as something they are really not. Sometimes a hypocrite can fool people, but most of the time people can see through the façade.
The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was their inability to recognize their hypocrisies. Everyone has failures and shortcomings; that’s not the issue. The real issue is when we either can’t recognize our shortcomings or we refuse to recognize them. That is when we deceive ourselves, and we mistakenly believe we can deceive others as well.
These were people – the scribes and Pharisees – who should have known better. The scribes and Pharisees studied the scriptures, they studied the long history and tradition of faith, and they were also were people who were supposed to be leading and teaching others about what constituted the important elements of faith. It was from an attitude of love that Jesus spoke these words. Jesus was all about bringing life, and his desire was to bring life to dead and dying forms of faith. They were hard words, but they were words that he spoke to raise that dead faith to life.
The spiritually dead are more worried about external matters than internal matters.
The scribes and Pharisees were more concerned about appearances than the content of character or the condition of one’s heart.
There is something insidious in the fact that one can follow all the rules of religion – and in the process be seen as very faithful – while at the same time violating the fundamental foundations of faith. It is possible to fulfill all the external regulations, as did the scribes and Pharisees, and yet have little or no love in one’s heart for other people; it is possible to be a great giver of one’s resources but not give even the smallest portion of one’s heart in love for others.
Jesus said the scribes and Pharisees were like a cup that looked sparkling clean on the outside but inside was dirty and grimy. Just as they were very concerned that the cup was ceremonially and ritually clean without concern for the inside, the same was true about their lives – as long as everything looked fine on the outside it didn’t matter about the inside.
And then Jesus makes an even harsher comparison as he says they are like whitewashed tombs, looking nice on the outside but containing only deadness on the inside. Tombs were whitewashed at times to try and make people forget the purpose of a tomb. It was symbolic, Jesus said, of the person who is interested only in the appearance of faith and righteousness, while underneath that veneer of righteousness can be hidden all manner of hypocrisies.
Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees made a great show of their religion – seeking the places of honor, offering their long public prayers in order to impress people, making it obvious when they were fasting, and calling attention to their offerings. Love, though, is its own evidence. When love is the foundation, it never has to be proven, because it is obvious. If you love your spouse or your children, you don’t have to make lists of how you will prove it; your actions will demonstrate your love.
A number of years ago I was in the back of a sanctuary when a young man walked in for worship. It’s not uncommon for people to dress casual these days but this was in the days when people did not. He came in wearing a T-shirt and pair of jeans and in one pew someone leaned over to their neighbor and said look what the cat has drug in. What they didn’t know was the young man was 18 years old and on his own. His father was in rehab and his mother left and he had no idea where she was. The young man was trying to continue with school and worked in a restaurant to make some kind of a living. Appearances don’t tell the whole story, do they?
Jesus was so saddened by the presence of lifeless, dead religion. Jesus is about bringing life. May we always accept the life he brings.