In the 23d chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we listen in on a rant! It is the opposite of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than naming as “blessed” those who have labored for Godly purposes, Jesus calls out warnings to the religious elite. “Woe to you, you who think you are bigshots” is not the desired opening for a letter delivered by FedEx to my doorstep! For my spiritual report card I’d much rather read that I am blessed than feel upbraided by a teacher who’s yelling in my direction!
In his commentary on Matthew’s writing, Dale Bruner refers to the Pharisees as “The Serious.” They take themselves seriously. They seek to overachieve in their job description to earn the accolades of their people. The Old Testament Law that righteous Pharisees still followed in Jesus’ day required that people give one tenth—or a tithe—of their corn, wine and oil to the Temple. Those three food items were regular staples in their diet. But The Serious wanted to exceed even the most generous giver with extreme stewardship. Even of their spices they measured out a tenth of what grew in their gardens. With pomp and circumstance, they brought it into the Temple with a great showing of importance. They were SERIOUS about their commitment—and don’t you forget it! But Jesus didn’t take them too seriously. In fact, He was unimpressed! The problem with the Serious in any religion is that they do too much in the wrong spirit and do too little with the really important matters.
Jesus gives a few examples using exaggeration. Can you remember back to summer when there’s a swarm of gnats that seem to hover in place, blocking your path with a thousand weightless bodies? Jesus accuses the Pharisees of straining one microscopic gnat out of their lemonade but then swallowing a camel. This imagery is funny and pointed!
On the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Adar, which falls between February and March, the graves were painted with bright white chalk in preparation for Passover. This paint provided a layer of protection against spiritual uncleanness for anyone who might brush up against them. Jews of Jesus’ day were forbidden to come into contact with anything related to a dead body. But the chalk was considered “clean” even though it was a thin coating on gravestones. The cemetery was a bright white as Passover arrived. The whitewashing simply made the stones that marked the resting place of the dead appear clean. You needed simply to dig beneath these stones to come into contact with the bones and decaying bodies of lifeless corpses. The Serious were attentive to appearance and unconcerned with substance. Jesus cried out woe to these religious bigwigs who majored in the production of false pretenses! As someone said at the local ministerial meeting this past Wednesday: The Pharisees knew the stuff but didn’t do the stuff so that was the problem! In Old Testament terms, they were hard-hearted!
A young woman named Meredith grew up in our congregation and is now married with two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. Her picture-perfect life was interrupted when her daughter was less than a month old. Her body didn’t feel right. Initial misdiagnoses allowed symptoms to worsen until she checked into the hospital with fevers, migraines and vision issues. She was diagnosed with endocarditis, an infection of the heart. Doctors moved quickly, performing open-heart surgery on Meredith the very next day. Her mother described the procedure to me. The surgeon had to remove the hard shell that encased her heart, piece by delicate piece. The functioning of the heart had been increasingly impeded by this shellac that was formed by the virus. It took eight hours to surgically attack the infection that had spread to her brain, causing seizures. It had landed on her hip, hindering her ability to walk. Endocarditis can be a death sentence if not diagnosed and aggressively treated. Meredith had to follow up the surgery with a rigorous dose of antibiotics injected into her arm daily.
Meredith has been an athlete her whole life. To find herself in such bodily weakness was unimaginable. She had to surrender her control, allowing doctors to take on the battle for her. She had to entrust her children, including her newborn baby girl, into the loving care of family members. The focus had to be on herself, an unlikely situation for a mom of a tiny baby and a young boy. She had to fall into the loving arms of the God she knew from her childhood, a God that carried her through the valley of the shadow of death until her heart was healthy once again.
Being hard-hearted is a terminal diagnosis unless it is detected and treated. A heart can be encased in brittle layers we’ve put in place to protect us from seeing what we don’t want to see. Jesus called out the Pharisees for layers of self-righteousness and pride that clouded their vision. Their blindness neutralized their leadership as spiritual guides. “Woe to you”, Jesus cried out, warning them that the need for heart surgery was urgent. Though they carefully tended to their outer appearance and reputation, their bodies were infected with diseased morals.
The journey of faith is one of letting go. Do you like the word surrender? Me neither! Jesus was teaching His disciples, who sacrificed their personal lives to follow Him, that they had to relinquish control over their carefully-crafted destiny and fall into the care of God. This story of Jesus’ preaching tells us that it’s a matter of life and death.
Jesus calls us to let go of check mark religion. You know, when we think that we deserve better because we can check off boxes on our spiritual report card that give us top ratings? Perhaps we are guilty of tithing of the herbs in our cupboard but ignoring the needs of our neighbor. I remember a time when I noticed a tiny staple on the floor of my car. I picked it up and threw it out the window. A staple didn’t belong in my car. Mind you, this was my big, red suburban that I drove for 17 years, hauling children from one place to another. This was the car that had a back seat so removed from my driver’s seat that I didn’t notice that one of my kids had spilled an Oreo McFlurry back there until it was dried and crusted on the upholstery weeks (months?) later. This car was not kept in pristine condition by any means. So why did I care that a staple had somehow infiltrated my vehicle? And why, I wondered later, did I think that a staple belonged on the face of this earth? Whether it remained on asphalt or ended up on grassy soil, a staple, tiny as it is, didn’t belong there. I would never consider tossing a bag of McDonalds’ wrappers out my window but somehow I didn’t think twice about throwing a manufactured piece of metal out of my window. Are there gradations to sin? Am I focusing on the wrong thing, thinking I’m justified in the little transgressions? What is the condition of my heart when looking at how I direct my actions from one day, one week, one year to the next?
Jesus cries out, “Woe…” to the religious authorities who didn’t hesitate to put others down so as to elevate themselves. Sounds like politics, doesn’t it? I wonder if any of those Pharisees in attendance heard Jesus message and yielded to the heart surgery that was needed for their spiritual survival? It’s uncomfortable to let go. Whom do you trust when you have to do that? What do you stand to lose? The Serious, Jewish Upper-crust entrusted with caring for their people, were called to cede center-stage and all the perks that come with celebrity status. They were directed in Jesus’ sermon to submit to God’s rule. Jesus assured the people who were as anxious about letting go as we are, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10) What matters is the health of our heart not the carefully tailored exterior that we showcase to the folks we wish to impress. Do we believe Jesus’ promise of abundant life? Or are there promises in our world that allure us into thinking that the best is yet to come only if we pledge our loyalty to them? Is our IRA, our job, our physical beauty, our intellect what keeps us anchored? As the DOW plummets and a virus spreads, do we feel like the rug is pulled out from underneath us?
Jesus is a prophet of economics. He calls out those whose plates are overflowing because they have taken advantage of others. How people make their money and establish rich lives matters. God sees what’s inside the cup, what’s buried under the gleaming white tombstone rather than being deceived by the exterior.
I love the mystery of geodes. Maybe you’ve been surprised by one before. The exterior looks so bland, so unremarkable. But the interior to this stone, when it is cracked open, reveals crystals stacked on top of each other to reflect back beams of light in a hundred different directions. The exterior of the disciples Jesus chose was not noteworthy. They were fishermen, a despised tax collector, sons and husbands of ordinary people. But Jesus saw that their heart condition was good. They were not so full of themselves that they could not hear the Word of Truth Jesus preached. It’s easy to block out the needs of others when our own needs are abundantly met. But Jesus warned the Serious, the Elite, that they were doomed if they didn’t confess their heart disease and submit to His authority so as to have the truly abundant life.
Dale Bruner challenges us through his interpretation of this passage: “’Clean up the inside of the cup first, and then the outside is clean as well.’ Change your way of earning money and you will clean your house. Clean up your business and you wash your dishes; change your politics of selfishness and you have the house beautiful. First conquer in your inner life your wild lust to possess; then what you do outwardly will be clean.” (Matthew: A Commentary/The Churchbook by Frederick Dale Bruner, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1990)