Theme: Be Real
This week’s lesson explains Christ’s judgments on the Pharisees and how they apply to us today.
“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law:justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.”
We have been discussing the seven woes Jesus spoke to the Pharisees. The third is for trivializing religion. Jesus called people who handle truth in this useless and corrupting way “blind guides,” meaning that they cannot see spiritual issues clearly and therefore not only lead others wrongly but fall into a pit themselves (Matthew 15:14). Are we to suppose that there is nothing of this in today’s religious circles? I suggest that this happens whenever teachers make delicate distinctions about things the Bible teaches, arguing, “This may be sin, but this closely-related type of misconduct is not” or, “Jesus may be saying this, but again he may be saying something quite different,” and fail to take the Bible’s statements at face value and insist not only that truth is truth but that it is always truth and is binding on everyone.
Process theology is especially guilty of this, for it asserts that God himself is changing and that what was true at one time is not necessarily true today and that what was wrong in the days of our fathers may actually be virtuous now. Indeed, we ourselves are changing. We are creating reality, and the values we create for ourselves are as valid as those from any former moment of world history. Ministers are guilty of this failure when they shade the truth of Bible doctrine so as not to offend powerful or wealthy people or merely those who listen to them.
4. For neglecting what is actually important (vv. 23-24). Jesus’ fourth charge is that the Pharisees fretted over the law’s minutia while neglecting matters that were ultimately important. His example is the way the Pharisees handled tithing. The law required tithing of grain, wine and oil and the firstborn of the flocks (Deuteronomy 14:22-29). Leviticus 27:30 also mentions fruit from trees. But the Pharisees had greatly expanded this to include a tenth of even household spices such as “mint, dill and cummin.” These would be grown in household plots and would exist in small amounts. So Jesus’ complaint is about their preoccupation with mere trivia. He does not say that they are wrong to tithe spices. On the contrary, they should not neglect such tithing (v. 23). But what was wrong is that they had allowed a concern for minutia to obscure such weightier matters as “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (v. 23).
Do we do that today? We do if we allow small points of theology or religious practice to crowd out the pursuit of justice for every human being, showing mercy to the poor and helpless and being faithful to God in living for and serving him. Micah asked, “And what does the Lord require of you?” He answered wisely, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
5. For self-indulgence (vv. 25-26). The Pharisees debated hard about what it means to keep a kosher kitchen, and the rules they devised were many and complex. William Barclay reports on what some of them were like. “An earthen vessel which is hollow becomes unclean only on the inside and not on the outside; and it can only be cleansed by being broken. The following earthen vessels cannot become unclean at all – a flat plate without a rim, an open coal-shovel, a grid-iron with holes in it for parching grains of wheat. On the other hand, a plate with a rim, or an earthen spice-box, or a writing-case can become unclean. Of vessels made of leather, bone, wood and glass, flat ones do not become unclean; deep ones do. If they are broken, they become clean.”
After a few more examples, Barclay concludes: “The food or drink inside a vessel might have been obtained by cheating or extortion or theft; it might be luxurious and gluttonous; that did not matter, so long as the vessel itself was ceremonially clean.”1
The obvious application of this is the concern even most church-going people seem to have for keeping up appearances. As long as we go to church, talk nicely, give a bit of our money to charitable causes and do our civic duty, it does not matter much whether we are dishonest in our business practices, covetous in money matters, cruel in dealings with our families, selfish, proud or arrogant. We may even say, “What I do in my own private life does not matter; it is nobody’s business but my own.” Jesus did not think this way. On the contrary, he said, “You hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (vv. 25-26).
1 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol, 2, Chapters 11 to 28 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), pp. 326, 327.
What was the problem with the Pharisees’ policy on tithing?
What is wrong with process theology?
Can you think of any examples of “blind guides” in Christianity today?
How do you see process theology practiced in the church and in the culture today?
Do you fall into the category of those who allow small points to override the big picture?
“And what does the Lord require of you?…To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).