Monday, November 25, 2013

You Can't Judge Me!

Matthew 7:1-6

If you’ve ever watched a daytime talk show, or if you’ve ever been on one, or if you’ve walked in certain circles, you’ll hear the phrase “don’t judge me” or even “only God can judge me.”

We have been studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and in today’s passage, Jesus is taking on judging. You all know the first part of this passage – everyone likes to quote it. In King James English, no less: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

We generally seem to understand that God is the God of Justice. Psalm 50:6 tells us that the heavens proclaim his righteousness, for he is a God of justice. We also know that God will ultimately judge everyone. In Romans 12:19, Paul warns against taking revenge. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. The right idea that our culture has grabbed a hold of is that God is The Judge. But we’ve also kind of slid in a mandate, usually from people in the midst of sin, that only God has the right to judge anybody.

However, if you think about it, we judge people all the time, and we judge people based on all kinds of criteria. We judge superficially: based on clothes, appearance, tattoos, and family name. We judge on reputation – what are they known for? What have they done in the past? We judge people on the way they talk. We judge people based on how long they’ve lived in the area (or if their family is from the area). I’ve told you that on the weekend when we moved here, someone local judged that I was a pastor because I didn’t have any tattoos or piercings and I had all my teeth. At other times, people have judged that I’m “too young to be a pastor” or I don’t “dress like a pastor.”

One thing that I have found funny for years: certain segments of society act and dress in such a way as to be noticed and in-your-face, yet then they complain that people are judging them because of their looks. Here’s the strange juxtaposition: Our culture says, “You can’t judge me.” Meanwhile, our society continues to judge.

When people in our culture say, “You can’t judge me,” or “only God can judge me,” they base their claim on what Jesus said. In fact, one of the favorite verses to cite is the passage in John 8, where Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. Jesus responded by writing on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) And one-by-one, they all leave until it was just the woman and Jesus. And he asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. (John 8:10-11a) Now go and do whatever makes you happy.* (this last part is filed under “things Jesus never said”)

This is the picture our culture loves; the nice Jesus, always loving and kind and accepting. He probably has children in his lap and a little lamb over his shoulder. He would never judge anyone. Right? Except that this story ends with Jesus telling the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11b)

If you didn’t notice, Jesus was so judgmental as to determine that the lifestyle that this woman was living was sinful. And if discipleship means becoming more like Jesus, then there will be times when we judge, and that’s a good and right and righteous and biblical thing.

The big question, then, is: When and what can we judge? And when and what can’t we judge? Let’s go back and look at what Jesus said.

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)

If you look elsewhere in scripture, even in Jesus’ words, Jesus does not say that we can’t judge or discern between right and wrong. In fact, Jesus presupposes that disciples will make judgments. Later in this same chapter, Jesus tells his disciples to judge false prophesy, to judge between good and bad fruit. In Matthew 10, when  Jesus sends his disciples out on their first mission trip, he says this to them: If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. (Matthew 10:14) Sounds an awful lot like judging to me.

In Matthew 16, Jesus tells his disciples to be wary of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. And in Matthew 18, Jesus tells his followers how to deal with sin in the church, starting with going and pointing out their sin, just between the two of you (Matthew 18:15). We have to make a judgment if we are going to go point out sin.

In the context of Christian fellowship, according to 2 Timothy 4:2, we are supposed to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.” We are supposed to hold one another accountable and keep one another on track. If we do not, we are not being the Church. Proverbs 12:15 says: The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel.

The point here is that the Bible tells us to judge, even Jesus tells his disciples to judge. Nowhere does Jesus say, “by that I mean, remain silent when others do evil,” but we’ve latched on to this “judge not” part and ignored the context. The context is that the way we judge is going to be the way we are judged. In other words, if we are harsh judges of other people, we will be judged harshly.

The big issue here is hypocrisy. Many of us have known authority figures who went by a “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy. I remember my 8th grade algebra teacher, who routinely made fun of students, but when a student would make fun of him, he’d immediately get mad and gruffly say, “OK, it’s time to get back to work.”

When it came to hypocrisy, the Pharisees had the market cornered. They were quick to point out anyone’s flaws or sins, but they were very careful to keep theirs covered by a religious veneer. And so Jesus says: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

The issue here is not that we do not have any right to judge one another. It’s much deeper. There are times when someone else really is doing something wrong, but it’s none of our business. There are times when someone else really is doing something wrong, but we don’t know their story. And there are times when someone else really is doing something wrong and we don’t have the right to speak because we’re deep in sin ourselves.

Early one Sunday morning, I arrived at the church building to find one of our faithful members, always the first lay person to arrive and prepare for worship, in a tizzy. She was as mad as a wet hen. Our church was hosting a Chrysalis retreat, and she caught one of the “caterpillars,” as we called them, out by the church smoking, of all things. She proudly told me how she had rebuked him and put him in his place. What she didn’t know about, however, was his recovery from heroin addiction. Or about how miraculous it was that he was alive, let alone at this Christian youth retreat where his life was being transformed. She was so worried about his cigarette and “what are people going to think if they see a teenager smoking outside our church?” Her pride was a serious log in her eye.

What about us? Do we do the same thing? Do we pass judgment on other people, sometimes simply to deflect attention from our own sin? Do we look at someone and immediately make a judgment? Earlier I joked about the guy who had me pegged as a pastor because of my lack of piercings and tattoos, but how many of us have made a judgment about someone with piercings or tattoos or missing teeth?

The problem is, we can get self-righteous when it comes to correcting the faults of others. We see a flaw in someone and we just have to correct it. Meanwhile, we conveniently overlook the outrageously huge failure in our own lives.

Many of us know someone who is full of judgment – every church has them. The person whose face is perpetually pulled down into a frown, obsessed with criticizing and correcting others within the church. As a relatively young pastor, I have already served in four churches and am pretty well connected with other pastors, and I will affirm to you that the same people are in every church. Sure, the names and faces are different, but you will find many of the same characters no matter the location or denomination.

Some of these characters are: The Kitchen Nazi: she rules “her” kitchen with an iron fist. Don’t come in unless you’re ready to abide by her rules. For a first infraction, you might get publicly humiliated. For a second infraction, expect to lose a finger.

Another character is The Caretaker/Gatekeeper: he or she wants you to know that this may be a church building, “but it’s really my building.” They might have been on the original building committee or their ancestor might have hewn the original logs by hand, but their purpose is to regulate who comes in and what happens in the building. They “just happen to show up” when the Cub Scouts are going wild. They stand by with a disapproving look when “those outsiders” are invited into the building. They make sure the youth group kids don’t spill any Kool-Ade on the Jones Memorial Carpet.

But one of the worst characters is The Holier-Than-Thou. Do you know why nobody confesses their sins to one another in church? It’s because of the judgment that the Holier-Than-Thou person passes. The Holier-Than-Thou person is often also a vicious gossip and is also an extremely creative investigator when it comes to “unspoken prayer requests.” Meanwhile, this Holier-Than-Thou person, always quick to point out everyone else’s faults (and share them liberally), is thick in sin.

Listen to what Paul says in Romans 2:1: Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others, for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.

Paul is stressing the same thing Jesus said. Justice requires that before the law, everyone is equal, so even judges must be judged by the same law that they administer. Nobody is “above the law” and there is no place in the Church for a double standard.

But Jesus puts things in perspective: if you see someone with a sin issue, take care of yours first and then go help them deal with theirs. It is easy to criticize other people; all you have to do is glance around and you’ll find plenty to criticize. My favorite criticism ever came after a Christmas service. Because it was Christmas, I was wearing a suit. At that point, I had one suit, but I had recently lost quite a bit of weight, so it was really ill-fitting. Now, in that church, we had two services, so for the first service, I would wear my robe (in the second service I would dress casually). So this woman came up to me after the service and told me, “That suit looks really nice.” It didn’t, but that was OK. I was ready to accept the complement. But she went on: “It sure looks better than that bathrobe you usually wear.”

This from a woman in a muumuu.

Honestly, criticism is easy, but perceiving our own flaws requires deeper self-recognition. And there is only one yardstick we can use as Christians by which to measure ourselves: God’s perfection. Jesus himself tells us to be as perfect as our Heavenly Father is (Matthew 5:48). But how does God measure us?

God measures us by that same standard: perfection. So who measures up? That’s a trick question, because it’s easy to see that none of us could measure up to the standard of perfection. But God doesn’t judge the Christian on our own perfection. God judges us on Jesus’ perfection, if we will accept it. Because at the moment when we accept him and the sacrifice he paid for us, God actually transforms us – our sins are exchanged for Jesus’ righteousness. We are justified: made “just as if I’d never sinned” and sanctified: made perfect and set apart for God’s purpose.

So God now judges us by the measure of his generosity and mercy. And as Christians, we are obligated to use the same measure. Jesus’ sudden use of the phrase “you hypocrite” is meant to catch us by surprise and to bluntly tell us that being a disciple of Jesus Christ does not make us any different from other people.

So Jesus continues with an obscure, strange proverb: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.

Scholars don’t seem to know what to do with this passage, but it seems: that which is “sacred” and “pearls” refer to the gospel of the kingdom, while pigs were unclean to Jews and the term “dogs” was often used to refer to “Gentiles.”

Jesus is calling his disciples to be generous in their judgment of one another – and the judgment passage clearly refers to how Christians are to treat one another, to take care of your sin and then help them with theirs. All of this has to do with our urgent and universal mission to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom.

However, everything depends on the receptivity of those who will hear the message. In Matthew 10, Jesus sends his disciples out on a mission trip, giving them authority over evil spirits and the power to heal every disease. But he tells them that if they aren’t welcomed, they are to shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. – basically they were to judge their receptivity. If they aren’t receptive to the gospel, then go elsewhere.

Although we can’t know in advance what the response will be, when the disciples encounter resistance or hostility, they aren’t to persist, but they are to continue on their way in order to reach others with the message. Don’t get me wrong – Jesus isn’t making judgments about the worthiness or unworthiness of any individuals or group – after all, he died for us while we were still sinners, and for us to make judgments about people or groups while ignoring that fact is falling into the trap of hypocrisy Jesus was just preaching against! Here he is simply being intentional about the urgency of proclaiming the gospel. If someone won’t listen, why ignore all kinds of other people who will listen. If you want to know how it works in real life, all you have to do is look at the Apostle Paul. He found the Jews unreceptive, and he took his ministry to the Gentiles and made a huge impact.

So instead of wasting your time trying to convert internet atheists through the comment section of YouTube, be intentional about face-to-face relationships where you can make a difference. A final thought about this – if you are not making a difference in someone’s life, if you do not know any non-Christians whose lives you can make a difference in, then it’s time to get to know someone.


A word of caution, however. It takes great discernment to know when to “shake the dust off your feet” and when to dig in deeper. And know that it’s messy. Jesus even says that when we do this, we risk being trampled and torn apart. And he demonstrated this by going to a cruel death on our behalf. So if you are involved in sharing the gospel, and it’s tough and messy and hard, unless God directs you to shake the dust off your feet, stick with it, because that person is a person of sacred worth, someone Jesus died for.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Treasure Hunt

Matthew 6:19-34

When I was a little boy, I always loved going on a treasure hunt. One of my favorite moments was when I was hiking at my aunt and uncle’s house in Missouri along a dry creek bed, and I found a huge geode. But I loved poking around my grandma’s old barn where I would find other cool treasures (I loved finding feathers and coal – remember, I am from a generation that never used coal to heat the house). My grandma would give me a paper bag to keep my coal and feathers and I would take them home and put them in my trunk with my other treasures.

Most of us have some treasures of some kind. In fact, people in our culture seem to really treasure material possessions. What are your treasures? If your house was on fire and you could only rescue the things you could carry in your hands, what would you save? Those things might be your top treasures. But most of us have more than just that. Some people treasure different things. Family heirlooms. Photo albums. Jewelry. Electronic toys. But here’s the problem: we have so many “favorite” treasures that we can’t get rid of. Some of you have been living in the same home for decades and you can’t imagine moving because you have so much stuff. As an itinerate pastor, we have so much stuff we can’t imagine moving! We still make almost-weekly trips to My Brother’s Place to drop off things we no longer need. Do you remember the comedian George Carlin? He was pretty funny, though awfully crass and he didn’t have any use for God or religion. But he had a funny routine about “stuff.” He said that the meaning of life is, “trying to find a place for your stuff. That’s all your house is, your house is just a place for your stuff… your house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”

In today’s passage, Jesus begins by talking about treasures.

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.

For people of Jesus’ time, financial wealth was seen as a sign of God’s blessing and a reward for being obedient. So someone who was wealthy must have gotten that way because God wanted them to be wealthy. So Jesus has to intervene and explain that wealth is fickle and deceptive. Sure, you have money now. Sure you have barns full of produce. But thieves don’t break into places where there is no money – someone once asked, “Why do people rob banks?” and the answer is, “Because that’s where the money is!” And when your stuff is all in storage, how can you enjoy it? You go back in and find that moths have eaten that favorite quilt. Your amazing old Tonka trucks, from back when they made toys that would last, are all rusty.

Now, you have to remember what Jesus has been talking about. In biblical interpretation, context is king. Jesus was addressing the Pharisaical tendency to declare themselves righteous because they were upholding certain outward aspects of the Law, doing only what they felt like they needed to do to make it look like they were righteous and holy, all the while, their hearts were dark with sin. Jesus told them that it wasn’t about their so-called righteous acts. It was about having a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit. And it’s not just about doing the things that righteous people do; it’s about our motivation as well.

But Jesus isn’t finished talking about what is in our hearts. I hope you’re getting the idea of what Jesus is after. Jesus isn’t after perfect outward obedience, though that is a good thing. Jesus is most concerned with what is in your heart. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)

I want to stress something here; when we talk about “heart” matters, we often limit them to emotional responses. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people give advice: “Just follow your heart…” That sounds good and right – we want to empower people to do what they love and are passionate about. But Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Here’s the rub: our hearts go the way we direct them. True love is true love, not because of an inadvertent, unavoidable emotional response, but because you work at it. I had a friend whose marriage was in trouble; they had drifted apart over the years. My advice was that both of them needed to work on that marriage, but they were of the opinion that “since they drifted apart organically and unintentionally, if their marriage was ‘meant to be’ it would come back together “organically and unintentionally.” But the truth is, your heart will only go where it is directed to go. Psalm 143:8b is a prayer asking God to Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. So Jesus says, “if you want your heart to go in a certain way, make the direction sure by storing up that kind of treasure.” Whatever you treasure most is going to dictate the direction your heart goes.

Do you want to know the direction your heart is pointed in? Check out your calendar and your checkbook. Where are you spending your time and your money? If your treasures are earthly, your attention and commitment will be centered on earthly matters.

Jesus uses the imagery of the eye to illustrate this concept. The eye is the lamp of the body. In Near Eastern cultures they have this concept of the “evil eye” which is greedy and covetous. It’s always looking around at what other people have. But a good eye, on the other hand, is one with blinders on. You know, those things that keep a horse looking straight ahead. The good eye has a single purpose and only lets the body see what its sight is fixed upon. One of our human problems is that we get distracted by all kinds of things, good things, and they end up causing us to take our eye off the best thing. But Jesus calls us to have a good eye, a singly-focused eye. If your eyes are dark, they will see only darkness. But if your eyes are good, they are fixed on good treasure, the things of God; then the heart will be filled with the light of God’s treasure. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” says Psalm 119:105. If you want to keep your eye good, keep it in His Word.

If you want to know practically what this looks like, look at Philippians 4:8, where Paul says: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.

Don’t waste your time and energy thinking about earthly treasures and accumulating financial wealth. In Luke 12, Jesus told a parable about a rich man whose fields produced a good crop. He decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to store all his stuff. Then he would sit back, put his life on cruise control, eat, drink, and be merry. But Jesus concludes this parable with God calling the rich man a fool, telling him he was going to die that very night. The final line: “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” Luke 12:21

Accumulation of wealth for its own sake is always deceptive, because money and stuff provides a false sense of security and an inaccurate assessment of our worth.

Money itself is not a bad thing. John Wesley saw the good of money – his advice can be summed up in this way: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” But don’t let money master you. Never make a decision based simply on money. I’ve heard church boards argue and bicker, saying “we don’t have the money…” (and what they don’t have the money for is always new ministry or ministry for children and families or for outsiders). Meanwhile, we always find enough money to do the things we like to do. One commentary even stated that the primary biblical purposes for money are to: give appropriate care to one’s own family and prevent them from becoming a burden to others; to help those in need, especially the church; and to encourage and support the work of the gospel both at home and around the world.

Jesus says: No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Guess what: Jesus is talking about money. Again. He does that a lot. But he isn’t talking about money. Just like he used his “you have heard it said” examples of murder, adultery, taking oaths, and so forth to make a point, so too, Jesus now tackles money, but not simply for the sake of talking about money. Yes, he does personify money as if it were a rival god, but his focus is not primarily money, but absolute and unqualified discipleship. Wealth is only the most conspicuous example of that which can distract from true discipleship. He is saying the most important thing is where your heart lies and the direction it is headed.

And if your heart is in the right place and headed in the right direction, you can follow the rest of the passage. If your heart is in the wrong place, you’d better worry about your life, about what you will eat and drink, and about what you will wear. Because if your heart is in the wrong place, you have to worry about these things.

Think about it this way: if my kids decide that they don’t want to be Vinsons anymore and they run away, they’re going to need to worry about all those things. Where are they going to stay? What are they going to eat? What will they wear? But as long as they live in my household, I will make sure all those things are taken care of. This is like what Jesus is saying.

He says, if we, as his disciples, are faithful to be single-minded in our purpose, if we fix our eyes on him and follow, then God is faithful to carry out his responsibility to care for us. Do you want to know where our place is within God’s created order? Listen to Psalm 8:3-8: When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. Because this is how God feels about us, and looking around and seeing how God cares for the rest of His creation, don’t you think he will take adequate and appropriate care of us?

Jesus has been telling his followers that the condition, motivation, and direction of our hearts is what is most important, and now he brings this section to a crescendo. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)


What is your priority? Where is your heart? If it is not on God’s kingdom and a right relationship with him, then you’re on the wrong path. There’s no such thing as being so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good. So it’s time to go on a treasure hunt. But not a silly treasure hunt for coal and feathers. Not a pointless and aimless treasure hunt for the mirage of monetary wealth and stuff. But a treasure hunt for the true treasure of Jesus Christ, to have a single-minded purpose and heart and eyes aimed directly at him. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Looking for a Reward

Matthew 6:1-18

Have you ever heard of the humblebrag? Listen to this explanation, courtesy Tim Challies, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario. “Of all the words coined in response to the realities of this digital world, of all the words recently added to the dictionary, humblebrag must be among the best. According to the Macmillan dictionary, a humblebrag is “a statement in which you pretend to be modest but which you are really using as a way of telling people about your success or achievements.” It is bragging in the guise of humility, putting a thin veneer of humble over a clear expression of proud. And it seems to be an integral part of an effective social media presence.”


Here are some excellent methods of humblebragging:

Tell others what you own. “When I bought this Ferrari no one warned me I’d get pulled over all the time.”

Make sure they know who you know. “Bumped into my dear friend Tom Hanks at the Academy Awards tonight. He’s awesome.”

Remind them that you’re popular. “Preached the worst sermon of my life but still got a sore hand from signing all those Bibles afterward.”

Hide it in a question. “Is anyone else going to be at the White House tonight? It would be great to meet up…” Or, “Does anyone know if you can claim a yacht as a home office?

Declare your humility. Try beginning a conversation with the words, “I’m humbled that…” and follow it with your milestone or accomplishment. Example: “Humbled that my album hit the Billboard Top 100.”

Feign embarrassment or awkwardness. “That awkward moment when you ask Jim Gaffigan to sign a book…and he asks you to sign yours.”

GrumbleHumble. Try wrapping your brag in a grumble, using a complaint to let people know how awesome you are. “I hate it when you get profiled on 60 Minutes and they mispronounce your name.”

We all know that Jesus expects his followers to be humble, but if we don’t toot our own horns, who is going to toot them? And especially if we have a social media presence and we need to let everyone else know how good we are and all the good things we have done, but we know that we’re supposed to be humble, the humblebrag presents a perfect solution. Brag about it, all the while trying to pretend that we’re not bragging.

Two weeks ago, we read from earlier in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where Jesus called us to be the light of the world, a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. Jesus said (and I quote), “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). How can we effectively light the world if the world doesn’t see what we’re doing? In fact, Jesus went so far as to tell his followers to do their good deeds in public. What good deeds would those be? In Jesus’ time, there were three basic aspects of Jewish piety: almsgiving (in other words, giving to the poor), prayer, and fasting. These were the three most basic things that were expected of God’s people. So if you were a good Jew, and consequently, if you were a good Jesus-follower, these were the most basic good deeds that it was expected that you did.

And if you didn’t do these basic good deeds, one could even infer from your refusal that you weren’t really one of God’s people. This is what James was getting at in the Book of James, chapter two, you know, the “faith without works is dead” chapter. James says: Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” (James 2:18) So there it is – if you want to prove your faith, do good works. Of course, those good works would start with almsgiving, prayer, and fasting.

So we have precedent for not only doing good deeds in public, but for doing them specifically for others to see. And in this same context, then, we hear Jesus beginning a new section by saying, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

Now, there is a reason why Bible translators have included a paragraph break between verses 1 and 2. That is because this verse provides the context and the guidelines for all three of the following sections. In fact, I was planning on doing a three-part mini-series on this section, one part on almsgiving, one on prayer, and one on fasting, but, much like last week’s installment, where all of Jesus’ teachings on “you have heard it said…, but I say…” are related to heart attitude as opposed to simply avoiding the outward sinful behavior, these three sections are joined by Jesus’ command. Furthermore, contextual evidence backs this up; Jesus repeats these phrases: “I tell you the truth, they have received their reward,” and “your Father, who sees what is done in secret.”

So Jesus is saying, “When you do the basic things that good Christians do, if you do them in front of other people to be seen by them, God won’t reward you.” You might say that he’s saying, “If you do what I told you to do, God won’t reward you.” And that’s almost right. Because Jesus is taking on hypocrisy here. The previous section was less concerned with following the letter of the law and more concerned with the condition of the heart of the follower, and now Jesus is taking it another step. Later (in Matthew 15:3 and following), Jesus confronts the Pharisees about their religious acts and traditions that they used to justify disobeying God’s commands. He quotes Isaiah 29:13 at them: calling them hypocrites. “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” (Matthew 15:7-9)

The term “hypocrite” came from the Greek word for stage actor. Unlike today’s culture of celebrity actors, the Greek stage actor was not considered a proper public persona. In other words, you didn’t want people to know you were a stage actor, because the inference was, if you wore a mask as your occupation, pretending you were who you really weren’t, then how could you be trusted elsewhere? So Jesus here is dealing with the motives behind so-called Christian actions…

The big question Jesus is asking is: what is your motivation? It’s not about doing good deeds in public, it’s about the motivation behind it. Why do you do it? There have been times when I have been motivated simply by my office or position. “What is a pastor supposed to do?” or “I’d better do this, because if I don’t, it will reflect poorly on me or on my church.” That sounds like decent motivation, but it’s really driven by people-pleasing. What it comes down to is that when I get into that pattern of thinking, it’s that I want the recognition that comes with doing good things.

Many Christians give for the recognition – otherwise they might not want one of those little plaques saying they gave it. Others give for the tax write-off.

Jesus addresses these Pharisees who sound the trumpet so everyone notices their good deeds, those who pray loudly so everyone sees them, and those who brag about their fasts so that everyone knows they are fasting. This raises the issue: there are times when doing Christian charity is not enough. Later in this same sermon, Jesus will address those hypocrites who claim to be Christians but do not do his will, “Many will say to me on that day,Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil-doers!’” (Matthew 7:22-23)

What Jesus is saying is that, while obedience is important, our motivation is even more important. Do we do all of this for the recognition that comes with it? Sometimes we act as if God is bound by magic rules – in other words, if we do all the right things, then we force God to act. This isn’t Christianity; it’s magic. It’s saying a spell or performing an incantation. And that, plain and simple, is not Christianity. This is why Jesus blasts the way the hypocrites pray: they think if they use all the right words, God will be forced to answer their prayers. I remember as a child, there were people who prayed and people who prayed. The ones who used King James English in their prayers… they had to be holy. I remember hearing another kid my age praying, “beseeching” God, using “Thee” and “Thou” in his prayer – man, he had to be holy. God would have to answer him.

Jesus is saying there is no magic formula to pray. Even the Lord’s Prayer isn’t a magic formula; it should inform and teach us how to pray – I’m not going to go into the specifics of the Lord’s Prayer today, because that is at least a five-week sermon series. But here, Jesus is talking about our motivation for prayer. What he isn’t talking about is whether or not we should pray in public. I’ve heard people invoke this scripture when we celebrate the National Day of Prayer in the community, claiming that Jesus says we shouldn’t pray in public. That’s not what Jesus is saying, though. Jesus is saying, “Don’t pray in public to be seen by people.” There’s a big difference.

If you do your righteous acts “to be seen by people” then being seen by people is your big reward. And what kind of reward is that really? I mean, if I’m picking out a reward, having people know that I can pray is a pretty sad one. Having people think I’m so righteous is a lame reward.

Jesus never says we should abandon these righteous acts. Just because we shouldn’t give to charity simply for the human recognition or tax write-off doesn’t mean we don’t give. Just because we don’t pray in public for the recognition doesn’t mean we don’t pray – like when they took out mandatory rote prayer in schools, that doesn’t mean that Christians can’t or shouldn’t pray in school! In fact, it probably means you should pray more in school! Just because you shouldn’t brag to everyone how you are fasting doesn’t mean you should not fast.

The honest truth is that our motivation is naturally incredibly selfish. We want people to know that we are good at praying. There is something flattering to our egos when people come to us with “your prayers really work” – but it’s not about that. One of my favorite prayer stories was from another church, where we had a special service focused on healing, and we ended with healing prayers. I was the associate pastor, and the senior pastor asked me to pray for him. He had a whole lot of aches and pains, especially from an incident where he’d slipped on the ice and landed on his shoulder. So I prayed for him. The next Sunday, he told me that my prayers didn’t work, that I didn’t have the gift of healing. His shoulder hurt more than it had before I’d prayed for him. But then he mentioned in his sermon that he’d been out digging fencepost holes all day Saturday… I still think that was pretty funny. But this is what I took from that incident: I’m glad not to have the gift of healing; now, if someone is healed after I pray for them, the glory goes to God, not me.

Which leads me to the next point. Jesus is not only talking about almsgiving, prayer, and fasting here. These are the examples he uses because they were considered to be the basic acts of piety for Jews of his time. But Jesus is talking about everything. What is your motivation for singing in the choir? Is it because you know everyone needs to hear your voice? I know a church where they broadcast their services live on the radio, and this one woman knew where the congregation microphones were and she would go sit right under that mic so her voice would go out over the air during congregational singing.

In our Sunday School class, we’ve had multiple discussions about how we best honor the Sabbath – but do we honor the Sabbath just so people see us not doing whatever, or do we honor the Sabbath to glorify God and to enjoy his presence?

Would we still give our tithes and offerings if we never got a tax statement? Would we give to others if nobody else knew about it?

So here’s the next issue: many in this church are not this type. Most of you would rather walk out than parade your good deeds in front of the church or the community. The sad thing, however, is that many Christians aren’t even doing these acts of righteousness. So instead of avoiding doing them for the wrong reasons, they end up not doing them at all. The Bible does not tell us not to give to the poor, not to pray, or not to fast. In fact, Jesus is inferring that we will do all those things; he says “when you give” and “when you pray” and “when you fast” not “if.”

But again, what it all comes down to is motivation. What is the motivation for giving to the needy? Jesus says that there is a way to give that ensures that our Father will reward us.

Do it in secret.

What is the motivation for prayer? Certainly not to be seen; we pray to develop our relationship with God, and so we pray in secret. We don’t babble or use stilted language. We ask God to supply our needs, even as God already knows what we need. We ask for God’s guidance and deliverance. We ask for the power to forgive and for forgiveness.

What is the motivation for fasting? It is all about our relationship with God. Many times we get distracted by all kinds of things – food, drink, our TV shows, social media and so forth. When we fast, we give up something that has a significant place in our lives in order to concentrate on God. But when we do it, do it in secret.


God is most interested in who you are when no else one is looking. So, who are you? Do you even know? Have you been just doing what is expected for so long that you don’t even know who you are? And is the person you are worthy of God’s reward? If not, then it’s time for transformation. The good news is that if the Holy Spirit lives within you, you have the means for that transformation. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

You Have Heard it Said

Matthew 5:17-48

Have you ever had a conversation or a disagreement about something and after some discussion, you realize that what the person was saying was not what they were talking about at all? Maybe it was a totally different subject, but more likely, there was something deeper. When we get to this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is, but isn’t, talking about what he is talking about. I have heard sermons about all of these paragraphs in the rest of Matthew 5, sermons on anger, adultery, divorce, revenge, and so forth, but each of these vignettes is simply one of Jesus’ examples to make his point.  The key verses that tell me this are verses 20 and 48. Jesus uses a literary device called inclusio which bookends or brackets the material to add emphasis to it and to help the audience see how it holds together. So how does it hold together? He starts and ends with a similar concept: perfection.

The unasked question that Jesus is addressing is similar to one that is asked in our culture. In fact, many Christians today have unfortunately fallen into this unchristian doctrinal trap. Though they don’t use the words, many are asking, “how good do I have to be to get to heaven?” To make it practical, this is what’s happening. When people look eye-to-eye at the Law, they begin to realize that they don’t stack up. Just as an exercise, let’s see how we rank:
1.      No other gods.
2.      No idols.
3.      Don’t misuse God’s Name.
4.      Keep the Sabbath holy.
5.      Honor your parents.
6.      Do not murder.
7.      Do not commit adultery.
8.      Do not steal.
9.      Do not lie.
10.  Do not covet.

Most of us would affirm that we’re OK. Most of us don’t worship Ba’al. We don’t build idols. We don’t misuse God’s name much. We sometimes honor our parents. We have never murdered anyone. Yeah, we have more plus points than minus. So doesn’t that qualify us for something? So, Jesus, I’m in, right? I’ve been more good than bad. Jesus says, “No. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:18-19)

In other words, we are responsible to follow even the smallest rules. Every one of them. And if we break one, we are as guilty as if we had broken them all. This is why Jesus goes on to say: For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

This is not a pretty picture. The Pharisees were the picture of holiness. They not only followed the rules, but they made more rules to ensure that they would not accidentally break one. Yet Jesus says, to get to heaven, you have to be even more righteous than the Pharisees.

At first glance, you might think this is impossible. After all, the Pharisees were the most righteous people there were. Self-righteous, anyway. So Jesus gets deeper. “You have heard it said…, but I say…”

Now, before we get into what was said, you have to understand the ridiculousness of what Jesus is doing. Rabbis of his time worked in certain ways – they would always let the disciple know by whose authority they were speaking. If you notice, Jesus never does that. And furthermore, the “you have heard it said” statements aren’t just things that people have been saying; some of these things he is talking about are things that God said. And by what authority is Jesus speaking? He is speaking on his own authority, which is, in effect, Jesus placing himself on the same level as God. Now, we don’t find that ridiculous, because we know that Jesus is God, but it was audacious for Jesus to do this.

So, what was it that Jesus said?
·         You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’
·         You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’
·         It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’
·         Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’
·         You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’
·         You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

Jesus is here taking on some of the central teachings to Judaism, teachings they had definitely heard, and teachings they had lived by. He says, “you are careful not to murder. Fine. But what is in your heart?” “Sure, you love your neighbor… right… but how does this set you apart from the nations around you?”

We can fall into the trap of trying to understand just how far we’re allowed to go and then sitting there on the line. So as long as I don’t take the knife and stab someone to death, I’m off the hook. Or as long as I don’t have a physical sexual affair with someone, I’m within the bounds. I can exact revenge, there are even times and circumstances when I can make promises I have no intention of keeping, and I can hate my enemy. For the Bible tells me so. But Jesus is saying, “No, it’s not simply a matter of keeping the rules. It’s a matter of the heart.”

What does your heart look like? Do you look at what is the least you can do and still get by? When my dad taught school, he structured his class this way: each student entered into a contract for the grade he or she wanted to achieve. If you wanted an A, you had to achieve a certain standard. If you wanted to get a B, you had to do less work, but still work to a particular standard. The same for a C, or even just to pass. Some students simply looked and said, “What is the least I have to do to still pass the class?” and they only did that amount of work.

This is what Jesus is dealing with. So he starts with the example of murder. Instead of thinking, “I haven’t killed anyone” the question should be, “Do I have anger or hatred in my heart?” So Jesus offers a practical solution: if you are in church, going about the churchy things that we do in church, and you remember that there is an issue between you and another Christian, stop going about the churchy things you’re doing and make peace.

Some of us might have some work to do.

Jesus then goes on to the issue of adultery. Now, this is a hot-button topic. I know I’m not the only pastor who has dealt with this in the congregation – of course, sometimes the pastor is the one committing adultery. But Jesus is pointing at the people who are saying, “hey, I’ve never committed adultery” yet they’re spending their time looking at pornography or reading romance novels or drooling over TV or movie stars. There are Christians who need to get rid of their computers and who need to toss their TVs. Why? For two reasons: One is because they’re hypocrites, claiming sexual purity, all the while straddling the line of what’s pure and what’s not.

Jesus brings up divorce – we can’t talk about divorce in our culture anymore because over 50% of marriages, in or out of the church, end in divorce, and we don’t want to accidentally offend somebody. But in Jesus’ time, it was a male-dominated culture, and the woman was always the “bad guy” in the divorce. Men could divorce their wives for basically no reason. They’d just write up a certificate of divorce and send her on her way. Jesus is saying to the men, “You think you’re so righteous – you are now causing someone else to sin.” Which is worse, sinning, or causing someone else to sin? Which is worse, willfully violating God’s Law, or causing someone else to violate God’s Law against their will?

Jesus brings up taking oaths, coming to the conclusion – just do what you say. If you say “yes” then do whatever it was you said yes to. And likewise, if you say “no” then let your no be no. Your word should be good enough, because you have the integrity that gives your word authority.

Then we get to revenge, which is a justice issue. Moses’ Law simply recognized that justice is essential for God’s people. So the rules regarding justice were set out. But Jesus recognizes human nature – if you hit me and I hit you back, you don’t feel like you have received justice. So you have to hit me for hitting you back. And so a feud begins… Jesus says, “Yes, justice must be served, but let God be the one who metes it out.” And he extends this, not only to friends and family, but to enemies.

I could have split this into six or seven sermons, and I have seen this done, but that might not be the most helpful way to deal with this passage. Why not? Because what it tends to do is go from a situation where we are looking at murder, divorce, adultery, and other issues, where we as Christians can say, “I’m not doing those things. I’m ok,” and then instead justify ourselves by saying, “I’m not angry at my brother,” or “I’m not looking lustfully,” all the while ignoring the evil that lurks in our hearts.

What I’m saying is this: if we focus on the minutia of these examples Jesus gave, we can tend to end up in the same place the Pharisees were. We can say, “Oh, I’ve got that covered,” all the while, our hearts are in the wrong place. For example, I can turn the other cheek, but once someone has struck me on both cheeks, then it’s on. I can be just as Pharisaical in following each of these examples as the Pharisees were about following the Ten Commandments and Torah and Mishnah. But the heart of what Jesus is saying is this: what is in your heart?

Jesus concludes this section with the standard he expects: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48).

How does that sit with you? You need to know that Jesus was absolutely serious here. There are some among us who still wonder how much they have to do to get to heaven – have they done more good deeds than bad? – or they base their claim to heaven based on their pretty decent adherence to the Ten Commandments. But the Ten Commandments are the starting point, and perfection is the standard. Can you imagine someone who is applying to elite colleges saying, “well, I got a 250 on the SAT – that should be good enough” (when 2400 is a perfect score)? Can you imagine saying to your boss, “I went home early every day this month, but at least I showed up half the days.” Last week we gave you a copy of the names we read for membership removal at charge conference, and there are people who say, “No, I never attend the church, I don’t give my money, no, I don’t participate at all, but I want to stay a church member.” It doesn’t work that way! And it doesn’t work that way in the kingdom.

God’s standard is perfection.

Is that good news or is that bad news? I would pose that it’s good news. It’s good news because it helps ease the confusion about how good is good enough. And it erases the question, “How little do I have to do to get in?”

It’s good news because for God to allow less than perfection is to compromise God’s integrity and to dilute heaven. For if less than perfection is allowed, would it still be heaven? Think about it – we’d love for our imperfections to be allowed, but what if it’s someone else’s? And what if their so-called imperfections happen to come at our expense?

But more than these reasons, God’s expectation of perfection is good news because God himself, in the Person of Jesus Christ, provides the sure means for such perfection. That perfection is found in Jesus, and Jesus actually makes us perfect. In our baptism, in our acceptance of what he has done for us, God actually makes us perfect. So it’s never about our level of goodness; it’s all about him. And he is good enough. Good enough in every area.


So to answer the question: how good do we have to be to get to heaven, I would pose that the answer is this: the question is wrong. The real question is: have you accepted that it is only through Jesus that you can go to heaven?