Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:23-24 NIV)
As the editor of Off the Grid News, I get some pretty interesting emails in my inbox. I receive letters with questions pertaining to every subject one can think about. I receive emails that just want to thank us for being there and offering a measure of hope during this time of great stress and economic upheaval. I get emails that are hysterical and are meant to brighten up my day. And I get those emails that leave a lump in my throat and a searing pain in my heart.
And then I get the ones that tell me I’m going straight to Hell.
I’m going to Hell because I’ve failed to use the proper Bible translation, which everyone knows is the King James version. (Except, I have a letter from a man who tells me that God told him all Bible translations are corrupt and God has given him the TRUE translation.) I am going to Hell because I have used the name Jesus instead of his actual Hebrew name Yeshua (or any number of his other names—it’s obviously a great debate in Christian circles over which name is actually THE name); because I have said we’re a Judeo-Christian nation when everyone knows the Jewish people are apostates and going to Hell faster than I am (please don’t send me another scathing email over that last comment—it was tongue-in-cheek and quite full of sarcasm); and of course the most horrendous of my crimes… daring to have a sense of humor and the audacity to laugh at the absurdities of life. I am told that True Believers don’t laugh.
I am sure that the people who write in are quite committed to God, at least in their minds. They feel themselves the protectors of God’s reputation and His representation to man. They are probably the ones that are there, standing on the steps, tapping their foot in impatience every time the church doors are scheduled to open, when (because of where I am in life and my schedule), you will find me hard pressed to make it to more than a couple of services a month (much to the chagrin of my pastor).
Jesus calls those of us who strain at every dot and tittle of the law Pharisees and hypocrites. He says that we must have the appropriate levels of justice, mercy, and faithfulness to counterbalance the Law. In fact, if you study scripture, Pharisees and hypocrites and that legalistic mindset seems to garner the most of his ire.
Let Us Back Up a Bit
Matthew 23 takes place between the time of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion. During this week timeframe, he seems to have set his sights on the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, and he’s tangling with everyone, from the Temple High Priest down.
But woe to you hypocritical Torah–teachers and P’rushim [Pharisees]! For you are shutting the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces, neither entering yourselves nor allowing those who wish to enter to do so. (Matthew 23:13 Complete Jewish Bible)
Those who live solely by the Law (and there are many Christian brethren who have chosen to live entirely by Law and not the godly combination of Law and Grace), not only hinder their entrance into God’s presence, they put up a roadblock to those who are seeking and they build up a wall to those who would find. By their rabid adherence to the Law, they have turned from the One who wrote the Law and have made the Law their god.
Just like faith without works is dead (James 2:14-17), so is adherence to the Law, without justice, mercy, and faithfulness, dead.
The Greek work used in the Matthew 23:23 text is krisis, meaning to make a decision for or against, and suggests a formal tribunal or court. When we think of court, ideally we should think of impartial judges who render decisions based upon fact, fairness, reasonableness, what is legally correct, and from a moral standard.
The Bible Tools website tells us further that:
The Pharisees took one element of that definition—the “legally correct” part—and based their relationships with others on it, conveniently deleting fairness, impartiality, reasonableness, etc. from their thinking. Christ wanted them to be legally correct, for it is part of proper decision-making, but there is more to it than that!
Leviticus 19:15 states: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly (NIV).” Solomon was particularly blessed by God because he didn’t ask Him for wealth or land or possessions, but rather discernment and wisdom in judgment.
The Law is hard and cold when severed from mercy and grace. It cannot function alone. Seeking to do so is a perversion of the intention of God. The Law must always have that symbiotic relationship to truly reflect the essence of God.
And remember, Jesus said he did not come to do away with the Law, but to fulfill it. Not one letter of the Law is done away with by his sacrifice. We are still bound by the commandments because they form the moral foundation upon which we function, which is to love God with all our hearts and souls, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Strong’s tells us that eleos, the word for “mercy” in this text, means to offer “kindness or good will towards the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them.”
Isn’t this the essence of Christ’s ministry to the world? Where is the mercy or good will when we beat others about the head with the text of the Law and offer nothing that draws them to the love of the Father? Myself personally, I’ve been a believer long enough that I am not deterred in my walk by those who would enslave me to rules and regulations. However, unbelievers and new Christians are not rooted in the faith, and we can seriously damage the pull of God in their lives with our meanspirited sniping over technicalities of rules and regulations that have nothing to do with walking the path of righteousness.
However, mercy in no way mitigates the Law of God. In modern day vernacular, “the rulez is the rulez.” God is a god of mercy and grace, but He is also a god of justice. He cannot divorce one essence of himself from the other. He is whole and complete within himself. He can offer restoration and healing while at the same time requiring us to live with the consequence of our sin.
Mercy is in no way a Santa Claus ticket of wishes that are fulfilled simply by an entitlement expectation that God should do so. Doing away with the consequences of our sinful lives is not the object of salvation. Salvation is to restore our relationship with the Father so that we may live with Him as we were created to.
Faithfulness is to predominately trust in God, to have confidence that He will deal righteously with us no matter what. It is a “conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God…” (https://bible.lifeway.com/).
When I read this, I feel that it means that we should be able to trust God to deal with each of us as He sees fit, and that we should quit worrying so much about what our neighbor is doing and be more aware of the state of our own souls.
In John 21:18-22 we get this insight from Jesus in his response to Peter’s question about John’s role and path in life. Jesus had just informed Peter what kind of death he would endure, and the hard path he would follow. Peter’s attention immediately left Jesus and focused on John. Instead of contemplating what Jesus was telling him, he immediately began to fret over John’s future. “What about him?”
Isn’t this a tactic we employ as well?
But look at Jesus’ response. “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me. (v. 22)” Jesus asks us the same thing. When we sit in our snarkiness, pointing a finger at what we perceive to be the sins and transgressions of others, Jesus’ words are still the same. “Don’t worry about them. What is it to you? You just follow me, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
In reality, all this backbiting over things that really don’t amount to much is a way of controlling others. It’s putting ourselves in God’s place and expecting to run the world and control people’s lives. There’s just one little problem—we don’t have the ability to do so. We don’t have the omniscience, the power, the discernment, the wholeness, the purity, or the ability to prod, poke, or coerce others to walk lockstep in what we perceive to be right.
The New Testament shows how these infightings over rules and regulations started almost immediately upon Christ’s ascension. Do Gentiles have to become Jewish before accepting salvation, do they have to be circumcised, can they eat forbidden foods, etc., etc. We have been given the lesson that each of us is different, that our individual walks with God are as unique as our fingerprints, and that what is true and right for one person isn’t necessarily true and right for the next. (I don’t mean this in clear aspects of Law. You cannot steal or murder just because you “feel” it’s right for you!)
Instead of focusing on the sliver of wood in our neighbor’s eye, we should instead work to dislodge the beam in our own. I shouldn’t worry about what future God has in store for my fellow brother or sister in Christ. I can hardly handle my own life, much less worry about how my neighbor is living his!
We have too many serious issues facing us to worry about the version of Bible another is reading or whether we’re spelling the name of Jesus appropriately. While we nitpick over humor, people are dying, eternally separated from God. Our heart should be for the harvest, not focused on the tools our neighbors are using to bring in that harvest.
When we release God to do the work only He is qualified and able to do, when we let go of the illusion that we have the power to affect and control others, then we will be free to fully live the life that He created us for.
And that is true freedom indeed.
© 2011 Off the Grid News