Friday, May 25, 2012

Weightier Matters

This past week, I was considering the topic of "practicing what I preach". I am challenging myself to live a life that is consistent with what I profess and believe. The opposite of this consistency is hypocrisy. So, I asked myself, where is the most severe rebuke of hypocrisy? That led me to Matthew 23. Seven times in this chapter Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites. Wow!

So, I began asking myself, what made them hypocrites? I would guess that if you asked the Pharisees, "Is hypocrisy righteous?" or "Are you hypocrites?" they would tell you "No! No!" So, how did they become hypocrites and remain blind to their hypocrisy? What is at the heart of their hypocrisy?

Jesus gives us some keen insight into this question. Notice verse 5 where Jesus says, "...all their works they do to be seen by men..." There are several examples in this chapter of their desire to be honored by people leading directly to their hypocrisy. They liked honorable seats and titles. They liked long pretentious prayers. They liked to convert others to their way of thinking. They liked to find loopholes in the law so they could be innocent of sin on a technicality. They wanted to appear righteous more than they wanted to be righteous.

The verse that has always stood out to me is verse 23, "... hypocrites! You tithe mint, dill, and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith..." I have to pause and ask myself, in light of passages like Proverbs 30:5, in what sense is a matter weightier? Isn't all of God's law pure? Yes! So, what's different about justice, mercy, and faith? May I suggest the following.

  1. Tithing is measurable and observable. Justice, mercy, and faith are not measurable, and in the truest sense of the words, not observable. How merciful are you? Can you show me? (Sure, justice, mercy, and faith will produce good works, so you can observe injustice, mercilessness, and unfaithfulness when observing bad  or no works. However, we do not know whether good works are done because of virtue or because one wants to appear virtuous.) I find it much easier to do things that are observable and measurable. And, remember the root of their hypocrisy? They wanted to be seen by men! Observable!
  2. Tithing is concrete. Justice, mercy, and faith are abstract concepts. They are difficult to define. What is justice? Well, it's discerning between true good and true evil and being for good and against evil. It's kinda like that, but that's a weak definition. What is mercy? It's compassion. It's tolerance of a person. It's tenderness. It's pity. Kinda.  What is faith? Belief, but more. Substance and evidence (Heb. 11:1). Kinda. Do you see how it's much easier to define tithing? Tithing means to give 10%. Easy. I don't have to think much about it, or even like doing it. I can just do it. It's a lot like sitting in a pew. At this time and for this long, I'll sit. That's pretty easy.
  3. Tithing is an outward action. Justice, mercy, and faith are principles of the heart. This seems to me to be the most important difference. In what sense, then, are they weightier? If I understand this word "weightier", it may be related to our word "basis". These principles are at the root of our obedience to God. These are virtues that we cultivate in our heart and that demonstrate themselves in our behavior. These are virtues that God shares with us that are the basis of our obedience to Him.
If I understand this passage correctly, the point Jesus is making very emphatically, the way to avoid becoming a hypocrite, is simple. Never place more emphasis on visible good works than on the virtues in the heart that provoke the visible good works.

There is tremendous freedom in not seeking the approval of men, but the approval of God.

Friday, May 4, 2012

My Thoughts Are Not Your Thoughts

You may recognize the title of this post as coming from Isaiah 55:8. I've used this verse a few times when I've run across some difficult text or commandment in the Bible. I've basically used this verse to teach that God says, "You obey Me and like Me whether you understand why or not. You don't have to understand why or like it to obey it." Also, often when I cited Isaiah 55:8, I went on to verse 11 (kinda ignoring verse 10) to be sure we knew that God's word will do what He intends whether we understand or not. Though I never said it quite this way, the not so subtle message that my misuse of this passage sends is that God says, "Because I said so."

I'm sorry that I have used this passage that way. I do not believe that is the intent of Isaiah 55:8 at all. If so, then how do we reconcile that with words from the same author in Isaiah 1:18 where God says, "Come, now, and let us reason together"?

Even a cursory reading of Isaiah 55 shows that God's mercy and love are under consideration in the context. He is more merciful and loving than we are. He will extend His salvation to everyone on the earth. That's what is meant by "My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways." God will show mercy and pardon to all who seek Him. What a beautiful picture is painted of God's word coming to the earth to enrich and nourish His creation! Just as the rain and snow from heaven give life to the earth, God's word gives life to us.

Back to Isaiah 1... The context there is a contrast between God's love and mercy and Israel's abuse and oppression. God says, "Come and reason with me. Be merciful as I am. That is My desire for you." You see, God's desire for us is to reason and learn that He is loving and merciful, more so than we are. Because of that, His ultimate desire for us is that we be more loving and merciful, to be better than we are. And He helps us to accomplish that through the example and the forgiveness that is in Jesus.

God wants us to understand that love is the ultimate good. Love is at the center of all of His communication with us (Matt. 22:36-40). God challenges us to learn that. God does not say, "You just do exactly what I tell you and only what I tell you without thinking about it because you're too simple to understand Me anyway." I've used Isaiah 55:8-11 to say almost that, but God wants much more from us. Blind submission is not even remotely under consideration there.

If I don't understand how a directive from God or an action of God is loving, then I don't understand that directive or action. God help me to understand Him better and be more loving, like Him.