28 Feb Being Right: Excerpt 3 from the upcoming release
Man’s self-righteousness is an outward attempt to modify behavior, but has no ability to change a heart. In fact, during the time of Christ, outward acts were the marker whereby someone’s righteousness might be measured. The most outwardly pious were revered, and the openly religious were honored.
I mentioned earlier the dramatic changes that took place in churches over the last several years. The denomination in which I was raised has made great strides to shed much of its legalism. My parents lived through this transitional generation. Women were not allowed to cut their hair, or wear slacks. Makeup was absolutely forbidden, and anything that could be labeled “worldly entertainment” was completely prohibited. Comic pages in newspapers were to be avoided on Sundays. Movies were of the devil, and dancing was something you were only permitted to do if the Holy Spirit made you do it in an excited worship service. I heard of a pastor that preached against watching television, but secretly kept one in a closet for years. As a young teenager my father’s brother Frank used to sneak to an open-air roller skating rink in his hometown. One evening he had been enjoying himself there, while his parents attended a prayer meeting at the church. When everything fun is a sin, you have plenty of time to go to church multiple times through the week. On this particular occasion, he happened to see his parents’ car turning the corner toward home much earlier than expected. With skates still attached to his feet, he bolted out of the rink, and took an alternate route in an effort to beat them home. Racing through yards, and leaping hedges in a scene that rivaled “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off”, he managed to reach the house in time to scale the stairs to his bedroom, throw himself completely dressed into bed, and quickly cover himself, skates and all, with the bedspread. Now my grandmother Opal, not one to be easily fooled, came directly to his bedside, ripped off the covers, revealing Frank’s profusely sweating frame. She had seen his quick exit from the rink and caught him in the act. She excitedly stated with resolve, “If you insist on going to that den of iniquity, you can just skate yourself right past the gates of Heaven and right on into Hell!” I’m happy to say that Grandma lightened up considerably in the future, and the family has enjoyed many good laughs at the story’s retelling. Ironically, only a few short years later, the church started taking the youth group to “Christian Skate Nights.” You can see how an entire generation of church kids found themselves confused by the rules that governed outward righteousness. Though there are still some Christian groups who hold to some rigid standards regarding dress, make-up, hair length, and social activity, there is no way to gauge a person’s standing with God by their outward appearance. I’m sure that my brothers and sisters in these churches would even agree that these outward convictions cannot make a person holy, anymore than wearing a basketball outfit would make someone an effective NBA player. As the Scripture states,
“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’” (1 Samuel 16:7)
The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism that were the most rigidly adherent to the Law of Moses. They were zealous for the Law, and their Rabbis were extraordinarily astute. This group tends to get a lot of criticism in the New Testament, but they were formed prior to the time of Jesus as a group of men committed to God’s Word, and frustrated with the apathetic, sinful behavior of those in their culture. In a sense, they were a revival movement. Religious history is full of such devoted reformers that shed the complacency of the status quo, and return with burning hearts to the original passion for the things of God. The Pharisees were so committed to the words of God that they separated themselves from anyone and everyone who would not hold to their belief system. They felt that fellowship with sinners could contaminate their passion for God. Children were taught from infancy the ways of the Law, and most could recite from memory the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, before the age of 5. Orthodox Jews still carry on this reverence for the Torah. As is often the case with religion, the first generation of believers is committed in their hearts to God. The second generation is committed in the values handed to them by their parents. The third generation is committed in their form and tradition, and often loses sight of what the first generation was trying to achieve. The Pharisees at the time of Jesus spent most of their time studying, deciphering, and debating the writings of the Rabbis. They built fences, as it were, around the Law to protect adherents from violating the Law. If the Law demanded “Thou shall not take the Name of the Lord in vain”, the Rabbis would take precaution not to say “Ha Shem” or “The Name” at all. They substituted the word Adonai, which means “The Lord” in place of saying the Name YHWH, lest they violate the Law inadvertently. To the people living in Israel the Pharisees would have appeared to be the experts in righteousness. But Jesus was not impressed with their outward appearance. He took issue with their motives, and their hypocrisy.
“So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:28)
So frustrating to Jesus was the self-righteous behavior of the religious leaders that they were the group to which He spoke most harshly. He even called these “experts in the Law” lawless. There was no law against eating with sinners, yet the Pharisees made it a tradition to refuse fellowship with someone outside the faith. Jesus chose to eat with sinners, visit the home of publicans, show mercy to an adulteress, and even heal on behalf of Gentiles and Samaritans. These were all radical behaviors for a godly man, but He took great issue with the actions of the religious. Why did He respond so passionately to this matter? Because as the only means to right standing with God, He knew that it didn’t matter what outward behavior a man displayed, the soul was the part of man that held the corruption. While the Pharisees were openly judging others for their outward immorality, Jesus was taking issue with the content of their hearts. To Be Continued.