Scriptures: Luke 11:37-52
Hearts of Stone
(Based on Journey of Stones: A Sermon Series for Lent and Easter by Steven Molin)
As we continue in our Lenten sermon series, we come to one of the more difficult passages, as the liturgist noted, for people to accept and interpret. Most people like to think of Jesus as the meek and mild Lamb of God and God of love, and he was all that.
In fact, some people go so far as to separate the Old Testament God from the New Testament God, because it seems like they are just two different people. The Old Testament God is a God of wrath, and the New Testament God is a God of love. We in the Presbyterian denomination, of course, understand that God's love and grace winds through the entire Scriptures.
You can find countless examples of that in the Old Testament. And in the New Testament, Jesus talks quite a bit about judgment and woes. He talks about hell more than heaven, and he is very harsh, as noted by the liturgist, on the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders. It has always been my thought, particularly with the Pharisees, that part of the reason why he was so upset with them and so harsh with them is that they were so close, but they just missed the whole point.
There is no doubt they were zealous for God's law. They wanted to keep it. They wanted to keep it properly. They had 613 secondary laws that they kept, in their Mishna, that supposedly, if you kept all those, there was no way you could break the Ten Commandments. But in the process of becoming, shall we say, competent at doing that and zealous for keeping that, they lost sight of the purpose of it, which was to be able to worship God properly.
There's a story about a mother who prepared a dinner of fish and chips for her family one evening, and because it was her five-year-old son's favorite meal, she asked him to say grace. They bowed their heads, and the boy began, “Dear God, thank you for these pancakes. Amen.” When he finished, his mother said to him, “Son, you knew we were having fish for dinner; why did you thank God for pancakes?” “Because,” he said, “I just wanted to see if God was paying attention.”
Sometimes pastors can wonder if their congregations is paying attention, especially during Lent, because the journey is long and the messages can be harsh, much as Jesus was with these Pharisees in our passage today. It is tempting to tune out and think about spring or Resurrection or Easter. But again today, we must focus on our sin, and the Savior who came to love us. May God give us perseverance as we continue to travel this road together.
Let's take a moment – I don't do this often, but let's pray. God of grace, we are a weary people. Ash Wednesday is several weeks behind us; Good Friday is several weeks ahead. Give us strength for the journey, and just enough faith to carry us to Calvary and the cross. In the name of the Crucified One we pray. Amen.
So as we see this interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees and the scribes, one of the questions that may come up is, who in the world did these scribes and Pharisees think they were? These religious men of means of first-century Judaism, who continually confronted Jesus with roadblocks of reason, while Jesus confronted them with building blocks of justice and love. Who did they think they were, to challenge the Son of God (even if they did not believe it)?
The Pharisees were religious purists. As I noted, they kept all 613 of those extra rules. If the Law called for a fast, they began their fast early and stayed late. If the Law called for a tithe, they gave a tithe and an offering, and everybody knew it. You see, that was another characteristic of the Pharisees. They did things in front of the people, and they portrayed themselves as better than rank and file folks.
Even their label, the Pharisees, which means “men who separated themselves,” indicated their elitism. Jesus attacks that elitism in many, many places. They refused to associate with the sinners around them, to the point where some of them actually attached blinders on the sides of their heads, so they didn't have to look at the sinners.
I don't know about you, but if I had blinders on the sides of my head, and a thing hanging down from my forehead, which they also wore, which had a piece of Scripture in it, I would find it difficult to maneuver. I have enough problems going through a doorway as it is, without hitting a door jamb, much less if I can't see where the sides are, and I have something distracting me in the center of my vision. I wonder how often they bloodied their nose.
The scribes were associated with the Pharisees as lawyers and legal counselors. They were the experts on Jewish Law. The early scribes, for instance, were the ones who came up with those 613 rules. But they also crafted escape clauses, that enabled them, for instance, to do work on the Sabbath – that thing that they so often accused Jesus of doing. Listen to the words that were written:
To carry a burden is forbidden. He who carries anything, whether it be in his right hand, or in his left hand, or in his bosom, or on his shoulder is guilty. But he who carries anything on the back of his hand, or with his foot, or with his mouth, or with his elbow, or with his ear, or with his hair, or with his money bag turned upside down, or between his money bag and his shirt, or in the fold of his shirt, or in his shoe, or in his sandal, is not guilty, because he does not carry it in the usual way of carrying it.
You can tell a lawyer wrote that. This is the way in which the scribes and the Pharisees observed and avoided the Law. And then they condemned anyone who did not do it their way. And it was all done in the name of God.
Now Jesus came to town. (I would note that he is an equal opportunity party-er. There were times when he ate with sinners and prostitutes. But he also ate with Pharisees, who would be seen by most people as his enemy.) And he didn't wash his hands before the beginning of the meal. It's not that his hands were dirty; that wasn't the issue. Although the Pharisees also chastised his disciples about it in another passage.
Hand washing was a ceremony, a big ritual before the meal, and between each course. In fact, they have what are called finger bowls in more formal dinnerware, and in between each course, you're supposed to dip your fingers – bent, not the tips – make sure you rinse them all off, and then you wipe your hands dry with a napkin or a towel that is provided.
But Jesus didn't observe this. When he was asked about it, he became angry – for those of you that don't believe Jesus ever got angry. I've seen before, Christians seems to go between two extremes. One is that Jesus could never possibly have laughed or had a sense of humor. They think Jesus was solemn and sober all the time. They other is that Jesus was never angry. Yet we see that he is. He gets angry with his disciples a fair number of times, and he also gets angry with the Pharisees.
He notes that the Pharisees take great care in washing the outside – for appearance sake – while the inside remains filthy. He compares them to the dishes that they use. He says, “You wash the outside, but you leave all the grunge on the inside. You're full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you, be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”
He's saying that if the Pharisees cleansed their outside for God, didn't God also create their inside?So they need to cleanse that as well, and he offers one of the methods, being generous to the poor, which, again, attacks their tithes and their offerings a bit.
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue, and all kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.”
Notice that he doesn't say that what they did was wrong. He says don't leave it undone. But he does say that they missed out on one of the most important things, something they should have known because the prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” Here he says it again, perhaps not quoting the prophet Micah but certainly the same thought. “You need to practice justice and the love – the compassion, the mercy – of God.”
“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogue and respectful greetings in the marketplace.” Again, he is pointing up that they do this for their own gratification and for the sake of people seeing them.
He says, “You are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” You have to understand that anyone who walked over a grave or something dead was considered unclean, so then they had to go through the rituals of cleansing, and that could take up to a week. And yes, gravediggers were never seen as clean, like a number of other positions (except during Passover, when they got specific exemptions in the Mosaic Law).
So the question is, often, what do you do if you stepped over a grave and you didn't know there was anything dead there? Does that mean you're unclean? I'm not going to go into the arguments for or against that and what they decided.
What Jesus notes is that the Pharisees are like that. People look at them and don't see that they're dead. They interact with them as if they're clean. But they're not. Elsewhere he says that they're whitewashed on the outside, like whitewashed tombs, but inside they're full of rot and dead men's bones. It's a pretty graphic description.
Which is why one of the experts of the law answers him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.” Yup. Jesus wasn't holding back. “Woe to you because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”
Again, this was referring to the 613 laws and their interpretations, as you heard – you're not supposed to carry something on the Sabbath, but you can get around it by doing all these things – making it impossible for the people, without being as expert as they were, to know how to deal with the Law.
At one point, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” He was not talking about life situations. When he was giving that invitation to the people, to the Jews, he was saying, “Come unto me, all of you who are weary of trying to fulfill this overwhelming, overburdening law taught by the religious leaders, for my yoke is easy.”
A “yoke” was what a teacher, a rabbi, put on his disciples, what the master said, what you have to do. A master could require his disciples to do just about anything, except tie his sandals, because only a slave could be required to do that. But Jesus says, “My yoke is easy. My burden is light. I don't give you all this extra stuff.”
“Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them.” I've spoken previously about the prophets and how they were treated. Speaking prophetically is never an easy task. “And therefore this generation will be held responsible.” Judgment is coming.
The common thread in all of the woes that are listed is the fact that the scribes and the Pharisees wanted to keep their hands on the religious gate of entrance. They wanted to determine what the rules were. They wanted to decide who met the rules and who broke them. Who gets to be in the church, and who doesn't?
They wanted to preserve the church the way it was for them – the way they always liked it. They used their own lives as a yardstick to measure themselves and others. And that is, in part, why Jesus was so brutal in his attack of them.
If there is one comforting fact in this story, it is that Jesus was not denouncing the scribes and Pharisees, that is, religious people, per se. It wasn't that what they did, in terms of keeping the Law, was wrong. What he was condemning was their religious piety. He was denouncing their legalism. He was criticizing their pride and their self-righteousness.
The contemporary application of this text is both subtle and painful. And we do have to look at it. There's nothing in Scripture that we can just dismiss and say, well, that's not me, or that was then and this is now. I like to say that the Bible is as relevant in every verse today as when it was written, because human nature hasn't changed, and neither has God.
If we met a Pharisee on the street today, he or she might look a lot like us. Don't we argue so often, in the denominations, for instance, about what the religious rules ought to be? Isn't it our individual Christian experience that we use so often as the yardstick by which we measure other religious people?
It is possible to have Lutheran Pharisees, Catholic Pharisees, Baptist or Methodist Pharisees, or even Presbyterian Pharisees. After all, we “frozen chosen” love doing it “decently and in order.” Again, there's nothing wrong with that. I'm very proud of that, as much fun as I make of it.
Because it's not about doctrine. We need doctrine. I am talking about tolerance for disagreement. Boy, we've seen how that has dropped, especially in the social media. I'm not even talking about structure here. Every church needs structure. We need to have ways to do things decently and in order. When we have our Session meetings, we follow Robert's Rules of Order. Most of our Session members probably don't even know what that is. But trust me, we do.
I'm talking more about ... style. Now we're good, I think, here, at caring for people who do not readily, perhaps, fit into our congregation's structure, a traditional one. But how often do we reach out to someone that we're not already familiar with, and invite them in? How often do we take an opportunity where it seems like somebody would benefit from knowing Christ because of their situation? And if we're not willing to share the gospel ourselves, tell them, “Hey, I know a place where you can learn something that would help you,” and then invite them into the church.
These people, do we love them or hate them? Do we dismiss them or coexist with them, when they're different than us? Style has been a big thing, throughout the Church's history. I'm not speaking specifically about this church. But I've talked before about “worship wars.”
Do we have contemporary worship? Do we have traditional worship? Do we have a blend? Do we have a praise band or do we not? Do we use the organ only? Some denominations, like Reformed Presbyterian, won't use any instrumentation, and they only sing the Psalms. That's fine for them – as long as they can accept that there are other ways of doing it.
Jesus proclaimed that people are more important than programs. Compassion is more important than protocol. He proved this most emphatically on the cross. But Pharisees of every age disagree, so rather than embrace the people Jesus embraces, the Pharisees choose to fiddle with the fine print, and it takes our focus away from mission and places it on minutiae. (That's not my phrase, by the way, but I really like what he said.) “It takes our focus away from mission and places it on minutiae.”
Sociologist Anthony Campolo once described the greatest criticism he ever received while speaking in a church. Standing, apparently, before a piously-dressed, religious-sounding congregation, Campolo announced, “Tonight in West Africa, 6,000 people will die of starvation and you don't give a shit.” The people gasped, but Campolo continued, “And right now, you are more concerned about the fact that I said shit in your pulpit than you are about the 6,000 people who will die.” It seems like sometimes we suffer from the same attitude.
The point is that Campolo's hearers didn't get it. And Jesus' hearers didn't get it either. On the contrary, they resented being scolded. Their hearts were hardened, and they responded with ridicule and criticism and rejection. In the verse beyond what we read – and frankly, I debated about simply adding it in, even though it wasn't included in this source material – we read:
When Jesus left that place, the scribes and the Pharisees began to criticize him bitterly and ask him questions about many things, trying to lay traps for him and catch him saying anyething wrong.
Their hatred was solidified. You see, once a heart has turned to stone, it is difficult to soften it again. Sometimes it takes humility to turn the heart around. Sometimes it takes confession. Sometimes it even takes a death. Whatever it takes for you, to soften that part of your heart that is stone, I encourage you to lay your heart at the foot of the cross, and during this time of Lent, let the softening begin. Or frankly, woe to us! Woe to us, indeed.
If you would like to take a moment to come up and lay your heart at the cross for Jesus, come.
Thanks be to God. Amen.