So, we weren’t able to get our normal podcast posted this week, so I thought it was a good excuse to try to get some (post)sermon notes up for those of you who like to follow such things. I hope it helps you consider or re-consider what this life of follow Jesus might look like.
Text: Matthew 23:13-15
How many of you are familiar with the movie “The Little Rascals”?
The movie centers around little kids, particularly the boys who have formed the “He-Man Woman-Haters”. This is an exclusive club, with the big rule that you have to hate girls to belong. The two best friends, Spanky and Alfalfa, end up having a falling out because Alfalfa has fallen for Darla, and has been spending time with her in secret.
It all comes out in an epic scene, where, while trying to have a secret date in the clubhouse, Alfalfa accidentally burns it to the ground because of his romantic lunchtime candles. He is punished by the group, and it isn’t until the very end, through a surprise guest, that they realize they were wrong, finally rebuilding their clubhouse and hanging a new sign on the door: “He-Man Woman Haters Club: Women Welcome”. In the final scene, you see them all getting along so well, and even Spanky seems to enjoy the company of his female friends.
In this movie, there was a strict rule that was preventing Alfalfa from pursuing the love of his life. And it was a nonsense rule (and even a dangerous one…we might admit that some organizations would be more honest if they hung a sign like the one at the end of the movie on their doors…). Alfalfa had been sold a bill of goods and he couldn’t do it anymore. It was not a life he wanted. And the damage it caused was extensive.
I know the movie is a silly example, but the Pharisees and teachers of the law that Jesus is talking to have been doing something similar. They have been laying up heavy burdens on others, they have been seeking to exclude other people and convert people to their cause, and have been blind to the hurt and pain they are causing, not to mention the fact that they were causing themselves to miss out. There is a certain misery in seeking to always police the world and be right all the time. That is what is behind the word “woe”. Jesus is saying: this life you have chosen for yourself…it is not just misguided and destructive, it is sad and lacking.
Woe is me.
We don’t tend to hear the word “woe” often today, but they were used by prophets to name what currently exists in someone’s life. It is a statement of regretful fact with even a twinge of compassion. This is not simply judgment, it is a sorrowful statement of what is happening.
It begs the question: do you really want this life, and would anyone else want your life? This is a key question for us as disciples of Jesus. Of course our lives have challenges and we are not perfect, but would someone on the outside looking in want our life? And if not, why not? This is a time for us to get honest about our own lives as we look at the lives of the Pharisees.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
Jesus begins by passing judgment on the scribes and Pharisees for the effect that their hypocrisy has on others. The kingdom of heaven is meant to be attractive and inviting, but the scribes and Pharisees prevent those so attracted to it from entering the kingdom. They do not live as if they have entered the kingdom. because they actually haven’t. But they feel like they have to prevent others as well.
These leaders are so obsessed with holding on to their power and position, that they are trying to trip up and discredit Jesus so that the people who used to follow them (and now follow Jesus) will turn back to them. And how do they do this? Power and coercion. You aren’t following the rules. You aren’t keeping sabbath. You don’t really understand the Bible.
[the best manuscripts don’t include v. 14, so we didn’t look at it. For more detail as to why, or if you are concerned that we are removing things from the Bible, read this and
this to start]
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
Jesus, in talking about the Pharisees suggests that they are missionaries (and even successful ones), but those they convert are made even more corrupt than the Pharisees themselves. This is the danger of seeking to convert someone to an “-ism” an ideology , rather than to a way of living in deep relationship with the God of all. There is an appeal to fundamentalism and philosophy—it is the thought that we now know fully how to do the right thing and everyone else is wrong. Again, this is the heavy burdens of the Pharisees and the ultra-religious. Even our zeal can be something that becomes anti-kingdom. (Just ask the Apostle Paul about that one)
Some of us have really felt this one. We have been indoctrinated into thinking and acting in certain ways where fear was a big motivator. If you do this, then it will lead to [insert worst-case scenario/consequence here]. The bar becomes set so high that we live in constant fear, shame, and guilt because we cannot measure up. And perhaps, there is even this twisted hope that if I share this enough, I will come to believe it and embody it, and maybe even the person I convert will prove that this is right!
Quite simply put: this is a conversion to a Jesus-less religion. Keep these rules. Do things the right way. Believe the right things. Set yourself apart from those who believe the wrong things. There is nothing inherently wrong with describing our faith in relationship to our faith tradition. Someone will say I am Baptist or Catholic or Episcopal or Lutheran or Jewish or whatever it may be. There is such to be gained by identifying with a certain religious stream. However, when that becomes the thing that is more important than Jesus, we need to be careful and aware.
A side note: this is one of the several times where Jesus mentions religious people being the ones especially in danger of being related to or of hell. This should make our ears perk up a little bit. The question is, what are we attempting to convince people of? A system of belief? A particular set of holy living codes? A specific morality? Or…is our message one that says: the kingdom of heaven is near and you can be a part of it…now.
Pascal once said: “People never sin more grievously than when they act from religious motives.” I don’t feel like I need to convince you of this. So many wars have been waged over religious motives (even within the same Christian faith). Religious motives are fleeting and destructive, not just to others but also to ourselves. There is NOTHING about this way of living that is attractive to our world…and it is often where many people, apart from Jesus are living (and many who do confuse belief in Jesus). There is a better way.
What does your life speak about what you believe about the kingdom of God? Is it an invitational life? Is it an attractive life? Could it be that you are closing a door in people’s faces by the way you are stuck right now in your life? Is God saying “woe” to your life right now, not in a way of judgment but in a way of saying “It doesn’t have to be this way.”? The truth is, the door to the kingdom is open wide for us. Jesus has opened it and he is inviting us in. He is the Door. He is the Way. And to follow him is to lay down our striving, our burdens, our guilt, our shame, our rules, the lies we’ve been telling ourselves and others, the expectations we have or others have. It is laying all of it down and it is surrendering to a life with Christ.
What is preventing you today? What is the bad news in your life, the lies and stories you are telling yourself? What does God want you to know about him and about yourself this morning? What is the truth that makes life in the kingdom a joyful possibility?
I’d love any thoughts you may have, feel free to comment or contact me directly through the site here.