The wrong crowd – Mark 2:13-17

13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus is still eating with sinners.  The church is full of them.  On any given Sunday, in the midst of any given Christian congregation, you will find them.  Jesus is comfortable there and intends to make these people his friends.

One reason I say this has to do with our perception of hypocrisy.  The true hypocrites in this story were the scribes of the Pharisees who thought eating with certain people was beneath them. Who were they to feel so self-righteous?  In reality they needed Jesus too.

The church that we see is often a lot like the crowd here at Levi’s banquet.  Jesus is surely present and so are his disciples.  The disciples, as we know from the Gospels and Acts, were themselves in a state of continuous spiritual growth.  They were imperfect on their very best days.  And then there are those who are generic followers.  They may not even be believers just yet.  Or maybe they are very new to the faith and each day brings them a major lesson.  Or they may just be friends of Levi who came to the banquet, who just heard of Jesus that day, and have no desire to repent of anything at this time.

Let’s expect a lot of ourselves as far as holiness and spiritual growth.  Let’s also be gracious with others.  You’re going to find yourself sitting next to some sinner, tax collector or present day equivalent next time you attend any church gathering.  This isn’t the wrong crowd, but the right one, if you are looking for Jesus.

A Prayer Prompted by Matthew 23

Heavenly Father,

By listening to Jesus we learn that there is a great danger in hypocritical religion.  The scribes and Pharisees were guilty of it then, but many besides them have been guilty of it too. Many are still guilty of it now.

In response we ask you to please show us where the practice of our faith does not measure up to your standards.  Transform our hearts so that we become people who are inwardly pure.  Let our love for you and for others cause us to grieve over sin and truly fear the day of your coming judgment.

And let us always be prepared and eagerly waiting for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In his name,
Amen.

What’s inside? – Matthew 23:27-28

As Jesus cuts into the religious hypocrites of his day, one of the “woes” he pronounces on them is this:

27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

It’s a graphic picture.  Rotting corpses lying behind clean, newly painted, white outer walls.  The smells of fresh paint and decomposition combine in an oddly unpleasant mixture.  We might only wish the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus referred to were the only ones ever to be found guilty as charged.  

Unfortunately, as long as there shall be religion in a fallen world, we can count on the existence of religious hypocrisy.  If the world, the flesh and the devil can’t get us to fall headlong into sin and drown, they will keep trying to find something for us to dip our toes in when no one is looking.  It may be some secret dishonesty or indiscretion.  It may be a smug self-satisfaction that we are not as evil as someone else.  It doesn’t matter what the rottenness is caused by, it only matters that it is there.

The starting point in reversing the process is simple honesty that hypocrisy is real, wicked, and consistently knocking at our door.  Basic honesty with ourselves and others removes the need for religious hypocrisy and is almost already its opposite.  We don’t have to clean up the outside to impress anyone and the inside will not deteriorate beyond a certain point.  The Holy Spirit, if he dwells within, will see to it.

It’s the confessing sinner that is able to repent of sin and the humble servant that can somehow live with an outward flaw.  Hypocrisy is an obstacle in the way of genuine spiritual growth.  The highway toward true holiness has many off-ramps that lead to hypocrisy.  We need to be sure not to take any of them.  When our inside and outside are in harmony, both trending toward a Christlike end, all is well.  One day we shall be inwardly and outwardly pure.

A Prayer about Prayer Itself Prompted by Matthew 6:5-8

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Dear Heavenly Father,

I come to you in prayer to talk about my personal prayer life. 

Jesus here reminds me that I may be tempted to pray in public, perhaps because I feel pressure to pray, but ignore you in my private times when perhaps I need prayer most.  Let me not be a hypocrite by praying only to be seen and heard by those who would think of me as spiritual.  Let my private prayer times outdo my public prayers.  Let my public prayers be a natural outflow of my personal times with you.

Help my prayers not to be full of empty words, but rather full of sincere and meaningful content, offered up freely to you.  Let my requests be related to actual needs that you would pleased to meet.  Let my praises be true expressions of humble adoration. Help me to be open, honest and plain-spoken.  You aren’t listening for artful compositions, but rather looking for the right attitude of heart.  Let my heart be right before you.

Father, I know full well that my life depends on you.  My standing before you depends on the work of your Son Jesus.  You know my needs perfectly.  May the Spirit lead me as I pray so that I might pray according to your will.  May my prayers not be purely selfish even when I ask things for myself.  May they be full of truth at every level.  May I always pray with your glory and honor in mind.

And may I be among those who move mountains with my little faith and little prayers.

In Christ,

Amen.

Honest Q & A: Church (1) – Liturgy, or Not?

A few of the questions submitted in Honest Q & A have fallen within the very general category of church. Here’s the first question in this category:

What is the appropriate balance between the conflicting trends in the church of the return to tradition (“liturgy is hip,” etc.) and the disillusionment with any kind of structure at all (“church is just people”)?

To give a short, pithy answer, we might say that the appropriate balance is to “make sure we are striving for balance.” Period. For those with the patience for something far less succinct, that answer can be explained. It hinges on the fact that both sides in this discussion have strengths and weaknesses to keep in mind.

In one sense, liturgy, meaning “a prescribed form or set of forms for public religious worship” (Houghton-Mifflin), or the lack thereof, is a neutral issue. We might suppose, therefore, that we can do whatever we want. The Bible doesn’t demand a great deal of liturgy or any particular type. This can be deceiving. Self-deceiving, in fact.

The problem rests in our motivation. Some people are prompted to exquisite heights of worshipful delight via more formal practices and surroundings. Others, in the same setting, feel inauthentic. They need something considerably more “homey” to get the same vibe.   It’s when liturgy turns into “mere” formality that it becomes a cover for hypocrisy. And, let’s face it, saying “church is just people” can be misleading, since church also includes God and the awe we should rightly have in his presence.

We may find the answer to our question in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (ESV). The worship and practice of the earliest church was admittedly not very formal, but it was not “without form and void.” If these things mentioned are in place and are sincerely practiced, infused with the power of the Holy Spirit, then all should be well. It’s when we cast off all restraint in the name of authenticity, or adopt liturgy to create a religious feel and then confuse that with an actual love of God that we get into trouble.