Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is the final week running up to his crucifixion. He will criticize spiritual showiness while encouraging us to practice complete love and commitment to God.
38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Have you ever been in the presence of someone really, really important? I remember one time attending a campaign event in New Hampshire in the run up to a presidential primary. Several political big shots had crammed into a school cafeteria with all the requisite staff, press and random observers like me. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement of the moment. So much power being wielded in the midst of a crowd interacting in tighter-than-usual personal space! The spectators and the stars were almost literally rubbing elbows.
We might assume all the candidates at that event had no aspirations outside the boundaries of selfless public service, but it probably wasn’t true. Some people do crave the attention, the respect, the deference to their inherent importance, the awe from others which they see as their just due.
Jesus wasn’t like that, but rather lowered himself intentionally to our level. When he saw the types that liked to be spiritual VIPs, he had nothing but harsh words. And he pointed out their hypocrisy.
They got attention merely by the way they dressed. Some clothing automatically looks more spiritual and they wanted people to see them in it. People saw them dressed in those long robes and reflexively gave them special greetings in the marketplaces. It was a wholehearted, full-eye-contact “Oh hello, sir!” not just a halfhearted “Hi.”
When they took their place of religious duty, it was a place of honor. If there was a feast, the host would be sure to seat them somewhere special, because of course he wanted everyone to see what kind of people came to his banquets – spiritual VIPs.
People like this can use their power to take advantage of others. The grieving widow might someday want to sign over some of her estate. Be sure to get into her good graces. Why even wait that long? Perhaps they would pull on her heartstrings now to lead her to give to their “charitable” cause.
Long prayers are often necessary, but there is no sense in the mind of this VIP to offer them only in private. Prayers are best offered in pretense, for all to see and hear, sufficiently clogged with spiritual vocabulary and run-on sentences. Who would ever believe that someone so pious could ever devour the house of a widow?
Many people will be condemned in the judgment, but these will receive greater condemnation. If there is such a thing as a hotter place in hell, it is reserved for the phony, self-focused, hypocritically spiritual VIP.
Jesus’ family thought he was losing it. The scribes were convinced he was evil. Neither was right. Jesus understood them far better than they understood him.
20 Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. 21 And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”
22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” … 28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
If we are going to faithfully follow Jesus there are two accusations that we have to expect. They were leveled at Christ and we will make easy targets for them too. They are simply:
The beauty of all of this misunderstanding and outright falsehood is that Christ endured it first. In our case some of the misunderstanding is justified, some of the criticism is true and, let’s face it, our motives are rarely altogether pure. Yet even when we really are completely in the right, if we expect to be treated like Jesus, there will be those people who fail to grasp that. Some of them will be important, like the scribes, so their criticism will feel very demeaning. Some of them will be close, like our family, so their misunderstanding will hurt. We can only imagine how Christ felt.
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.
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,