Greetings in the name of Christ our Lord!
Yesterday we stood with Jesus as He withered the fig tree and cleansed the Temple – today, Holy Tuesday, we will sit at His feet as He teaches in the Temple and on the Mount of Olives.
Today's readings are significantly longer than those yesterday, so you can find them here. Feel free to print it out or read directly from it, and if neither is a good option, I would always encourage you to pull out your own Bibles and follow along. The readings are Mark 11:20-13:37, and Matthew 21:23-26:2.
Mark’s account of today begins with the disciples passing the tree that Christ had withered yesterday, with Peter finally fully grasping what had happened.
He cries out: “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”
Jesus responds by clearly saying “Have faith in God,” and by giving examples of prayer and forgiveness.
This exhortation – “Have faith,” that is: “Believe!” perfectly sums up Jesus’ teachings today.
In both Mark and Matthew’s accounts of today, the Pharisees and Herodians, the chief priests and scribes, seek to trip up Jesus. They want Him to fall. They want to be the center of attention, to be the ones in authority, and so they inwardly plot and scheme and gossip and harm while outwardly appearing pure. It befits their own picture of the Temple and Israel to have Jesus out of the picture.
“Jesus?” the Pharisees and Herodians seem to say, “Let’s tell you about Jesus. We know all about Jesus.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, do you and I do the same? Do we occasionally look at God’s Word, at God’s desire for the church, and say “No, that doesn’t fit in with how I think the church should look. I know better. Besides, this is how we do things here.”
The Pharisees and Herodians, the chief priests and the scribes, had grown comfortable in their sin. They relished the prestige, the power, the authority, and they gloried in being the center of attention. When Jesus comes and says to them “This is how things ought to be done,” they effectively respond, “Don’t tell us about God or religion. We know more about it than you. This is the way we’ve done things, this is the way we’re doing things, so get with the program or get lost.”
Not content to disagree, because Jesus threatens their position, those opposed to Him want Jesus to publicly say contentious things that will make the crowds following Him say “Oh, we were wrong to follow Jesus – the Scribes and the Pharisees, the chief priests and the Herodians, those are the true men of God, they always have been.”
Jesus, responding to them, holds no punches. He deflects all of their schemes, their tricks, and their traps, and turning to the crowds, calls out the hypocrisy of those condemning Him boldly, loudly, and clearly.
“Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
Through the Parable of the Vineyard, the Parable of the Wedding Feast, and His teachings, Jesus condemns the pride of the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priests and the Herodians. He condemns faithless Israel for killing and casting out every prophet and messenger that was sent to them. He condemns faithless Israel for their pride and presumption, assuming in their sinfulness that their works will save them, and that they will win out and be shown to be truly on God’s side.
Jesus condemns their unbelief and their hypocritical works.
As a Pastor, I admit that I always bristle when people lift up the account of the “widow’s mite” as something worth emulating – reading it in context, Jesus isn’t praising the widow so much as condemning the scribes. He precedes the account with “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers.”
By ignoring God’s commands to care for the widow and the orphan, by bedecking themselves in wealth and by seating themselves in places of honor, by living comfortably while the poor widow “put in everything she had, all she had to live on” the Pharisees are showing themselves to be faithless and hypocritical, so concerned with the outward observation of the ceremonial Law that they lift themselves up while trampling down everybody else.
In Matthew’s account, Jesus spells this out more explicitly in His pronounced woes:
- “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”
- “You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
- “You also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”
- “I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.”
Both Matthew and Mark continue with accounts of Jesus foretelling the destruction of the Temple, and Matthew continues with the contrast between those who are God-pleasing and those who are not.
What should you and I take out today’s account? What should we learn from the condemnation of hypocritical “faith”? Two things to think about:
- When Jesus sets the full force of the Law against the Scribes and Pharisees, the Sadducees and Herodians, they double down. They bristle and they grumble and they go off to plot against Him. They accuse Jesus of heresy and seek to kill Him. When you and I are met with the Law, which reflects our own sinfulness and failure to live up to the holiness we are called to, do we double down or do we turn to Christ and His mercies?
- Do you and I trust in our own works and our own selves for our salvation? Are you and I saved because we’re “good people” who volunteer for church events, take our neighbors out to lunch, or are we saved because of Jesus and what He has done for us? Is our faith geared inwards, towards ourselves, or outwards, towards Christ?
Finally, I leave you with this. If you read these passages and say “Oh, thank God I’m not like those Pharisees,” you’ve missed the point. The sins of the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the sins of the scribes and Herodians are our own sins.
Consider Jesus’ exhortations to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2-3. Are not the sins mentioned the same hypocrisies that Jesus condemns in our readings today?
Which is easier?
To say “I am a good Christian. I read my Bible, I attend church, I volunteer, and at least I’m not like [them]. Can you believe what [they] are doing? Can you believe what [they] said? Guess what I heard this week about [them]”? To outwardly perform “good works” while inwardly trampling down our neighbors?
Or to say “On my own, I am sin, and nothing. Apart from you, Christ, I have no being. I am no better than the disciples who denied and abandoned you. You have told me, O Christ, to deny myself, to take up my cross and to follow you, but I am weak. I fail. I have fallen short. I haven’t loved my neighbor as you’ve commanded me to. By doing so I’ve failed to love you. I’ve lifted up myself while casting down others, intentionally or unintentionally. Yet, O Christ, you have seen my brokenness, you have seen my failure, and you have died for me. You have restored me in the waters of baptism. You feed and nourish me with your own self, reminding me that it is in you that I live and breathe and have my being. Forgive my shortcomings and keep me from pride. Help me to serve my neighbor, to give out of my abundance to those who have less. To lift up my neighbor and their reputation, not to gossip or break down, but to build up and glorify. Help me not to become more like me, Jesus, but in all things to become more like you”? To deny ourselves, to take up the Cross, and to follow Jesus on the way?
I was baptized in 2013 and have been a Christian for coming up on 10 years, and still struggle daily with the latter. I know Christians who have been so from birth who are over 90, and still struggle daily with the latter.
If you think you’ve got the whole Christianity thing down pat, I’d invite you to reconsider. The Church is always under construction, as are its members.
Let’s take Jesus’ words today to heart and look at our own lives. Are we with the sheep or the goats? Do we trust in Christ and the Gospel, or do we lift ourselves up under the Law?
In Christ’s Peace,
Pastor Singer ☩