Friday, August 1, 2014
“Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?
And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?” (Matthew 23:16-19)
The various schools and ways of interpretation of the law had led to some strange ideas. Numbers 30:2 commanded, “If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” If a man made a deliberate promise, he was required to keep it. He was not to make promises lightly.
The Pharisees recognized how easy it was to make promises without thinking about the consequences, and so they insisted on swearing by something, similar to people swearing on the Bible or their mother’s grave. They had gone even further, however, that the oath wasn’t binding if it was based on some general thing like the temple or the altar, but only if it was about some specific thing such as the gold of the temple or a sacrifice on the altar, similar to a child saying his promise didn’t count because he had his fingers crossed. They were just using it as a way to deceive people.
“Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.” (Matthew 23:20-22)
Jesus pointed out that swearing by the temple included swearing by everything inside it, and swearing by the altar included swearing by everything on the altar. Swearing by heaven included everything in heaven. Without the temple, the gold was just ordinary gold, and without the altar the sacrifice was just a dead animal. While most Jews will not even write or say the name of God, writing G*d instead, by swearing by heaven, they were swearing by God. Their distinction was illogical and made a mockery of God’s commandment.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24)
The scribes and Pharisees were very careful to pay their full tithe of even such things as the spices they grew in the garden. At the same time, they ignored far more important matters such as real justice in disputes, often favoring one side or the other. They were relentless in seizing homes or land of people who got behind on payments or taxes, and trusted no one, including God to do what they said.
Jesus said they were choking on a gnat, by worrying about such minor matters as weighing out their spices, while swallowing a camel by ignoring such big and important matters. They needed to concentrate on the most important things instead.
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matthew 23:25-28)
Several years ago, I had the privilege of going to Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. They have a huge collection of beautiful art and some of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. Every attempt has been made to make people focus on the beauty and forget that it is about death. Every slab of marble is there to hide somebody’s dead body. Much of the artwork hides vaults storing bodies. All of the beauty has been paid for with profits from providing funeral services and places to bury people. Beautiful as it is, it is a place of death.
The scribes and Pharisees were much the same, fixing the outside up to look really religious, but in reality they were just covering up corruption and rottenness with some pretty surface decoration. Underneath was just hypocrisy and deliberate sin.
While Jesus was talking specifically to the scribes and Pharisees, he was giving a warning for today. Far too often we have focused on making ourselves appear religious, dressing and acting as if we were Christians, while ignoring or excusing overt sins and the wicked attitudes of our own heart, even re-interpreting scripture to justify what we are doing.