Hardening of the arteries is a dangerous condition where fat or cholesterol deposits line the wall of an artery and then begin to harden causing a narrowing of the opening and consequently the amount of blood that can get to various organs. Eventually the artery can become completely blocked causing serous damage (such as a heart attack or stroke) and even death.
Churches and Christians face a similar danger. In their case it is not a hardening of the arteries but a hardening of the attitudes. When it happens, the Holy Spirit becomes constricted in His movement within the church and eventually the Spirit may be kept from moving at all which leads to the death of the church.
Hardening of the attitudes (like hardening of the arteries) can happen without us even realizing it. When we first turn to Christ for forgiveness and new life, we are aware of our sinfulness and are humbled by God’s incredible mercy and grace. Following Biblical guidelines we become members of a church and hopefully start living a more God-directed life. Our values and attitudes begin to change. Before long there is a distinct difference between the way we live and the way those outside of the Christian community live. Up to this point the growth is natural and normal. However, what often happens is that we start feeling self-righteous and begin to look down on those who have not come into a relationship with Christ as if somehow they are less valuable or worthy than we are. When this happens our attitudes have grown hard.
Another manifestation of the disease happens when we develop certain preferences for the way certain things should be done. That is natural. However, when we start thinking that these things are the only right way to do things we have hardened attitudes.
This morning we are going to read a couple of accounts in which Jesus has to deal with just these issues. He is forced to confront the hardening of the attitudes that he found in the religious leaders of the day: the Scribes (or teachers of the law) and Pharisees. They believed they were honoring God. However, they slipped into a self-righteousness and narrow-mindedness that actually was keeping people from God rather than drawing people to Him.
Criticism One: You are Hanging Out with the Wrong Kind of People
The first account has to do with the calling of Levi (we know him better as Matthew). Levi, we are told was a tax-collector. Tax-collectors were hated not only because they worked for the Romans but also because most of them were crooks. There were various stated taxes and then there were certain additional taxes that could be imposed by the tax-collector (think luxury taxes of today). The stated taxes had to be turned over to Rome but anything over what was required by Rome the Collector got to keep. So, a tax-collector could have someone stop and unpack their cart and tax a person whatever he wanted to tax them. If they didn’t have the money to pay, the collector could extend credit at a high interest rate (think loan shark). Needless to say, they were hated.
We don’t know whether Levi was one of these shifty tax-collectors or not. However, everyone would have assumed that he was. It is likely that Jesus met or talked with Levi previous to the encounter recorded in our text. Perhaps Levi had heard Jesus teach and maybe even witnessed Him do miracles. Levi certainly knew who Jesus was. It is a remarkable account.
“Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.”
Imagine a crime boss who was invited to follow Christ and suddenly left the mob and became an evangelist.
Levi did not seem unhappy about leaving his job. On the contrary, he threw a party to introduce Jesus to his friends. Most of Levi’s friends were other tax-collectors because no one else would associate with him. Levi was excited about becoming a follower of Jesus so he wanted to tell others. He’s a good pattern for the rest of us.
Apparently the Pharisees and the Scribes heard about the party and charged that Jesus was hanging around with the wrong crowd! By associating “with such people” they believed he was defiling or compromising himself. Let’s face it, most of us have said the same thing to our children! We have told them that they will largely be judged by the company they keep.
Jesus answered his critics with a pointed comment: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Jesus’ point was simple: He came to help sinful, broken, lost people. The people who believed they were doing OK did not see a need for Jesus. Those who knew they had problems were the ones most open to the gospel. The principle is simple: those who are most aware of their need are actually closer to the Kingdom than those who believe they are a “good person”.
Let that sink in. If you are a person who is very much aware of your failures and know you are not good enough to earn God’s favor, you are actually closer to the Kingdom of God than the person who has gone to church all his life and feels pretty good about that fact! The self-righteous person feels they have earned God’s favor. They don’t really need a “Savior” because they believe they can save themselves!
Jesus understood that you can’t reach out to people if you don’t associate with them. We can’t tell spiritually lost people about God’s mercy and grace if we refuse to be near them! Of course we need to be careful that we don’t become so immersed in the secular culture that we compromise our faith or are dragged down by those who do not know Christ. However, we must spend time with non-Christians if we want to reach them!
Think of a physician. Would you criticize a doctor because he/she was always hanging around sick people? Of course not! We understand that Doctors can’t help the sick unless they examine the sick. Is there a risk that the Doctor may himself get sick? Of course there is. The Doctor takes precautions and knows that he/she must take the risk or sick people will not be made well.
As we go out into the world we too must take precautions. We must continue to regularly seek God in the Scriptures, we must remain fervent in prayer, and we need to make sure that we balance our time in the world with time with the people of God in worship and study.
We must never forget that we used to be lost people. We were headed for eternal judgment but were rescued because someone took the time to risk getting dirty so that they could help us. We were not good people when Jesus found us (we still aren’t good people even though we are redeemed). Because of this fact we must look past what a person looks like, or what they do, or what they have done. We must see, as Jesus did, what a person can become by His grace.
Criticism Two: You aren’t doing Things Right
The second example of hardened attitudes is in Luke 5:33-38. This time the teachers ask Jesus a question directly: “Why is it that your disciples do not conform to the standard practice of fasting that is followed by the disciples of John and those who follow the way of the Pharisees?”
Fasting is going without food in order to draw closer to the Lord. The Law of God actually only prescribed one fast a year and that was on the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement the fast was an expression of sorrow for sin. Over the course of time fasting became a spiritual discipline. People would fast in a time of trial, when they needed guidance, and when they simply want to clear their head before God. Jesus fasted for 40 days when he was in the wilderness before he was tempted by the Devil.
The Pharisees had taken something good and took it to an extreme. They fasted “twice a week” as a sign of their spiritual superiority. Now they measured other people by this standard.
Jesus responded to his critics with three word pictures. First, he used the analogy of a wedding reception. Jesus said if you were going to a wedding reception (which often lasted for a week) you wouldn’t fast, you would celebrate, because it is a joyous occasion. Jesus said while the disciples were with Jesus it was like being at a wedding reception, it was a time for rejoicing not fasting.
Erma Bombeck wrote about sitting in church one Sunday when a small child turned around and began to smile at the people behind her. When her mother noticed, she told her daughter in a stage whisper, “Stop that grinning—you’re in church,” gave her a swat, and said, “That’s better!” Bombeck concluded that some people come to church looking like they have just read the will of their rich aunt only to learn that she left everything to her pet hamster!
Jesus makes the point that the good news of the gospel is—well, good news! God is no longer dealing with His people on the basis of the Law, but is now dealing with us on the basis of the grace that is ours through Jesus Christ. God no longer views us as those stained by sin but as those who are made new by the blood and sacrifice of Christ. This is a reason for joy. Even in heard times we rejoice because we are not alone and we know that God is working in all things for the good.
Jesus used two other words pictures. He said,
“No one tears a patch from a new garment and sews it on an old one. If he does, he will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. 37 And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. 38 No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins.
The first illustration relates to someone who has a hole in their pants. Jesus says you don’t cut up a new pair of pants so you can patch the old pair. The patch will not match the old garment (which will make it look bad) and you will also have destroyed a completely good garment.
The second illustration has to do with wineskins. Wine would be placed in a skin. As the wine fermented gas would build up and the skin would expand. Jesus says you don’t put new wine into an old wineskin because the old wine skin will not be able to expand any more. The new wine must be put in a new wineskin.
Jesus is making the same point with both of these pictures. The message of God’s forgiveness and grace brings a new way of looking at and doing things. In business circles we would say that Jesus brings a new paradigm to bear on life. In Judaism the motivation tended to be that of fear . . . the fear of making God angry. Jesus changes the focus. He urges us to be motivated by our love for God
Before Martin Luther understood the message of God’s forgiveness and grace he saw God as a taskmaster and a tyrant. After he came to faith he saw obedience as a way to experience the delight of God. Which view of God do you have: the taskmaster or the lover?
We’ve Never Done it That Way Before
Jesus added one final statement: ‘And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, ‘The old is better.’ ” You may have heard the old joke: “How many people does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: four: one to change the bulb and three to reminisce about how good the old light bulb was.
Jesus acknowledged that change is hard for people. Mark Twain was right: “The only one who likes change is a wet baby.” Once we get used to something we tend to resist change. We believe it is right because it is what we have always done.
I read a story about a Chinese holy man. He was very poor and lived in a remote part of China, but he came to love God and to worship Him faithfully. As poor as he was, he understood that worship involves some sacrifice on our part. Since food was his scarcest commodity, every day before his quiet time of prayer and meditation he put a dish of butter up on the window sill as his offering to God. One day during this time, his cat came in and ate the butter. To remedy this, he began to tie the cat to the bedpost each day before his quiet time. The problem was solved permanently.
Over the course of time this man became revered for his piety and others joined him as disciples and worshiped as he did. Generations later, long after the holy man had died, his followers were still placing an offering of butter on the windowsill during their time of prayer and meditation. Furthermore, each one bought a cat and tied it to the bedpost. It had all become part of the ritual.
This can happen in a church. We do things not because they are effective but because we have always done them! This is why new churches tend to be more successful in reaching people. It is because established churches resist changing their methods in order to reach people.
We too often believe something new is going to hurt us or diminish what we know and love. We must remember that “new” sometimes means fresh and exciting. “Different” sometimes opens doors. Obviously, new is not always better. Sometimes that which is new results in a denial or a watering down of the faith. In this case new would be wrong. When evaluating new things we should ask several questions:
- Is this exalting the living Christ and holding to the truth of the gospel?
- Is this something that may help others understand the truth of the gospel more fully?
- Am I resisting change simply because it is change?
The point is that the MESSAGE of the gospel, rather than my preferences must always have center stage. If we can glorify the Lord more fully and reach others more effectively by changing our style of music, we should do so. If we can more powerfully convey the message by using media, then let’s do so. The point is that we should be willing to do whatever is necessary to glorify the Lord and reach others in His name.
I have four applications from our text. First, no matter what your reputation, you can be loved and used by God. Jesus saw in the hated tax collector Levi: a disciple named Matthew, a writer, and an evangelist. He looks at you and sees not what you have done in the past, He sees what He can do in you in the future. Remember the principle: those who are most aware of their need are actually closer to the Kingdom than those who believe they are a “good person”.
No matter where you have been, Jesus invites you to turn to Him for forgiveness and new life. I encourage you to believe Him and trust Him today.
Second, we need to ask ourselves a question: Does anyone criticize us for hanging out with the wrong crowd? Does anyone ever question why certain people are a part of our worshiping community? If not, then we may need to rethink our approach to outreach. Though it is true that we are not to be conformed to the world, we must also avoid the other extreme, that of being isolated from the world. Ask yourself, “Am I more like the Pharisees or more like Jesus in the way I relate to those outside of faith?”
If you don’t have any non-Christian friends, set out to make some new friends. Make a conscious effort to reach out to those who are unchurched. Work hard to see the potential in others. Warmly welcome newcomers to our church, whoever they are. Remind yourself that you are where you are today because someone reached out to you.
Third, ask yourself whether you are living by the paradigm of law or grace. As people look at your life do they see that the message of Christ is good news? Is your life characterized by fasting or celebration? Are you weighted down or set free? Set your mind on living joyfully before the Lord. You are forgiven and set free! It is time to celebrate the Lord and invite our friends to meet Jesus as well.
Finally, we are challenged to recognize that we live in changing times. Tastes, preferences, and interests change with each generation if not more frequently. Our challenge is to be so committed to exalting the Lord and spreading the gospel that though we are uncompromising with the message of the Gospel we are willing to use whatever methods are necessary to communicate clearly and effectively.
People who become too comfortable have a tendency to sit, soak, and then sour. If we heed these lessons we will be able to maintain the joy of the Lord. Discipleship will continue to be an adventure. We will have the privilege of seeing new people come to the glorious awareness that Jesus loves them. And we will defend against the disease of hardening of the attitudes.