Legalism, Excuses, Justifications,
One of the most popular foils for jokes is lawyers. Perhaps you have heard this one: “what do you call 100 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?” The answer: “a good start!” Here’s another, “You’re trapped in a room with a tiger, a rattlesnake and a lawyer. Your gun has only two bullets. What should you do?” The answer, “Shoot the lawyer . . . twice!”
These kinds of jokes are made because lawyers have the reputation of being experts in finding loopholes in the law that enable criminals to go free, crooks to escape consequences, and allow businessmen to sidestep their obligations. In fairness, most lawyers are simply doing their jobs. There are many good, honest, and god-fearing lawyers.
This morning we are going to look at Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees for their “lawyer-like” mentality As we look at Matthew 23:16-22 Jesus says,
16 “Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18 You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it.21 And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22 And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
Let’s be honest . . . it all sounds little confusing to us. On a first read we aren’t real clear about what Jesus was upset about. I think you’ll see that it is a problem of looking for spiritual loopholes.
The Loopholes of the Pharisees
In days of the Scribes and Pharisees, much like today, the taking of oaths was a way of underscoring the truthfulness of what you were saying. It’s kind of silly if y you think about it. It’s like we are saying, “OK, most of the time I’m lying to you . . . but now I am really telling you the truth!”
Today in courtrooms you are asked to “swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Government leaders are sworn into office by solemnly swearing. When two people are married they make promises to each other with God as their witness. We sign documents all the time that ask us to solemnly swear that what is written is true.
What They Were Doing. What the Pharisees were doing was drawing distinctions between various vows. Any oath that was taken in God’s name (we would say today, “As God is my witness” or “So help me God”) was binding. However, if you swore by something else it could be binding or it might not be binding.
In the example Jesus gives, the Scribes and Pharisees said that a vow made which was sworn by the temple or the altar was not as binding as one made by swearing by the gold on the temple or the gift on the altar. I don’t know why they felt the gold was more significant than the temple, but that’s what they said. Basically, these were loopholes. Those who knew the loopholes could get away with all kinds of things, those who don’t are often victims.
Jesus attacks a similar problem in Matthew 15:3-6,
3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is a gift devoted to God,’ 6 he is not to ‘honor his father’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
Apparently, to escape financial obligations to their parents, the religious leaders would declare that the money (they were going to use to help the parents) had been devoted to God. This promise to God took precedence over the obligation to parents.
In essence the Pharisees were like children who make a promise or declaration and then they don’t do what they say and explain it by saying, “I had my fingers crossed!”
Why It Was Bad. This process of spiritual loopholes is condemned for several reasons. First, Jesus points out that these kinds of distinctions are stupid. Jesus pointed out that the gold on the temple and the gift on the altar are certainly not more significant than the temple or the altar. They are all interconnected! The gold is part of the temple and the temple is God’s house! The gift is put on the altar, which is set aside to present gifts to God! Jesus sees that when we promise to tell the truth, we are always making that promise before God. It doesn’t matter what we swear by.
Second these loopholes were meant for one purpose: to deceive. You can call it a white lie, you can say that you really didn’t lie, you just didn’t share all the facts but in truth, anytime we intentionally mislead someone we are lying. We are calling upon a spiritual loophole.
Third, a spiritual loophole is actually idolatry. When we appeal to something other than the Lord to verify the truthfulness or to establish the authority of what we are saying or doing, we are actually giving a “thing” the power that belongs only to God. It is offensive to the Lord.
Our Favorite Loopholes
I hope you can see why what the Pharisees were doing was wrong. However, this notion of finding ways around obligation and promise was not limited to the day of Jesus. It also seems to be a cancer in the fabric of our present society. Let me give you some pointed examples of where we may be doing the same thing the Pharisees were doing.
Financial. We frequently sign documents that say we are accurately reporting the true state of financial affairs and yet
- People under-report their income to save on taxes or to get more financial aid because no one can prove that the figure is wrong.
- People take money “under the table” so they can collect government benefits and excuse this by saying, “everyone does it”.
- People exaggerate their loss in insurance claims and explain it by saying the insurance company “gets plenty of my money”.
- People submit inflated business expenses because they know they can “get away with it.”
The way we handle money is often the best indicator of our true devotion to the Lord. Often the chance to gain more or make more leads us to flush our character and integrity down the toilet.
Relational Let me ask a question: “Are you confused by the whole idea of marriage annulments?” I am. I don’t see how a couple can be married for ten years and then all of a sudden declare by a technicality that the marriage never happened?
When a man and woman stand before the Lord on their wedding day, they promise (before God), to love each other “for better for worse; for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do we part.” This is promise made before God! And yet we find people trying to get out of their promise with words such as,
- we fell out of love (love isn’t an emotion, it’s a decision)
- things were too difficult
- we aren’t meeting each other’s needs
- we want different things
- I’ve met someone else
We compromise our promises in our relationships through pornography, lust, abuse, adultery and more. All of these are a violation of the promise to be “yours and yours alone for the rest of our lives.” Even though we are being unfaithful in our relationship we somehow seem to be able to explain it away and even attempt to make our vices sound virtuous.
Parents make promises to children that they have no intention of keeping. Or they make their kids a promise and then something “better” comes along and they ignore the promise they made. God doesn’t ignore the promise and neither do your children.
Business. We pay people “on the side” so we can avoid paying withholding. We try to get or keep from getting benefits we don’t deserve. We overcharge a customer or underpay a supplier. We sign a contract and then don’t fulfill our end of the deal. The Bible calls this stealing.
Ministry. People stand before a congregation and promise that they will support the church with their time, resources, and service and then declare that they “don’t have time” for the work of the Lord. They agree to serve in various capacities and then don’t fulfill their obligations. We promise to pray for someone and then neglect to do so. We testify to our allegiance to the Lord but we seem to find lots of excuses as to whey we don’t have to follow through on our declaration.
In our Teaching In the book of Jeremiah (chapter 23) God condemned the false prophets who said they were speaking for the Lord but were really preaching their own opinions. This same kind of thing happens again and again. Teachers stand up and say, “I have a Word from the Lord” when in reality it is an idea of their own imagination. They sprinkle their opinion with a few Bible verses (taken out of context) to make it sound godly. James warns us that those who teach will incur a stricter judgment. If we profess to proclaim the truth and don’t do it . . . we are guilty of hiding behind spiritual loopholes.
The Remedy for Looking for Loopholes
If you have been attentive to the Holy Spirit during our examination of this text, I suspect you may already see some additional areas of your life where you have been playing loose with the truth and have been making promises you knew you couldn’t or wouldn’t keep. So what do we do when we realize our sin?
First, we must repent. This is hard but it is necessary if we want to get right with God. The simple message of the gospel is “repent and believe”. The two go together.
It is interesting to read the histories of time tested major revivals. There are several things common in a true revival. Certainly, great numbers of people make commitments to Christ. There is a new hunger for the Word of God. But there are also two other things. First, there is a deep awareness of sin. In times of revival people stop measuring themselves by each other and start measuring themselves against God’s Word and His character. They recognize and mourn over their own sinfulness.
The second interesting thing about true revivals is that there is an outpouring of reconciliation and restitution. Do you remember the story of Zaccheus in the Bible? When he met Jesus one of the first things he did was promise to pay back (with interest) anyone he cheated.
In a true revival the government gets checks for back taxes, old debts are paid, stolen items are returned, people who are at odds with each other work out their differences. Wrong are made right.
When we see our own sinful handling of the truth and our empty promises we need to repent. We must ask forgiveness of those we lied to. We need to return what was stolen. We need to make right what we did that was wrong. It’s certainly not easy. However, it is the first step to becoming the person that God created us to be. If we aren’t willing to deal with our past, we cannot know His joy in the present.
Second, in addition to repenting of our sin Jesus said in Matthew 5:37, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” In other words, we should be compulsive truth-tellers. We must work to not lie, exaggerate, or say we swear to something we do not mean. For a Christian our word should be our bond. Why? Because God is truth. When we lie, we stain His reputation. When we lie we erect a barrier between us and the Father.
Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. God does want us to be passionate in our regard for the truth, but that is not the same as saying God wants us to be heartless in telling people the truth. This is not a license to blast away at people. Honesty and meanness are not the same thing. We are to speak the truth in love.
When we fall (and we will) we need to confess our failure rather than making excuses. We need to learn to admit that we are wrong and ask for forgiveness.
Perhaps this seems like a minor issue to you. Maybe it seems like much ado about nothing. Please understand that the Lord is Lord of EVERY area of life. If we are casual with the truth we will find ourselves on a very slippery slope. If Jesus is to be Lord AT all . . .he must be Lord OF all.
Practically Speaking. First, I suggest we start by being honest in the little things. If we are compulsive about telling the truth in the little things, we will be better at being people of character in the big things. So, tell the truth about how big the fish really was; how much weight you actually lost; how much time you really spent on something. Avoid exaggeration. Get the facts straight. Admit when you don’t know something rather than trying to bluff your way through. Give credit to others when it is warranted rather than taking the credit for yourself.
Do you get the idea? Instead of saying, “I can’t do this” be honest and say, “you know, I’m really not interested in doing this.” People will be startled but they will appreciate your honesty.
Second, we need to make very promises carefully. Let me be direct. Don’t get married if you have no plans to be faithful. Don’t join the church if you aren’t going to do what you promise. Don’t agree to serve on a committee if you aren’t going to serve faithfully. Don’t agree to be a teacher if you aren’t going to prepare your lessons. Don’t promise to be someplace if there is a better than average chance you won’t make it. Don’t agree on a sale price if you are going to continue to entertain someone who makes a better offer. Don’t sign the document unless you are determined to abide by the contract. Don’t agree to tell the truth in court if you intend to twist the truth (lie). We need to remember that the promises we make are made as believers before our Holy God. To be careless with the truth and flippant with our promises is to invite the wrath of God.
If we have learned anything so far from our study of the woes in Matthew 23, it should be this: true discipleship, true faith involves a real commitment and results in a real transformation in the way we live. If there is no transformation, if you are not becoming different because of your professed belief . . . I would suggest your belief is superficial and pretend.
God is serious about be willing to forgive us and make us new through the blood of Christ; and we shouldn’t profess that we love Him, want his forgiveness and want to follow Him, if we don’t mean it.