“They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7)

Standard

When Iran, a nation where people held candlelight vigils in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, were themselves the target of a terrorist attack last week many Americans (including the Trump administration) added insult to injury and called it karma.

Apparently these Americans, reveling in a terrorist attack, are unable to differentiate between Saudi Arabian hijackers (Sunni Arabs) and Iranian civilians (Persian Shites) mercilessly gunned down in Tehran.  I guess to them terrorism is only bad when American and European people are the targets?

What’s worse is the missed opportunity to defeat a common enemy (ISIS) and also to bridge a divide between two nations that should never happened in the first place.  This is probably because we have selective memory and remember the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 (when 52 American diplomats were taken hostage) yet not the decades of meddling by our government that led up to it.

Americans forget that we drew first blood in the conflict with Iran when our government (via the CIA) participated in the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953.  It was called “Operation Ajax,” it was intended to serve British oil interests, and ended with our installing brutal monarchal rule under Mohammed Reza who was called the Shah (or king) of Iran.

With all the outrage over alleged Russian interfere in our election, and our own history of revolution against kings, it should be easy to understand what came next.  The Iranians took their country back, the Shah escaped to the United States to avoid accountability, our government refused to send him back to stand trial in Iran, and in response they took our diplomats hostage.

The great irony here is that the only Americans harmed were the eight U.S servicemen killed and four wounded in a helicopter crash during a bungled military operation to rescue the hostages.  That’s not to mention the one Iranian civilian, who was guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was killed by an Army Ranger’s shoulder-fired rocket.

Yet, despite our own casualties being self-inflicted, since then the U.S. government has made it their policy to do harm to the Iranian people.  For example, there is a reason why some in our government knew Saddam Hussain had chemical weapons: we enabled him to use them against the Iranians.

The Iran-Iraq war, started in the 1980’s when Iraq invaded Iran, was a bloody conflict that cost more than a million lives.  In response to the carnage Henry Kissenger, a former U.S. Secretary of State, smirked, “it is a pity they both can’t lose.”

It is little wonder that the Iranian leaders would seek a nuclear deterrence given our past (and present) aggression.  From their perspective it is simply a matter of survival given that U.S. leaders regularly threaten.  For example, long-term Senator John McCain who thought singing “bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” was funny and praised the leader of a Marxist terrorist organization that has murdered thousands of Iranians.

McCain actually met with the leadership of Mujahedin-e khalq (MEK) to express his hopes that they would someday rule in Iran.  The thought of this is horrifying to a secular Iranian friend of mine.  My friend, while not a fan of the current Iranian government, says that she (and most other Iranians) do not want the MEK in power and are shocked​ that a prominent U.S. politician would openly support terrorism.

How quickly the American public forgets that our government (including McCain) also gave support (direct or indirect) to Osama Bin Laden when he was fighting a holy war against the Soviet Union.  Of course they do remember the blowback when the terrorist we helped to create turned his attention on us as a result of our meddling in his own part of the world.  Talk about karma.

And, no surprise, U.S. interventions (supported by then Secretary of State, Hillary “we came, we saw, he died” Clinton, and none other than John McCain) have also resulted in the formation of ISIS.  It is obvious that our leadership never learns from the blowback and the American public—putting it too lightly—is woefully ignorant of the misdeeds supposedly done on their behalf around the world.

Any slight hope that the Trump administration would take a more sensible approach has pretty much disappeared when they responded to the terrorist attacks with political opportunism rather than solidarity against ISIS (who claimed responsibility for the attacks in the Iranian capital Tehran) and, in the process, we are driving further away many Iranians who once looked upon America as great despite our numerous violations of their sovereignty.

We put a travel ban on Iran who has never once attacked the American homeland and has only fought in defense against the attacks of the U.S. and our regional allies.  But then no travel ban is applied to Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries where the 9/11 hijackers came from.  It is absurd that we are still signing weapons deals with a nation that doesn’t allow women to drive, uses beheadings as punishment, funds the spread of Wahabbism worldwide, and backs ISIS, while opposing a nation merely fighting to keep us out.

Given our inability to admit hypocrisy or even to recognize our own mistakes, it is likely only a matter of time before the next group of U.S. supported “dissidents” and “freedom fighters” accomplish their objectives and then turn their bloodthirsty eyes on us, like Bin Laden did, and make their mission putting a permanent end to our hegemonic ambitions.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.  We are still sowing wind, covertly killing anyone (including the murder of civilian scientists) who stands in the way of our global dominance, supporting terrorism against those who do not want to be our puppets, and will likely reap still another whirlwind as a result.

Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

Standard

Denial is our first line of defense.  Even the guiltiest person will plea “not guilty” in an effort to avoid judgment.  And when we read Matthew 23, it is easy to assume that the stinging words of Jesus apply to them but not us.

Denial is a natural response and therefore it was no surprise if we read Jesus’s words to the Pharisees and fail to make a connection between “us” and “them.”  Most of us prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys, you know, the ones with better understanding and more complete knowledge.  How could we be as wrong as those whom Jesus condemned?

And when we do have to admit our failures we tend to deflect and downplay them: Sure, we are imperfect, we make mistakes; but who doesn’t, right?

I should know.  I was once an ardent apologist for everything Mennonite.  I believed that by God’s grace, I was born into the church denomination that best applied the teachings of Jesus—which is a sentiment not uncommon among my Anabaptist peers who have not been sexually abused, the witness of a vicious church split, or excommunicated.

Unfortunately, this assumption of our having a corner on the truth is a position built on confirmation bias and arrogance.  Every religious zealot believes that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they are standing on it.  But, unless you believe that all paths lead to God, they can’t all be right.  Likewise, our own assumption that we are right, and our ability to defend it, doesn’t make us any better than them.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.

The Pharisees and religious experts believed that they were on the right path; they proudly considered themselves to be God’s chosen people and resisted his message.  It would be easy to try to distance ourselves from them, to think of them as extraordinarily bad people and deny our commonality with them.

However, if we do that, if we are too proud to consider that we could be on the wrong side of history, then we have the same exact mentality of those condemned by Jesus:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started! (Matthew 23:29‭-‬32)

The teachers of the law and Pharisees, like us, identified with the good characters in history and distanced themselves from the bad.  They thought they were different from their ancestors who killed the prophets.  But Jesus turns their attempt to disassociate themselves around and uses it to create a link.  He taunts them, telling them to finish what their ancestors started.

The sad reality is that the proud religious fundamentalists of Jesus’s time did not see themselves as repeating history.  They imagined themselves to be the preservers of a pure religion passed down from the prophets before them and heroes of their own story.  To them, Jesus was a dangerous and false teacher, so they wanted him silenced and conspired to have him killed.

What was so wrong with the Pharisees?

“Pharisee” has become a pejorative word in our time, and yet in the time of Jesus it was a proud distinction.  They were the devoutly religious people; they held themselves to a high standard and kept the law better than their neighbors.

Jesus once told his audience:

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

It might seem odd that Jesus uses the Pharisees as a benchmark and then lambastes them later as hypocritical.  Was Jesus inconsistent and changeable?  Moody or bipolar?  I doubt it.

Actually, I believe the Pharisees were the “good people” of their time and trying their best to live righteously.  And, as people respected by their religious peers, they were not accustomed to being called out and condemned.  But, despite their diligent efforts, they were missing something and it was because of that that Jesus poked and prodded them.

The problem with the Pharisees was not that they were extraordinarily bad people.  The problem was that their success in surpassing others had made them into entitled brats who thought themselves superior to others.  Sure, they were pristine on the outside, did the right things to be regarded well, even thanked God for all their advantages, but were they living in faith?

Or were they content to simply do better than others?

The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows.  But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:47‭-‬48)

A faithful person is not content to simply do better than others; they realize that their advantages are a gift from God and not deserved.  There is no room for arrogance when this is understood.  The Pharisees may have feigned reverence for God, but a genuinely humble person does not try to create distance between themselves and people of a social lower order.

The Pharisees rejected faith.  They were so outwardly successful that they were able to delude themselves into thinking that they could actually impress God and save themselves.  In their zealous pursuit of knowledge and religious fundamentalism they forgot one thing, and that was faith.

Are we better than the Pharisees?

Probably not.

The Pharisees knew their Scripture extremely well and lived the law more carefully than most of us could even imagine.

That said, good Mennonites have much in common with the religiously educated and traditionally-focused Pharisees.  They were middle-class businessmen—not as political and compromising as the Sadducees, nor violent agitators like the Zealots… and not too different from us.

The disciples Jesus called to follow him were a motley crew by comparison: a mix of poor fishermen, a tax collector, and other losers of their time.  They would probably not even be second-tier Mennonites and certainly not the ones we would select to be missionaries and future leaders.

However, unlike the rich young ruler, who kept the law perfectly and placed his security in his wealth, the disciples put everything down to follow Jesus.

Perhaps it is because they had less to lose?

Whatever the case, nobody is beyond hope and that is why I write.  Many Pharisees did eventually come to faith in Jesus and many Mennonites do too, despite our religious and cultural baggage.  As long as we have breath in our lungs, I believe we can be saved.

But a journey of faith must start with repentance, and I’m not talking about the ritual repentance that wins the approval of parents and religious peers, either.  We need the true repentance of those who know that outside of God’s grace, we are no better than a Pharisee.

Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

Standard

One thing about Mennonites is that we are good at maintaining our niceness.  But this niceness, while “nice” by outward appearance, is not always truthful.  We can hide many evil thoughts behind a polite smile.  We know the “right” words to say and use them habitually… all the while harboring harsh judgments in our hearts.

Why do we hide our true feelings?

First off, to be the “quiet in the land” is part of our Mennonite-cultural-default setting; we play nice because we were taught to not cause a fuss.  Second, we want to avoid conflict; trying to resolve a conflict is difficult and one way to “keep the peace” is to bury our own feelings behind a smile.  The third reason (and most insidious) is so we can appear better than the other person.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this cultural niceness.  It seems to be far better than the alternative of direct confrontation, open disagreement or being too honest about unpleasant things.  But beneath this veil of serenity can be a toxic mess of unresolved conflict, secretly held enmity, and hostility that leaks out as passive-aggressive behavior.

Yes, Mennonites may be good at appearing nice on the outside.  However, we are also good at gossip, backbiting, anonymous letters, slander and giving the cold-shoulder treatment.  A pretty face and pleasant words can hide many less-than-desirable attitudes.  These hidden sins of the heart are not often addressed, and likely because they are far more difficult to detect and define.  Nevertheless, there can be a rotten core underneath a righteous facade.

Some may call this kind of niceness “living peaceably” when in reality it is often nastier than the alternative of open rebuke and direct confrontation.  There is little chance of amicable resolution when a person refuses to openly state their grievances.  Worse, the person being whispered about often can sense the antagonism, yet is without a means to defend themselves.

Jesus had no problem directly rebuking those who were pretty on the outside and ugly inside:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:25‭-‬28)

The religious elites Jesus confronted were focused on outward appearance.  Earlier he rebuked them for their distinctive clothing and titles, but this time he goes right to the heart of the issue: True change comes from a transformed heart change and not through conformity of outward appearance.

The hidden sins of religious elites rebuked directly by Jesus are probably different from our own.  That said, our Mennonite religious culture is similar to theirs in that we also emphasize looking right according to our standards and we like to believe that this outward conformity is an indication of a spiritual condition.  However, according to Jesus, compliance with a religious standard is not an indication of a heart change.

The Mennonite “doctrine of non-conformity” is often a distraction and disguise for a sinful heart.

Many use the exhortation “be not conformed to this world” out of context and as a justification for their rules.  Unfortunately, this misses the point entirely.  The alternative to being conformed to the world is *not* a long list of standards but a transformation of mind, and that is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mennonites need to focus less on their cherished doctrine of non-conformity (that is primarily concerned with maintaining an acceptable appearance) and more on change of heart.  As Jesus said, when the heart is changed then the behavior will follow—with or without rules.  But without spiritual transformation no amount of rules or conformity to them can change hearts.

I know plenty of Mennonites who wear the prescribed clothing, do the right Mennonite activities and are really nice people, but it seems they have no real faith.  It is possible to change on the outside through religious indoctrination while lacking in substance of faith and remaining spiritually dead.  So, if anything, Mennonite standards only serve to create a disguise for the faithless.

The focus on outward appearance and emphasis on rules in conservative Mennonite circles could itself be indication of a lack of heart change. It is a perspective that gets things completely in reverse and shows a lack of spiritual understanding so basic that it can hardly be anything but a sign of an untransformed mind.

True faith is not about cultural conformity and a pleasant facade.

People behave the way they do for many reasons.  We act in a particular manner or conform to the standards of our peer group in order to be accepted.  However, the faith that pleases God is not about fitting in or meeting religious expectations.  The faith that God seeks is about spiritual transformation that takes us well beyond anything that can be spelled out into code.

Sure, religious folks might be able to police themselves based on their rules (written or unwritten) and look down those who fall outside the lines.  Yet, without inner change, none of it matters; we are only succeeding at making people clean on the outside and neglecting what Jesus taught should come first.  Perhaps then we would be more accepting of those who don’t act right according to our favored ideas but have a heart for God?

King David didn’t always act right according to our standards.  He did some things that weren’t even allowed by God’s standard, was guilty of a terrible sin, and still was a man after God’s own heart.  David’s heart was right even though his behavior was not, and that is more important than meeting religious expectations or maintaining a nice appearance.

Are you truly transformed and changed spiritually from the inside out?

Or are you only a good Mennonite acting the part?

What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:5-12)

Standard

The world loves distinctive dress and titles.

If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes.  Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.

The world judges by outward appearance.

People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold.  Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns.  The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.

The church, unfortunately, is not much different.  The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.

What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?

Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5‭-‬12)

The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.

Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves.  They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.

Jesus was unimpressed.  It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful.  Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.

But how is this applicable today?

Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.

However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then.  We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.

Here’s what we are doing:

1) Seeking the important seats:  I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter.  There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers.  Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention.  And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?

Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting.  From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.

Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children.  There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies.  We should always be considerate of others.

That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.

2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.

Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms.  The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.

How do I know this?

Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said.  I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.

Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying.  Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee.  With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.

And we do this too.  We may not seek fancy titles outright.  However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms.  Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls.  As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles.  Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…

3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress.  There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.

It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair.  They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23).  Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.

That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.

Which leads to my next point…

Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness.  They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion.  And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.

Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level.  We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are.  The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.

Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites.  We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded.  We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.

Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?

Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:

All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)

We are told to be distinctively dressed.  However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance.  Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)

Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order.  We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded.  It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.

If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob.  Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist.  I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.

Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

Standard

I’ve always respected my father as a leader.  I consider it a privilege to have his example of Christian leadership in my life.  He’s a man who leads by example.  He does his best to get the job done right and always treats those under him with respect.

We all interact with leaders.  Many direct from behind by telling others what to do rather than leading by example.  We know of the parents who demand that their children do as they say and then do not live up to their own standards.  We know about politicians and celebrities who lecture about social responsibility while living in mansions.

Jesus is a man who led by example.

Jesus never asked anyone to do anything for him that he would not do for them.  He asked only, “Follow me” and then provided his example as a means to lead those he called to salvation.

For this, Jesus was also a threat to the established religious and social order.  There are always those who are privileged by the established regimes and governing institutions.

A hierarchical system serves those at the top.

And yet Jesus (after sending a rich young ruler away disappointed) promises his followers in his kingdom that the current roles would be reversed:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:28‭-‬30)

Jesus repeats this maxim, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” at the end a parable in the next chapter.  In the parable, there are workers in the vineyard show up early and then cry “unfair” when those who show up later receive the same compensation.

That is not a message the religious elites and privileged classes want to hear.

I mean, they (and their ancestors) put their time in, and therefore they deserve the place of recognition and respect.  Follow the rules, earn the prize.  God was obviously blessing them for their careful religious devotion… right?

Then here comes this agitator, this Jesus, who dares to challenge and rebuke them.  Not only that, this provoker, he tells them the tables will be turned, roles will be reversed and their kingdom will be left desolate.

Jesus begins his sermon in Matthew 23 by taking direct aim at the unhelpful religious elites.

The text…

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:1‭-‬4)

There is a derisive tone to those words.  In one line Jesus tells his audience that they must respect those in the position of power and then in the next, he describes those who hold those positions of power in a way that could be considered disrespectful.

I do not take the advice Jesus gave to, “be careful to do everything they tell you,” as an endorsement of the rules.  I believe it is simply an acknowledgment of the real power they held.  To “sit in Moses’ seat” meant they could have you killed and that is pretty good reason to pay attention.

These religious elites, who saw themselves as better than everyone else, did not “practice what they preach”, according to Jesus.  They heaped on a “cumbersome loads” of standards and yet were not living up to what they preached.

This could mean a simple double standard: one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other people.  It might also indicate that they loved the “letter of the law” more than the Author of the law.

I believe it is the latter.

The “experts of the law and Pharisees,” we are told, “diligently” studied the Scriptures, thinking that in their to devotion to them they had eternal life (John 5:39) and the rich young ruler also claimed to have kept the commandments from boyhood.  There is every indication that these were devout and sincere people.

However, where the Pharisees went wrong was in what they prioritized.

Jesus prioritized people over the letter of the law.

Read Mark 2:3-283:1-6.

When a man was forgiven and healed, the Pharisees were more concerned with their interpretation of blasphemy laws than they were in the miracle.

The Pharisees were more concerned with looking righteous in the eyes of their religious peers than they were in the well-being of those of lower position who needed healing and salvation.

In questioning why the disciples of Jesus did not fast along with everyone else, there was a lack of understanding that unique circumstances can demand a departure from the normal religious routine.

Regarding the Sabbath they saw a rigid true-for-all-time black and white standard, but Jesus reminds them of when David’s servants violated the Sabbath and points to the humanitarian intent behind the law.

Jesus, in his anger against the legalistic thinking of the religious elites, heals a man on the Sabbath.  For this defiance of their tradition they began to plot how to kill him.

The law of the Pharisees is described as a “heavy” and “cumbersome load” by Jesus.  But, in describing his own way, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

While the religious elites would not risk contamination (as depicted in the story of the Good Samaritan) and were “not willing to lift a finger” to move the burdens they put on others, those who followed after Jesus were instructed:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

The self-righteous elites were about preserving their status and image by following a religious code and demanding others live up to it, while Jesus led by his example self-sacrifice and urged his followers to prioritize love for others over their tradition.

The letter of the law is indifferent to the real needs of people.  The law is uncompromising and cruel.  It does not care about the impossible burdens it placed on those less privileged and powerful.  The law condemns all people to death.

The Spirit, on the other hand, is a comfort and helper in our time of need; he brings grace to those who will receive it.  A true follower of Jesus walks according to the Spirit (Romans 8, Galatians 5) and will help to carry burdens and bring newness of life.

Jesus speaks against the attitudes of Mennonite religious elites today.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been spared the worst that the Mennonite religious culture has to offer.  Yet, a lighter dose of the same wrong attitudes does surface from time to time.

My own experience with the uglier side of the denomination is pretty tame compared to what others have experienced.  In the conference I’m a part of (Keystone), we didn’t have the control-freak bishops playing “religious policeman” and constantly adding to the rules or micromanaging and excommunicating people who don’t fit the mold.

However, we do have the complacent unhelpful attitudes of those Jesus rebuked and the same resistance to change.  Many will only help in their religiously prescribed ways (words of encouragement, offered prayers, etc) but do not offer much burden-carrying outside the range of our established protocol.

Mennonite employers will often use their position to privilege themselves, nobly willing to move heaven and earth for their own families, but too often at the expense of employees and their families.  I know first-hand accounts of men who work less than bankers hours (for good pay) while expecting those under them to pick up the slack.

There can also be the attitude that those who aren’t as successful as we are did not try hard enough or otherwise “deserve” it.  We too often hold those raised outside of our communities to a standard we are only able to achieve because of our home and heritage.  We expect others to rise to our own level when we should be bringing ourselves down to theirs.

To follow Jesus means to give up our special privileges for the good and welfare of others.  It means to humble ourselves and lead the way he did in when he left heavenly glory to live and die for us.  We too must step down to meet people where they are and help them to carry their burdens.

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

That is how to be a Christian leader.

Taking on Matthew 23 and the Uncomfortable Topic of Hypocrisy

Standard

Several years ago, my church designated the fifth Sunday of the month as an opportunity for laymen to preach.  I passed on the invitation when my name came up.  I did not feel qualified to speak and therefore decided not to embarrass myself or bore an audience with my scattered thoughts.

Much has changed since then.  A couple years ago (upon realizing that I could no longer use the excuse of being younger than Jesus when he started his ministry) I decided to start saying “yes” when called upon.  And, surprisingly enough, I did survive my attempts at teaching and giving devotions.  In fact, I did well-enough that I started to think about what I would preach, given the chance.

What sermon would I preach?

I’ve heard dozens of sermons parsing 1 Corinthians 11.  Modesty (the word “modest” only found once in Scripture) has been a frequently preached on topic as well.  Biblical proof-texts pertaining to our doctrinal hobbyhorses make their regular appearances—I’m pretty sure my Mennonite readership is quite familiar with the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew.

I’ve heard many “fire and brimstone” messages about the danger of television, rock music, sports and “worldly” entertainment.  Where I come from there is no shortage of sensational stories and titillating tales included in the message.  Even the occasional myths about wells to hell and erroneous silver dollar arguments get mixed in to spice things up a bit when the pulpit-pounding theatrics aren’t good enough.

However, amongst those numerous messages I’ve heard from across many pulpits, there is one particular Biblical text that I cannot recall a sermon being preached on.

That text being Matthew 23, the chapter where Jesus levels seven accusations against the religious elites of that time, a sermon full of unpleasant words and bitter reproach that culminates into prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction and the ending of that age.

I have long pondered why this significant portion of Scripture (mirrored in the six woes of Luke 11:37-54) is so often neglected.

It could be confirmation bias.  It is very easy to only see evidence that confirms our existing worldview (or “cherry picking“) and ignore evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps it is preoccupation with defending the current tradition that distracts us from a sermon about the hypocrisy of other religious people?  We’d rather dismiss that as irrelevant to our own time and unimportant.

Or…does it hit too close to home?

In a denomination known to split over religious minutia a discussion of personal hypocrisy might be a sore subject.  When I read it, the parallels between the attitudes of those Jesus called out and some I’ve witnessed in our circles today are clearly recognizable.  So the passage might simply be avoided as an uncomfortable topic.

Anyhow, as one not striving to follow the path of least resistance, and as one who believes that faithfulness includes challenging the complacent, I would choose Matthew 23 for a sermon text and explain how the message Jesus gave then still applies to us today.

Blogging—today’s medium for delivering a message to a broader audience.

I felt called to be a minister of the gospel at a young age.  Back then, I had thought that meant being ordained or or serving as a missionary overseas.  Both of those things have become more and more unlikely as I’ve aged.  I do not tow the denominational line, so to speak, therefore my chances of ordaination or being sent to represent a Mennonite organization are about nil.

I may never have the opportunity to preach in a Mennonite church given my current trajectory.  But life is strange.  This thing called blogging did not exist until the mid 90s nor did social media and now it does.  My writing here reaches a larger audience than ordained Mennonite men do on Sunday mornings and that’s something I could not have imagined as a child.

So, I’ve decided to do a series of blogs on Matthew 23.  I want to be faithful with the platform I’ve been given, and I believe that you are here reading because the message is relevant to you.  My hope is that this encouragement to go beyond our own religious comfort zones is received as intended.

Part 1: Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

Part 2: What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:6-12)

Part 3: Missionaries From Hell? (Matthew 23:13-15)

Part 4: Too Focused To Be Faithful (Matthew 23:16-24)

Part 5: Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

Part 6: Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

Part 7: Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)

Why Purity Culture Must Be Kissed Goodbye

Standard

Those who are sincerely wrong are oftentimes the hardest to convince otherwise.  Those who are sincere are emotionally invested in their own position.  This investment can lead to blinding confirmation bias and prevent a person from seeing the truth when it is staring them in the face.

The problem with many people raised in religious purity cultures is that they are very sincere and yet extremely misguided.  Many in these cultures are convinced that their salvation is something they earn through their diligent efforts to please God and their own righteousness.  Sadly, this is a complete misunderstanding of God’s grace and a form of false religion that will leave a person lost as ever despite their sincere efforts.

People often think of purity culture as it applies to romantic ideals.  (And it does wreak havoc there.)  However, purity culture is a religious mindset that goes far deeper than our courtship practice.  It is a perspective that hurts everything we do as a church.  It makes us less effective as evangelists and missionaries.  It undermines the concept of church as a family and leads to division.  The purity culture has produced a bitter fruit because it is based completely in human reasoning rather than God’s word.

A bold claim?

Let’s compare and contrast purity culture to the actual example of Jesus and what his ministry established:

#1) Purity culture externalizes blame for sin, but Jesus taught that defilement comes from the inside.

Many people blame external factors for the choices they make.  This can be used as an excuse for sin.  It is also used as justification for a long list of safeguards and arbitrary religious standards intended to preserve or protect a form of purity.   They reason that since sin is a product of outside influences, they therefore must require people conform to their own rules and shelter their children carefully for fear they will be contaminated.

Obedience to rules of outward appearance and ritual purity pleased the Pharisees who trusted their Bible based tradition, but it did not please Jesus:

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!'”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.'”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. (Matthew 15:1-11)

The Pharisees, like their modern day religious purity culture counterparts, put their hope for salvation in their ability to maintain an outward distinction between themselves and others.  

But Jesus was unimpressed.  

First he points out their hypocrisy for neglecting weightier matters and then he goes on to explain something that many still miss today: Our defilement comes from something spiritual within us and therefore our purity cannot be preserved by external or physical means.

#2) Purity culture creates walls of separation between people, but Jesus removed barriers and bridged divides.

Purity culture teaches defilement comes from an outside physical source and it is for that reason those indoctrinated into this system are obsessed with maintaining physical separation as a means to protect themselves or their children from sin.  But Jesus completely defies this kind of thinking:

“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:37-39)

This was considered scandalous by the self-righteous and sanctimious religious people then.  It would also be seen as a scandal in many churches today.  Even the disciples (Judas especially) found cause to question the appropriateness of Jesus allowing this kind of behavior.

Can you imagine?

A single man, a leader in the church, being touched by a woman, and a sinful woman at that!?!  Outrageous, right?!?

I do not need to imagine the raised eyebrows and expressions of concern.  I know them all too well.  We would never allow such a thing in my own church tradition.  We segregate practices like foot washing and the kiss of peace for fear of impure thoughts.  It is because we believe that defilement is something that comes through our physical contact (like a grade schooler’s aversion to cooties) and do not actually follow the example of Jesus.

Ironically, those who view any meaningful relationship across gender lines outside courtship as dangerous (or see any and all physical touch as a prelude to sexual behavior) are as guilty of a the same hypersexualized view as those in the world whom they condemn. They may be outwardly pure according to an arbitrary religious standard, but they have an unhealthy obsession with sex and a fear born of their own impure thoughts.  Purity cultures are fertile ground for sexual abuse.

#3) Purity culture avoids ‘the world’ as to appear righteous to religious peers, but Jesus made his place amongst the sinners.

Purity cultures build walls to physically seperate people.  Those in this type of culture, not recognizing that sin originates in the heart, believe there is safety in the guard rails they create to protect themselves against sin and worldly contamination.  But Jesus directly opposed this mindset, he confronted those who promoted it by exposing them as hypocrites (or only outwardly pure) and led by a completely different example:

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

Those who were influenced by the modern purity culture ought to read the book of Hosea as Jesus told their religious forebears to do.  

They should look for themselves and try to determine what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means as applied to their own mentality.  If more did take this recommendation of Jesus seriously it would make a dramatic change in their perspective.  It could shift their focus from a ritual religious devotion to something altogether different.

#4) Purity culture attempts to manipulate God through religious devotion, but Jesus taught to authentic worship is showing true love to other people.

Purity culture, no matter what disguise it wears, is always an attempt to be control and manipulate rather than actually love God.  It is an idea that “if I do A then God will do B” that treats God like a vending machine (where we insert our diligent religious practices then out pops a blessing) and really only an attempt to make ourselves master over God.  Devotion in a purity culture is no more than a cynical calculation rather than a true commitment to love God.

​​This is exactly what was condemned in the book of Hosea.  The charge made early in the book is “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.”  Later on, the Israelites, after experiencing the consequences of their neglect of true worship, try to regain God’s favor through false repentance, say “come, let us return to the Lord” and think their going through the motions of will force God to take them back. But God is not fooled and asks like a disappointed parent: “What can I do with you… Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.”

It is at this point where the phase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” comes in and we get to the heart of the matter: The Israelites, like the Pharisees after them, and our various purity cultures today, tried to please God by a devotion expressed through religious practice.  However, no amount of sacrifice, no amount of religious practice, and not even a life of poverty or missionary service can save anyone.

The message of Hosea seems to be that the mercy we show to others is the true measure of our love for God.  Love for all people as expression of love for God is a theme throughout the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus taught to “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) and left his disciples with this commandment:

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

True love of God is expressed in our love towards each other and most especially out mercy shown to those who need it most.  We are told to love everyone and not only those who we believe are deserving according to our own religious score card.  Our love must be genuine or all of our worship and diligent religious works will be in vain.

#5) Purity culture is obsessed with righteous outward appearance, but Jesus focused on religious hypocrisy and the inner reality of hearts.

Purity cultures work overtime to maintain a superficial visual distinction between themselves and those outside of their own religious group.  They take pride in their maintenance of dress standards and see themselves as better than others for their ability to conform to the expectations of their religious peers.  But Jesus exposed their counterfeit faith and true shallowness:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:25-28)

Some people are able to please man-made requirements and earn themselves the praise of their religious peers for this.  But this righteousness of outward appearance is not evidence of an inner heart change.  It is a false security established on meeting human expectations.  No amount of church attendance, missionary service, or religious devotion proves a person’s heart is pure.

Jesus taught that true faith is something that transforms a person from the inside out and is something completely dependent on God’s grace.  Purity cultures get things completely reversed, they put the cart ahead of the horse (put works of the flesh before God’s grace experienced through faith) and for this reason it is impossible for them to love as Jesus did.

#6) Purity culture loves selectively with a judgmental unforgiving attitude towards outsiders, but Jesus consistently showed grace to those who needed it most.

People in religious purity cultures often do the exact opposite of what Jesus did.  They judge outsiders harshly and then give themselves a pass for their own grave sins of self-righteousness and pride.  Jesus, by contrast, was gentle with those outside and made them feel needed, appreciated and useful:

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ [His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.] The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ [For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.]”  (John 4:7-9)

Jesus, unlike many so called ‘Christian’ evangelists today, did not try to scare the hell out of this woman.  He did not condescend.  But, instead Jesus made himself dependent on her (a lowly Samaritan woman) and treated her as an equal and with respect.  Through this loving humility he gained opportunity explain a greater spiritual reality to her and then tactfully addressed her sin while offering forgiveness rather than condemnation.

The hellfire and brimstone Jesus preached was, without exception, reserved for the smug and sanctimious religious insiders who turned to their own righteousness for salvation.  The people who had their act together according to religious standards are the ones condemed by Jesus. 

Why is it that the religious can be so demeaning of those outside their tradition and yet so sensitive when criticism comes their own way?

Because they are afraid and should be, that’s why…

#7) Purity culture is motivated primarily by fear and deep down insecurity, but Jesus told us to walk steadfastly in faith and trust God with the future.

Purity cultures are negatively focused.  They see only moral decay, the live in a world of slippery slopes and anxiety about the future.  

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (Anaïs Nin)

Those who live in fear are like the men described in the book of Numbers (chapter 14) who’s pessimistic faithless outlook led to a rout and years of wandering aimlessly.

People who are extremely condemning of others are often the most insecure themselves.  Those in purity cultures are so sensitive to criticism because they are attempting the impossible without God’s help and do not know the true meaning of grace.  

Perhaps they think if they throw enough people into the pit of hell behind them (through their words and judgments) that God’s wrath towards them will be somehow satisfied?

At a deeper level those in a purity culture may know their own inadequacy.  They fear of not being able to measure up and therefore are competitive against those of lower social status rather than truly compassionate.  

Whatever the case, true faith relies on God’s grace and leads us to love rather than fear:

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

True devotion to God is born of faith that comes through grace and not human effort.  It is a commitment to a love that is impossible by our own standard. The love God seeks is unreasonable and irrational by human standards.  It is a divine love made possible only through means of the Spirit.  It is the love of Jesus who died to save us while we were yet lost in our sin and a love that takes away our fear of not measuring up.

In conclusion, we need to rid ourselves of counterfeit faith based in human ability and embrace the truth of God’s word.

Purity cultures, because they are based in human effort, do not lead to real faith or true repentance.  They do little more feed obsessive compulsive disorders on one side and arrogance on the other.  Those who believe that their salvation depends on reciting the right words or reading a requisite amount of Scripture daily are more hopelessly lost than their worldly counterparts.

It is what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees and also what Paul addressed as false religion in the early church:

These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:22-23)

Purity cultures attempt to manipulate God rather than live in faith and genuinely love their neighbors.  They are condemning rather than compassionate and are more concerned with what people may think than they are in true purity of love.  For fear of being defiled or viewed as less pure they (unlike the good Samaritan) cross the street rather than address the needs right in front of them.

True faith runs like a man on fire to where the need for mercy is greatest.  Those who walk in faith know the truth of God within them is always greater than the world and therefore fear no evil.  Faith always rests in the adequacy of God and never in our own.  

True purity of heart comes from being clothed in the righteousness of God.