March 17, 2019 Lent 3C
In today’s passage we come to a crisis moment on our road to resurrection. We’ve been endeavoring on this journey through Lent to surrender ourselves in order to “listen to him.” This made sense on the Mount of Transfiguration, when the Father told us to listen to Jesus as his glory was revealed. It made sense when Jesus challenged us to ask, seek, and knock for the “how much more” good gifts of the Holy Spirit.
But if we are honest, we will confess that it is painful to listen to the Jesus we find in these verses we are about to read. And when we are even more honest, we will confess that confrontations with Jesus are always catalysts for significant growth.
So now we come to listen to Jesus, who has just been teaching his disciples and the crowds that have been growing larger each day:
While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces. Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.”
One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us too.” And he said, “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.
Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:37-52)
Let’s take a look at the CONFLICT that is brewing.
Who were the Pharisees and experts in the Law? They were the highly respected and influential religious leaders of their day. They were revered for their knowledge of the Scriptures and passion for defending them, protecting every single word from corruption. The Pharisees and religious elite saw themselves as the guardians of the truth, facilitators of the system, defenders of God’s honor and glory, and gatekeepers of the kingdom of God. Their community saw them this way, too.
As gatekeepers, however, they were offended and threatened by Jesus. They saw his ministry as a rebuke to their own and a danger to the sacred traditions of the religious community. So they pushed against him at every turn, and throughout the gospels, they become Christ’s chief source of opposition.
Sometimes, Jesus ignores them as he preaches to the crowds, heals the sick, and spreads the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand. But in this passage, we see Jesus pushing back. Not to win an argument or spark division, but to confront their hypocrisy. As gatekeepers, the Pharisees slammed the door of the kingdom in people’s faces, and Jesus calls them out on this.
What they may not have realized was that, in the process of carefully guarding the gate, they had shut themselves out of the Kingdom that the Christ had come to introduce. So, when Jesus pushes back against their hypocrisy, he raises the tension even more.
Eventually, Conflict becomes CONFRONTATION.
With prophetic voice and prophetic authority, Jesus speaks out against the brokenness of the system. And this is where some of us get uncomfortable and wish we would move along to a more agreeable version of the King of the whole universe. One who is more polite to his hosts at the table. One who is more conciliatory, more eager to ease the awkwardness of the conversation.
But Jesus simply will not do that. He will not remain politely in the box. He will not just say what we want to hear. The French philosopher Voltaire observed that ever since God made humanity in his image, we have been trying to return the favor.
We certainly do this with Jesus. We’d like him to bend and mold into a culturally acceptable version of himself. A Jesus who thinks like us, believes like us, votes like us. A Jesus who values what we value, hates what we hate, prioritizes what we prioritize. A Jesus who baptizes our opinions as sanctified truth and leaves our convictions unchallenged. But today’s passage shatters our belief in such a one-dimensional version of Jesus.
And there are some of us who really like this confrontational Jesus with a rebel streak. We sit forward in our seats when we reach these passages, excited to see what he is going to say or do next. We cheer for him when he throws off the conventional trappings of the system and confronts the failures of the institutions. More fire and brimstone, please! Bring on the woes. These leaders have it coming.
But perhaps you like this version of Jesus because you think it gives you a pass to be confrontational and say whatever you are thinking in the moment in the name of truth. The hard truth for us is that Jesus calls out our hypocrisy just as fully as he calls out the sins of those we confront in our holy indignation. The hard truth for us is that Jesus does not simply tell it like it is. He shows us how it should be.
In this moment he calls out a warning of what not to do. Yet by his life, he carves out the path for how we should live. If you want to be like Jesus in the former, submit to being like him in the latter. To tell the truth like Jesus, we have to live like Jesus. We have to live with COMPASSION.
Because Jesus IS the gate, swinging wide the door for all who will enter, Jesus has all authority to confront these gatekeepers who slam the door in people’s faces. He counters the Pharisees’ hypocrisy with his holy love. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus extending this compassion of the open door to the most unlikely roster of would-be redeemed. The outcast, the rejected, the dangerous, the untouchable.
We even see Jesus extending this embrace to his enemies. Which sparks a dangerous question for us in this passage: Who are Jesus’ enemies in the Gospels? Who are the people most opposed to him? Who is secretly plotting against him, attempting to discredit him, publicly undercutting him? The Pharisees, of course.
Yet, Jesus even opened the door of the kingdom to them. We remember one of the earliest Bible verses we were ever exposed to. We remember that moment when the most astounding truth is spoken: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son.” And in what context are these words first spoken? In Jesus’ secret meeting with Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee.
Afraid of what the others might say, yet drawn to what Jesus has been saying, Nicodemus comes to him under the cover of darkness to seek the truth. And he finds that the gate has not been slammed shut but flung wide open. Even for a Pharisee. This helps us see today’s words in a fresh light.
We realize that this confrontation is actually an act of compassion. It is an attempt to shake the lawyers and the Pharisees awake, to shock them out of their slumber, and to shed light on the open door. It is Jesus’ way of offering hope to the hypocrite.
Jesus has brought us from conflict to confrontation to compassion. And that journey presents us with a CHALLENGE. We don’t like the thought of Jesus showing compassion to the hypocritical Pharisees. They represent everything that was wrong with the religious system of their day. And it’s easy for us to draw a straight line from them to the hypocrites we see around us in our own time, the Christians who abuse power, who preach love and practice hate.
On Monday, I participated in a conversation with other Minnesota Methodist clergy that was focused around the question, “What now?” Now that the special session of General Conference has passed the Traditionalist plan, outlining how the United Methodist Church will officially respond to questions of human sexuality, what do we do if we can’t agree with the decision? What do we do if we do agree, but we don’t want to see the church divided and fractured? What do we do now?
One of the themes that kept coming up throughout the day was how the governance systems for this denomination no longer seem to be working. The weight of our legal structure has grown too heavy, too cumbersome to support the ministry of making disciples of Jesus Christ who transform the world.
The gospel imperatives – loving God and neighbor, reaching new people, and healing a broken world – are being suffocated by legalism and bureaucracy. The special session of General Conference revealed a side of our church to the world that we would rather not show. It revealed the hypocrisy of our broken religious system.
That hypocrisy has made a lot of people angry. And anger hardens our hearts. It makes us want to slam the door on the people who can’t seem to recognize how their self-righteousness does harm to others. We don’t want Jesus to show compassion to those hypocrites.
Until his voice whispers in our hearts, “Of course you do. Because if you slam the door on all the hypocrites, you will be slamming the door of the kingdom on yourself.”
The Lenten hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus” puts it pretty plainly. The second stanza reads:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee. I crucified thee.”
When we listen to what Jesus is saying, there’s only one way to respond: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And as I pray this prayer, which is often called “The Jesus Prayer,” I have to admit that I am one of those enemies of Christ to whom he constantly shows his compassion. If I truly want to be his disciple, Christ calls me to confront my enemies, the people with whom I cannot agree, with that same compassion he shows to me.
What about you? Whom do you need to confront in a new spirit of compassion? Whose confrontation do you need to receive? Are you ready to resign from your post as gatekeeper and take up the new role of door holder? Who will you invite in?
Remember, He is the gate and He swings the door wide – for all the hypocrites, all the broken, all the sinners. And I, for one, am thankful for that.
This message is based on an outline provided by J.D. Walt for the Listen to Him Lenten study series.