Missing the Best

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 11:42

But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

Luke 11:42 RSV

Have you ever read those passages in the Gospels in which Jesus pronounces woes upon the Pharisees and lawyers and scribes? Years ago, I used to read over them rather quickly, without much thought. The Pharisees, I had concluded, were a pretty contemptible lot. Whatever misfortunes might overtake them, I reasoned, they surely had coming. Look at their heartlessness toward other people, their perverse opposition to Jesus! Though I would never have said it, I somehow had the impression that such people had long since departed from the earth. And I was ready to say, “Good riddance!”

TROUBLING WORDS

In recent years, though, I haven’t been able to dismiss these passages so readily. Now they bother me. I wince when I read them. Why do you suppose that is? In part, it’s because I see myself in them in a way that I didn’t before. The Pharisees, as Jesus put it once, “sit on Moses’ seat.” That is, they are the official teachers of God’s law, the proclaimers of His Word. And I as a minister have a function very much like theirs! Closer to home, I’ve learned that I’m acutely vulnerable to the same abuses of which they were guilty. See if you can identity at all with me in that as we listen together to the words of Jesus. I’m reading now from Luke, chapter 11, verse 37:

While he was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him; so he went in and sat at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you.

But woe to you Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! for you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places. Woe to you! for you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it.”

One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying this you reproach us also.” And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! for you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. Woe to you! for you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and consent to the deeds of your fathers; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.”

I’m asking myself now (and I ask you to consider the same question), “Are there still people like this in the world today?” And if there are, could we possibly be among them, without even being aware of it? That’s one of the things that gets to me when I read these burning words.

The other troubling aspect has to do with Jesus Himself pronouncing these woes. We think of Him ordinarily as the One who gives blessings, who speaks beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . . blessed are they that mourn,” and so on. But woes don’t seem as much in character for Jesus, do they? Do you know what I’ve concluded about that? I think we would understand these words of Jesus much better if we had heard them spoken, if we had been there. Even if people can’t understand our words, a great deal is revealed by our tone of voice when we speak, and even by our facial expressions. When we read these words in the pages of the Bible, it’s possible to conclude that Jesus spoke them coldly and sternly, as though He warned that “misery is going to overtake you people, and I am glad of it!” But it’s inconceivable to me that this Jesus, who revealed God’s Father heart of love, could have spoken in that way.

The Greek word translated woe here is a word which sounds very much like that: Ouai. Some think it’s a loan word from the Semitic language Jesus spoke. Whether that’s the case or not, the I word is what it sounds like, an expression of pain. One recent translation renders it well as “alas.” Alas for you, Pharisees! Though it sounds like a pronouncement of doom, on the lips of Jesus it is also a cry of anguish: “Alas for you!” He says. “Too bad for you. My heart breaks over you.” That’s the burden of Ouai.

What’s the common feature in all of these woes? What is it about the Pharisees that causes pain to Jesus? He grieves over them because they are missing the best.

HOW WE MISS THE BEST

How do people do that? We can miss the best by becoming preoccupied with trivia and neglecting essentials. The Pharisees were apparently very careful about some things. Since the Old Testament law required the payment of tithes on all farm and garden produce, the Pharisees were scrupulous about such matters. They tithed “mint and rue and every herb.” But they seemed to give to details of that sort an exaggerated importance. The great concerns of the law, the things most on the heart of God, were somehow neglected, things like justice in social relations. The Pharisees were apparently unmindful of the rights of the poor. They were short on love too, the kind of responding love God looks for in His people. The Pharisees majored in the minors. And that’s often a sure way to miss the best.

Secondly, we can miss the best by focusing on outward appearance instead of inner reality. The Pharisee who invited Jesus to His table was amazed that the Lord did not perform the ordinary ritual washing before a meal. Jesus said that His host and others like him were very concerned about cleansing the outside of the cup and the dish but paid little attention to defilement of the heart. There was nothing wrong, of course, with these ritual ablutions. Jesus would never have decried the value of cleanliness. But He was troubled when people cared more about clean hands than about pure hearts, about appearance more than reality. That’s another sure way to miss the best.

Again, we can miss the best by imposing a standard on others that we do not embrace for ourselves. Listen to what the lawyers did – and what we preachers still find it easy to do: “You load men with burdens hard to bear and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” You know what that means. You tell your congregation or your employees or your children that they ought to live in a certain way.

You have high expectations of them. You make strong demands. And when they fail to measure up, you come down on them hard. But as far as your own manner of living is concerned, you apply a very different measure. That’s the broad road that leads to hypocrisy, self deception. It’s a certain way of becoming hollow people and missing the best.

Here’s another way to do it. We can miss the best by honoring heroes of the past while we persecute their counterparts today. That’s what the Pharisees were doing in Jesus’ generation. They were building the tombs of the prophets whom their fathers had killed. They were really like those fathers of theirs who had resisted the prophetic message and hounded the messengers to death. But now they pretended to honor those same prophets. Now they thought that the blunt Amos and the impassioned Jeremiah and the bold Elijah were great men. They even erected monuments to them.

But when Jesus stood among them, the greatest of God’s messengers, the One to whom all the prophets bore witness, when He embodied the truth in His own person, they did what their fathers had done. They tried to get rid of Him. Isn’t that a tragic way to miss the best? We reject with our lives what we honor with our lips. We claim a lofty ideal and then oppose the very people who embody it in our own time.

NEW HEARTS FOR OLD

Sometimes the good becomes the enemy of the best, doesn’t it? There was doubtless much to commend in these Pharisees. They were people for whom religion was a central reality in life. They cared about orthodox teaching and ritual requirements. But their religiousness had somehow come between them and the living God. Theirs was a religion primarily of externals. They were scrupulous, but not seekers after God, masters of detail but not of devotion. God saw in their lifestyle hypocrisy instead of heart.

The woes that Jesus spoke were an awakening word to them, a poignant reminder that they had missed the best. While they prided themselves on their outward performance, they had become inwardly bankrupt. They cleansed the outside of their eating utensils, but inside they were full of extortion and wickedness. They had a name to live but were inwardly dead. Their professions of devotion to God masked hearts still full of prejudice, envy and hate. What they needed was not some minor adjustment in behavior but a profound inward change. They needed, as all of us need, not good advice but a new heart. The woes of the Lord were saying to them that if they continued on their present course, there was no hope for them. They needed to be born again.

Now here’s the good news. It was for this that Jesus Christ came. He came to be the sin bearer, yes, the Iamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He came to die for us so that we could be forgiven, fully accepted with God. But that wasn’t the end of it. Risen from the dead, exalted to God’s right hand, the living Christ breathes His own Spirit into the hearts of those who trust in Him. He shares with them His life. The gospel is not only Christ for us, standing in our place, but also Christ in us, transforming us from the inside out.

Before we can recognize our need for what Christ came to give, we have to be thoroughly awakened. That’s what the woes are all about, to stop us in our tracks, to wake us from our sleep, to show us how great our sins and miseries are. God seeks to shake us from our complacency lest in all our busy ness about religion we miss the best. You see, it doesn’t matter, friends, how superficial our religion may have been. It doesn’t matter how we may have tried to pretty ourselves on the outside while within our hearts were proud and selfish. It doesn’t matter how false and phony we may have been in the past. It doesn’t even matter how we may have resisted the Lord and opposed His servants. In the gospel, God calls us to repent and believe in Jesus Christ, receiving Him by faith as our Savior and Lord. And He promises an astounding miracle – new hearts for old. By His Spirit He can begin the work of making us new people. He can bring about what outward religiousness is utterly powerless to do. He can make us clean within.

That’s the promise of the new covenant, isn’t it? The prophets told of a day when God’s law would no longer be something “out there,” pure in its demands but powerless to change us. No, God would write His law on our hearts and place it in our minds. It would become an inner disposition. We would be not only forgiven but inwardly transformed to know the Lord in a new and personal way. That’s what’s possible for you this very day.

So let the woes that the Lord spoke to the Pharisees wake you up to see that you could be missing the best. Hearing Christ call you today through the gospel, turn to Him with all your heart. O believe it, friends, you will have found the very best!