We can be a self-righteous bunch. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were much the same. They placed their emphasis on their own interpretations of the law while extending very little (if any) mercy to others, especially those they didn’t understand or who didn’t regard or respect them as the “religious authority” of their day. And Jesus had a lot to say to them in Matthew 23 (read the “seven woes” listed in that chapter—they don’t paint a very pretty picture).
Still, in our day we fail to recognize that what the Pharisees did back then we still do in large measure today. We condemn others we don’t understand, and judge others who aren’t like us. We live lives of hypocrisy expecting others to “do away” with their pet sins while we totally ignore the pet sins so rampant in our own lives. And, while we don’t like having our own reputations smeared, we have no problem smearing other people’s reputations, even lying about them to make ourselves look good or for monetary gain (or for other not-so-altruistic reasons).
Jesus was a friend of sinners, yet it was the Pharisees who had a problem with him eating with them (the sinners). In fact, Matthew 9:10-13 states:
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.”
“Go and learn what this means . . . .” But do we? Jesus desires mercy, and the folks who didn’t understand this were the Pharisees (e.g., the self-righteous)—those who were always looking down on others and judging them according to their own standards.
A while back I remember hearing a pastor say to a small Bible study group that the reason people moved from big cities to the suburbs was to get away from all the evil found in the big cities. Around the same time I heard one of the television pastors (probably not the one you might be thinking of) make a statement regarding the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He stated that Sodom and Gomorrah were not destroyed just because of their evil ways, but that they were also destroyed so that the rest us of could be free from having to live around all that evil.
If you think about it, both of those statements are full of self-righteousness and an “us” versus “them” mentality. Evil resides in people, and that includes all of us. When we move to the suburbs we bring our own brand of evil with us (gossip, greed, materialism–the list is pretty much endless). We pride ourselves in the fact that we don’t murder or steal, yet we murder others with our gossip, and we steal the life away from others we don’t like by shunning them or pointing fingers or calling them crazy or stupid or, well, you get the picture.
In Matthew 15, some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus with an accusing question regarding his disciples by asking why they “broke tradition” by not washing their hands before they ate (Matt. 15:1-2). And Jesus replied:
“And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your traditions. For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who curses your 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.’ ” (Matt. 15:3-9)
Hypocrisy lives in all of us and unless we are willing to take a good, long—and honest—look at ourselves, we will continue to cast aspersions at others while justifying ourselves.
In a devotion titled “What Mercy Means” in “Open Windows,” Winter 2013-14 edition, Gregory Pouncey, Senior Pastor at First Baptist Tillman’s Corner, Mobile, Alabama, writes the following using Matthew 9:10-13 as the devotional passage:
The Pharisees were powerful religious leaders in the first century and were Jesus’ greatest foes. They placed such an emphasis on following their interpretation of the law that they showed little mercy to those who couldn’t reach their own unattainable standard. When Jesus came, however, He spent the majority of His time with those the Pharisees had disregarded. He forgave a woman caught in adultery, He healed the lepers, and He cast evil spirits from those who were possessed.
In Matthew 9, Jesus sat down and ate with tax collectors and sinners, which in the eyes of the Pharisees was a violation of the law of Moses. But Jesus had mercy on those whom society had shunned. They were spiritually sick, but Jesus knew He could make them whole.
Mercy means that, like Jesus, we will invest in people who might seem far beyond hope in our own eyes. Mercy means looking at people through the eyes of Christ and not evaluating them based on what we see on the surface. Mercy means seeing everyone as created in the image of God and, therefore, worthy of our love.
Read that last paragraph again . . .
- Investing in people who might seem far beyond hope in our own eyes.
- Not evaluating them based on what we see on the surface.
- Seeing everyone as created in the image of God and worthy our love (and not our hate or judgment).
The only folks that Jesus had a major problem with were the Pharisees and teachers of the laws—those folks who thought they were better than anybody else; who made up the rules as they went along but didn’t live up to those rules themselves; who judged others without mercy and were always falling back on their own traditions; who demanded respect from others while not extending it. Sort of like the example I gave earlier of the two pastors I mentioned who implied that the evil all around us was somehow only in “them” (the truly evil folks) and not in “us.” The problem with that is that there are no “good, decent people” (as in “us”) with the rest of humanity falling into the “them” category. We are all sinners—every last one of us—in need of a Savior, and we are all capable of great evil when we turn to our own ways and nullify extending mercy to others.
It reminds me of a parable that Jesus taught found in Matthew 18:21-35:
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Jesus extends great mercy to us, yet most of the time we don’t extend it to others. Instead, we judge them without mercy; we point fingers and accuse those we don’t understand; we mock, we laugh; and in doing so, we condemn ourselves.
The apostle Paul warned his young protégé, Timothy, in 2 Timothy 3:1-5:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
This is not an “us” versus “them” statement. All of us can find ourselves somewhere in that description—“. . . lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God–having a form of godliness but denying its power.” The description in these verses permeates our society and saturates many of our church cultures. The Pharisees didn’t see it in their day and so often we don’t see it in ours, either. Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners, and He desires mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13).
“Go and learn what this means” . . .
And that means all of us, folks . . .
Not just “them” . . . .
YouTube Video: “Gotta Serve Somebody” sung by Willie Nelson: