It interests me that in a religion where the hero dies for His enemies, the result is a bunch of self-centered narcissists demanding our rights above God’s and seeking His blessings, but not the sufferings that go with it
Our passage begins with “at that time” which signals another transition for Matthew who as we have seen has bunched the stories he has chosen to include in a more thematic way than a sequential way. It is in this segment that we see the opposition to Jesus’ message rise. They liked Him when He was doing miracles for them, but began to question His mission and motives when He didn’t meet their expectations for a “Messiah.” After all, He was hanging out with “Sinners,” saying some weird, harsh stuff like love Him more than your parents and kids. How could He? He was just like them??
What we see in our passage and elsewhere in scripture is that Jesus’ harshest words were saved for those who were religiously inclined. Religions have been known at times to be in the center of oppression, and the question is why? And also, why doesn’t a religion whose hero dies for His enemies produce such self-centered disciples? Author of a Vietnam War book Sebastian Junger wrote that, “The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is nonnegotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.” Why is that? Why doesn’t Christianity inspire this depth of love?
Our passage today gives us an inside look into the religious, and what can cause an oppressive mind-set. Jesus appears to go against the religious norm, but why is this so?
Big Picture: Jesus is greater than the Temple, because He is Lord of the Sabbath!
The fact is, the problem isn’t dogma, or a literal understanding of the bible that causes such oppression; it is when we deviate from the bible that religion gets dangerous. The fact is many people are leaving the church in North America for many reasons. Surveys tell us that about 20% of Americans attend church, which is down from close to 50% in 1984. Over 4000 churches close every year, and approximately 3 Million people count themselves as “Unaffiliated” when it comes to church affiliation
While there are lots of reasons for that, there are a few that aren’t holding weight. One is that people aren’t spiritual anymore. Modern scientific rationalism is winning out. Again surveys kill that notion and show that approximately 95% of Americans consider themselves as “believers” and are spiritual. Another notion some believe is that the gospel is antiquated and isn’t working anymore. We need to ditch the dogma of the past and create a more relevant dogma that sets well with the modern sensibilities. The fact is, the opposite is true; conservative religions are the ones that are growing rapidly in our country, and that’s not always a good thing. especially when the “Conservative” nature is anti-biblical. Many people have posited that religions like Christianity must change their allegiance to an antiquated text like the bible, but all that does is strip religion from the only thing that matters, and the reality is people hate religion without a cause. It is not an adherence to the bible that’s our problem; it is our ignorance of the bible that seems to be the biggest problem. Basically Christianity is becoming irrelevant, because it’s not very Christian.
In reality it’s religions shallowness and self-centeredness that often get in the way. The New York Times Op-Ed section ran a piece that included the following quote:
What should be wished for, instead, is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
When the bible and the gospel are rightly understood, it is then that the church becomes relevant to a culture as an agent of peace.
We are going to take a look at 2 Aspects in our passage that helps us understand the problem with religion and Jesus’ response to religious oppression.
From the Head…
The Pharisees Problem (Matthew 12:1-2)
What was the Pharisee’s problem? They were religious, without the heart of the religion motivating them. Why does religion tend to oppress? Our passage suggests at leas 4 reasons:
- Religious people demand outward conformity not inward transformation. Romans 12:1-2 remind us that we are to “Offer up our bodies as living sacrifices, which is our spiritual service (Duty) of worship.” Thus we are to give all of our selves in the worship of God, but the text continues to remind us that this doesn’t happen by “Conformity” to the world, but occurs when our minds are “” The Pharisees that Jesus was being confronted by, were only concerned that the disciples conformed to their rules, or at least their interpretation of God’s rules. The Pharisees devotion to the Sabbath (4th Commandment) was so severe that the inter-testamental book 2 Maccabees 2:31-38 tells us that they allowed the slaughter of their people because they wouldn’t fight their enemy on the Sabbath. They would rather die than break God’s 4th commandment. In that sense, they cared deeply about God’s law, but they failed to adhere to the clear message that God’s laws were made for man to flourish, not that man was made for these laws. They missed the point.
- Religious people demand that others do the right thing, and comply with the laws that they feel are “Righteous.” This is true of all religious people; even non-religious, religious people. The fact is we all fall into these categories of self-righteous bigots. We set our subjective standards for “Righteousness” and then expect other people to follow them.
- Religious people are more lost than the irreligious (See Matthew 11:22, 24). They know the truth, but fail to live it. First, most religious people fail to Repent (Matthew 11:20). Basically “I’m not that bad.” Secondly, this failure to repent Creates a failure to love. I don’t need to repent, “but you do, and you need to pay.” Religious people are “Justice” people, demanding justice for the sins of others, while their own sins go mostly unchecked.
- Religious people seek their own needs/power. They lose vision for the “Other” (God, People, etc.). Tradition/Rules win out over people. Grace is trampled by individual rights. Jesus is a means to an end, not the end itself, thus He is used for all kinds of agendas and causes, except the cause for which He came (To seek and save the lost).
This ought to temper how we deal with those we deem “Sinners.” Jesus confronted them for their sin, but He loved them. We see this with the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, as well as Zacheus the tax collector.
Jesus’ Response (Matthew 12:3-8)
Basically Jesus’ response is that He “Lord of the Sabbath.” As a matter of fact, “I am Lord over everything!” “You don’t get to judge me!!” “Nor are you the judge of others, I am!
Why Can Jesus Say This?
- He is greater than David (Matthew 12:3-5)
- He is greater than the Temple (Matthew 12:6)
- He is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8)
Everything else is a shadow of His reality. The problem here is that religious people worship the shadow, and forget about the reality; the fulfillment of all God was trying to do with the sacrificial system, the law, etc. It was to save humanity and help us flourish, it wasn’t made to crush them ultimately. It is true we can’t live the law perfectly, and in that sense it is a heavy weight, but as we learned in chapter eleven, Jesus’ burden is not a heavy one, because He is lifting the heavy part. We are still called to live the moral law of God, but we are judged by his grace in our lives, which gives us the motivation to see His law as perfect, and a boon to our own lives. We love and serve Him, because He loves and has served us incredibly. It is clear that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all the prophets and poets had written about for the 2000 years before Jesus.
These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:17)
They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain (Hebrews 8:5)
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near (Hebrews 10:1)
Jesus once again references Hosea 6:6 (See Matthew 9:13). He is critiquing the Pharisees lack of love and concern for people, as well as justifying His disciple’s actions. He references David’s action of going into the temple and eating the “Bread of presence (Holy, Consecrated Bread), showing that the intent of the law is to demonstrate God’s glory and help humanity flourish. He is demonstrating His mercy for fallen humanity here. The problem is that religious people lack Mercy (Matthew 12:7), and when you lack mercy, you will “Condemn the guiltless” (See v. 5). Jesus sarcastically tells them to learn what mercy means, which is the reality that you don’t receive what you deserve, because God has given us a gift that we didn’t deserve either. It is His grace and love that has saved us, even when we didn’t deserve it, and His mercy that stayed our execution because of Christ’s work on the cross on our behalf.
…to the Heart
DA Carson said, “Those who struggle with liberty don’t see the greater law of love imposed on them.” It is hard to be merciful when you see yourself as above the need of it, or have been beaten down so much you don’t believe anyone deserves it. Are you consistently judging others? Maybe you’re religious but not loving? Are you frustrated around people that don’t act the way you feel they should? Maybe we all could understand what Hosea meant? Maybe we can become more merciful because we understand the mercy shown to us.
Questions To Ponder
- Why does religion put laws before people?
- Why does the human heart gravitate to religion and law?
- Why is the Sabbath important/
- What does it mean for Jesus to be the “Lord of the Sabbath?”
For Further Reading
A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Craig S. Keener
The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, Michael J. Wilkins
The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament 1A, ed. Manlio Simonetti
Sermon On the Mount; Sinclair Ferguson