Church father Clement of Rome said, “So let us devote ourselves to those at peace in their devotion to God, and not to those who seek peace through hypocrisy. For He says in one place: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.’ And again: ‘They blessed with their mouth, but they cursed in their hearts.’ And again He says, ‘They flattered Him with their mouths; they lied to Him with their tongues. Their heart was not steadfast toward Him; they were not true to His covenant.’”
These hypocrites came to Christ to criticize the disciples for eating with unwashed hands. This violated the traditions of the elders. This was not simply a matter of hygiene. The Pharisees and scribes were not saying, “Gosh, Your disciples might get sick if they don’t practice cleanliness,” as if they were concerned with their welfare. Nor was this a matter of simple curiosity as to why the disciples were doing what they did. No, here was judgment and finding fault. Here was the judgment of man-made rules.
Of course, the Jewish leaders were always looking for an angle to find fault with Christ and take Him down a peg. Maybe there was a little of this mixed into what they were saying. But the reason for the criticism was this: You must follow our traditions or else you are bad people.
This is how they try to make peace. If everyone follows their man-made traditions, then there is a kind of peace. It is not the peace found in Christ and His atonement for sinners. Instead, the Pharisees try to control others and their behavior and act as if that makes us united.
It should be obvious that bowing to such control will not satisfy these hypocrites. Such hypocrites will never be satisfied. They have many such human rules and are always read to make more. Even if you try to comply, they will find another way to find fault. They are easily offended and quick to anger and slow to forgive. In other words, they are spiritual Karens. If you are not familiar with that term, it means a kind of picky, judgmental woman who is quick to accuse people of doing something wrong. With apologies to women named Karen, and with the caveat that the Pharisees were entirely, so far as I am aware, men, “spiritual Karens” nevertheless seems an appropriate description of how the Pharisees behaved.
Can we have union with such people? Clement of Rome said no. This is because the center of doctrine for such spiritual Karens is their rules. They may happen to use appropriate rules. The Pharisees called upon the Word of God as well as the traditions of the elders. But even the Word was used in a nit picky way, to strain out gnats while they miss camels.
Yet Pharisees can be hard to spot. Even in our Lord’s day, they gave some lip service to God’s grace. They were justifiably concerned with doing the right thing. Yet deep in their hearts, it was all about judgment and finding fault and self-righteousness. When such people are around us, they may appear to be sincere Christians. They may confess the truth admirably. Yet they may also be on the constant lookout for things to upset them.
Deep in their hearts, their confession is not so much Christ as it is personal goodness, and not so much the Word of God as man-made rules. They may be completely unaware of this, thinking that they are faithful to the Word. But they are not really united to a Christian congregation unless they repent of the Pharisaical beliefs in their heart. They are not really at peace with the Church.
Although we may have trouble spotting them, Christ saw right through them. His very existence was a lightning rod to draw out their judgmental behavior.
How about us? Do we have tendencies to nit pick too much? Do we find fault based on man-made rules? Of course we do! This is what sinners do. So we also need to be on our guard against such thoughts and behavior.
Just because we have some tendencies in this direction does not mean we do not have saving faith. In the same way, we should be slow to judge those whom we catch thinking like Pharisees. They may not have pushed faith out of their heart. We may still win them over, the Holy Spirit willing.
The Lord guard our hearts as well.
Iraenaeus, in Against Heresies, wrote, “The Pharisees claimed that the traditions of their elders safeguarded the law, but in fact it contravened the law Moses had given. By saying: Your merchants mix water with the wine, Isaiah shows that the elders mixed their watery tradition with God’s strict commandment. They enjoined an adulterated law at cross-purposes with the divine law. The Lord made this clear when He asked them: Why do you transgress God’s commandment for the sake of your tradition? By their transgression they not only falsified God’s law, mixing water with the wine, but they also set against it their own law, called to this day the Pharisaic law. In this their rabbis suppress some of the commandments, add new ones and give others their own interpretation, thus making the law serve their own purposes.”
This is the natural way that the sinful mind treats God’s Law. The Law wants to accuse us of sin, but the old Adam does not want to be accused. So he finds ways to twist or redirect the Law’s focus and intensity. But we must allow the Law to accuse us so that we can repent and cling to Christ. When we no longer feel that the Law accuses us, then we do not need Christ, and we have given up salvation.
But if we follow the way of the Pharisees, then we add laws, suppress laws, and reinterpret laws. But Pharisees will almost never deny the laws of God, because that would make them look like they are going against God. Heavens no! The old Adam must always make itself look pious and godly.
This is true for Pharisees who are mixed into the Church. Outside the Church, there is a version of Pharisees who follow different but similar rules. There will always be man-made rules and plenty of condemnation for those who transgress those rules. Then labels like “hater” and “phobic” are thrown around to show how bad you are.
But in the Church, which is our main focus, the many rules of the Pharisees do not improve the Law of God. Of course, no one can improve on something from God that is perfect. Yet the sinful mind thinks that God’s Law needs a little help. The effect is therefore that what is perfect is spoiled by the nasty spewing of the sinful mind.
But again, the Pharisees think that they are the most pious people of all. So they do not see that they are insulting and befouling God’s Law with the statutes of men.
This creeps into our thinking so easily. Lord preserve us and bring us to repentance when we do.
How to recognize it? Do we think that the Church needs certain rules, and if we have them put in place, then the people will be more loving and godly? Do we think that other people in the pews are not as good as they should be? That one is sort of true, since we are all sinners. But make sure you notice when you are thinking more about other people’s sins than your own. Do we sometimes find ourselves disgusted with other people and their actions?
If you find none of these things true, then you are already in Paradise and do not need this sermon. But if you are like the rest of us sinners on earth, then sometimes a little Pharisee in you will judge others by rules not found in Scripture.
Repent, because at heart this sin is a devaluing of God’s Word and therefore a breaking of the Third Commandment.
Christ goes on to speak about how what goes into a man does not defile him, but what comes out. Although this was mainly aimed at the traditions of the elders that condemned eating with unwashed hands, we should not fail to notice that our Lord does condemn what comes out of us! We have things in us that, even if they do not come out, still condemn us. Yet how much more the quick word of sin that slips out; the angry retort; the ill-considered action.
Tertullian said, “Let us, then, His servants, follow our Lord and patiently submit to denunciations that we may be blessed! If, with slight forbearance, I hear some bitter or evil remark directed against me, I may return it, and then I shall inevitably become bitter myself. Either that, or I shall be tormented by unexpressed resentment. If I retaliate when cursed, how shall I be found to have followed the teaching of our Lord? For His saying has been handed down that one is defiled not by unclean dishes but by the words which proceed from his mouth.”
So guard your mouth and your thoughts, even though you cannot guard them completely. The deep fountain of sin in you is constantly producing such sins as evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness, and others. Even if you could somehow avoid being a Pharisee, you still have all these to fight against, and you will most certainly lose. Even if you could suppress all those sins from coming out, they are still lurking inside of you, which is evidence enough that you are a sinner with a warped and corrupted heart.
When Christ spoke about sin in the heart, of course He excluded Himself. The pure Savior held no such sinful thoughts or impulses or emotions in the first place. One who has no sinful heart never speaks sinful words nor sinful actions. So He, the pure Lamb without blemish, walked among us filthy creatures. Compared to Him, we are beasts and monsters of destruction, while He is gentle and meek and innocent.
Yet what does He do, this wonderful Savior of ours? He does not condemn us, as the Pharisees condemn. Now, to be sure, Christ condemns sin, and we have plenty of those. Yet Christ has found a way to declare us as innocent as He is. That way is through His precious Blood and innocent suffering and death.
In a reversal of our state, He could only become sinful by taking sins upon Himself. His pure heart would never produce a single sinful word or action to come out of Him. Instead, He voluntarily allowed our sins to be piled upon Him. Upon the Cross, the sacrificial Lamb, Jesus Christ, carried your sins and all sins so that He could be the substitute punishment for the world’s transgressions.
By taking sin on Himself, Christ became the Unclean One. He was sin who knew no sin. Therefore He was able to be treated as the Guilty One and receive the punishment we have deserved.
Therefore, He has cleansed us thoroughly, as white as snow. Although sin is in us for the duration of this present life, it does not accuse us. It is already accounted and paid for by the Cross. Now we are saints, the righteous ones of God.
Yet do not let this be an excuse to go out and sin. Although we should avoid the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in following man-made rules and finding fault with people out of a judgmental heart, nevertheless we should follow the true Law of God. We should obey it as He gives us ability, even though it is not our obedience that makes us God’s saints. We should repent of our sins because we are repelled by them, rather than practicing being repulsed by other people’s behavior.
But do not let yourself be dragged back into a slavish obedience to rules that do not justify a sinner. For example, we now have freedom from laws about foods, such as the Jews had. Whatever goes into a person from the outside cannot defile a man. This means also that various foods are clean to us. Some may try to drag us back into slavery to the letter of the old Law, which is no longer in effect according to these words of Christ.
An even greater reality is also true. The Lord gives us a meal that not only does not make us unclean, but actually makes us clean. He gives wine and bread that cleanse us from sin, so greatly does Christ flip on its head the thinking of the Pharisees.
He also flips around their washing ceremonies. Wash this, wash that, and you will be clean, they said. But Christ says, No, here is a better washing. One of the words for washing in our text is baptize. Christ says, Here is a true washing, not for pots or pans or couches, but for the sons of men. Let them be washed in the Name of God, and they become clean.
We have that precious washing. Christ has declared us clean. Therefore let us strive to live in a way appropriate to the tremendous gift we have received.
In His precious Name. Amen.
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