December 6, 2008

Christ's Most Strident Rebuke

As Christ’s time on earth was drawing to a close, His ministry took on a new urgency. His miracles became more dramatic and improbable. Lazarus, for example, had been dead three days when Jesus—near the end of His earthly sojourn—brought the man to life. The Savior’s criticisms, too, grew increasingly strident, as if He’d passed a critical juncture after which indirect parables no longer served His purpose. At a time when it seemed most critical that He be heard and His words be recorded plainly, to whom did He direct His most scathing rebukes? Were they murderers? Adulterers? Thieves?

No—though I’m sure there were plenty of such unrepentant sinners in His day—Christ’s most pointed criticisms were focused on, of all people, hypocrites. In fact, Jesus uses the term, “Scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites,” no less than seven times in Matthew 23 alone and makes similar comments near the final chapters of the other synoptic gospels. Does this seem odd? With serious sin abounding, why would Jesus spend His last remaining days on earth pointing to a character flaw? Again, we see Him demanding a higher standard, one that condemns even acts consistent with the letter of the Mosaic Law.

The Scribes and Pharisees of whom Jesus spoke were people with social standing and political influence, yet He called them: “blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” By this metaphor, He pointed to their habit of ignoring the Mosaic Law’s intent while twisting its interpretation for personal gain. The passage harkens to Christ’s remark about Corban, which is recorded in Mark 7. Corban, of course, referred to the practice of pledging personal assets to a religious organization—a noble gesture, one might assume. The statute, however, was used as a loophole to place assets beyond the reach of aged parents and avoid the law’s requirement to: “Honour thy mother and thy father.”

For this reason, Jesus compared the Scribes and Pharisees to Whited Sepulchers—the painted and decorous tombs that marked the graves of the rich—saying they, “appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” The contrast to a spiritually decayed people, who put on a holy pretense, is striking.

I consider the scripture a rebuke against the actions of certain religious organizations—my own church included—that recently raised tens of millions of dollars in order to take away the rights of gay couples in California to wed. Proponents of Proposition 8 fought to restrict the meaning of marriage to a union between a man and a woman and rallied considerable resources (resources that could have been used to fulfill Christ’s admonition to feed the poor) in order to define a word in its statutory context. This, to me, smacks of people straining at gnats and swallowing camels. As a devout Christian, I have to believe with every fiber of my being, that it isn’t God’s will, but the intolerance of individuals that prevent us from understanding and living a higher, more inclusive, truth about love and marriage. I have to believe this, because to accept the alternative would be intolerable for me.

Perhaps the reason why Christ was so critical of hypocrites is that it is nearly impossible to heal a dishonest heart, particularly one that has learned to rationalize inappropriate behavior away. M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled describes the difference between a neurosis and a character disorder—two broad categories that define a range of mental health conditions. While people with neuroses tend to be overly self-critical, but can be healed with proper attention, those with character disorders can never admit to being wrong and therefore rarely change. If we, like the Scribes and Pharisees of Christ’s time, insist upon tinkering with semantics in order to avoid living the gospel honestly and compassionately, can we really say we’re living Christ’s higher law?

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