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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Jesus Warns Us Not to be Legalistic


Jesus Warns Us Not to be Legalistic

Matthew 16


The religious leaders never gave Jesus a break.  Those Pharisees and Sadducees followed Him everywhere He went and criticized his every move.  We read in Scripture that on one occasion the religious leaders followed Jesus to the town of Magdala, hoping to trap him.  Bible scholars tell us that they don’t know the exact location where the ruins of the ancient town of Magdala are but they believe it was a town near the Sea of Galilee. 


Anyway, Scripture says that the Pharisees and the Sadducees came together and found Jesus in Magdala.(Matt.16:1)  They came to test Him and trick Him if they could.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees were enemies and usually had nothing to do with one another, but this time they joined together because of their common hatred of Jesus.  And when they found Jesus, the angry Pharisees and Sadducees stormed up to Him and demanded that He show them a sign from heaven in order to prove to them that He was from God. 


For several years now Jesus had been healing thousands of people all over Israel.  You might think that the religious leaders would consider these many healings a sign.  But the haughty Pharisees refused to consider the possibility that since Jesus brought healing and joy to so many people that He might have been sent from God!  Their minds were closed to such ideas!       


On several occasions Jesus had fed thousands of people with just several loaves of bread and fish.  Twice crowds had followed Jesus into the wilderness to listen to his teachings and watch him heal the sick.  And each time when the crowds had gotten hungry Jesus would pray and bless several loaves of bread and fish that He or the disciples found and somehow the few pieces of bread and fish seemed to gradually grow or multiply.  Then as the disciples would be passing out these few pieces to the hungry people, the food would just never run out! There would always be enough to feed the thousands and with leftovers! .No one ever needed to worry about going hungry when they were with Jesus.


 But did the religious leaders stop and wonder if possibly God could be with Jesus since He always fed the hungry?  No, instead the religious leaders criticized Jesus because they caught Him healing and feeding people on the Sabbath!  He had broken their laws.   


Jesus told the religious leaders that they were very good at forecasting the weather.  The religious leaders had learned how to tell from the appearance of the sky what the weather would be like in the near future. But then Jesus told them that they had never learned how to interpret the signs of the times.  I think Jesus was saying that if they had learned how to interpret the Scriptures then they would have known to look for their coming Messiah.  If only the religious leaders had been as good at recognizing the signs pointing to their coming Savior as they were at recognizing the signs in the skies pointing to a coming storm! 


But if the religious leaders had learned to interpret the prophecies in Scripture that pointed the way to their coming Savior, they would have had to change their ways. And the strict Pharisees were set in their ways and were not about to change!  Why should they?  They had it all –they were so pious –so holy –so proud - with their many laws and rituals and burdens and traditions and fasts and ceremonies.  Their religion was so much hard work.  And they held so much power over the people –laying burdens on them in the name of God - and why should they give any of that up?  No wonder they refused to see their Savior even when He was right before their eyes!


The hypocritical Pharisees were determined to keep all of their forms and ceremonies and fasts exactly the same forever.  This was their way of approaching God.  What more was there?  And this Jesus was messing up all of that!  So they did not recognize their Messiah because they did not want to recognize their Messiah! They stood there hunching over Jesus fuming and fussing and again ordered Him to immediately produce a spectacular sign in the skies to prove to them that He was from God.


So Jesus turned to the angry Pharisees and Sadducees and quietly answered that He would not give them a sign.  Jesus would never do anything to show off.  He told the religious leaders that the only sign they would have would be the sign of Jonah.  This was the great sign to which Jesus always pointed to when He was pressed.  (Jn.2:18-22, Mt. 12:38-40.)  Jonah was in the stomach of the whale for three days and nights and then came out alive and Jesus would be in the grave for three days and nights before He rose from the dead.  So Jesus was referring to his bodily resurrection when He told the religious leaders that they would be given the “sign of Jonah”.


Jesus left the religious leaders and hurried to catch up with his disciples.  The disciples were traveling on foot and when Jesus re-joined them they had just realized that they had forgotten to bring bread along for their trip!  What would they do?  As they walked along they were upset and grumbling about having no bread and at the same time Jesus was walking along with them still thinking about his run in with the religious leaders.


 So Jesus spoke up and warned the disciples to “Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.”  (Matthew 16:6)  Since the disciples were still worrying about bread and how hungry they would get on the trip, they figured when Jesus mentioned the word “leaven” that since leaven is a part of bread that He was talking about bread!  It was a crazy mix up!


Jesus was surprised that his disciples were still worrying about running out of bread and going hungry. And He was concerned that they still had so little faith. The disciples had been with Jesus several times when Jesus had blessed a few small loaves of bread and these loaves had expanded and grown to feed thousands of people.  Didn’t they remember these times?  Jesus asked his disciples why they worried about bread when He was with them.  He challenged his disciples to learn to trust Him more –encouraged them to have more faith.  And Jesus would also challenge us to learn to trust Him more and to have more faith.  Especially when He promises to always be with us all along our way.


And then Jesus warned his disciples again to “Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.” (Matt. 16:11)  Their “work your way to heaven” lifestyle never failed to anger Jesus.  What was it that Jesus was warning his disciples (and us) against?  What is this “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” anyway that we should stay away from?


The Pharisees were into tradition (some of their traditions invalidated God’s laws) (Mark 7:12) and they were proud of themselves for being purer and more pious than others.  In Jesus’ time they controlled the synagogues and schools and were revered by the masses.   A Pharisee believed his prayers were more pious – more effective-more special -  than the prayers of ordinary people. .So it would seem that pride and traditionalism were part of the “leaven” that Jesus warned against. 


 And the Sadducees were rationalists and materialists who did not believe in life after death or in the existence of anything that cannot be explained naturally.  (Acts: 23:8)  In Jesus’ time the Sadducees were made up of a small group of wealthy aristocratic families who controlled the temple.  (Acts 4:1)  Many did not believe that God cared whether humans were evil or good and many did not believe what their prophets wrote in Scripture.   


 The Sadducees refused to believe in anything that they could not see, touch or explain.  They prided themselves on being sophisticated and worldly and smart enough not to believe the Scriptures.  They laughed at all the people who weren’t as bright as they were -- all those people who believed in life after death.. There are Sadducees in the Christian church today who are too intellectual to believe that the Bible is the Word of God.  They will tell you that they believe in Christ even though they don’t believe the Bible is worth much.  Jesus would warn us today, as He did his disciples back then, to stay away from their “leaven”. 


Part of this dangerous “leaven” is legalism and a judgmental spirit.  The Pharisees had hundreds of little man made laws they burdened the people with in the name of God.   Legalistic religion is an enemy of the loving “life” quality of the kingdom of God.  And God is calling us to take our part in the loving “life” of His kingdom.  The Pharisees used God’s Word – the Scriptures - as a weapon, rather than a message of God’s love.  And we must be careful not to become modern day judgmental Pharisees.   


Another part of the “leaven” of the Pharisees and Sadducees was their heightened sense of ambitious pride, which kept them from recognizing their Messiah.  Scripture says that “Pride comes before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)  Jesus calls us, his followers, to be humble – to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him. (Matthew 16:24)  The Holy Spirit will lead us into humility but we will need to follow.  And then we will be able to “see” spiritual truths that we could not have been able to see until we put on the spirit of humility.


Recently Pope Francis preached a sermon calling for all Christians to obey Christ and follow in the ways of peace.  The words sound nice – they have a good ring to them - but they are harder to follow than you might think!  It can be difficult to follow in the ways of peace because in this world we are carefully taught to argue and pick fights.  Before we are very old we learn how to show the world that we are in the right and the other person is in the wrong.  We are “good” and the other person is “bad”.  It almost seems to come naturally to fight - to battle –and to go to war.  Part of the leaven of the religious leaders who hated Jesus was their ability to fight religious battles with one another and to judge one another.


But Jesus calls us to leave all of that and learn to be gentle and kind.  Gentleness is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  We are to love and pray for those who dislike or hate us.  Our Lord insists that we forgive one another, turn the other cheek, never retaliate and reconcile with those who disagree with us, if we possibly can.  He commands us to give up our anger and stop having to be right.  And to go about building good relationships.  


We will need to make a break with the prejudices we have been taught and with the fighting spirit that comes so naturally.  And we will need to keep on breaking our habits of putting others down and not forgiving them.  Keep turning our backs on legalism and hate again and again.  Keep on giving up our rights to be right.  And learn to deny ourselves and take up our cross if we are to follow Jesus.  We have been given the Spirit to show us the way, to help us along, but we alone will have to decide.  Can we do it? 













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