June 08, 2015

The Outside Things

Devotion for the Week...

Living God's way is often perceived by outsiders as following a rigid set of rules. I remember when I started dating Paul and a friend of the family found out I was dating a pastor's son. "That's it," he told me, "You won't be allowed to drink, or smoke, or dance, or play cards." I can't remember if there were other things he listed off, but I've never forgotten that his entire perception of my future in-laws denomination was of all the things they weren't allowed to do.

Unfortunately, in many ways, that perception was earned, since the denomination has a history of rather rigid legalism, though it is not so legalistic now. Legalism tends to put an emphasis on the outward actions, requiring people to look, dress and act within strict parameters. Anyone who doesn't conform can be judged as being less Christian than those who do. Conforming to certain standards doesn't always mean that all is well, though. It can be easy for a person to conform to the outward standards while at the same time their heart is far away from God.

Jesus confronted the legalistic religious groups in His day, reserving His harshest words for them, for exactly this reason. Matthew 23:13-33 is an account of Jesus denouncing them as blind guides, hypocrites, a brood of vipers...He really held nothing back! I was especially interested in verses 23 and 24, where He says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:23-24).

The things that were measurable, that others would see them doing, they did without fail. They brought the portion of their harvest that was required and gave it to the priests in the temple. They followed the legalistic rules and looked the part. But their hearts were not right, Jesus said. Mercy, justice and faithfulness can't be easily controlled. It's easy to require a tenth of something, and easy to follow through and give that tenth. But how do you quantify mercy? And if you can't quantify what a person is required to give, then how do you know if people are following the rules?

The temptation to focus on the outside things will always be there. We'll always be tempted to think that so long as we dress modestly and we don't swear and we follow whatever norms are accepted by our denomination then we'll be fine. God will accept us because we're being 'good'. It's not the outside things that really matter, though. How do we rate on things like mercy, justice and faithfulness? How are our hearts?

Notice too that Jesus doesn't condemn the religious leaders for giving a tenth of their spices. He tells them they should have been doing both. So it's not that we don't need to worry about looking like a Christian, it's that we should be doing the outward things, the things that can be seen, but we should also be worrying about our attitudes and our thoughts and all the inner things that can't be measured by others.

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