Bible Reading 2: Jesus' Warnings - Luke 11-12

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Dave Patty is the founder-director of Josiah Venture, a growing youth discipleship movement in Eastern Europe. And by the way, this is what they say about their name, 'Josiah Venture':

"King Josiah began seeking God at age 16. By the time he was 26, God had used Josiah to bring revival to the land, rebuild the house of God, and restore the Word of God to its central place. Central and Eastern Europe desperately needs its own Josiahs, young men and women who lead the way spiritually, as this young king did."

Amen to that. Dave Patty speaks about dangers in leadership in general, and hypocrisy in particular, with reference to the legacy of hypocritical state leaders in communist Eastern Europe. In fact, I heard him at a conference in Poland which took place in a large smart hotel in a ski resort village. This hotel, I was told, used orginally to be a retreat for Party big cheeses. Anyway, he told the story of one pastor he spoke to, who taught his congregation, as their tradition demanded, that they should not watch TV. Then the pastor opened the door of a cupboard, and showed Dave Patty the TV that he had hidden inside it for his own personal use away from the prying eyes of his congregation. That's a great illustration. Say one thing up front and in public. Do something else, hidden away, in private. And maintain the fiction, deliberately.

The word hypocrisy derives from that for 'actor' in classical Greek theatre. Such an actor would wear a mask in front of his face. That's hypocrisy. A public mask hiding something different beneath.

Let's be clear that the issue is not failing to be perfect – unless, that is, you claim to be perfect. Some have made claims approaching that – the sinless perfectionists – and that is a form of hypocrisy. But sinning and repenting and sinning and repenting is the normal Christian life. That's why we start every service with a public and general confession. It's a public recognition that we fail over and over, and depend on God's grace and mercy daily. There is no doubt something of hypocrisy in us every time we disobey our Lord when we are committed to obeying him. But that is a very different and less serious form of hypocrisy to the grave form of it that Jesus is excoriating.

William Taylor of St Helen's Bishopsgate makes the point that when we apply these severe passages of Jesus' teaching about the Pharisees to the average faithful Christian struggling to walk by the Spirit, we do them a disservice and give undue discouragement. We need to get the target of our application right. Revisonist liberals who wear a mask of Christian orthodoxy are the right target. And in my mind at the moment is the House of Bishops of the Church of England, every one of whose members voted to take note of their recent report (even if one was counted against, having pressed the wrong button.)

That Church of England bishops report on marriage and same-sex relationships, now defunct after General Synod would not even take note of it, was a study in institutional hypocrisy. And that is not simply a gratituous insult, but rather an objective analysis of what the report was seeking to do. That is, on the surface, it was reaffirming the Church of England's bibilical doctrine of marriage as between a man and woman for life, and sex as belonging to marriage only. But under the surface it was doing two other things. It was creating a deliberate fog of ambiguity. Then under cover of this pea-souper, and by means of such phrases as "maximum freedom", it was pushing on yet further down the road of affirming some extra-marital sex, including some homosexual sex, as something God-endorsed and welcome in the life of the church, even if it shouldn't be given the label of 'marriage'. As the Bishop of Liverpool said in the debate, I quote,

"Our explanation of maximum freedom will take us to places where we have not previously gone."

Precisely.

Let 's be clear also that strong teaching about a class of people – even ferocious teaching like that of Jesus – can be appropriate, even though it might not apply fully or even at all to some members of that class. Not all Pharisees were the same. The Gospels make that clear. Jesus dealt with each individual individually. But that didn't stop him characterising the class of men. Sometimes that may need to be done. Not all kings of Israel were the same, as we saw yesterday. But the Bible characterises them in general as unfaithful. And they were. Not all bishops are the same. Certainly not. But in the light of how things have been and are developing, the charge of general episcopal hypocrisy sticks.

And it is hypocrisy that Jesus has in his sights at this dinner party – the hypocrisy, in the first instance, of the Pharisees. Take a look at Luke 11.37-41:

"While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, 'Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.' "

That genuine astonishment from this Pharisee was indicative of his priorities. The outward appearance mattered more than the inward righteousness. And the illustration that Jesus uses of the cup that's clean and shiny on the outside but full of filth on the inside get's right to the point.

So Jesus draws the parallel between that cup and the man sat reclining beside him. These are not the kind of dinner table civilities that the Pharisee might have expected. "You are full of greed and wickedness. You fools!" An uncomfortable guest to say the least. A fool is one who does not tremble at the word of God, and so does not live wisely. That is the way of the Pharisees. Then Jesus, as it were, unpacks what he means by this hypocrisy, by unleashing six woes on this host and his class of men. What does that word 'woe' imply? It means that without repentance the consequences of the curse will fall on you and you will miss out all the blessing that Jesus has come to bring. It could hardly be a stronger word. Jesus reserves it for his most scathing denunciations. Let's take a look at them one by one. So:

1. Understanding hypocrisy. Luke 11.42-54.

Hypocrisy is no joke. It is a deadly, deadly serious matter – a matter of eternal life and death. Each of these woes highlights a different form of hypocrisy – or perhaps better, a different aspect of the one all pervading hypocrisy.

Woe 1: Superficial obedience but deep disobedience.

"But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."

Doing justice is loving people, so the Pharisees project this façade of obeying the law through their tithing, but fail to love their neighbour and love God. And since those are the two Great Commandments that sum up the whole law, the reality is that their show of obedience is actually masking a comprehensive failure to obey.

Woe 2: Valuing status above God's word.

"Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the market-places."

Woe 3: Superficial attractiveness but corruption under the surface.

"Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it."

A shiny cup full of filth, a pleasant path hiding the corpse below. A whitewashed tomb is another illustration from the similar context in Matthew. Matthew 23.27:

"You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones …"

Brilliant white on the outside. Death on the inside. These images from the lips of Jesus pile up painfully. Superficially attractive. But underneath, a disobedience that leads to death. The wages of sin is death. Jesus has come to give life. This hypocrisy blocks the outpouring of life and blessing that Jesus longs to give.

Woe 4: Demanding an impossible obedience of others while living in disobedience.

"One of the lawyers answered him, 'Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.' And he said, 'Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.' "

Woe 5: Superficially honouring the prophets and the apostles but in practice rejecting what they taught.

"Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute', so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation."

It was that generation in particular that crucified Jesus. And yet, of course, it was the sin of us all that sent him to the cross. We all bear the guilt, along with them. And their practice of honouring those whose teaching they had no intention of following continues to this day.

Here is an example. There is a parish down the road from us that recently supplied its vicar to be the first bishop openly in a same-sex relationship. One of its members is a campaigner for the acceptance of same-sex relationships in the Church who is a retired Church of England vicar himself in a same-sex relationship. So he outright rejects the fundamental biblical and Christian sexual ethic. This morning I opened our Diocesan bulletin to find a large advertisement with a full-colour portrait of Thomas Cranmer. It is from this parish. It reads: "As the Church of England remembers and celebrates the life and work of Thomas Cranmer on March 21st, [this parish church] offers a celebration of the Holy Communion according to the Book of Common Prayer of 1549". And if I want details, I am asked to contact that retired vicar who campaigns for the acceptance of homosexual sex.

What does Jesus say? "… you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed."

6. Denying those under your influence the knowledge of the love of God through faith in Jesus.

"Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering."

When we will not name sin as sin, and when we will not call people to repentance and faith in Christ, then we are leaving them enslaved by their sin and denying them the experience of the grace of God. Woe to us if we do that. We dare not.

Then look at what happens next. Verses 53-54:

"As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say."

And in so doing, they absolutely and emphatically make Jesus' point for him. It's all about their attitude to the word of Jesus. They are sitting over his word in judgement, not under his word in glad submission.

We need to understand that anatomy of hypocrisy. But we do that in order to avoid it. So secondly:

2. Beware hypocrisy in others and in ourselves

This is 12.1-3. Why beware? Jesus gives two reasons here.

1. It spreads dangerously

"In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, 'Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.' "

We have a bread maker at home, that sometimes even gets used. You see that little bit of yeast, the leaven, at work. How powerful it is. It works its way right through the dough. That's the whole point of leaven. And that's what hypocrisy does to. It spreads dangerously.

2. It will be exposed completely

"Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known." Luke 12.2

All hypocrisy will be exposed. We got a taste of that maybe through the Synod vote not even to take note of the Bishops report on sexual ethics in the life of the church. There comes a point where the mask begins to crumble. It gets seen through.

"Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops." Luke 12.3

So we must watch our words! Say the same in public and private. Guard your integrity. Words well up from the heart – the inside – so clean "those things that are within" as Jesus says, by repentance and faith and the washing of the Holy Spirit.

And don't be fooled by hypocrisy in others, and allow it to confuse you about the underlying reality of what's going on. We are prone to be fooled by it. 1 Samuel 16.7:

"The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

The Lord is not fooled, but we very easily are.

And be self-aware. We are not only prone to be fooled by hypocrisy. We are prone to practise hypocrisy ourselves as well. We need constantly to be on the look out for the log in our own eye. But then we need to be ready, as faithfulness to God's word demands, to speak about what we see around us, if we are to protect the flocks given into our care.

So, understand hypocrisy; beware hypocrisy in others and in ourselves. Nip it in the bud, because otherwise it'll spread and become very hard to root out. And:

3. Fear no-one but God (Luke 12.4-7)

Jesus gives us the key to avoiding hypocrisy:

1. Do not fear men.

"I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do.

There is no being let off the hook when you're a disciple of Jesus. Lay down your life in his service. That's what it's all about. What are we afraid of? Which side of physical death does our hope really lie? Do not fear men.

2. Fear God.

"But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!"

3. Then you need not fear

"Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies. And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows."

Fear God who loves you and gives eternal life, not you enemies who hate you and who lead to death. "My friends", Jesus says. What a world of invitation and privilege and delight there is in that phrase on the lips of the Son of God to us. Fearing men leads to enslavement. Fearing God leads to freedom and (ironically and wonderfully) to a lack of fear. Don't fear even those who kill.

Fear God. Fear not. That's the sequence, and the route to fearless and free living in the service of the King of kings. If you obey Christ without hypocrisy in public word and deed, you might even be killed. It could happen. But it's the worst that could happen. So nothing need make us fear, because in that situation, and in any other short of it, we are safe in God's loving hands.

Lord Jesus, please help us to discern hypocrisy in ourselves and in others, and to avoid it. Amen.

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