Day 200: Matthew 23:16-22

How terrible for you, blind guides! You teach, ‘If someone swears by the Temple, he isn’t bound by his vow; but if he swears by the gold in the Temple, he is bound.’ Blind fools! Which is more important, the gold or the Temple which makes the gold holy?

You also teach, ‘If someone swears by the altar, he isn’t bound by his vow; but if he swears by the gift on the altar, he is bound.’ How blind you are! Which is the more important, the gift or the altar which makes the gift holy?

So then, when a person swears by the altar, he is swearing by it and by all the gifts on it; and when he swears by the Temple, he is swearing by it and by God, who lives there; and when someone swears by heaven, he is swearing by God’s throne and by him who sits on it.

[Throughout Chapter 23 Jesus delivers a long and detailed critique of the religious institution and practices of Jesus’ day.  In this section I look at my own very subjective perceptions of today’s Christian practices and see how I think they measure up according to the words of Jesus.] 

Apparently people back in Jesus’ day liked to make a lot of elaborate vows.  I remember Jesus mentioned these vows during his Sermon on the Mount on Day 30.  It was sort of a fad or something to “swear by” various things.  It seems like it was a one-upmanship kind of thing.  Like a freestyle rap battle or something.  My vow’s better than your vow.  It reminds me of the “daring” rules laid down in the movie A Christmas Story.  First the dare, then the double-dare, then the double-dog-dare, then the triple-dare, then the triple-dog-dare.  In that order.

What Jesus is saying here is that while they are showing off with their mindless macho vow-making, they are inadvertently revealing something about their values and priorities.   The original purpose of the Temple was to house the Ark of the Covenant, which was inhabited by the presence of God.  The Ark was also used to store the original stone tablets upon which the 10 Commandments were inscribed.  It was the home of both the presence of God and the word of God.

The Temple was pretty darned important, but according to “vowing” protocol if a person swore by the Temple it wasn’t binding according to the rules of the religious leaders. In other words, if someone said, “I swear by the Temple I will pay back the money I owe you,” then he wouldn’t really have to pay it back.  However, if a person swore by the gold that was stockpiled in the Temple, then the vow was binding.  So if he said, “I swear by all the gold in the Temple that I will pay you back,” then you were obligated to do so.

Gold

What does that say about their priorities?  By creating a “double dog dare” rule that the gold in the Temple was more important than the Temple itself, they were revealing that money was more important to them than the presence of God or the Law.  Oops.  Might want to re-think that one.

Similarly, the altar was a holy thing, the place where sacrifices were offered to God.  In the old days when Moses was around, they didn’t have to light a fire.  They would just pray and fire would fall from heaven and consume the sacrifice (Leviticus 9:24).  But, as with the case of the Temple vows, Jesus observed that if people swore by the altar and it wasn’t binding.  However, the things that they put on the altar to be sacrificed – the goats and sheep, for example – were the subject of binding vows.  Again, there was no respect for thing that was supposedly holy.  Instead, greater importance was placed on material possessions.

So through these crazy “double-dog-dare ya” rules about vows, the Pharisees revealed that they didn’t care about the spiritual aspects of the faith.  They didn’t have any respect for the Temple or the 10 Commandments or the Ark of the Covenant or the altar, all of which played such a huge role in the legal system that they staunchly defended.  Instead, all they cared about was gold and animals and other material possessions.

Well, what about today’s church?  We don’t swear by the church or the altar or the offering plates or the financial statements to seal our promises to others, so that’s not a problem today.  But that wasn’t the real issue.  The real issue was materialism.

So is materialism a problem in today’s churches?  It’s a difficult area.  On Day 47 I talked about the complicated nature of church finances and the corrupting influence of money in the church.  Are there people who care more about the building and the financial success of their church than the spiritual needs of the people in the church or material needs of the poor?  You betcha.  Are there churches that publicly state that material success if their highest priority?  Absolutely never.  But while churches strive to be free from materialism, it’s really not possible.  With buildings and paid staff there is the necessity for a certain preoccupation with money.  And money has a way of taking over sometimes.

I have recently been thinking about how sad it is that here in the suburbs when churches get some extra money they use it to build a nicer, bigger building for themselves instead of using it to buy something more useful like affordable housing for the poor.  That’s something they do in the “inner city”.  Affluent urban churches in depressed neighborhoods buy apartment buildings and rent them out to the poor based on their income.  They also start up small businesses to provide employment for people.  It’s a powerful statement about priorities, just like those crazy vows the Pharisees were making.  Through their actions many urban churches show their priority is serving and encouraging people.  Conversely, many suburban churches show that they would rather make life more comfortable for themselves than do something to make life more bearable for the homeless and those experiencing economic hardship.

So I guess the church gets mixed reviews on this one.  But in today’s blatantly materialistic, consumer-oriented society, I guess the church is by comparison a moderating influence.  They may not always walk the walk, but at least they talk the talk.  Unlike the Wall Street folks, I never heard a church proudly state that “Greed is Good.”

What does this scripture say to you?

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