Day 202: Matthew 23:25-28

How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You clean the outside of your cup and plate, while the inside is full of what you have gotten by violence and selfishness. Blind Pharisee! Clean what is inside the cup first, and then the outside will be clean too!

How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look fine on the outside but are full of bones and decaying corpses on the inside. In the same way, on the outside you appear good to everybody, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and sins.

[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.] 

Previously when I read this scripture I interpreted it as an indictment of superficial religiosity.  I assumed that it meant that while it appeared to everyone that the Pharisees were obeying all of the religious laws, they were in fact harboring nasty things in their hearts.  I was going to tell the story of how I heard mega-church pastor Ted Haggard speak about all of the wonderful things his church was doing.  I was going to talk about how he seemed so compassionate, except when it came to gays.  He was so mean about gays.  I was going to talk about how several years after I heard him speak it came out that he himself had struggled with homosexual desires all his life and how he was subsequently thrown out of his church and how he is now working at a salesman.  That’s what the story I planned to tell.

But when I read it today I see something different.  What got me was the phrase, “what you have gotten by violence and selfishness”   along with the second phrase about “bones and decaying corpses.” These phrases got me going in another direction.  When I look at it today, it seems to be an indictment not just of the Pharisees, but of the religious practices of the day.  I may be wrong, but I think Jesus is saying that the religious leaders are perceived as virtuous by the people, but in God’s eyes they are tainted because of all the incessant killing.  The religious practices of Jesus’ day were steeped in blood and violence. The blood of animals flowed in a steady stream from their altar, the blood of the prophets stained their history, and the blood of the disobedient stained their hands.

Capital punishment was one of the more unpleasant aspects of traditional Jewish law in Jesus’ time. Here is Wikipedia’s description of the death penalty and how it was executed:

The four types of capital punishment

There were four types of capital punishment, known as mitath beth din (execution by the rabbinic court). These four types of capital punishment, in decreasing severity, were:

Punishment by Sekila (stoning)

  • Intercourse between a man and his mother.
  • Intercourse between a man and his father’s wife (not necessarily his mother).
  • Intercourse between a man and his daughter in law.
  • Intercourse with another man’s wife from the first stage of marriage.
  • Intercourse between two men.
  • Bestiality.
  • Cursing the name of God in God’s name.
  • Idol Worship.
  • Giving one’s progeny to Molech (child sacrifice).
  • Necromantic Sorcery.
  • Pythonic Sorcery.
  • Attempting to convince another to worship idols.
  • Instigating a community to worship idols.
  • Witchcraft.
  • Violating the Sabbath.
  • Cursing one’s own parent.
  • A stubborn and rebellious son.

Punishment by Serefah (burning)

  • The daughter of a priest who completed the second stage of marriage commits adultery.
  • Intercourse between a man and his daughter.
  • Intercourse between a man and his daughter’s daughter.
  • Intercourse between a man and his son’s daughter.
  • Intercourse between a man and his wife’s daughter (not necessarily his own daughter).
  • Intercourse between a man and his wife’s daughter’s daughter.
  • Intercourse between a man and his wife’s son’s daughter.
  • Intercourse between a man and his mother in law.
  • Intercourse between a man and his mother in law’s mother.
  • Intercourse between a man and his father in law’s mother.

Punishment by Hereg (beheading)

  • Unlawful premeditated murder.
  • Being a member of a city that has gone astray.

Punishment by Chenek (strangulation)

  • Committing adultery with another man’s wife, where it doesn’t fall under the above criteria.
  • Wounding one’s own parent.
  • Kidnapping another member of Israel.
  • Prophesizing falsely.
  • Prophesizing in the name of other deities.
  • A sage who is guilty of insubordination in front of the grand court in the Chamber of the Hewn Stone.

Ah, the good old days.  Some of these penalties were specifically cited in the Torah, others were added over the years by the religious authorities.  I don’t think Jesus was happy about this “old time religion.”   I think he thought it was barbaric.

I think Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees that they were deluding themselves by thinking that their religion was pleasing God when, in fact, it was imposed on the people by means of violence and capital punishment, something that God did not want.

Starting in the Book of Joshua, the Hebrews conquered what was to later become Israel by killing off all their competition.  Following God’s instructions (or what they believed to be his instructions) they ruthlessly destroyed everyone who got in their way.  Here is just one of countless examples in the Old Testament of God supposedly telling the Hebrews to kill their enemies:

Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one whom the Lord sent to anoint you king of his people Israel. Now listen to what the Lord Almighty says.  He is going to punish the people of Amalek because their ancestors opposed the Israelites when they were coming from Egypt.  Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t leave a thing; kill all the men, women, children, and babies; the cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys.” (I Samuel 15:1-3).

Hmm…is it possible that Samuel got that wrong?  I mean, this is sickening.  Jesus made it very clear that God did not approve of people killing their enemies.  Jesus said that people should love their enemies (Day 34).  He said people should forgive each other (Day 164).  He taught that what goes around comes around, so violence begets violence.  He believed in the power of peace (Day 13) and the importance of mercy (Day 11).

In this scripture Jesus points out that while the history of the Hebrews in the Old Testament pays lip service to the importance of peace and love, the actual history is one of violence and hatred.  Jesus accuses the Pharisees of propping up a society that was built on the bones and decaying corpses of all those who had been killed in the name of God.  He calls them out because they claim to love God, but the reality is that their practices are leading them (and those who follow them) farther and farther away from God’s Kingdom.  It’s like Jesus is saying here that the whole religious system – including the implementation of the Law itself – is what is being represented by that cup in today’s scripture.  All religious and disciplined and pure on the outside, but savage and primitive and grimy on the inside.

 Jesus wants them to clean up the Laws in accordance with his own teachings, which agree with those of the prophets.  Clean up the Laws so that they are no longer savage and primitive and violent, so that kind, civilized people would be able to practice their religion with a clean conscience.  They won’t have to feel tainted by it.  True relationship with God cannot be imposed through force.  Killing solves nothing. True obedience to God can only be achieved through love.  Fill up the cup with love and it will stay clean on the outside as well as the inside.

So how do today’s churches shape up?  Well, religious institutions are not allowed to kill people anymore so that’s not a problem in our day.  However, capital punishment is still allowed under the laws of the United States despite the fact that most countries have eliminated it.  Here’s a chart showing the number of executions in the world in 2012:

As you can see, the United States is in the illustrious company of China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Sudan when it comes to executions.  Very hard to understand how a so-called “Christian nation” could be one of the last holdouts on this.  Most mainline churches have denounced capital punishment in their social principles, but you don’t hear much about any social action to back up those principles.  Still, there are many individual Christians who quietly devote their lives to this issue.  We know someone in Chicago who travels around the country to witness these executions.  He and others go to executions on behalf of the doomed to pray for them, to pray for our country, and to pray for peace.  Because they know that killing is evil and they believe Jesus’ teaching that says that an eye for an eye doesn’t work (Day 31).  Because they know that violence begets violence.  Later, when Jesus is arrested, he says, “All who take the sword die by the sword.”  (Matthew 26:52). Jesus taught that love and forgiveness, not violence and force, are the cornerstones of a peaceful society.

I think that my interpretation of this scripture is affirmed by what Jesus says in the next scripture.  But we have to wait until tomorrow for that.

What does this scripture say to you?

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