Posts Tagged With: Pharisees

Revelation 2: Balancing “In” And “Not Of” The World

Live in the world, but do not become like the world.  That is the calling of a Christian, and a formulation we have probably all heard all of our lives.  (Did you know that phrase is not actually in the Bible?  The concept certainly is.)  We are called to be involved in the lives of non-Christians, not a detached group that vilifies, hates, and avoids those not like us.  We are called to shape the culture in which we live for the sake of Christ.  At the same time we are called to remain unspotted from the filth of this world.  We are not to become so like our non-Christian neighbors that we are shaped by their culture.

That is a challenging balance to maintain!

In Revelation 2-3, John addresses the seven churches of Asia, each in turn, in what are most like little “letters” to each.  A common theme running throughout these interesting sections is the way in which each church has interacted with the pagan, sinful culture in which they live.  Life in the first-century Roman Empire required one to worship the pagan gods and the Emperor.  Most of the publicly available meat came from sacrifices offered to pagan gods.  Business required a person to be a part of a trade guild (like a union) that had a patron god.  Public life was immensely immoral, especially sexually immoral.  Like any large economy, it was important to turn a buck, one way or another.  How do you live as a follower of Christ in such an environment?

Remember, the recipients of Revelation were persecuted Christians, targeted because they were identifiably different from their neighbors.  An easy way to avoid that persecution, though, is to lessen the degree to which you stand out as different.  A little cultural accommodation never killed anyone, right?  Maybe it might even keep you alive to share the gospel another day.  Jesus, who is in their midst (1:12), has seen their lives and has a message for each, usually focused on the way that church has chosen to live in their non-Christian society.

For ease of discussion I am including a chart that places each of the seven churches (and two other groups) on a continuum according to how they chose to interact with their culture (click on the graphic to enlarge and print from this PDF).  As you read through the “letters” to the seven churches, see if you can tell why I have placed them where I have.

There was a group in the churches of Asia Minor who were extreme accommodationists.  The Nicolaitans seemed to believe (like the Gnostics) that a Christian showed his superior spiritual strength by engaging in all the sinful practices of pagan life but without that affecting his soul.  The followers of “Balaam” (2:14) and “Jezebel” (2:20) — surely, two code names — were likely Nicolaitans.  It appears that this sort of thinking had been influential to various degrees in the churches of Thyatira and Pergamum.  The Laodiceans had developed the same sort of arrogance those in their city had who have become rich and self-sufficient (3:17).  Given that the Christians in Sardis were not suffering any persecution at all, it would appear they had chosen not to stand out from society in any great way.  Jesus scolds these churches for their compromise of doctrine, purity, and zeal.

At the other extreme would have been Christians who were on guard against this sort of cultural accommodation to such a degree that they isolated themselves from society, becoming judgmental and unwelcoming to outsiders.  While immensely pure, they also lacked the love for others that God so desired His people to have.  The Pharisees (literally the “set-apart ones”) would have the best known example of this mentality, though they were not Christians.  Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, the church in Ephesus was most known for this lack of love, and thus Jesus highlighted this compromise of attitude (2:4).

Only the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia escape any criticism at all from Jesus.  These centrist churches seemed to recognize their role as shapers of culture and were doing so admirably, even if that did mean that both of them would have to sacrifice their own comfort to do so.

Of course, this same continuum can be used to describe churches at any time in history and any place on the globe.  God’s kingdom in always an alternative community, different from the cultural norm.  He calls us to be the “kingdom of priests” (1:6) who stand in the gap as mediators with one hand on God and one hand in the world.

What do you think?

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John 9: Who Has Sinned?

“Healing the Blind Man” by Edy Legrand

Jesus and his disciples come upon a man who had been blind since birth.  He appears to be a well known man in his community (9:8).  A conversation ensues concerning sin and who is at fault for this man’s condition.  However, throughout the chapter who the sinner is becomes a hotly contested question.

Conventional wisdom at the time said people like this were being punished for sin.  Maybe it was the sin of the person afflicted; maybe it was due to the sin of the parents.  The disciples are thinking like this (9:2).  Who is the sinner?  Either the blind man himself or his parents.

Then we hear the Pharisees tell us who they thought had sinned.  Simply put, they thought everyone had sinned, well, except for them.  Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, so surely he was the sinner (9:16, 24).  When the formerly blind man refuses to agree with them that Jesus was the sinner, they declare him to be a sinner too (9:34).

Ask the formerly blind man and he would tell you that it isn’t likely that Jesus is a sinner (9:25):

God doesn’t listen to sinners. (9:31a)

Could it be that this man who had been blind since birth could actually see the truth more clearly than the religious leaders of his time?

Then Jesus got the last word.  Earlier he made it clear that neither the sin of the blind man nor his parents was the cause of this man’s blindness.  Jesus said he came to bring sight to the blind, while those with sight would be blind.  The Pharisees correctly interpret this as a slight against them.  Jesus, then, says this:

If you were blind you wouldn’t be found guilty of sin.  But now, because you say, “We can see,” your sin remains. (9:41)

Who has sinned?  The Pharisees.  They know better, yet deny him nonetheless.

What did you see in this chapter? 

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John 8: Dehumanizing Religion

One of the ugliest sides of religion is when it uses people.  Religion does this.  It pits people against each other in some cosmic game of “who is closer to God.”  We toot our own horns and then shoot pot-shots into other people.

In today’s reading, the religious people in the story drag a woman likely straight from the bedroom where she had been caught in adultery.  John even says, “they stood her out in the middle” of the crowd, before Jesus and asked him what should be done with her (8:3).  Are they really concerned with her sin?  Only mildly at best.  Are they really seeking justice?  Then where is the man she was with?  No, John makes it clear what they were doing:

They said this to test him, so that they could frame a charge against him. (8:6)

This woman is nothing more than a disgraced pawn caught in a desperate powerplay of the Pharisees.  She is just a platform on which to make their point that Law is to be followed.  She represents no more than an opportunity.  She is the faceless, story-less example of a moral issue.  This woman who had allowed herself to be used by a man for his passion is now being used by a whole cadre of men for their agenda of power.  The Pharisees are using this woman, in the name of religion.  Her sin was not excusable — and Jesus didn’t ignore it either (8:11b) — but she was still a human being.

When have we allowed our religious agendas to use people?  When has a person’s life become little more than a point in an argument or a story in a sermon?  When do we only see the immoral actions of people and fail to see the person doing the action?  Are there people who if they ceased to exist it would be fine with us?  Are there whole groups of people we easily write off with racial, religious, socio-economic, or political labels, caring less about their personal narratives?

Is there a way to follow our Master by seeing a person in need, not approving of their sin but also not condemning and dehumanizing them?

What caught your eye in this chapter?  

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John 7: Law or Life?

“Look here,” replied Jesus.  “I did one single thing, and you all were amazed.  Moses commanded you to practice circumcision . . . and you circumcise a man on the sabbath.  Well, then, if a man receives circumcision on the sabbath, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, how can you be angry with me if I make an entire man healthy on the sabbath?” (7:21-23)

Let’s remember something: the Pharisees were the religious ones in Jesus’ world.  And, yet, they are the ones who had the hardest time accepting Jesus.  For them, everything came down to the Law.  There are ways to go about the work of God.  There are forms and patterns.  There are boundaries and limits.  All of these laws ensure that life happens in the most controlled manner, and order brings blessing.

Yet, one can become so controlled by Law that the point of the Law is missed.  Order becomes more important than blessing.  The point of Law is to bring Life, but this can easily be forgotten when we make Law the point itself.

This is where the Pharisees had allowed themselves to get to.  Their glorification of the Law was now the point.  All that matters in a legal conundrum like whether sabbath or circumcision trumps the other is which law is more important.

Jesus tells them they have missed the point entirely.  The point is Life.  It is always Life.  Law exists to bring Life, preserve Life, promote Life, and reward Life.  So when our applications of Law stand in the way of Life, we have missed the point.

What do you think?

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Luke 7: Faith & Need

A Roman centurion, a Jewish widow, and a woman of ill repute evoke deep emotions in Jesus.  Meanwhile, the Pharisees lurk everywhere around in the shadows and they stir up Jesus’ anger.  This surely is the Gospel of Luke.

A Roman centurion believes that if Jesus just says the word his slave will be healed from afar, especially because the centurion believes he is unworthy to entertain this great rabbi in his house.  Jesus was “astonished” (7:9) by this level of faith yet to be encountered amongst the Jews and heals the slave.

Jesus walks up on a widow — about to hit one of the lowest rungs of their society — whose dead son is being carried out to be buried.  Jesus sees this and is “very sorry for her” (7:13), so he raises the boy back to life.

“Anointing Jesus’ Feet” by Frank Wesley

A woman of “a known bad character” (7:37) barges into a dinner party at a Pharisees house and anoints his feet with costly oil and her tears of repentance.  Jesus falls all over himself praising her for the hospitality she gave that Simon had not.

There are two things Jesus responds to: faith and need.  Unfortunately, the more religious you are the less you need faith.  Religion has a way of making us far too sure of our own righteousness.  Sadly, the higher up the social ladder we are, the less we need or at least sense that we need.  But when we realize how much we need, how unworthy we are of blessing, how unholy we are Jesus opens the doors of his blessings.  At these moments our hearts are open to receive great love and in response show great love.

So the conclusion I draw is this: she must have been forgiven many sins!  Her great love proves it!  But if someone has been forgiven only a little, they will love only a little. (7:47)

What caught your eye in this chapter?

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Matthew 23: Are We The Pharisees?

For those who only imagine Jesus as meek and mild and accepting of all, hold on because this chapter blows that stereotype to pieces.

Matthew has brought us to the last week of Jesus’ life.  The tension between the Jewish religious leaders and Jesus is escalating, and this chapter does nothing to help that.

As I have said before, I am thoroughly and unapologetically religious.  Institutional and traditional Christianity is in my DNA.  I don’t think religion is God’s Kingdom; it is not where one finds the life and divinity we are all after.  Yet, I still value religion as a vehicle that often times transfers me into the Kingdom of life and divinity.  I like the way Eugene Peterson balanced religion (or “church”) and Kingdom in this quote from Christianity Today a few years back:

What other church is there besides institutional?  There’s nobody who doesn’t have problems with the church because there is sin the church.  But there is no other place to be a Christian except the church. . . . I really don’t understand this naive criticism of the institution.  I really don’t get it.  Frederick Von Hugel said the institution of the church is like the bark on the tree.  There’s no life in the bark.  It’s dead wood.  But it protects the life of the tree within.  And the tree grows and grows and grows.  If you take the bark off, it’s prone to disease, dehydration, death.  So, yes, the church is dead but it protects something alive.  And when you try to have a church without bark, it doesn’t last long.  It disappears, gets sick, and it’s prone to all kinds of disease, heresy and narcissism. 

“The Pharisees” by Karl Schmidt Rottluff

When I read a chapter like Matthew 23 I use it to inspect my own religious heart and determine whether Jesus could say some of the same things about me that he once said to the Pharisees.  The following are the phrases in today’s reading that I think all of us who are religious need to dwell on today to assess how true they could be in our lives as well:

You must do whatever they tell you, and keep it. (23:3a)

They talk but they don’t do. (23:3b)

They tie up heavy bundles which are difficult to carry, and they dump them on people’s shoulders. (23:4)

Everything they do is for show, to be seen by people. (23:5)

You tithe . . . and you omit the serious matters . . . like justice, mercy, and loyalty. (23:23)

You scrub the outside of the cup and the dish, but the inside is full of extortion and moral flabbiness. (23:25)

On the inside you appear to be virtuous and law-abiding, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (23:28)

Inserted into his invectives, Jesus offers two recalibrations for those of us who may feel like we are more aligned with the Pharisees than with Jesus:

The greatest among you should be your servant.  People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great. (23:11)

First make the inside of the cup clean, and then the outside will be clean as well. (23:26)

The hypocrisy, legalism, and self-important arrogance of religiosity can be kept in check by a well-maintained interior life that  values humility not pride, service not power.

Lord, protect us from the “leaven of the Pharisees!”

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Matthew 22: Dressed for the Party

There were parties aplenty in the early years of high school.  Some not so great, many of them little more than huddles of insecure teenagers waiting for somebody to embarrass themselves or do something heroic.  Given the scrutiny that anyone at one of these gatherings would be under, we all knew it was important how you were dressed.  This was the mid-eighties so we segmented off by fashion — the preps with their pastels and popped collars, the jocks with their letterman jackets and team sweatshirts, the denim and leather crowd rocking a concert t-shirt.  The styles varied, but one thing you didn’t want to do was show up to a party dressed in such a way that you would stick out.  

Pieter Bruegel, “The Wedding Feast”

Matthew 22 starts with another parable, that of the wedding feast.  This is coming to be a royal feast with all of the trimmings.  The king has commissioning the killing of bulls and fattened calves.  He has invited all of his friends to celebrate the nuptials of his son.  The so-called friends snub the invitation and the king’s ire is raised.  So he sends out his slaves into the streets to invite anyone who might like to attend.  Many come and a great feast is had.  

Jesus’ point is clear in this parable.  The upstanding Jews and their religious leaders have been invited to celebrate God’s son Jesus but they have rejected the invitation.  Now, it is no surprise that the rabble of society are sitting down to eat with Jesus — not to mention the Gentiles who will come next.  They gladly received the invitation.  

It is the ending of the parable I took notice of this time:

But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who wasn’t wearing a wedding suit. (22:11)

The king is indignant and has the man thrown out with an empty belly and rejection.  

A bit of background here might help.  The guests who do respond to the invitation appear to be a poorer lot and they were not expecting the party.  They would not have had the appropriate attire readily available.  It also was a custom that a rich host like this one would provide the wedding clothes for the feast.  Thus, if a guest is sitting in the feast without the prerequisite clothes, it is only because he has rejected the king’s clothes and desires to disregard protocol and decorum.  It is this rebellious spirit the king cannot abide.  

What is the appropriate dress for us today as we celebrate the upcoming wedding feast of the Church to the Lamb?

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:13-14)

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Colossians 3:12-13)

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5)

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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Matthew 21: Taking God’s Property

Today we come to Jesus’ Parable of the Tenants, a thinly veiled attack on the Pharisees (21:45).

A landowner plants a vineyard and rents it out to tenant farmers to care for the vineyard while he is away on a journey.  Harvest time comes and the landowner sends slaves to collect the fruit that is rightfully his.  The tenant farmers kill the slaves.  He tries again with a second group of slaves and the same thing happens.  The third time he sends his own son, thinking they will surely respect him.  Seizing the opportunity to get rid of the heir, the farmers kill the son too:

This fellow’s the heir!” they said among themselves. “Come on, let’s kill him, and then we can take over the property! (21:38).

Jesus asks the crowd what these tenant owners should expect because of their deeds?  Death, at the hands of the vineyard owner.

Let’s remember who the Pharisees were: the religious establishment.  They were the ones to whom God had given the leadership of His people.  But they allow that power to go to their heads and they tried to take what was God’s “property” and make it their own.

We would be a bit naive to think that the same selfish impulse can’t exist in religious people today.  Does God ever give us a farmer’s role and we turn it into a power trip?  Do our churches and Sunday School classes become our own domains?  Does our paycheck become ours?  Do we think our kids are our property?  Do we even think that our life is our own?  Maybe we have not been as malicious as the tenant farmers, but we should heed the warning of their example.

Does this resonate with you?

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Matthew 15: What Makes One Unclean?

Today’s post is more of a question than a thought.  Even if you are not the kind to give a comment I would love your input on this one.  Please consider.

Jesus argues with the Jewish religious leaders again in today’s chapter.  Today, the issue is eating with unwashed hands, an elaborate tradition they had developed in an effort to remain a ceremonially clean people.  Notice that is ceremonially clean.  They hadn’t developed this ritual to remain a physically healthier group.  Jesus’ disciples evidently weren’t as meticulous about this tradition as the Jewish religious leaders would have liked.  Jesus points out the error in their logic:

What makes someone unclean isn’t what goes into the mouth.  It’s what comes out of the mouth that makes someone unclean. (15:11)

What comes out of the mouth begins in the heart, and that’s what makes someone unclean.  Out of the heart, you see, come evil plots, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, and blasphemy.  These are the things that make someone unclean.  But eating with unwashed hands doesn’t make a person unclean. (15:18-20)

In fact, a tradition could make a person unclean if it caused them to nullify or trespass against God’s law.  The Pharisees were doing exactly that with their unwillingness to honor their parents by devoting money to God needed to help their parents (15:3-6).  God’s desire is for honor, not donations.

So, I am wondering today what, if any, are the “traditions” we have in our churches today that miss the point and maybe even cause us to work against what God is really looking for?  What are the “unwashed hands” that we get up in arms about even though these are not the things that really cause moral problems?  

What do you think?  

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Matthew 12: It’s What’s On The Inside That Counts

The Pharisees confront Jesus in today’s chapter:

Look here!  Your disciples are doing something that’s not permitted on the sabbath!” (12:2)

How dare they pluck corn and eat it!  That’s work!

So Jesus chastises the Pharisees on how completely they have missed the point.  Then he heals the withered hand of a man standing in the crowd.  Oh-oh!  More work on the Sabbath.  How dare Jesus disregard the Law!  So,

The Pharisees went off and plotted against him, with the intention of doing away with him.” (12:14)

I have never noticed this last verse in this way before.  The Pharisees are incensed that Jesus would disregard the Jewish laws and customs concerning the Sabbath, all the while they are making plans to murder Jesus.  

Yes, it seems they have missed the point.

Today’s chapter really drives home the saying “it’s what’s in the heart that counts,” not the rituals of our hands.

  • Our mouth speaks from the heart (12:34)
  • The fruit/deeds of our life come from the quality of our tree/heart (12:33)
  • A demon can be removed but it will only be worse later on if we don’t fill up our hearts with something good (12:45)
  • Family is defined more by faith than blood (12:50)
  • Repentance of the heart is better than experiencing miraculous signs (12:41)
  • Saving a life and restoring health is far better than getting caught up in law keeping (12:12)
  • Mercy is better than sacrifice (12:7)

What stood out to you in this chapter?

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Matthew 3: The Kingdom of Heaven is Coming

I hope your Easter was a truly blessed one!  I spent much of the weekend in solitude and with family (in part, because I was sick on Sunday), but it was a very good weekend of reminders of frailty and new life.  I did spend time with Henri Nouwen, one of my favorites especially on Easter.  If you would like to read my Easter mediations click here to go to my personal blog.

We have just made a huge jump in time in Matthew 3.  Kids have grown up to be adults.  The time for ministry has come.

"John baptizing Christ" by Guido Reni

This is the first mention of John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, in Matthew.  He is one unorthodox bloke, to put it mildly.  He must have failed his seminary class on seeker-sensitive preaching:

He saw several Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized by him.  “You brood of vipers!” he said to them.  “Who warned you to escape from the coming wrath?  You better prove your repentance by bearing the right sort of fruit!” (3:7-8)

His first words are what strike me in this chapter:

Repent!” he was saying.  “The kingdom of heaven is coming!” (3:2)

John’s first words introduce us to what will be a major theme in Matthew, actually the biggest idea Jesus and his followers ever talked about.  What is this kingdom?  It is coming here?  When?  One’s understanding of the Gospels is sadly deficient if one does not come to understand what the “kingdom” is.

What struck you in this chapter?

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Mark 12: No More Questions

Jesus is really turning up the heat.  It is no wonder he is killed in only a few more chapters.

The questions stop after this point (12:34); the crowds are delighted at Jesus’ wisdom (12:37) but the Jewish religious leaders are tired of being served up a hearty portion of humble pie.

Its funny, I think the passage I liked the most in today’s chapter was meant to be sarcastic and snide:

They sent some Pharisees to Jesus, and some Herodians, to try to trick him into saying the wrong thing.  “Teacher,’ they said, “we know you are a man of integrity; you don’t regard anybody as special.  You don’t bother about the outward show people put up; you teach God’s way truly.” (12:13-14a)

Though the Pharisees and Herodians didn’t really think this about Jesus, he truly possessed these attributes.  And what great traits they are!  Integrity, a lack of favoritism, authenticity, and true teaching.

Now, those are the traits I would like to have!

What words from this chapter resonated with you?  

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Mark 11: The Expected One, with a Twist

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!  Check out my other blog for some of my favorite MLK quotes if you are interested.

A conversation I had yesterday with a friend named Eddie from Bible class at Highland is running through my head as I read this chapter.  It was the end of class time and I had just taught with Trent (who is probably sorry now that I dragged him into this series) about how the kingdom Jesus so often talks about was a “kingdom-coming,” not the “going-off-to-the-kingdom” we might have been taught to expect when we were growing up.  It is a tough sell to help people see something so familiar in a new light, and I am not sure I was communicating well.  Anyway, Eddie made a perceptive connection back to a class I had taught two weeks ago on how Jesus’ followers then and now tend to turn the “kingdom” into what they want it to be.  Eddie’s point was that if the Jews of Jesus’ time struggled to fully understand the Old Testament prophecies about the kingdom well, then why do we expect that we will understand the prophecies of Jesus and John in the New Testament with perfect precision?  We at least need to be humble about our interpretations.  Nice point!

We tend to want Jesus to be what we are looking for, which is not always what he really is.

The people were expecting a war-lord who would ride into Jerusalem and drive out the Romans.  Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem in this passage (11:1), the first time in Mark, but he is riding a “colt” hardly ready for war.  That day he looked around like a tourist and rode back out of town to Bethany.  The Expected One didn’t really come as expected.

The temple is the preeminent place for purity.  It was important to the Jewish religious leaders to maintain ethnic purity and to keep pagan money stamped with the Caesar’s image out of the Lord’s Temple.  The Lord comes to the Temple in the form of Jesus and he makes a holy mess because they are pure in all the wrong ways.  Isn’t “my house to be called a house of prayer for all the world to share?” (11:17).

God rewards faith.  Have faith and don’t doubt and you will see amazing things happen (11:22-24).  They just might not be what you were expecting.

If anyone will understand the kingdom it will be the religious establishment.  Jesus should be warmly accepted by them of all people.  But he is a threat to their power.  He seems to be pitting the Jewish religious leaders against the people.  Shouldn’t the Messiah see life like the chief priests and legal experts?

Maybe more to the point today is the one point I do understand from the strange fig tree story in this chapter: it is more important what Jesus is looking for in us.  He is looking for fruit (11:13).

What were you not expecting in today’s reading?

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Mark 7: God’s Commands & Human Traditions

“You abandon God’s commands, and keep human tradition!” (7:8)

Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and “legal experts,” and he mentions a specific habit they had of depriving their own parents of charity on the pretense of giving this money to God instead, which let’s assume they actually gave.  In the end they “invalidated” God’s command to honor parents by their religious show of piety (7:13)

Do we do this today?

By “we”  I mean us, those reading this blog, not some uncle’s brother’s friend who attends some backward church.

By “this” I mean put so much stock in our religious customs that we actually end up ignoring or even transgressing the very desires of God that these customs are meant to help us serve.  Of course, we have traditions, but Jesus is not attacking traditions here.  It’s deeper than that.

What do you think?

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