When Good Behaviour isn’t Good News

Date: 24 July 2022

Sermon Text: Luke 11:37-54 Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong

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Suppose you died today, and lo and behold, you show up at the entrance of the kingdom of heaven, with St Peter standing at the pearly gate. And he asks you, why should I let you in?

Now I want you to list as many reasons as you can, to convince St Peter that you belong in heaven. It’s very important, it’s either you get in or you go to hell. You better have some good and sufficient reasons for St Peter. So think of as many reasons as you can, for why you should be let into the kingdom of God. You can make a mental checklist, or even better, you can write it down.

I’ll give you a minute. One minute to argue for your eternity.

Now hands up, if on your list of reasons for why St Peter ought to let you through the pearly gates into heaven, you have on your list: “Because Jesus died for me.”

Very good.

Now, keep you hands up, if you have listed any other reason in addition to that. Keep your hands up if you have more reasons than “because Jesus died for me.”

Congratulations, all of you will be automatically registered for the upcoming cycle of our Christianity Explored course.

Now, I’m sure the other reasons that you have listed, could possibly be legitimate biblical reasons. But I’m fairly certain that there are some on there, which are perhaps not. Not good reasons upon which to base your entry into the kingdom of heaven.

Like the Pharisees and Scribes, humanity is plagued with the tendency to base our righteousness before God on the basis of what we have done for Christ, rather than on what Christ has done for us.

So some of our reasons might have included, because I go to church, because I read the bible and pray everyday, because I love Jesus, because I try to keep his word, because I…

If that is the case, this sermon is for you. In fact, it is likely for all of us. Because every human heart, even Christian hearts, exist a little slice of Pharisee, and a little side of Scribe. Perhaps, for some of us, even more than a little.

So long as pride remains part of the Adamic DNA, there is always going to exist the desire in our hearts to be our own saviours, to rely on a system of merit that rewards our achievement, rather than a system of grace that remedies our abasement, as the basis for our salvation.

You see, there is a way to avoid confronting our need for Jesus to save us, and that is to believe that we are able to save ourselves. The way to avoid Jesus the Saviour is to be our own saviours.

And we do that via religious observance and moral law-keeping.

That is the path chosen by the Pharisees and Scribes of Jesus’ day. And it is the reason they took offense at the gospel of Jesus. They did not see themselves as slaves requiring liberation. They did not see themselves as sinners needing salvation. They were convinced of their goodness and that conviction led them to crucify the son of man.

Alms giving is a spiritual wonder frug. It cleanses sin and rapacity. It imitates the generosity of God, and it brings an eternal reward. It shares God’s concern for the welfare of the poor. As the encounter with the rich ruler reveals, alms cannot be limited to loose change or one’s surplus.

Our passage today is a warning that good behaviour is not necessarily good news. In fact, it may be the very thing that keeps the gospel of Jesus, that we know about in our heads, from reaching and penetrating and transforming our hearts.

And because there is a little bit of Pharisee and a little bit of Scribe in all of us, it is my prayer that we will listen attentively to what Jesus has to say in our passage today, and turn from our “goodness” to the good news.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, help us to discern in our hearts, whether or not we have tried to rely on our goodness for a right standing with you. And then help us to listen well to your gracious words this morning.

In Jesus name,


37 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.

We get the sentiment, COVID has got us washing our hands before each meal hasn’t it? I didn’t realise there were so many moves to master in a proper handwashing routine.

Today, we too, like the Pharisees back then, would be astonished to see someone neglecting to wash their hands before dinner.

But for very different reasons. Unlike us, the washing of hands, to the Pharisees, has nothing to do with physical cleanliness. It has to do with ritual cleanliness. It’s not a matter of hygiene, but a matter of purity. In other words, it’s not about sanitation, but about religion.

If you do not wash your hands, you do not become dirty, you become defiled. Unclean in the religious sense.

The reason we wash our hands today is in case the things we have touched before contained some germs and bacteria and fingers crossed, the dreaded COVID virus, and we don’t want it contaminating our food.

The Pharisees wash their hands in case the things they have touched before were unclean, perhaps they shook hands with someone who shook hands with someone who touched a corpse, and then that defilement gets passed on and contaminates your food, rendering you unclean as you partake of it. How are you going to enter the temple then? How are you going to observe all the religious rituals then? Big problem, you see?

Jesus understood all of this, and he went straight to the point.

In fact, he makes two points:

1. The Pharisees care more about external purity than inner holiness.

2. The Pharisees care more about religious duty than true godliness.

39 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. 40 You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.

Do you know how to tell if your egg has gone bad? You put it in a glass of water. If it sinks to the bottom, it’s fresh. If it hovers in the middle, it’s stale, and if it floats to the top, it’s rotten.

That’s how you tell a fresh egg from a rotten one.

Because as an egg decomposes, it releases gases, gas is lighter than water, and so it keeps the egg afloat.

Here’s the thing though, a good egg and a rotten egg looks identical on the exterior. Their shells look the same. If you wash the shell of a rotten egg, it’ll look clean and nice. You can clean the outside of the egg, but inside remains rotten.

But that’s the whole point of the egg, we buy the egg for what’s inside. If it floats, the inside’s bad, you throw the egg, it doesn’t matter if the shell looks great.

That’s the thing with the Pharisees. They so concerned with religious purity, they are so concerned with ritual cleanliness, but they neglected inner holiness, and they are rotten inside.

What’s the point of that? Jesus’ says, “You fools! You assume that God, the one who created you, is satisfied with your external purity. But he created you as a human being, not a human doing. It’s who you are, it’s what inside that is important.

Because the Pharisees are fixated on external purity rather than inner holiness, they have a tendency to focus on religious duty to the neglect of true godliness.

42 “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. 43 Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.

Justice and love are the fundamental attributes of God, they are character attributes, they are possessed internally, not simply performed externally, and these things the Pharisees have neglected to cultivate.

Instead, when you crack open a ritually clean Pharisee, what flows out is greed and wickedness and pride.

Jesus says to them, “You fools!” Your heart, your attitude, your values, your character, these invisible inner attributes, these are the things that really matter.

Perform your religious duties yes, good, but don’t assume that’s the end of it. Inner transformation is the point, not mere external performance. Cleanliness must be inside-out.

So here’s the thing, you can wash up and show up to service in your Sunday best, punctually each week. You can sing songs of praise louder than the rest of the congregation. You can tithe your 10%, and serve in ministry, and follow the church’s constitution to the tee. You can do all of that, and still be rotten inside.

Your hands may be clean, you sanitised them, but what’s your heart like? When was the last time you wept for the lost? Have you been arrogant with your spouse?

Harsh with your children? Are you harbouring resentment towards a college, unforgiveness against a brother? Have you been impatient when you drive? Have you been angry too easily? Self-centred too frequently?

I know a pastor of a church who got annoyed because one day he showed up to church and all the parking lots under the shade had been taken, so he got the facility management thereafter to reserve a lot for his car under the shade.

A modern-day version of “loving the best seats in the synagogue”. Perhaps that pastor performs all his religious and pastoral duties diligently, well good. But not quite good enough. You see, it’s what inside that counts too.

We are not nearly as good as we think.