Date: 24 July 2022
Sermon Text: Luke 11:37-54 Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong
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.”
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.
And Jesus concludes,
44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”
Graves hold corpses. And coming into contact with corpses makes you ritually unclean. Jesus is saying, the Pharisees make their followers unclean, and whose thing is, they don’t even know it. Because these graves are unmarked graves, they look just like patch of field. You don’t even know you have been made unclean.
It’s like grabbing a rotten egg and eating it because the shell looked fine.
An unmarked grave. that’s what a Pharisee is like. So don’t be a Pharisee, and assume that your outstanding, outwardly religious performance is sufficient to make you clean.
And also, don’t be a Scribe.
45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.”
I call them scribes instead of lawyers because that’s the more commonly used term to describe that social group in Jesus’ day. And also, I don’t want to conflate it with modern day lawyers, those guys are problematic for other reasons.
Now the scribes are called lawyers in the ESV because they are experts in the law.
The Pharisees may be very religious, very obedient to the law. But the Scribes are the ones who are very learned in the law. They are the ones who study the law, interpreted the law, and wrote supplementary laws, to build a fence around the law, so to make it more difficult to step out of bounds of the law.
For example, if the law said, “On the Sabbath, you shall do no work”, the scribes might say, “just to make sure we don’t accidentally exert ourselves to the point where it constitutes working, no one shall walk more than 2000 cubits beyond their city on the Sabbath.”
Which is an actual Jewish law in force today, by the way.
Now, there is only a very fine line between the Pharisees and the Scribes, which is why they are so often mentioned together. Indeed, there can be overlaps. You belong to the religious party of the Pharisees, and also be a Scribe by profession. So, some of the Pharisees are also Scribes.
And this similarity in religious attitudes is the reason why when Jesus was pronouncing woes upon the Pharisees, one of the scribes spoke up and said,“Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.”
He’s like, trusting on religious purity for our righteousness? Hey, that sounds like us! Jesus, are you talking about us?
46 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.
Jesus is accusing the Scribes for trusting in legal observance for their righteousness. They think that the way to be good is to follow the law. But each time you look at the law, it points out your flaws, because its impossible to keep them.
The Scribes, however, think that the solution to that problem is to add more laws. Because laws constrain behaviour, and if you have enough man-made ring-fencing laws, then it may be possible to ensure that someone never breaks the actual biblical laws.
But that’s ridiculous. No one can keep that many laws, and rather than becoming a guide, the law has become an unbearable burden, and the scribes themselves do not keep them all. We cannot. No man can.
You see the scribes saw the law as the solution. The solution is to keep the law, and you will be saved. Whereas the law in reality is the problem. It reveals to us, that we have fallen short of the bar, we have missed the mark, we have crossed the line.
The law does not exist to save us, it exists to show us that we need a saviour, because we are lawbreakers.
The scribes think otherwise. They see themselves as law-keepers, and thus as good people. People who are not filled with sin, and therefore have no need for repentance.
Don’t be a Scribe. Don’t for a second imagine that your good behaviour is good news.
It could, in fact, be just the opposite.
We’ll unpack this thought in a minute. Let’s read on.
47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 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. 52 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.”
It appears that the doctrine of sin has fallen out of fashion in modern Christian theology. It seems that the preaching, the teaching, even the mere mentioning of sin is becoming increasing taboo in the modern church.
Consider, for example. Lakewood Church in America. A worship arena which can seat 16,800 people in a single service. It is the largest church in America. Their pastor Joel Osteen, doesn’t preach about sin. He doesn’t believe that talking about sin is what he’s called to do. He believes, rather, that God has called him to preach a message of positivity, He says that some are “gifted in preaching the bible verse by verse”, and that’s just not his gift. He summaries his theology in this maxim, “God is good, God is for you, God is on your side.”
Now, God is certainly good, but we are, on account of being born to Adam’s race, not on God’s side. And it by no means a given that he is on ours. In fact, the bible calls us to assume that he is not. The bible tells us that we are by nature, children of wrath, not children of God. The bible teaches us that we are, by default, the enemies of God. Which is the reason why we need to be reconciled with God, only parties at odds with one another require reconciliation, do you see?
But Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church is the biggest congregation in America, boasting over 45,000 in weekly attendance. With millions more listening Joel Osteen’s sermons online. He isn’t the odd one out. We are.
His good friend Joseph Prince, likewise, believes that preaching about sin, is a corruption of the gospel of Grace. We are called to preach grace, not sin. He says, his goal is to turn people away from a sin-consciousness to a Christ consciousness.
Turn their eyes from the wrong they have done, towards the good that Jesus has done. Don’t think about your sin, think about the cross. Which sounds really nice and all, until you actually think about it.
Because when you look at the cross, what’s the first question that ought to spring to mind? It’s the question why? Why did a perfect son of God have to die on the cross? And the answer is, to save us from our sins. So a consequence of thinking about the cross, is to think about your sins. Being conscious of our Saviour, entails consciousness of what exactly we are being saved from.
It is not poverty, it is not sickness, Jesus died to save us from our sins.
But Joseph Prince’s church, New Creation Church. Is the largest church in Singapore. It owns the Star Vista, and worships in a state-of-the-art concert hall which can seat 5,000 people. And his sermon clips on YouTube regularly reaches half a million views.
It seems like preachers like such as I are the odd ones out.
But if so, I am in good company. If I am preaching and warning about sin, in a time when the loudest religious voices in culture are preaching: “Don’t worry about it, God is with you, God is for you.” then I am in good company.
For that is the ministry of the prophets in the bible. When everyone else in Israel is preaching “Peace, peace, God is with us”, prophets such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Eljiah, Hosea, preached a message of doom and destruction, a warning against sin, and call to repentance.
And they were hated for their message, some were killed for it.
Because everyone likes to be told that God loves them and God is for them and they are good and precious in God’s sight, but no one likes to be told that they are sinful, they are bad, and they need to repent.
And so the self-righteous are responsible for the death of the prophets from Abel to Zechariah, from A-Z they have rejected the prophetic denunciation of sin and the urgent call to repentance.
The law-keeping, good-behaving Scribes are numbered amongst them.
Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. 52 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.”
They have sold the people a lie that legal observance can unlock for us the gates to the kingdom. But they will fail, and those who follow them will likewise be hindered from entering.
Don’t be a Scribe, and assume that your good behaviour is good news.
Now, perhaps you have been a good kid all your life. You know, “one of the good ones”. Class monitor, prefect, teacher’s pet. Never got sent to detention, never had to stand outside the classroom. Basically, the opposite of my school experience.
Just a well-behaved individual. And you carried that on to adulthood. Respectable job, don’t smoke, no tattoos, good table manners, never arrested for breaking the law, not so much as a speeding ticket.
And society may call you a “good moral person”. On the bellcurve of humanity, you are on the far-end of the graph marked rule-keeping and moral performance.
And as a result, you might even begin to think of yourself as “good”. Oh, but you are good Christian too, you have attendance awards from Sunday School, and you are regular at bible studies. So you know you are a sinner. Of course, you are a sinner, that’s theology 101.
But you are only a sinner in the general sense where “everybody is a sinner”.
You just adjusted the baseline, but on the bellcurve of humanity, you still see yourself as “one of the better ones, one of the good ones”. I’m sinner, but I’m not like that sinner, now that’s a real sinner.
And so when corrected, your instinct is to self-justify, rather than repent. When listening to a sermon, you always think so-and-so really needs to hear this, rather than you. In your heart of hearts, you remain, one of the good ones.
This is precisely the problem. This is precisely where good behaviour isn’t good news. You see the problem with the Pharisees and Scribes is not that they are drunkards and criminals and scoundrels and trouble-makers. No. The problem with the Pharisees and Scribes is that they are relatively speaking, very good, very moral, very well-behaved.
And as a result, it hinders them from seeing their personal need for the Gospel of Jesus. Because only the vile, the despicable and the helpless need mercy and grace to be saved.
More often than not, your good behaviour is the very obstacle that prevents the good news from entering and permeating and transforming our hearts.
So how sinful of a sinner are you really? Your answer will determine how well you have appropriated the gospel.
You want to hear the words of someone who truly knows and believes the good news of Jesus? Listen to the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Tim 1:15:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
That is the language of a Christian, that the voice of one who has truly grasped the gospel, that is the experience of one who has utterly abandoned himself at the mercy of Jesus his Saviour.
Friends, that is the mark of a disciple, the awareness of the gravity, the weight of his sin, that leads him to believe he is the sinner of sinners.
Your grasp of the gospel is only as good as your grasp of your personal sinfulness.
It is not the healthy that needs a doctor but the sick. Christ has come into the world to save sinners, of which the Christian feels he is the foremost.
This is where eternal life begins. It is when you lay your deadly doing down, it is when you abandon all hope of righteousness in the work of your hands, it is when you cast yourself wholly at the mercy of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, it is when you do that, that a new way of thinking, a brand new way of living begins. It is then that you see your need for Christ and will truly love the gospel. It is then that eternal life begins.
53 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, 54 lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.
But the scribes and the Pharisees won’t have it. They will not let go of their self-righteousness. They knocked themselves out trying to be righteous. They have worked themselves to the bone, trying to be good.
And here comes Jesus, telling them they’re bad. Challenging nearly everything that they have built their religious lives around, and they not having it. In their eyes, they are right and they are good, so Jesus must be wrong about them, Jesus is wrong about their sinfulness, they have no need for Jesus to save them.
If you are not a Christian today, I would like to say a few words to you. I wonder if you feel the need for Jesus in your life.
Today’s passage teaches us that we aren’t nearly as good as we think we are. And we are not even close to being good enough for God. And there is punishment to be faced.
Perhaps you are offended by the Christian doctrine of sin. Perhaps you go, “how dare you Christians, tell me I am sinful when you guys are so messed up yourselves”.
Yes, we are. We are sinful, and broken and vile. And if we have thought of yourselves more highly than that, we are mistaken.
But the reason that Jesus came, is to grant us the certain hope that our sinfulness is not going to be our final verdict. Our brokenness will not define our story.
The good news is in Christ, there is forgiveness for sin, there healing for brokenness, and there real hope for change, not because we are good, but because his grace is sufficient, and his mercy is more.
The good news is that by coming to Jesus, we can be assured of a future where our shame is buried, where our guilt is erased, where our sins are forgotten, and we can be good again, truly good forever.
This longing of our human heart is possible in Jesus Christ our Saviour.