Matthew 12 – Do Good, not Dogma.

Let’s battle the image of the Christian Hypocrite.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

15 Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. 16 He warned them not to tell others about him. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

18 “Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
    the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
19 He will not quarrel or cry out;
    no one will hear his voice in the streets.
20 A bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
21     In his name the nations will put their hope.”

22 Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul,the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

25 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

43 “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. 45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Christian Hypocrite is a well-known character:  The little old church lady in her Sunday Best, piously in her pew every week but spreading wicked gossip every other day is a character used in more than one film I’ve seen.  Corrupt preachers are another common example – both in entertainment and (unfortunately) in real life – of the Christian Hypocrite.  There seem to be a lot of Christian Hypocrites in Southern literature and cinematography.  Preaching acceptance and the importance of following Jesus while being a bald-faced racist is the definition of hypocrisy and an easy one to portray as a foible to whatever virtues the main character may have.

Hypocrisy is the main thrust of Jesus’ message in this chapter. The dogmatic hang-up in Jesus’ day was this working on the Sabbath bit.  I do think we need to observe the Sabbath more: rest is good for our physical, emotional, and spiritual health.  I know for a fact I don’t get enough of it.  But I also think that I, and probably the Pharisees, too, missed the most important part of this commandment. It starts with “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Yes, then it goes into stipulations about not working (and making sure no one else in your household has to work), but upon reflection, the “work” part seems very secondary to the “keep it holy” part. Using the Sabbath as just one example, Jesus reminds us that God’s work is never done, and neither is our role in it.

Once again, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  Jesus is reminding the Pharisees, and us, of the difference between the legalistic and elitist interpretation of Biblical law and a true following of God’s desire for mankind.  God’s people may not look or act the way we think they should.  They might not even be Christian. But that doesn’t matter to Jesus. “A tree is recognized by its fruit,” he tells us, along with “the good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him.”  Any outward signs of piety – going to church, mindlessly checking “Christian” in the religious preferences box, having an unopened Bible somewhere in the house, condemning those whose beliefs are different than yours – are fruitless and meaningless.  Legalistic and elitist interpretations of Biblical law are not going to win Jesus’ favor.  Providing love and mercy to our fellow man will.  Jesus himself says “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

And who provides this love and mercy?  Who is Jesus’ brother?  For sure, some of them are Christians.  But many of them are Muslim, Jewish, Buddist, Sikh, and I’d even go so far as to say Atheist.  Google “Islamic Charities” or “Jewish Charities” and you’ll see just how many of them there are, doing the same work as Christian charities: feeding the hungry, providing relief aid for victims of natural disasters and war, uplifting at-risk women and children. Aren’t these all things God wants us to do?  Aren’t these all fruits of a good tree?

So does it matter at all if we believe in Jesus? Is it only about good works? I don’t think so, but I’m not too worried about policing the secret hearts of those who are out there doing said good works.  I wrote about why I think being a Christian still matters, if you want to read my thoughts on the matter there.

My favorite part of this passage bears repeating in full:  “So I tell you, that every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”  My NIV text notes say that this unpardonable sin of “blasphemy against the spirit” was attributing Jesus’ miracles to Satan, but even that can be seen as an allegory for condemning anyone’s good works throughout history.  For example: 9-11 First Responders are suffering serious health consequences to the point of death for breathing in toxic fumes during their acts of heroism, yet the 9-11 First Responders Bill still has 19,000 unpaid claims.  Ebola aid workers are being shunned or even attacked.  Aid workers dropping off water at the US-Mexico border to keep people from dying of thirst have been arrested and charged with felony harboring.  These are just a few examples of good works (and the people that commit them) being condemned.  Again, some of these people are Christian, but others are not.  No matter their beliefs in life, I think Jesus will judge them kindly for the work they have done here, even and especially because it has gone unrecognized or attacked.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.  We can all be Jesus’ brother or sister.  Belief in Jesus helps, to be sure, but if belief is something you’re still struggling with, start with these two universally good steps:  First, don’t get hung up on dogma – your own or someone else’s.  Recognize the good that someone is doing, and leave it there.  Second, provide mercy.  Be the one who is advocating for the meek, providing water for those who thirst, feeding those who hunger.  In doing so, you will be perpetuating that two-step cycle: Someone will see your good works, and loosen whatever dogmatic restraints were holding them back.  Perhaps they will then extend that hand of mercy, and the cycle will start over again.  Mercy, not sacrifice, is the way of Jesus, and the way of Love.