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By CHARLES R. SWINDOLL
W Publishing GroupCopyright © 2007 Charles R. Swindoll
All right reserved.
Chapter Onelet's keep it simple
WHEN IT CAME TO CLEAR COMMUNICATION, Jesus was a master. Children and adults alike had no difficulty understanding His words or following His reasoning. This is remarkable because while He was on earth He lived in a society that had become accustomed to cliché-ridden religious double-talk. The scribes, priests, and Pharisees who dominated the synagogue scene in Palestine saw to that. They unintentionally made Jesus' simple style and straight-forward approach seem all the more refreshing. When He spoke, people listened. Unlike the pious professionals of His day, Jesus' words made sense.
This was never truer than when He sat down on a hillside with a group of His followers and talked about what really mattered. Thanks to tradition, this teaching session has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount-in my opinion, an unfortunate title. His words were authoritative but not officious, insightful but not sermonic. His hillside chat was an informal, reasonable, thoughtful, and unpretentious presentation. He distilled an enormous amount of truth in an incredibly brief period of time, and those who had endured a lifetime of boring and irrelevant sermons sat spellbound to the end.
The result was that when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
If we fail to understand the background behind that statement, we will not appreciate the depth of His listeners' gratitude. In short, they were fed up with the manipulation, the pride, and especially the hypocrisy of their religious leaders. Long years of legalism, mixed with the pharisaic power plays designed to intimidate and control, held the general public in bondage. Man-made systems of complicated requirements and backbreaking demands shut the people behind invisible bars, shackled in chains of guilt. They could not measure up; they could not quite keep their heads above water unless they dog-paddled like mad ... and many were losing heart. But who dared say so?
Out of the blue came Jesus with His message of liberating grace, encouragement to the weary, hope for the sinful. Best of all, everything He said was based on pristine truth-God's truth-instead of rigid religious regulations. He talked of faith-simple faith-in terms anyone could understand. His "yes face" invited them in as His teaching released them from guilt and shame, fear and confusion. The Nazarene's authenticity caught them off guard, disarmed their suspicions, and blew away the fog that had surrounded organized religion for decades. No wonder the people found Him amazing! No wonder the grace-killing scribes and Pharisees found Him unbearable! Hypocrisy despises authenticity. When truth unmasks wrong, those who are exposed get very nervous ... like the two brothers in a story I heard.
These brothers were rich. They were also wicked. Both lived a wild, unprofitable existence, using their wealth to cover up the dark side of their lives. On the surface, however, few would have guessed it, for these consummate cover-up artists attended the same church almost every Sunday and contributed large sums to various church-related projects.
Then the church called a new pastor, a young man who preached the truth with zeal and courage. Before long, attendance had grown so much that the church needed a larger worship center. Being a man of keen insight and strong integrity, this young pastor had also seen through the hypocritical lifestyles of the two brothers.
Suddenly one of the brothers died, and the young pastor was asked to preach his funeral. The day before the funeral, the surviving brother pulled the minister aside and handed him an envelope. "There's a check in here that is large enough to pay the entire amount you need for the new sanctuary," he whispered. "All I ask is one favor: Tell the people at the funeral that he was a saint." The minister gave the brother his word; he would do precisely what was asked. That afternoon he deposited the check into the church's account.
The next day the young pastor stood before the casket at the funeral service and said with firm conviction, "This man was an ungodly sinner, wicked to the core. He was unfaithful to his wife, hot-tempered with his children, ruthless in his business, and a hypocrite at church ... but compared to his brother, he was a saint."
The boldness of authenticity is beautiful to behold, unless, of course, you happen to be a hypocrite. That explains why Jesus' words, which brought such comfort to those who followed Him, enraged the Pharisees. Although He never called one of them by name during His hillside talk, He exposed their legalistic lifestyle as no one had ever done before. Count on it: They knew what He was saying.
On the surface, Jesus' words, recorded in Matthew 5, 6, and 7, may seem calm in tone and basic in their simplicity. We can read them in fifteen or twenty minutes, and at first glance they appear to be nothing more than a gentle tap on the shoulder. But to those who had twisted religion into a performance-oriented list of demands and expectations, they were nothing short of a bold exposé.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai centuries earlier, he did not bring Ten Suggestions; likewise, when Jesus delivered His message from the mount, it was no humble homily. To legalists His words represented a howling reproach that continues into the modern age. Jesus' words may be simple, but they are definitely not insipid.
Jesus' Words: A Plea for True Righteousness
Behind Jesus' teaching on the Palestinian hillside was a deep concern for those who had surrendered their lives to the tyranny of pressure that was light-years away from simple faith. Of special concern to Him was the possibility that some had gotten sucked into the pharisaic model of substituting the artificial for the authentic, a danger that always lurks in the shadows of legalism.
That is what leads me to believe that the major message of Jesus' teaching in this setting could be encapsulated in these five words He spoke: "Do not be like them" (Matt. 6:8).
Our Lord wants His true followers to be distinct, unlike the majority who follow the herd. In solving conflicts, doing business, and responding to difficulties, Jesus' people are not to maintain the same attitudes or choose the priorities of the majority. And for sure, we are not to emulate pharisaism. When Jesus teaches, "Do not be like them," He really means it. Hypocrisy, He hates ... authenticity, He loves.
Hypocrisy permits us to travel both sides of the path-to look righteous but be unholy, to sound pious but be secretly profane. Invariably, those who get trapped in the hypocrisy syndrome find ways to mask their hollow core. The easiest approach is to add more activity, run faster, emphasize an intense, ever-enlarging agenda. The Pharisees were past masters at such things! Not content with the Mosaic Law that included the Ten Commandments, they tacked on 365 prohibitions, as well as 250 additional commandments. But did that make them righteous? Hardly.
For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.
No, you didn't misread it; He said surpasses. You see, a busier schedule mixed with a longer to-do list does not equal greater righteousness any more than driving faster leads to a calmer spirit. On the contrary, when we attempt to become more spiritual by doing more things, we do nothing but complicate the Christian life. Can you imagine the shock on the faces of the Pharisees when they heard that Jesus was telling His followers that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees?
In fact, if we do a quick overview of Jesus' magnificent message, we find Him simplifying the walk of faith with four basic teachings, all of which were diametrically opposed to the pharisaic lifestyle. First of all, He says:
Out with Hypocrisy!
Even a casual reading through the forty-eight verses in the fifth chapter of Matthew leads me to believe Jesus is answering three questions:
1. What does it mean to have character? (vv. 3-12)
2. What does it mean to make a difference? (vv. 13-16)
3. What does it mean to be godly? (vv. 17-48)
Interestingly, in that third section, verses 17-48, He repeats the same statement no fewer than six times:
"You have heard ... but I say to you...." (vv. 21-22)
"You have heard ... but I say to you...." (vv. 27-28)
"It was said ... but I say to you...." (vv. 31-32)
"You have heard ... but I say to you...." (vv. 33-34)
"You have heard ... but I say to you...." (vv. 38-39)
"You have heard ... but I say to you...." (vv. 43-44)
Why? What is Jesus getting at?
He is reminding the people of what they have heard for years, taught (and certainly embellished!) by their religious leaders; then He readdresses those same matters with an authentic life in view. And what kind of life is that? A life free of hypocrisy. Jesus' desire is that His followers be people of simple faith, modeled in grace, based on truth. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing else.
How easy it is to fake Christianity ... to polish a superpious image that looks godly but is phony. Through the years I have come across Christians who are breaking their necks to be Mother Teresa Number Two or, if you please, Brother Teresa! Or Saint Francis of Houston or Minneapolis or Seattle ... or wherever. Far too many Christians are simply trying too hard. They are busy, to be sure. But righteous? I mean, genuinely Christlike?
Sincere? Many of them. Intense? Most. Busy? Yes ... but far from spiritual.
Several years ago I came across one of the simplest and best pieces of advice I have ever heard: "Be who you is, because if you is who you ain't, you ain't who you is." Wise words, easily forgotten in the squirrel cage of religious hyperactivity.
Down with Performance!
If the early part of Jesus' teaching is saying, "Out with hypocrisy," this next section, recorded in Matthew 6, is saying, "Down with performance!" Quit placing so much attention on looking good. Quit trying to make others think you are pious, especially if beneath the veneer there are hidden wickedness, impure motives, and shameful deeds. In other words, don't wear a smiling mask to disguise sadness and depravity, heartache and brokenness. In the Los Angeles area where I once lived, we used to say, "Leave Showtime to the L. A. Lakers."
Jesus puts it straight: "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them" (Matt. 6:1). In other words, "Stop acting one way before others, knowing you are really not that way at all." Then He offers three practical examples:
When therefore you give alms [when you are in church and you give your money], do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets.
Today, we don't blow trumpets-not literally. But many who give sizable contributions like to see their names cast in bronze. They like it to be known by the public and remembered forever that they were the ones who built the gym. They are the ones who paid for the new organ. They are the heavy givers ... the high donors: "A little extra fanfare, please." In contrast, when it came to giving, Jesus emphasized anonymity. No more hype, He said. When we live by simple faith, big-time performances that bring us the glory are out of place.
What a wonderful and welcome reminder-unless, of course, you are a religious glory hog. When we choose a life of simple faith, we keep our giving habits quiet.
And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.
Many words, even eloquent words, never caused anyone to be heard in prayer. My fellow preachers and I who are often called upon to pray in public would do well to remember that.
Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer told a story on this subject.
It seems that a certain minister was in the habit of profound prayers, oftentimes resorting to words beyond the ken of his simple flock. This went on week after week, to the dismay and frustration of the congregation. At last, a wee Scottish woman in the choir ventured to take the matter in hand. On a given Sunday, as the minister was waxing his most eloquently verbose, the little woman reached across the curtain separating the choir from the pulpit. Taking a firm grasp on the frock tail of the minister, she gave it a yank, and was heard to whisper, "Jes' call Him Fether, and ask 'im for somethin."
Whatever happened to simplicity in prayer? And uncluttered honesty? Like the prayer of a child. Or the prayer of a humble farmer needing rain. Or of a homeless mother with two hungry kids. Down with performance-oriented praying! God honors simple-hearted petitions and humble-minded confession.
And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
This is a great place to stop and say a further word to fellow preachers. When it comes to piety performance, we can be the worst offenders! All preachers know there's a way to look and sound like The Reverend Supersanctified Saint of Ultrapious Cathedral or Dr. Dull Dryasdust with stooped shoulders, long face, and dark suit (an out-of-date tie also helps) ... struggling to keep the tonnage of his world in orbit and its inhabitants in line. There's a great Greek word for that kind of nonsense: Hogwash! Jesus shot holes in that look-at-me-because-I'm-so-spiritual showmanship. If we choose to fast, fine. In fact, it's commendable. But if we fast (or counsel or study or pray) to be seen, forget it! These disciplines were never meant to be displays of the flesh. We are not in them for the grade others give us or the superficial impression we can make. Leave the acting to those who compete for the Emmys and the Oscars. As suggested earlier," Be who you is...." Let's keep it simple. Out with hypocrisy! Down with performance! And:
Up with Tolerance!
I believe that is what Jesus is saying in the first five verses of Matthew 7. What searching, convicting words these are!
Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
He is continuing His passionate, howling reproach against hypocrisy, isn't He? But have we taken Him seriously? Not nearly enough.
Christians are fast becoming "speck specialists." We look for specks and detect specks and criticize specks, all the while deliberately ignoring the much larger and uglier and more offensive logs in our own lives that need immediate attention and major surgery-in some cases, radical surgery.
May I get specific? Be tolerant of those who live different lifestyles. Be tolerant of those who don't look like you, who don't dress like you, who don't care about the things you care about, who don't relax like you, who don't vote like you. As my teenage kids used to ask each other, "Who died and put you in charge?" You're not their judge.
Excerpted from simple faith by CHARLES R. SWINDOLL Copyright © 2007 by Charles R. Swindoll. Excerpted by permission.
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