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Matthew 24 is not one of the happiest or heartwarming passages of the New Testament. Jesus is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem which would come to pass in the year 70 AD. It is a horrific tale of death, starvation, and pain. It is a warning to what will come to Jerusalem as a result of the rejection of the peaceful and redemptive message of Jesus.
When we read of Jesus’ telling of the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, it is hard to see the emotions. This is one of the problems with just reading a text. It could almost sound vindictive, and it often has been interpreted that way. However, giving the character of Jesus, I believe his words were ones of sorrow rather than revenge. The destruction of Jerusalem was not inevitable. The foolish revolution of the Jewish people did not have to occur. Jesus longed for them to follow his story of redemption and way of peace, but they would have none of it. I can see Jesus with tears in his eyes telling them what the ultimate consequences of violence and war are.

In the 1990s, there was a big fad to wear the What Would Jesus Do? braclets. On one hand, it was probably started with very sincere intentions-to make people constantly aware of keeping the ideas and message of Jesus in their daily conduct and lives. However, it soon turned into a way to show your Christianity to the world-to stand for your faith, or maybe to show just how committed or religious you were. The Pharisees of Jesus day had some similar customs. They would take the most extreme and radical interpretations of the law of Moses and wear broad “phylacteries” which were essential little boxes on the chest that would contain the Hebrew scriptures. They also went beyond the law of Moses and wore “outside tassels” to show that they were not only complying with the law, but going above and beyond in that pursuit. Jesus almost mocks them for this outward display of religious piety in Matthew 23. Jesus was not interested in them dressing religiously, but actually living out the justice of God.

Just as Jesus was not impressed with the religious “dress” and outward piety of the Pharisees, it is hard to imagine that he is too impressed with us sharing the “I love Jesus” link on Facebook or putting a fish on the back of our car. He is certainly not impressed with a cross hanging around our neck. What if Christians instead were known for their simplicity in their housing, dress, transportation? That what set Christians apart was not a bumper sticker but an extreme generosity, desire for justice, and an identification with the poor and oppressed. Ultimately, our Christianity may be more on display but what car we drive or house we live in than with what t-shirt or bumper sticker we have. Oh the irony of putting a cross or symbol of Jesus on our extravagance.

In Matthew 23, when Jesus tells the Pharisees that they were putting heavy burdens on the people without lifting a finger to help, he was talking about the religious laws and regulations, and those laws often had to do with finances, tithing, etc. Jesus talks about how the Pharisees were meticulous in their tithing, but had forgotten the greater themes of justice. This is of great relevance to us today as well.

TV preachers and mega churches preach tithing to the local or maybe “virtual” church. Here is the problem-this is not taught by Jesus. Now, Jesus and Paul talk constantly about wealth, generosity, and giving-especially to the needy. If your local congregation is participating in this, it can be a great venue in which to give. However, the whole idea of the “tithe” is as one author put it “good news for the rich and bad news for the poor.” Now 10% is a great place to start, and hopefully we can move far beyond that, but the current set up leaves churches with multi million dollar facilities while people are starving and homeless outside their doors is not the path of Jesus. The giving of money should always lead to more societal justice, not widen the injustice. The Pharisees of Jesus day would have worried about the next extravagant building project, while Jesus was identifying with the poor and outcast.

In Matthew 23, when Jesus criticizes the Pharisees he says that they “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” In this context, he was primarily talking about the religious and moral burden that the Pharisees were putting on the people, but throughout the Gospels Jesus also talks about the financial and structural burden that the Pharisees were responsible for. They wanted so much religiously and financially from the people, while demanding so little from themselves.

How in our modern society are we being like the Pharisees who put “heavy burdens” on people without being willing to “lift a finger” to help? We tell people if they would just work harder….if they would just have come here legally…if they just would have had fewer children…if they would have just saved more for retirement…if they had just found employment with insurance…if they were just more educated. Ultimately, if they had just been in born in our position of privilege. In Jesus day, like today, the wealthy and powerful are great at lecturing the powerless, but often do little in the way of actual help.

Making Children of Hell

In Matthew 23, when calling out the religious leaders, Jesus almost seems to mock them by saying that they “travel over land and sea” to make a convert that becomes “twice as much a child of hell” as they are. They are making people more pious and religious, but actually they are making them worst. They would have been better off non-believers than adopting the twisted religious system of the Pharisees. Their religious conversion instead of being their greatest moment of deliverance was actually the greatest failure.

Have you ever known anyone who become more unbearable and even hateful after becoming more pious or religious? If so, it is easy to understand Jesus’ remark to the religious leaders of them “creating children of hell.” We need to look at our priorities in society. Do we really want to create a more religious society? Sure, our nation use to be more religious-while we were also enslaving Africans and wiping out the Native Americans. With all the faults of our modern secular society, are we perhaps getting a little closer to the ideals of Jesus than our more theocratic past? Maybe our goal shouldn’t be to make people more religious, but to help people turn into lovers-lovers of God and others. To fall in love with the radical, beautiful message of Jesus.

In Matthew 24, Jesus is going after the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who have themselves up as a type of ruling class amongst the people. For them, it may not have seemed problematic at all to set up a hierarchical system. In fact, they would probably use the Hebrew scriptures to justify such an arrangement. However, the Pharisees, just like most groups with great levels of power, began using that power not to help out the people but to elevate themselves.

Jesus does not just call out the Pharisees as hypocritical leaders, he undermines the whole hierarchical structure of “ultimate leaders” and “followers.” He tells his followers to not call anyone “father.” In the Christian faith, there is ultimate equality. Now, most Christians would intellectually assent to this, but in an age of celebrity preachers, TV evangelists, and controlling leaders do we actually believe it? More than almost religious faith, Jesus undermines the hierarchy and pride of the powerful and calls his people to a radical equality with one’s fellow man.

In Matthew 22, when the religious leaders come to Jesus and try to trip him up by asking him what they think is a shrewd question that will stump Jesus, Jesus once again turns the table on their simplistic thinking. They ask him what he believes is the most important commandment. Without hesitating, he tells them that the first is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and secondly to love your neighbor as yourself. It is hard to know what the religious leaders were expecting. Perhaps, they were looking for something such as, thou shalt not commit adultery, do not make graven images, or do not bear false witness. However, Jesus gives them an ethic rather than a law or rule.

When Jesus states that the most important commandment is to love God and love your neighbor, it is taking the level of commitment and devotion to the next level. It is fairly easy to avoid stealing, bearing false witness, and refusing to make graven images. It is more difficult to turn your heart to true love for God and one’s neighbor. The religious leaders of Jesus day wanted him to give them the most important “rule.” Jesus wanted to lay down a new ethical system that would completely uproot the law code while also calling for a deeper and more profound level of values and commitment.

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