Strain at a gnat and swallow a camel

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Matthew 23:13-26

“There was an old lady who swallowed a cow, to catch the dog, to catch the cat, to catch the bird, to catch the spider, that wriggled and wiggled and tickled inside her.  She swallowed the spider to catch the fly.  I don’t know why she swallowed the fly – Perhaps she’ll die!”  (Traditional Nursery Rhyme)

Children love this daft imagery and sing along with glee.  No-one thinks that there is a class of “old lady” who are being “got at” with the nursery rhyme.  No-one could be as stupid as this “old lady”, surely!

Yet the picture Jesus paints is equally absurd.   Jesus thinks that there are people who fit the mould.  What’s even more shocking is that they are the most straight-laced, respectable people in society.  But Jesus describes them as plain ridiculous.

So what does He do?  He ridicules them.  Relentlessly.  That is the whole point of Matthew 23.

The mind has been compared more closely to a portrait gallery than a debating chamber.  Certainly Jesus is a master of the striking image.  He paints evocative verbal pictures that linger long in the imagination. Just consider how He exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in this chapter:

“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.  Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!  Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?  And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.  Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?  Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.  And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.  And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith:  these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”  (Matthew 23:14-23)

This catalogue of double-standards is shocking:

By day they defraud widows of their property, by night they lead prayer meetings.

They debate the minutiae of temple oaths while spreading the kingdom of Satan.

They take pride in tithing from their window box yet care nothing about the beating heart of the law:  justice, mercy and faith.

That’s the evidence which stands against them.  So how will Jesus, the Prosecutor, sum up?  Will He accuse them of committing some logical fallacy, using impressive Latin labels?  Will He produce a report with strongly worded findings?  No, He makes fun of them:

“Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:14)

We have already discussed the absurdity of the blind leading the blind.  In the same breath Jesus comes up with another even more absurd mental picture.  He asks us to imagine a fastidious diner fussing over the tiniest insect, all the while oblivious to the hulking great dromedary he’s gulping down.

If there is a “Waiter, Waiter” joke as ridiculous as this one, I haven’t heard it.

Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.

Allow me to fish that out for you sir.  You wouldn’t want to spoil your appetite for the hippo.

This phrase is more than an absurd verbal picture.  It’s also a play on words.  In Aramaic, Jesus’ mother tongue, gnat is gamla and camel is gamal. So essentially these Pharisees can’t sort out their gamlas from their gamals. And the results are disastrous.

The religious leaders show an appalling lack of proportion.  They’re like Emergency Room doctors who refuse to treat a dying patient because of a technicality.  Peripheral matters blind them to the bleeding obvious.  How did they become so ridiculous?

Answer:  By doing exactly what we’re tempted to do every day.  More on that tomorrow …

The blind leading the blind

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Matthew 23:13-26

Three times Jesus uses this image in the Gospels:

“Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?”  (Luke 6:39)

“They be blind leaders of the blind.  And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  (Matthew 15:14)

“Woe unto you, ye blind guides.”  (Matthew 23:16)

When we use the saying we usually lament the ignorance of the leader, or perhaps their naivety.  Essentially the leader doesn’t know enough.  That’s what puts them in the dark and makes them an incompetent leader.

But the way Jesus uses the phrase is different.  He consistently applies the phrase to the Pharisees.  And it’s not their lack of knowledge that is the problem.  Their problem is their hypocrisy.  It’s the fact that they don’t practise what they preach that blinds them.

We have already seen how hypocrisy is like a beam in our eye while we berate our brother for the speck in his.  While-ever we are pointing the finger at others and ignoring the sinfulness of our own hearts we remain blind.

This is a frightening truth.  We tend to think that we have a pretty good grip on reality.  We imagine that, whatever other problems we might have, we can at least see the world for what it is.  But Jesus says that clear vision is not at all common.  Our eyes are not wide open, not naturally.

Why not?  We are inveterate self-justifiers.  We are committed to a view of ourselves that then shapes our view of everything else.  If we invest in a pious identity then something will have to give.  Because we are not pious. We are sinners.  Yet, in order to square the circle of our sin on the one hand and our need to project a “righteous” image on the other, we will have to deal in unrealities.  We will have to lie.  We will have to recalibrate and justify and mask and ignore and exaggerate and over-compensate. And such a re-adjustment of the truth comes at a heavy cost.  We lose our ability to see!  We lose touch with reality.  And if the leaders are out of touch with reality, God help those who are being led.

The Office is a study in how not to lead.  David Brent (or, in America, Michael Scott) proves to be the worst boss imaginable largely because of his own need to be vindicated.  The office must revolve around his ego and everyone suffers.

If you are in leadership of some kind you will want to lead well.  You won’t want to be a blind guide.  Yet the clear vision which Jesus urges upon us is not, first and foremost, about increasing our skills and knowledge base.  Ultimately it’s about losing our hypocrisy.  Drop the mask, and the blinders come off.

We need to see ourselves clearly as those who naturally belong in the pit.  And yet Christ has entered in and lifted us to the throne.  We are helpless, filthy, unworthy but blessed beyond measure.

Now, as we confess our sin and receive Christ’s alien righteousness we give up on the wearisome burdens of our own self-justification.  Now we realise that life is not about us and our own little holiness project.  Now we are freed to lead, which, in Christ’s book, means to serve.  And perhaps then we will lead others away from the pit.

They do not practise what they preach

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Matthew 23:1-12

—  The adulterous pastor who campaigns for “family values.”

—  The drug-taking sports star portraying a spotless image to sponsors.

—  The socialist MP who sends her children to exclusive prep-schools.

The world despises leaders who don’t practise what they preach.  And so does Jesus.  In fact Jesus leads the way in the condemnation:

“Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat:  All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works:  for they say, and do not.  For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.”  (Matthew 23:1-7)

These words from Christ would have fallen like asteroids onto the cultural and religious scene of His day.  Jesus is opening fire on the holiest people these Jews had ever seen!  The scribes and Pharisees were the best of the best.  The greatest Bible scholars, the strictest moral leaders.  It was the scribes and Pharisees who chastised the culture from the vantage point of the religious right.  But somehow Jesus outflanks them.  Not so much from the right, but from above.  The assembled crowd would have been astounded.  And the scribes and Pharisees would be choking with righteous indignation.

But in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus delivers the sharpest volley of criticism seen anywhere in the Gospels.  And who is on the receiving end?  The publicans?  The Samaritans?  The Romans?  The sinners?  No.  The religious!

Here is the Prophet par excellence doing what prophets do best:  uncovering the pretensions of religious leaders.  It is public.  It is sharp-tongued.  It is brutal.  And it is unrelenting.

How does Jesus come by such a clear vision of His target?  How is He able to see through the religious window-dressing?  Is it simply because He is the Son of God and therefore “knows what is in a man?”  (John 2:25).  Well there is that.  But if we let Him, Jesus will train us in how to see our leaders.

These verses tell us three things:

1.    Jesus was not fooled by what they say.

In modern translations it says “they do not practice what they preach.”  This is the mark of an authentic teacher – their life is open to scrutiny and free from hypocrisy.  The Pharisees failed the test.

2.    Jesus was not fooled by what they did “to be seen by men.”

The evolutionary psychologists will tell us of a thousand motivations towards “goodness” all of which are ultimately selfish. There is a “goodness” that springs only from pride and it is odious in Christ’s sight.

3.    Jesus recognised their selfishness in giving burdens but refusing to take them.

There is such poetic imagery here: “they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.”  They ‘lay down the law’ but never bear one another up!  This is a clear sign that they are not authentic ministers of God’s word.  And Jesus blasts them with a truly righteous indignation.

But what about Jesus Himself?  When He preaches “practice what you preach” does He practice this preaching?

Well let’s consider number 1.  Here is a Preacher who commands “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)  And as He is killed by His enemies, He prays “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

What about number 2?  Think of the Mount of Olives the night before He died.  It was an ancient escape route from Jerusalem in times of trouble (2 Samuel 15).  There is Jesus on top of the mountain, the mob has not yet come to arrest Him and His disciples are asleep.  If ever there was a time to run, this was it.  Yet, when the eyes of all men were shut, Jesus remained and prayed and accepted the cup of suffering from His Father’s hand.

What about number 3?  Christ came not to weigh us down but to lift us up.  He is the true Preacher of God’s Word because ultimately He does not burden His people but carry them.

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  (Matthew 11:28)

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s

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Mark 12:13-44

In chess terms they call it a “fork”.  Your opponent puts you in a position where, whatever you do, you will lose a piece.  The Pharisees and Herodians (not a natural alliance) gang up on Jesus “to catch Him in His words.” (Mark 12:13)

“They say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man:  for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth:  Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?  Shall we give, or shall we not give?”   (Mark 12:14-15)

If Jesus says “give”, He loses His Jewish support.  If He says “don’t give”, the Romans will shut Him up before the words leave His lips.

And, 2000 years later, we face a similar quandary.  If Jesus says “give” doesn’t that mean His disciples lose their distinctiveness in the world?  Perhaps we’re just meant to blend into the political landscape and stand for nothing.

Alternatively if He says “don’t give”, we might be consigned to a perpetual contrarian position as regards politics.  Christians would then, by definition, become terrible citizens in the world’s eyes.

So which is it to be?  Well Jesus has already shown His brilliance at escaping such traps.  And here we are treated to another famous riposte:

“But [Jesus], knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it.  And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s.  And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.  And they marvelled at him.”  (Mark 12:15-17)

Notice that Jesus has to borrow a coin to make His point.  Here is a Man who had nowhere to lay His head (Matthew 8:20).  He rode into town on a borrowed donkey (Matthew 21:2), He was laid in a borrowed tomb (Matthew 27:60) and when He died, they gambled for His only possessions, His garments (Matthew 27:35).  When it comes to money, Jesus speaks with complete integrity.  He’s not in love with money, as the Pharisees were (Luke 16:14).  We can trust what He says here because we know it is not motivated by the least degree of self-interest.

And when He gets His hands on a coin, notice what He brings to our attention… the image.  That is the key to this teaching.  We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s image.   The image-bearer belongs to the original.

Do the Pharisees agree to this?  If so they walk into a trap of Jesus’ own making…

We must give to God what is God’s image.  And what is God’s image?  We are!  (Genesis 1:26ff)

Here the tables are turned on Christ’s questioners.  Both the Jews and the Romans are challenged on the most fundamental level.  It’s not about the paying of taxes.  It’s not about the recognition or legitimacy of state power.  It’s about whether we belong to God!

And if we do, then there will always be ways of honouring the temporal authority of the state – even if sometimes it takes a miracle to do so (Matthew 17:24-27).

The Pharisees might have considered civic disobedience to be the height of holy living.  Jesus says, You’ve missed the point.  Do you belong to God?  That is the question.

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Out of the mouths of babes

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Psalm 8; Matthew 21:1-17

We might think of today’s phrase as an ancient equivalent of “Kids say the darnedest things.”  But Jesus was making a deeper point.  He wasn’t just pointing us to children.  He was encouraging us to child-like-ness.  It is not only infants, but more generally the simple trusters in Jesus whose surprising wisdom will shock the world.

To understand this teaching we need to know that Jesus splits the world into the “wise” and the “babes.”

“I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”  (Matthew 11:25)

The wise and prudent are self-reliant and self-assured.  They don’t need Jesus and they don’t want Him.  The “babes” are dependent and happy to be so.  They know their desperate need and are not ashamed to receive from the Lord of life.

An eight year old could play the part of the wise and prudent.  And an eighty year old could be one of the “babes.”  It’s not about age but about guileless dependence.

How does Jesus react to these two groups?

Well previously we saw Jesus “cleansing the temple.”  The religious had turned His house of prayer into a den of thieves.  He violently opposes their religious posturing, overturning the tables.

You might think that such aggression would frighten the little ones.  We could imagine that the timid and weak would be disturbed and stay at a distance.  In fact, the opposite is true.  When they see Him overturn the tables of the strong, the weak are magnetically drawn to Him:

“And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them.  And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased, And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?”  (Matthew 21:14-16)

The blind, the lame and the children are not put off by Christ’s strength because they see it employed in their liberation.  The very weakest members of society flock to this holy Rioter, perhaps still holding His whip!

What kind of personality can walk into the holiest place on earth, throw around the furniture and so attract the wrath of the authorities and the love of the little ones?  In this world, there are some who can face down the powers that be.  And there are some who can win the trust and affection of the weak and timid.  But Jesus does both.  He stands between the “wise” and the “babes”, giving both exactly what they need. In the process He polarizes them even further!

And then He quotes Scripture.  He’s not some outlaw with the support of a rebellious fringe.  He is the ultimate Law Abiding Citizen (Galatians 4:4).  He doesn’t stand on one side against the other – He comes from above with the wisdom of heaven.  And so He gives them the biblical explanation for it all:

“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.”  (Psalm 8:2)

The children had been applying the Messianic title: “Son of David” to Jesus.  The authorities want Him to disown it.  But Jesus says, No, remember the Psalm, you need to listen to the “babes.”

In the world of Psalm 8, Jesus is the Son of Man/Son of David, the little children are the “babes” and the chief priests and scribes… who are the?  They are the “enemies”!  Yet, here’s a wonderful thought.  How is the battle between the “Son of David” and His enemies to be adjudicated?  By the little children.

What “stills” the enemy?  Not just a bigger whip.  What stills the enemy is the praise of the little ones.  You see the Son of David is not vindicated by the size of His army, but by the simple-hearted praise of the “babes.”

I speak to many Christians who worry about their feebleness in witness. They lament that they don’t give impressive proofs to their friends and family regarding Jesus.  But Jesus is not the kind of Lord who is vindicated by worldly strength.  He is vindicated by the blind, the lame and the infants.  The words that best point to Christ are the words “out of the mouths of babes.”  Because “wisdom is justified by her children.” (Matthew 11:19)

Den of thieves

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Matthew 21:12-17

Perhaps this question seems to belong to another age, but it’s very worth asking:

Where can sinners take shelter from the wrath of God?

It might sound old fashioned and out of touch with today’s world.  But if so, perhaps it’s we who are out of touch with reality.  The word of God rouses us from our slumber.  Revelation 6 gives us a sobering picture of the final day.  Here is the reality we must all deal with:

“And the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:  For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15-17)

Humanity is described in a seven-fold way, from kings to bondmen, everyone is included.  All seek a hiding place.  None can stand the onslaught of this wrath.

Therefore the question is far from antiquated.  It’s the issue for today, because it concerns our future eternity.  What “den” is there to shelter us from the coming wrath?

In the Bible, there is a very prominent wrong answer to that question.  The wrong answer is “religion.”

Take Jeremiah for instance.  The prophet declares the imminent judgement of Jerusalem, and nothing the people can do will avert it. Nonetheless, there are some who seek refuge in the temple and its trappings. But the LORD will disabuse them of any false security:

“Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD… Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations?  Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”  (Jeremiah 7:4,9-11)

Where are these sinners seeking shelter?  In the house called by the name of the LORD.  This is what it means to turn the temple into a “den of robbers.”  They have turned religion into their hiding place.  And there they proclaim “We are delivered to do all these abominations.”

Who can deny that religious people use their religion as a cover for evil? Blaise Pascal has said:

“Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”

The LORD does not deny this for a second.  He exposes it.  And He exposes them – tearing down their den as the Babylonians sack Jerusalem.

Six hundred years later the LORD visits the re-built temple.  And He gives it the same treatment.

More than once I’ve had atheists raise Christ’s “cleansing of the temple” in Matthew 21 as a reason not to follow Jesus.  This is highly ironic since those same atheists have told me how religion is such a great source of evil.  Jesus would agree.  That is precisely why He overthrows the tables, etc!

Few secularists come anywhere close to the anti-religious fervour of Jesus of Nazareth.  This temple cleansing should be a favourite passage for the new atheists.

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.”  (Matthew 21:12-13)

Just as it was in Jeremiah 7, the temple is, yet again, scheduled for demolition.  In the parable of the wedding banquet Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and now in the following chapter He visits the temple one last time.

Notice what Jesus calls the temple: “a house of prayer.”  It is no nuclear bunker, able to protect “thieves” like us from the coming judgement.  It is a place of prayer.  It is not itself a spiritual safe-house but a pointer to the One who is.

In just 5 days, the LORD Jesus would be torn down on the cross – demolished, shattered under the wrath which belongs to us.  And yet on the Sunday He would be raised up again – the true House of God and the only refuge for we sinners.

Therefore the lesson is clear: there is no shelter in religion.  There are no societies we can join, no rituals we can practice, no mysteries we can fathom, no deeds we can perform that will shield us from “Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb.”  If even the Jerusalem temple – the house called by the LORD’s own name – proved a vain refuge, there is certainly no hope in any other religious edifice.  These would-be hiding places are simply “dens of thieves.”  And they are so dangerous since they make us to run in exactly the wrong direction.

The only refuge is the Lamb Himself.  The only fleeing to be done is towards Him.  For Christ alone is our refuge.  All else is sinking sand.

Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass

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Zechariah 9:9-13; Matthew 21:1-11

In the Old Testament book of Zechariah there are two commands to rejoice.  Once it says:

“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion:  for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD.  And many nations shall be joined to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto thee.”  (Zechariah 2:10-12)

Very clearly we see two Persons called the LORD here.  The Speaker who says “lo, I come” is called the LORD.  And this LORD is also sent by the LORD of hosts.

He is LORD from LORD.  Light from Light.  Very God from Very God, as the creed would put it.  Here is the LORD Christ speaking of how He would dwell in the midst of His people and join them to His Father, the LORD of Hosts.

In Zechariah 9 we get the second command to rejoice – and again it is about the coming of Christ to His people:

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”  (Zechariah 9:9)

Here is the kind of LORD He is:  Christ is the lowly King.  Can you fathom this?  The King who is LORD, the Sent One from the Most High, the Christ, the Son of God – He is lowly.  He rides not in a chariot, not on a stallion, not on a white charger, but on an ass.

Rejoice greatly O people of God!  Here is the humble-hearted LORD Almighty.

They didn’t know it, but the people of Zechariah’s day would have to wait 500 years for this coming.  But when it happened on that Psalm Sunday, it unfolded exactly as written.  The LORD Jesus makes His travel arrangements and Matthew comments:

“All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet [Zechariah], saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.  And the disciples went, and did as Jesus commanded them, And brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon.  And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.  And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David:  Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.”  (Matthew 21:4-9)

This coming to Jerusalem is often called “The Triumphal Entry”.  To call it such makes the comparison with the Roman Triumph ceremonies where conquering commanders and kings returned from battle to receive glory and honour.

Christ’s “triumphal entry” is different.  For a start, His choice of transport is a deliberate subversion of kingly expectation.  He does ride into town. He is a king.  But He’s not that kind of king.

He is the lowly King.  And He doesn’t come returning from battle – He’s heading for His death.  In five days He would be strung up on a Roman cross.  And the crowd that sings Hosanna will soon cry “Crucify Him!”

No-one has captured the irony better than Samuel Crossman in My Song is Love Unknown.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.

Jesus knows that this is their destiny.  And His.  Yet He rides on.

And perhaps the deepest irony comes when we consider their benediction: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.”  The saying is from Psalm 118.  As we turn to the original context, notice where the blessed recipient of these hosannas ends up…

“Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the LORD:  we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD. 27 God is the LORD, which hath shewed us light:  bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.”  (Psalm 118:26-27)

The Blessed One is the Coming One.  He comes in the name of the LORD.  But where does He come to?

There is a welcoming committee who greet Him “out of the house of the LORD” – that is, the temple.  And when they eventually get hold of Him, what do they say?  “Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.”

This Coming LORD is the Blessed One, but as He’s received by the people He becomes a Human Sacrifice!  The King is bound upon the altar.

What kind of triumphal entry is this?  It is a procession which leads not to a stage, not to a throne, but to a cross.  This is the meekness of our LORD and King, whose glory is His sacrifice.  This is truly love unknown.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.

Many are called but few are chosen

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Matthew 22:1-14

…So the handsome prince married his beautiful bride and they all lived happily ever after.  Do you believe in fairytales?  I say “fairytales” – it’s a bit deeper than that.  It runs in our cultural bloodstream. It courses through our literature, our music, our films, our deepest values in life.  We have this belief that when the guy and the girl get together – that is it.  That is the ultimate.  The happiest of happy endings.

Jesus tells us why we have that sense.  He says:

“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son…” (Matthew 22:2)

In this parable, God is the King, Jesus is His Son.  And the kingdom of heaven is a wedding feast.  It is a joyful celebration thrown by the Father for His Son.  Here is the meaning of life according to the Bible:  The Father loves His Son Jesus and invites the world to enjoy Jesus Christ with Him.

Last year we saw another royal wedding.  William and Kate invited 40 kings and queens, 50 members of the royal family, 60 governors general and Commonwealth prime-ministers, 200 members of the government, Parliament and diplomatic corps.  But also they invited Kate Middleton’s grocer, butcher and postman, her pub landlord and 300 other friends of the couple.

Gentlemen were required to wear uniform, morning coat or lounge suit. Ladies were required to wear a hat for the wedding service.  Some of them perhaps went overboard.

In Biblical times, life was even simpler for the recipients of invitations. Servants would come and take your RSVP personally.  And if you wanted to go, the right clothes were provided on the day by the host.  Therefore there really was no excuse for not showing up and not being dressed for the occasion.

But the shock of Christ’s parable is how people respond to the King’s invitation.

“And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come.  Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner:  my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage.  But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise:  And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them.”  (Matthew 22:3-6)

First the servants are met by indifference, then mockery, then violence. Earlier this year, republican sentiment was stirred up by the royal wedding.  Many took it as an opportunity to voice their anti-royalist grievances.  But you have to hate the King and His Son very much to kill the inviters, don’t you?  This is high treason.

And yet Jesus is simply retelling the Old Testament story here.  Prophet after prophet invite the people, and prophet after prophet are met with hatred and violence.  Eventually the King responds:

“But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth:  and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.”  (Matthew 22:7)

Here is a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem which occurred in AD70.  Those who refused the invitation of the King would be those who themselves kill the Son.  Jesus says judgement will fall.  And we look back to see that judgement did fall, just as He predicted.  But this is not the end of the story.

“Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy.  Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage.  So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good:  and the wedding was furnished with guests.”  (Matthew 22:8-10)

The kingdom of heaven is for everyone.  Bad and good.  Diplomats and butchers, princes and prostitutes, celebrities and criminals.  The Father will celebrate His Son and will celebrate with everyone who wants to join in.  It will be an eternity of feasting and joy.  It will be the happily ever after we all long for.

But this parable doesn’t end with that “happily ever after.”  Jesus brings everything back to earth with a bump to discuss the case of a single invitee who misses out.

“And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment:  And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless.  Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:11-14)

One man was not wearing the appropriate clothes.  He has refused to put on what’s been provided.  He’s refused to acknowledge the occasion.  It is a snub to the Father and the Son and he is cast out of the feast.

Heaven is a party.  But it’s not any old party.  It’s God the Father’s celebration of His Son.  The many who are called are not called to a place of abstract blessings and general pleasures.  The chosen are those who don’t merely celebrate the supper – they celebrate the Son. The very essence of the kingdom is a love and honour for Jesus.  If we don’t want to acknowledge Jesus, then we may be called, but we are not chosen.

But then why would we not acknowledge Jesus?  Especially when we understand the lengths He has gone to, to invite us.  In the story he sends servants.  But in the Gospels He came in Person.  He is God’s personal invitation to the feast.  And everything He does beckons us in.  On the cross He voluntarily took our judgement for heavenly high treason.  The Great Bridegroom got bound hand and foot and dragged outside the city.  The Royal Son of the Father was cast into outer darkness with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Jesus suffered hell to bring us heaven.  He was cast out so that we could be brought in.

Being “chosen” is not about looking within to find qualifications for the feast.  We find ourselves chosen when we look away to Christ and our hearts are won by the Heavenly Bridegroom.

All things are ready:  come unto the marriage!

The last shall be first and the first last

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Matthew 20:1-16

Have you ever discovered a co-worker’s salary?  How did it affect you?  It can be deeply destabilising.

There are good reasons that offices issue their payslips in sealed envelopes.  Knowing the wages of fellow labourers can inspire volatile jealousy and tear a workplace apart.  But why should it?

Well, human beings are incurable rankers.  We constantly assess ourselves against others.

There is within us a deep-seated feeling that “I am not ok”.  And we seek to drown out its intolerable voice by shouting “But I’m not as bad as him! And I certainly deserve more than her!”  To use the technical term, we are committed to an intensive and almost unceasing programme of self-justification.

Nervously, we eye the front of the queue and, whether through hard work or just self-deception, we put ourselves forward.  Maybe not to the head of the queue.  But pretty far along.  Further than most!

And while we jostle for the front, the Judge of the World arrives to announce: “The front is the back and the back is the front!”

It’s a sword-thrust through the heart of self-justification.

And how do those at the front feel?

Read Matthew 20:1-16

Into whose shoes do you naturally put yourself in this story?

Most church folk  see themselves in the hardest working labourers.  And their cries of “Unfair!” resonate with us, even if we might never be so bold as to voice such a “murmur.”

Rarely do religious types think of themselves as those standing idle because “no man hath hired” them.  Yet, if we are Gentiles, that is our story.  We have been passed over for generations while God established His vine, Israel.  We have been invited in at the last minute and lavished with the blessings of Abraham.

So really it doubly reveals my self-justification.  I’ve actually worked some of the shortest hours and I’m tempted to feel cheated!  How deep our sense of entitlement runs!

But here is the rock on which our self-justification is dashed:  the goodness of Jesus.  This is a stunning truth.  Any who grumble against the judgement of Jesus will find themselves grumbling against His generosity.

“Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way:  I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matthew 20:13-15)

The penny was a perfectly reasonable day’s wage.  If these grumblers had never known about their neighbours’ pay they wouldn’t even think to murmur.  But they don’t just want pay, they want more pay than others. And Jesus puts His finger on their problem – their “evil eye.”  This just means their jealousy.  They want to be rewarded and vindicated as better than others.  But the Lord refuses to play along.  He wants to be generous.  And so He makes a show of His equal pay to all.

He doesn’t quietly lavish the undeserving with grace, He publicly does it. He is declaring to all that generosity is the very atmosphere of His kingdom.  Therefore self-justification is out.

There can be no murmuring, no entitlement spirit, no ranking in Christ’s Kingdom.  While we jostle for the head of the queue, Jesus shows up at the back – the lowest of the low.  He serves and suffers and bleeds and dies the most shameful death.  And He – the Servant – is vindicated as Lord.  The Last became First.  He made the back of the queue into the front.

Meantime, all those clambering to the “front” find that it leads only to further jealousy, back-biting and gnashing of teeth.

The implication is clear.  Give up the self-justification.  Give up the comparisons and the competition.  Don’t despise the generosity of Jesus. Depend on it.

A millstone around your neck

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Matthew 18:1-9

A heavy burden weighing you down.  Inescapable.  And probably self-inflicted.  That’s how we think of a millstone around our necks.  A job, a relationship, an ongoing commitment – these things can often be called “millstones around our neck.”

But when Jesus said it, He wasn’t referring to a wearisome inconvenience. He was speaking of a deadly punishment:

“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.  Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.  But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”   (Matthew 18:1-6)

It’s not simply that this millstone weighs you down as you trudge along the road.  It’s much worse than that.  This millstone sends you plummeting to the ocean floor.  This is about being swallowed up in the abyss, never to rise.

In fact, Jesus says that such a death would be preferable to the fate He’s talking about.  Drowning is better than what awaits “whoso shall offend one of these little ones.”

How can Jesus paint such a violent picture?  It all flows from His protective love for these “little children.”

He begins by teaching us to be little children.

Matthew Henry comments on this:

“Children, when very young, do not desire authority, do not regard outward distinctions, are free from malice, are teachable, and willingly dependent on their parents.”

Unlike the disciples in this scene, the little children are not grasping at glory.  They are simple, humble, dependent, happy with their lowly position in the group.  They are content simply to be with Jesus.

This is the essence of the Christian life.  But then Jesus adds a second quality in verse 5.  He wants childlike Christians to receive the humble and lowly also.  The person who is received by Jesus (v4), is to be the person who receives like Jesus (v5).

Here we see how much Jesus values child-like faith.  The essence of the kingdom is being received by Jesus as a child-like truster.  In turn we become receivers of other child-like trusters.  The kingdom which Jesus is describing is so different to the power-grabbing philosophy of the disciples.  And Jesus will oppose their theology of glory with all His might.  He is determined to paint the kingdom as a kindergarten of kindness.  Status seeking is completely excluded.  And verse 6 will declare it in the strongest terms:

“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”  (Matthew 18:6)

If the disciples were offended by being told of their need for “conversion” in v3, how will they feel after verse 6?

I don’t think we’re meant to imagine Jesus looking past the disciples to some shadowy figures in the crowd.  This is not a verse about stranger danger.  It’s a verse about self-assured glory-seekers – just like the disciples have been in verse 1!  It is behaviour just like the disciples’ that will “offend” (that is, it will make little children stumble).  The most dangerous thing for child-like trusters is a culture of leaders who are constantly asking and assessing “Who is the greatest?”

It’s the affectation of grown-up glory-hunting that causes “little ones” to stumble.  This grasping for greatness shepherds them away from the very essence of the Christian life – resting in Jesus like a child in His arms.

So Jesus says “Don’t even think about it!  You’d be better off drowning yourself than harming my children.”  It’s very strong teaching.

Are we child-like?  Dependent?  Have we resolved to abandon the power-plays and status-seeking?  Or do we despise the little ones (v10)?  Do we look down on them, desiring to raise ourselves up?  Are we essentially asking each other “Who is the greatest?”

If we are, we’re already swallowed up in Gentile thinking (the sea and the nations go together in the Bible).  If we raise ourselves up we’ll be cast down.  Instead, to be a great one let’s become a little one.