Click HERE for an audio version of this message.
As we look at these words of God tonight we will learn about things that can take away the key of knowledge and keep people from entering heaven, but we will also be reminded that Jesus is that key of knowledge who throws the door of heaven wide open for us.
Luke 11:37-44, 52
Some of you might know that the famous actor, Charlton Heston, used to show up in my hometown every once in a while. My hometown was also the hometown of his wife. On one occasion a new school was being dedicated and named after Mrs. Heston’s father, so she and her husband were there. Since my father was on the school board, we were part of a group that got to welcome the Hestons. I got to shake his hand, the hand of a real movie star, the guy who played Moses in the Ten Commandments, and who played Ben Hur! Imagine if we would have invited him over for lunch and he would have come to our house! We didn’t, and he didn’t, but if that would have happened all the neighbors would have thought we were pretty important people.
Maybe that’s what the Pharisee was thinking when he invited Jesus to come to his house and to dine with him. Maybe he was also interested in what Jesus had to say, but from what Jesus says later, the fact that people would think he was pretty important to have Jesus eat at his table likely at least crossed his mind.
Whatever this Pharisee expected when he invited Jesus to dine with him, he surely didn’t expect what happened next. Jesus came in and went right to the table. He completely ignored the long-standing custom among the Jews of going through a ceremonial washing before you reclined at the table. Remember, this wasn’t a hygiene issue. It was considered a spiritual issue. It was a reminder that, as a Jew, you were one of God’s chosen people. If you had been out in public, going to the Temple or the marketplace, you probably came into contact with Gentiles and Sinners along the way, so the ceremonial washing reminded you to keep yourself pure and separate from Gentiles and Sinners. The Pharisee was amazed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.
Jesus could probably tell from the look on this man’s face that he disapproved, but we are told many times in Scripture that Jesus also knew what people were thinking. In fact, it would seem that, because he could see what was in this man’s heart, he purposely ignored the traditional washing in order to make a point.
When Jesus saw what he was thinking– probably something similar to another Pharisee who had invited Jesus to his house and a sinful woman came in and anointed Jesus’ feet, “if Jesus really is the Messiah he would certainly follow all our traditions and join in the ceremonial washing”– when Jesus saw what he was thinking the he said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. Fools! Didn’t the one who made the outside also make the inside? But give those things that are inside as a gift to the poor, and see, everything will be clean for you. And later he compares the Pharisee and his friends to unmarked graves.
What’s Jesus’ point? “You are so concerned that your life looks perfect on the outside that you are forgetting something even more important. God doesn’t look on the outward appearance, he looks at the heart. To everyone around you, you look clean, pious, holy. You never miss prayers, you wear your phylacteries in public so everyone knows how pious you are, you are meticulous about following every religious tradition, but when God looks at your heart he sees the uncleanness, the filth, of greed and wickedness. You do the ceremonial washing because you think you might have come in contact with sinners, but everyone who comes in contact with you needs to wash. And the worst part is, they don’t even know it because you are like an unmarked grave. People don’t know that they have come into contact with someone who is so full of greed and wickedness, so they don’t know that they need a ceremonial cleansing because of their contact with you!”
That really hits home doesn’t it? Especially at this time of year we work extra hard to make everything look perfect, the decorations, the lights, the gift wrap; we put on the mask of Christmas cheer and work hard to give the impression that everything is fine in our family, after all the relatives are coming over and we don’t want them to think the house is ever dirty, or we are constantly arguing with each other.
There was a great meme on Facebook the other day. It showed an outline of Mary and Joseph at the manger, and it said – “The first Christmas was very simple, it’s Okay if yours is too.” We need the reminder that God doesn’t look at the outward appearance, he looks at the heart. He knows if your heart is filled with greed at Christmas time because you are envious of what others have. He knows if, instead of being filled with Christmas cheer, you are really thinking “Bah Humbug” I can’t wait until Christmas is over!
As he was with the Pharisee, Jesus is calling us to repentance. He is calling on us to be more concerned about what’s in our hearts than we are about the outward appearance. He is calling on us to remember that Christmas cheer comes from realizing that Jesus was born to wash away our sins, to give us a clean heart. When our heart is filled with his love our focus won’t be so much on outward appearances, but on what we can do to serve God and our neighbor.
Jesus wasn’t finished with his warnings. He continues, woe to you Pharisees, because you give a tenth of mint and rue and every herb, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have done these things without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the best seat in the synagogues and the greetings in the marketplaces.
The Pharisees took the tithe seriously, to the point of tithing even the smallest seeds produced by their herb gardens. But, they were so busy making sure that they followed every little detail of the law in its strictest interpretation that they were willing to ignore unjust things that were happening around them. They cared more about following the smallest detail of the law than they did about people.
Jesus makes it clear that, unlike the tradition of ceremonial washing, tithing was a command of God. They were right in following the command of God, but God also commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. You should have done these things (tithing) without neglecting the others, upholding justice and the love of God. As Jesus said on another similar occasion, learn what it means when God says, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. He doesn’t want us to think that because we have been very faithful in giving generously to the Lord’s work we can ignore our neighbor’s needs and look away from injustice.
Again, Jesus’ words hit home. If we have not been giving the Lord our first and our best, he calls us to repentance. He owns everything and has given us all that we have, and has brought us to saving faith on top of it all! He deserves our first and our best, nothing less. But if we are giving our first and our best and thinking that we are good with God and we can now do our own thing and ignore our neighbor’s needs and care nothing about injustice, Jesus says “NO”. Do the one without leaving the other undone.
Thankfully, Jesus did everything perfectly for us. He gave his father his first and best in every area of this life. He was meticulous about following God’s commands, but he never let that be an excuse for ignoring the needs of his neighbors. On the cross he satisfied God’s justice for us and paid for all the times that we have ignored our neighbor’s need and treated people unjustly. As we are reminded of what he did for us, we are moved not to be so focused on the outward keeping of God’s law that we forget to show mercy.
The final warning of Jesus that we will look at tonight is actually the strongest. It’s a warning directed at those who claimed to teach God’s word. He says, Woe to you legal experts (teachers of the law), because you took away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter, and you hindered those who were trying to enter.
By teaching human traditions as if they were equal to God’s law, and by teaching that a mere outward keeping of God’s law was pleasing to God and the way to gain eternal life, these teachers were taking the key of knowledge away from people. Instead of teaching the way to eternal life they were actually getting in the way of people entering eternal life. Their emphasis only on outward piety led people to focus on themselves instead of God. It led to one of two things, either thinking that you were better than others and deserved eternal life, or that you were hopelessly lost because you couldn’t do everything you were supposed to do. Either way, they were keeping people from seeing that Jesus is the key of knowledge, that he is the key that opens the door to heaven. They were keeping people from seeing that they could never earn their way to heaven, but that Jesus came to earn it for them. They were keeping people from seeing that no matter how great their sins might be, Jesus came to pay for every single one of them. Only in Jesus do we have the knowledge of who God really is – A just God who requires that every law be kept perfectly and every sin be punished; but at the same time a loving and merciful God who took on flesh and blood so that he could keep every law perfectly in our place and so that he could be punished in our place for every sin.
Is outward appearance important? Not in the sense of having the best decorations and the most lights and perfectly wrapped gifts; but, we are to let our light shine so that, by our lives, our words and actions, we bring glory to the one who came to save us. Are there good traditions? Is it important to follow God’s law? Yes! But, never let following tradition or even God’s law, distract you or anyone else from the fact that Jesus is the key of knowledge. He alone is the key that unlocks the door to heaven for us. To him be all the glory now and forever. Amen.