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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

January 3, 2005

Weighty Matters

He's a pretty good Christian, for a rock star. On second thought, he's a pretty good Christian, period.

Now, if you know me fairly well you may be thinking: "Oh no! She is going to write about Bruce Springsteen!" It's not like I haven't done this before.

I understand your fears. I know, I've gone to see Bruce —- what —- 30-40 times? Not that I'm keeping track or anything.

But don't worry, I am NOT going to write about Bruce today. Instead, I'm going to write about Bono, of the band U2.

Actually, three of the four members of U2 —- Bono, The Edge and Larry Mullen —- are committed Christians . As teens, they accepted Christ at Shalom, a non-denominational church fellowship in Dublin. Their songs have always reflected biblical concerns and their concerts contain Christian messages.

Bono lives out his faith by doing things about weighty matters. In their early years, U2 was very active in the quest for peace in Northern Ireland. More recently, Bono has also channeled his energy into African causes.

He has done more than lend his name and a few star appearances to the cause. He founded DATA (debt relief, AIDS and trade issues), which has become a highly respected organization. He regularly meets with world leaders to persuade them to help Africa. He provides expert testimony at congressional hearings and international conferences. People don't just humor him because he is a rock star. They actually listen to what he has to say. Many think he will win the Nobel Peace Prize someday.

However , Bono and U2 also have been criticized —- mostly from segments of Christianity. Bono drinks , he plays rock and roll. His spontaneous use of the F-word when he won a 2003 Golden Globe Award had Christians across the country writing to the FCC and Congress, prompting legislation to increase fines for obscenity .

Just this week I was reading the current issue of Christianity Today, which criticized Bono for not being an active, regularly worshiping member of a church.

Now let's stop here for a moment. You may be sitting there thinking, "She is going to let Bono off the hook! Just because he is doing these humanitarian things, she thinks he should get a pass on other aspects of his lifestyle that God doesn't like."

So I want to be clear: Just like the rest of us, there are aspects of Bono's life that he needs to work on with the help of the Holy Spirit. And Bono will be accountable for them.

But Bono's life is under a microscope in a way that most of the rest of ours are not. So before we throw stones at Bono, we should remember that our anonymity shields us from criticism of our sins and weaknesses.

It would be hard to argue that Bono has not wisely used his songwriting, his voice, his stage presence, his notoriety and his wealth —- -the talents God has entrusted to him —- -on behalf of some very weighty issues.

How do we stack up?

*****

It has always been hard for God's people to get past their favorite personal issues and work on God's main concerns.

In his book, What's So Amazing about Grace? Philip Yancey writes about the dangers of neglecting weighty things.

He gives the example of a U.S. delegate to the Baptist World Alliance Congress in 1934. It was held in Berlin that year. This was the assessment of Nazi Germany he reported back to Baptists in the U.S.:

It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold; where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown. The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with its bonfires of Jewish and communistic libraries.

The same delegate defended Hitler as a leader who did not smoke or drink, who wanted women to dress modestly, and who opposed pornography.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to criticize this man. Or to criticize German Lutheran Christians in the 1930s who did little to fight facism, white Southern Protestants in the 1960s as they actively resisted civil rights and integration, or Afrikaaner Anglican and Reformed Christians in South Africa in the 1970s as they desperately tried to hold on to the apartheid system.

But what will Christians 50-100 years from now say about us and our priorities?

In the early 1990s, Tony Campolo, the well-known evangelical social activist, gave a famous demonstration of priorities in his speeches to Christian conventions, colleges and seminaries. At one point, Campolo cited figures from the United Nations that 10,000 people around the world die from preventable starvation each day. And then he said, "The sad part is that none of you give a..." —- and here he used profanity. He went on, "What is even sadder is that many more of you out there will be upset today by the fact that I just said a bad word than will be about these world hunger statistics."

He was right —- a few days after each speech, Campolo received complaints from the college or seminary president about his profanity. Nothing was ever said about world hunger.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to view the world through a keyhole that overemphasizes a select group of issues. We often focus on the outward behaviors of others that are easily recognizable —- and easily condemnable.

The danger is that when we settle for keyhole vision, we may fail to see the weighty matters around us. Which leads us to an important question.

*****

In God's eyes, what are the weighty matters —- the things he wants his followers to be most concerned with?

Fortunately, the Bible has a LOT to say about this. Look at what Jesus has to say:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness.

You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.

In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.—Matthew 23:23–28

Whoa. This is not "gentle Jesus, meek and mild."

What is going on here? Jesus is speaking these words somewhere around Tuesday in the last week of his life. He's in Jerusalem, Palm Sunday has come and gone. He has gone to the Temple —- the Son of God is physically present in the House of God —- and he has thrown out all the people who are making a buck off the Temple. This is Passover week, after all, and they're selling doves so people can make sacrifices, they're exchanging currency, Roman for Judaean, so people can present their tithes in the Temple properly —- they wouldn't allow Roman money to be used for that. And Jesus comes in and he basically says, "I don't care what the exchange rate is! I don't want convenience store sacrifices! Get them out of here! They don't belong here! You have made this sacred place a place of commerce."

Jesus has been on earth for what, 33 years now? And because he's the Son of God, he knows what God knows, he thinks like God thinks. He knows what's what.

Jesus grew up poor, and he has seen how people treat each other —- not what God wants.

Jesus grew up Jewish, and he has seen how God's law has been perverted by the religious leaders, adding their own laws to God's commands, burdening the people in a way God never intended —- not what God wants.

Jesus has spent three years in ministry, butting heads with these leaders, confronting them where they're wrong, and earning their wrath —- so much so that they have now concocted a plan to kill him.

So he's in the Temple, he's gotten rid of the commercialism, and he's letting the leaders have it one last time. Everything he's said before he sums up here in one last criticism. And he ends by pronouncing judgment on them, in what are known as the seven woes. That's what the "woe" is for —- it's the word that is used to pronounce judgment. When he is done, they are left speechless.

*****

We're looking at woes numbers 4, 5 and 6 in this passage. In woe number 4, Jesus said the religious leaders were sweating the small stuff while ignoring the weightier matters of the Law.

They were particular about the most minute details of tithing. A tithe is 10 percent of what you have. Now, it was true that God had commanded the people to give him 10 percent of the produce of their land. Leviticus 27:30 tells us,

"A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD."

But people started to wonder, what did God really mean by that? And so they thought about it and examined it, and they began to give their best explanations of it, and they added footnotes to it, and by Jesus' day, the experts in the Law —- the scribes and Pharisees —- had developed this exacting system. If you wanted to prove you were really religious, you had to follow their system.

And their system included tithing even household spices, the kind of stuff you would have in a kitchen garden. But the Pharisees could not even agree amongst themselves how far down this really should go. I mean, what about the common, almost worthless stuff like dill, and cumin and mint?

By Jesus' day, they had decided that dill was worth tithing. Dill is a really, really small seed. If you wanted to be a good Jew in Jesus' day, the Pharisees told you that you had to count out all your dill and give a tenth of it to God.

Cumin was disputable. What is cumin? It's that stuff that makes Middle Eastern food smell Middle Eastern. Cumin smells a lot like curry. The Pharisees weren't sure whether cumin was titheable. They argued about it. They couldn't decide. So they said, OK, it's up to you whether you want to tithe cumin. It's about the same size as dill.

Now, the other night, I sat down and counted out 100 dill seeds and 100 cumin seeds. Then I separated out 10 seeds from each pile. It was tedious, painstaking work. I was glad I wear bifocals. Can you imagine, some Pharisee sitting at home, counting out all his dill and cumin, and tithing it? Or more likely, having his wife or kids or servants count it out? Can you see how you would think you are pretty hot stuff to be adhering to the Law to this extent?

But can you also see how the family members and servants would loathe this task? And can you imagine the Pharisees expecting every Jew in Israel to do the same? Just think how long it would take to do this —- just for these two spices? And what you couldn't be doing otherwise, because you were doing this? Can you see why Jesus spoke out so often about the heavy burdens these religious leaders were laying on the people, so that they could hardly breathe?

Well, now we come to mint. "Sprig" is a fancy word food people use when they're talking about mint. It means you've got some leaves on a stem of mint. Now, if you have mint in your gardens at home, one thing you have learned about mint is that it is like a weed. It is an invasive. If you plant mint in your garden it will spread and choke out the other stuff in your garden. That's why you have to plant it in pots.

It was a weed 2,000 years ago, too. Even the Pharisees decided you didn't have to tithe mint. It was that common. It wasn't really a crop. It was just there.

So here is Jesus, and he's saying to the scribes and Pharisees: You are so concerned about the minute aspects of the Law. You tithe dill, you tithe cumin, which you can't agree amongst yourselves whether you have to do, and you are even tithing weeds like mint, for heavens sake! What is wrong with you people? You are wasting all your time on little stuff like this, when at the same time you are NOT concerned with the big stuff: justice and mercy and faithfulness.

You know, we all have mint, dill and cumin in our lives —- things that we spend too much of our time on, and give much more importance than they deserve. What are yours?

*****

Jesus tells us right here in these verses what he thinks is the most important stuff. Justice and mercy and faithfulness. Why did he choose them?

Well, for one thing, these are some of God's own attributes. You look at the picture of God described all over the scriptures people already had in Jesus' day —- what we call the Old Testament —- and you see the same thing again and again. Psalm 36:5-6, for example, tells us:

Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.

God is always described as merciful, loving, just, righteous, faithful. And God wants us to have the same priorities —- to be like him in these respects.

What Jesus is saying here is that the things God stands for and wants us to be like are being ignored. And he's pretty upset about it.

You know, it's not like people were hearing this for the first time when Jesus said it. It has always been what God hates about our behavior —- and the scribes and Pharisees knew it. It was one of the main things, along with idolatry, that sent Israel into exile. Every one of the Old Testament prophets warned the people that God was judging them for playing around with the small things while ignoring the big stuff. Look at this example from Amos 5:21-24:

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

In the same way, Jesus here is pronouncing judgment on those who don't do the weightier aspects of the Law.

God's people have been given the authority and responsibility to make God's kind of justice happen. God's people should be witnesses to God's mercy by acting on behalf of the poor and the hungry. God's people need to faithfully , consistently represent God with their lives.

When we don't, like the religious leaders in Jesus' day we may look like true followers of God: beautiful, righteous and clean. But in fact, we are exactly the opposite —- hypocrites full of greed, self-indulgence, lawlessness and filth. And God knows it. Isn't it interesting that the charge we so often hear leveled against Christians by non-Christians is that we are hypocrites?

Do you remember what I wrote about Bono, that he is responsible for his personal behavior, even though he is a great humanitarian? Look again at Matthew 23:24. Jesus says the same here: "You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former."

*****

Have you ever wondered why God places the most importance on the commands that we humans find the most difficult and life-changing? There must be a lot at stake.

Consider this. There are a lot of false pictures of what God is like out there. Some people see him as this impersonal creator who wound up the universe, then walked away from it. Others see him as a vengeful, harsh bully who can't wait to send us to hell. And there are a lot of other wrong impressions out there. If we, as followers of the true God, devote ourselves to justice, mercy and faithfulness, it will help demonstrate how God wants people to live and it will give people a true picture of what God is really like —- and more people will come to God as a result.

Or consider this. There's a lot that's wrong with the world. When Christians act on God's most important issues of justice and mercy, the amount of justice and mercy in the world increases . Christianity is the only religion in the world whose adherents regularly work on behalf of those who are not of their faith in these areas. Slavery in this country was abolished, largely because of Christian efforts. The worst factory conditions of the industrial revolution were eliminated because of the efforts of Christians. Hospitals and orphanages were begun by Christians. When Christians pay attention to justice and mercy, the world changes.

Finally, consider this. The effects of our engaging in acts of justice and mercy are a sneak preview of how it will be when God fixes things in the end. No more evil. No more tears. No more suffering. We can have a hand in bringing a taste of that to the world today. And as we do, we will become more and more like Christ , who spent his life doing the same. This prepares us to live with him forever.

*****

What do weighty matters look like in our lives? Few of us are in the position that Bono is in. We are not international rock stars. We're high-schoolers and young people just out of college. Single parents. IT professionals and retail workers. Stay-at-home moms. Young parents. Retirees. What do weighty matters look like for us?

We do not have Bono's fame, influence or money. But that doesn't mean we can't do something about weighty matters. It might look like this. It could be befriending a fellow student that others make fun of. It could be risking your career by defending a co-worker who is being unfairly treated. It could be sending a grocery card anonymously to a neighbor who is having trouble making ends meet. It might be assisting a cousin struggling with a life crisis. It could be refusing to participate in a supervisor's wrongdoing at work.

In December 2004 , a terrible earthquake, registering 9.0 on the Richter Scale, struck Indonesia, triggering an enormous tsunami wave that killed people in that country, and then sped to the east at the speed of sound and killed more in Thailand, India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka. The death toll exceeded 150,000. It was a terrible, terrible tragedy. People were shocked. And the world mobilized, and aid poured in. Christians were generous in helping the survivors. It was the right thing to do. It was the Christian thing to do. In the face of tremendous suffering, we responded in an act of mercy.

But remember what Tony Campolo said a decade ago about 10,000 people dying every day from preventable starvation? Also in December 2004 the United Nations released its annual recent statistics. The rate was almost exactly the same as it was when Campolo spoke. That means that in every two weeks, at least 140,000 other people die around the world from something that's preventable —- and for the most part, the world still doesn't give a rip. As Christians we should.

God has placed weighty matters of mercy and justice in each of our lives. We can ignore them, like the scribes and Pharisees did, and Jesus will say to us what he said to them. Or we can see them as opportunities to participate in what God considers to be some of his most important work —- and do them.

.

 


— Matthew 23:23–28