37While he was speaking, a Pharisee invited him to dine with him; so he went in and took his place at the table. 38The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you.
42‘But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. 43Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places. 44Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it.’
As human beings, we pride ourselves on the fact that of all the animals we are the only ones who understand the concept of risk. Yet Jeffrey Kluger points out in an article entitled, “Why We Worry About the Things We Shouldn’t,” we humans have a perplexing habit of worrying about those things which are only mere possibilities while ignoring those things which are real dangers. As examples, he notes:
- We agonize over the avian flue which has killed precisely no one in the U.S. but have to be cajoled into getting vaccinated for the common flu which kills 36,000 Americans each year.
- Many of us have an absolute phobia of flying which kills at most a few hundred people a year. Our chosen mode of transportation? Driving, which kills 44,000 in motor-vehicle accidents each year.
- We wring our hands over the mad cow pathogen that might be (but probably isn’t) in our burger, yet worry far less about the cholesterol that contributes to the heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually.
- Shoppers still look with suspicion upon that bag of spinach for fear of E. coli while filling their carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos.
- We put filters on our faucets, install air ionizers in our homes, and lather ourselves with antibacterial soap, and at the same time, 20 percent of adults still smoke, 20 percent of drivers don’t wear seatbelts, and two-thirds of us are overweight or obese.
Kluger concludes, “shadowed by peril as we are, you would think we’d get pretty good at distinguishing the risks likeliest to do us in from the ones that are statistical long shots. But you would be wrong.”[i]
We are today, as perhaps people in every age have been, “shadowed by peril.” As Christians, we know that these perils go well beyond physical dangers. Spiritual dangers, which we call “temptations,” seem to lurk behind every corner. And yet I wonder, “Are we any better at analyzing spiritual risks than we are physical ones?” I don’t think so. The Pharisees, who were much like us, clearly struggled to figure out which temptations where the most dangerous. Take this story, for instance. Jesus had gone over to one of their houses for supper and, get this, Jesus didn’t wash his hands (gasp!). Now, outside of a few of our eight year old boys thinking “Score! WWJD – Jesus doesn’t wash his hands – I can’t wait to use that one on mom,” most of us don’t have a problem with Jesus not washing his hands. He’s Jesus after all; the microbes probably are bowing down in worship and not about to infect the Son of the living God with a cold. We obviously miss the point. More is at stake for the Pharisees than hygiene. The washing of hands before a meal was akin to a blessing, a ritual of faith, an important part of the Pharisees’ religious observance. It would be as if we all gathered around the table for Sunday dinner, and low and behold, Jesus showed up. Naturally, we’re inclined to let him say grace. However, as we all bow our heads, we’re startled by the sound of Jesus already scarfing down the potatoes. What’s up? Jesus is making a point – you’re worried about the wrong stuff. You’re worried about looking clean instead of actually being clean. And in doing so, you’ve become more condemned than the worst “sinners” who never worry about even looking clean. Jesus calls the Pharisees unmarked graves – they are dead men walking but don’t even know it.
Admittedly, I don’t like these passages. Doesn’t Jesus seem a little harsh? For as much as the Pharisees get a bad rap, they were not bad people. In fact, they spent their whole lives trying not to be bad people – you know, the kind of people who do really bad things like stealing or getting drunk or lusting after other people’s spouses. The Pharisees, rightly, didn’t want to be like that. They didn’t want to fall into those temptations. They didn’t even want to be mistaken for a person who might fall into those temptations, so they set up all sorts of rules and barricades that helped keep them far away from the kinds of people who might lead them astray. It doesn’t sound so bad when you put it that way. It sounds a lot like us.
We have all sorts of rules that keep us from being like them, from being the sorts of people who give into temptation. In my tradition (at least in the past) that involved no dancing, no drinking, wearing nice clothes to church, etc. I imagine in your tradition the rules might be a little different but the point is the same – to differentiate us from them. Where’s the danger in that? Well, Jesus says there’s plenty. First, we tend to pick the rules we like to keep, the rules that are easy for us to keep – so that we do indeed look different from “sinners” (at least on the outside, on the inside we have a way of looking a lot like them). And we create these little systems by which we reward one another for keeping the rules that are easy for us to keep. We puff ourselves up and put others down. And that’s why Jesus gets so upset. He’s upset with our self-deception. He’s upset with our self righteousness. He’s upset with the fact that we think we’ve arrived without his help. He’s upset, because he loves us and he knows that our game of self-righteousness is mortally dangerous. Unlike the grosser sins where our distance from God is fairly obvious, we’ve whitewashed our tombs so that no one, at times not even ourselves, knows the deadness inside. This is dangerous because we tend not do anything about the sins we are unaware of. It’s like undiagnosed high blood pressure. Self-righteousness is the silent killer of a life of faith.
In his delightful little book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis tells the story of two demons attempting to lead astray a new believer. The young demon, Wormwood, wants to tempt his man with all sorts of heinous sins – murder, etc. But Screwtape admonishes him to try a more subtle approach, after all, he says, “Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”[ii] When we think temptation, we always think big sins – but cards will often do the trick. Of course, so can not playing cards, if not playing cards becomes the end all test for faithfulness so that a person never gets around to the business of repenting of the sins of the heart.
Lent, at least for a Baptist who has just recently come around to the practice, is a constant reminder that we are not self-sufficient, that we have not arrived, that we are all tempted. I’ve found I have trouble giving things up even for the purpose of doing something worthwhile. And at least for the moment, I’m glad I’m not good at it. You see, I’ve been a Baptist for a long time. I’m pretty good at being a Baptist. I know all the ins and outs of keeping the outside of my Baptist cup pretty clean, as I’m sure you know how to keep the outside of your Methodist or Episcopalian or Catholic cup pretty clean as well. But I’m not so good at Lent. I’ve already messed up plenty this year in trying to remember to not partake in what I’ve given up and to actually pray during times I’ve committed to prayer. And remarkably, like I said, I’ve found that failure to be a gift – a reminder that I too am a sinner in need of grace, a dead man on the inside apart from Christ. But in Christ, I’m a dead man who knows he’s dead and who eagerly awaits a resurrection.
[i] Jeffrey Kluger, “Why we worry about the things we shouldn’t,” Time (04 December 2006), 65-67.
[ii] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 1990) in A C.S. Lewis Treasury (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co), 250.