Spurgeon once said, with his characteristic good sense and robust humour, “When you see a great deal of religion displayed in his shop window, you may depend on it, that he keeps a very small stock of it within.”
It’s a rather worrying observation for me, speaking as a church leader. I get a little bothered by all that “religion” in the shop window of my life. Sometimes I have to put the “Closed” sign up and just make sure I pray as much as I preach; and that I never get fooled into thinking that I’m here to sort people out.
As someone said: “People are mysteries to be explored, not problems to be solved.”
And Jesus was always merciful with broken people and merciless with pretend people. His stock-taking was rigorous. Luke 11 contains a string of criticisms against the “shopkeepers” with a load of glossy stuff on display, but with very little in the stock cupboard of their spiritual lives.
His first target is the Pharisee:
“A Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. 38 But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.”
There’s a huge emphasis on that word “Surprised.” It suggests condescension and moral oneupmanship. Imagine someone treading muddy boots on to your white carpet, and saying: “I didn’t think it necessary to take them off” and you raise your eyebrows and say, faintly, “Oh really?” That’s the flavour of the passive aggressive insult that is being offered to Jesus here.
But Jesus doesn’t do passive-aggressive. He can’t be belittled because his love and truthfulness are sincere and complete. All his stock is on display. It’s top quality and inexhaustible.
So don’t read this next bit as an attack but as the strongest kind of challenge – the challenge to be as real as Jesus- to be truthful about who you are, face your inadequacy and seek help for change.
So here he goes:
“Then the Lord said to him, ‘Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.40 You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? 41 But now as for what is inside you – be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”
Does your inside and your outside match? Do you have a public and a private life that are at odds? Jesus doesn’t pause for an answer (because the answer is always “No!”). Instead, he offers an immediate strategy for self-renewal. “As for what is inside you – be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” What does that mean? Well, partly, I think it means “Stop being so self-obsessed!” Even your religiousness can be self-centred, self-important and self-directed.
So just get over your sweet self and be generous to “the poor.“
Then Jesus pushes the agenda of what “over-religiousness” might look like:
42 ‘Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practised the latter without leaving the former undone.”
Notice that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being precise about how you tithe (that’s the meaning of the of the phrase “a tenth“), but it is secondary- a long way secondary!- from “justice and the love of God.” And what is “justice and the love of God“? In this passage you can make a start by being generous to the poor -an activity that makes all things “clean for you.” That is to say, this is the real “purity” that God seeks, not the skin-deep stuff you acquire underneath a tap!
But Jesus hasn’t finished. As he continues, he acquires his second target: the Expert in the Law.
“‘Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the market-places. ‘Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.’ One of the experts in the law answered him, ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.’
Generally speaking, if the Pharisees were concerned about ritual cleanliness, food hygiene and social propriety, the “Expert in the Law” was more narrowly concerned with the interpretation of the ancient codes. So they got the posh seats and the courteous hellos. All a bit silly. Why? Because -suggested Jesus- when these people doff their caps at you, they don’t know what you’re like inside. They’re walking over a whole box of bones, a closet full of skeletons, a blob of corruption.
And this only bothers you if you want to pretend that it just ain’t so.
But it is.
And the whining reply: ‘Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.’
But Jesus isn’t done: “ ‘And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them…. ‘Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.’”
This is the consequence of hypocrisy. Once you drive a wedge between your real self and your pretend self, you are unable to help anyone else. All your energy gets sucked into continuing the charade of your own importance.
And what happened next, after this scorching blast of honesty?
“When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.” (Luke 11: 37-54)
And the scene closes with a growing momentum of hatred that will one day fuel the cries of “Crucify him!” outside Pilate’s palace.
But what about us? Jesus leaves us with only two options: to continue in the delusion that we are ok (which quickly sharpens into a refusal to let God speak into our lives); or to face our own hypocrisy, acknowledge the shamefulness of our secret selves…
And repent. Give it to Jesus. Say sorry from your heart. And let it go.
Jesus died on the cross. That death was produced -as we’ve just seen- by antagonism towards his truthfulness. But when Jesus died he made an “open display” of what such viscious hypocrisy produces. He exposed it, like a wound that has to be exposd, cleaned and cauterised before it can be healed.
He died for my sin so that I might no longer live in it.