Jesus opened a five-gallon can of worms the day He preached His Sermon on the Mount. There wasn’t a Pharisee within gunshot range who wouldn’t have given his last denarius to see Him strung up by sundown. Did they hate Him! They hated Him because He refused to let them get away with their phony religious drool and their super-spiritual ooze that was polluting the public.
The Messiah unsheathed His sharp sword of truth the day He ascended the mountain. When He came down that evening, it was dripping with the blood of hypocrites. If ever an individual exposed pride, Jesus did that day. His words bit into their hides like harpoons into whale blubber. Never in their notorious, smug careers had they been pierced with such deadly accuracy. Like bloated beasts of the deep they floated to the surface for all to see.
If there was one thing Jesus despised, it was the very thing every Pharisee majored in at seminary: showing off, or, to cushion it a bit, self-righteousness. They were the Holy Joes of Palestine, the first to enlist undiscerning recruits into the Royal Order of Back-Stabbers. They were past-masters in the practice of put-down prayers and spent their days working on ways to impress others with their somber expression and monotonous, dismal drone. Worst of all, by sowing the seeds of legalistic thorns and nurturing them into forbidding vines of religious intolerance, the Pharisees prevented honest seekers from approaching their God.
Even today, the bite of legalism spreads a paralyzing venom into the Body of Christ. Its poison blinds our eyes, dulls our edge, and arouses pride in our hearts. Soon our love is eclipsed as it turns into a mental clipboard with a long checklist, a thick filter requiring others to measure up before we move in. The joy of friendship is fractured by a judgmental attitude and critical look. It seems stupid to me that fellowship must be limited to the narrow ranks of predictable personalities clad in “acceptable” attire. The short haircut, clean-shaven, tailored suit look (with matching vest and tie, of course) seem essential in many circles. Just because I prefer a certain style or attire doesn’t mean that it’s best or that it’s for everyone. Nor does it mean that the opposite is any less pleasing to God.
Our problem is a gross intolerance of those who don’t fit our mold — an attitude which reveals itself in the stoic stare of a caustic comment. Such legalistic and prejudiced reactions will thin the ranks of the local church faster than fire in the basement or flu in the pew. If you question that, take a serious look at the Galatians letter. Paul’s pen flowed with heated ink as he rebuked them for “deserting” Christ (Galatians 1:6), nullifying “the grace of God” (2:21), becoming “bewitched” by legalism (3:1), and desiring “to be enslaved” by this crippling disease (4:9).
Sure...there are limits to our freedom. Grace does not condone license. Love has its biblical restrictions. The opposite of legalism is not “do as you please.” But listen! The limitations are far broader than most of us realize. I can’t believe, for example, that the only music God smiles on is highbrow or hymns. Why not country-folk or Dixieland as well? Nor do I believe the necessary garment for entering the church is a suit and tie. Why won’t cutoffs or jeans and tee-shirts do just as well? Shocked? Let’s remember who it is that becomes wrought-up over outward appearances. Certainly not God!
“God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
And who can prove that the only voice God will bless is the ordained minister on Sunday? How about the salesman Tuesday afternoon or the high school teacher Friday morning?
It is helpful to remember that our Lord reserved His strongest and longest sermon not for struggling sinners, discouraged disciples, or even prosperous people, but for hypocrites, glory hogs, legalists — the present-day Pharisees.
The message on the mountain delivered that afternoon centuries ago echoes down the canyons of time with pristine force and clarity.
Look at Matthew 6:1:
“Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them.”
In other words, stop showing off! Stop looking down your nose at others who don’t fill your preconceived mold. Stop displaying your own goodness. Stop calling attention to your righteousness. Stop lusting to be noticed. Implied in this is the warning to beware of those who refuse to stop such behavior. And then, to blaze that warning into their memories, He went on to give them three specific examples of how people show off their own righteousness so that others might ooh and aah over them.
Matthew 6:2 talks about “when you give to the poor” or when you are involved in acts of charity assisting others in need. He says don’t “sound a trumpet” when you do this. Keep it quiet...even a “secret” (6:4). Don’t scream for attention like Tarzan swinging through the jungle. Stay out of the picture, remain anonymous. Don’t expect to have your name plastered all over the place. Pharisees love to show off their gifts to others. They love to be made over. They love to remind others who did this and that or gave such and such to so and so. Jesus says: Don’t show off when you use your money to help somebody out.
Matthew 6:5 talks about what to do “when you pray.” He warns us against being supplicational showoffs who love to stand in prominent places and mouth meaningless mush in order to be seen and heard. Pharisees love syrupy words and sugar-crusted platitudes. They’ve got the technique for sounding high-and-holy down pat. Everything they say in their prayers causes listeners to think that this pious soul resides in heaven and was tutored at the feet of Michael the archangel and King James V. You’re confident that they haven’t had a dirty thought in the past eighteen years...but you’re also quietly aware that there’s a huge chasm between what is coming out of the showoff’s mouth and where your head is right then. Jesus says: Don’t show off when you talk with your Father.
Matthew 6:16 talks about what to do “whenever you fast.” Now that’s the time the showoff really hits his stride. He works overtime trying to appear humble and sad, hoping to look hungry and exhausted like some freak who just finished crossing the Sahara that afternoon. “Do not be as the hypocrites!” Christ commands. Instead, we ought to look and sound fresh, clean, and completely natural. Why? Because that’s real — that’s genuine — that’s what He promises He will reward. Jesus says: Don’t show off when you miss a couple or three meals.
Let’s face it. Jesus spoke with jabbing, harsh words concerning the Pharisees. When it came to narrow legalism or self-righteous showing off, our Lord pulled no punches. He found it to be the only way to deal with those people who hung around the place of worship disdaining and despising other people. No less than seven times He pronounced “Woe to you” — because that’s the only language a Pharisee understands, unfortunately.
Two final comments:
First...if you tend toward Pharisaism in any form, stop it! If you are the type of person who tries to bully others and look down at others (all the while thinking how impressed God must be to have you on His team) you are a twenty-first-century Pharisee. And frankly, that includes some who wear longer hair and prefer a guitar to a pipe organ. Pharisees can also delight in looking “cool.”
Second...if a modern-day Pharisee tries to control your life, stop him! Stop her! Remind the religious phony that the splinter within your eye is between you and your Lord, and to pay attention to the tree trunk in his own eye. Chances are, however, that once an individual is infected, he will go right on nit-picking and self-praising for the rest of his shallow life, choked by the thorns of his own conceit. Pharisees, remember, are terribly hard of listening.
Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, “Pharisaism,” in Devotions for Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 390-93.