Wretched, Miserable, Poor, Blind, and Naked

1 “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
    who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
    that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
    even the last of you with fishhooks.
And you shall go out through the breaches,
    each one straight ahead;
    and you shall be cast out into Harmon,”
declares the Lord.

“Come to Bethel, and transgress;
    to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
    your tithes every three days;
offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened,
    and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
    for so you love to do, O people of Israel!”
declares the Lord God. Amos 4:1-5 ESV

As Amos continues to convey to the people of Israel God’s righteous indignation with them, he focuses his attention like a laser on the wealthy women of Samaria. Addressing them as “you cows of Bashan,” Amos is unapologetically brutal in his description of their selfish and luxuriant lifestyle. These well-to-do women were guilty of flaunting their wealth and social status by treating others with contempt and condescension. Amos accuses them of “oppressing” the poor and “crushing” the needy.  In the Hebrew language, those two words paint a stark and highly unflattering picture of these women from the upper strata of Israelites society. The word translated as “oppressed” is ʿāšaq, and it means “to violate, defraud, do violence.” Amos is accusing these women of taking advantage of the poor for personal gain. They were defrauding and deceiving the less fortunate in order to increase their own wealth and further enhance their luxurious lifestyles.

In Hebrew, the word “crush” is rāṣaṣ, and it too carries a much more sinister and sinful connotation. It means “to crack in pieces” and can be used either literally or figuratively. In the figurative sense, to crush someone is to treat them with such disdain and disrespect that they are left broken or crushed in spirit. It conveys a lack of empathy or compassion, a total disregard for the worth or well-being of the other.

It seems that Amos is targeting these particular women because they represent that segment of Israelite society that had enjoyed a certain amount of personal success during Jeroboam II’s reign. Under his leadership, the nation had expanded its borders and many of these wealthy families had probably profited from the boom environment this growth created. In the very next chapter, Amos points out the injust nature of their treatment of the poor.

You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.
Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses,
    you will never live in them. – Amos 5:11 NLT

Amos is not suggesting that these women were responsible for all these injustices. But they were enjoying the fruit of someone else’s unjust “labor.” Most likely their husbands were the ones who were “trampling the poor” by levying excessive taxes and charging exorbitant rental fees for their properties. And all the while, they were using their ill-gotten profits to build luxury homes for themselves and their wives.

And Amos portrays the wives of these men as demanding taskmasters who treat their husbands like slaves. Amos purposefully uses hyperbolic, over-the-top language to illustrate the decadent and immoral lifestyle of the upper-class members of Israelite society. His portrayal of these women as lounging on their couches and demanding their husbands to bring them another drink is meant to expose the narcissistic nature of their lives. They are self-consumed and more interested in personal pleasure than in keeping God’s laws.

But by all appearances, these very same women were faithful members of the religious community of Israel. They made regular trips to the altars and shrines set up in Bethel and Gilgal. They worshiped the false gods that Jeroboam II and his predecessors had set up all throughout Israel. In other words, these wealthy women were outstanding members of the faith community. And they most likely believed that their wealth and prosperity had been a gift from the gods.

But Yahweh sees through their sanctimonious and self-righteous displays of mock-godliness. He sees behind the walls of their ostentatious homes and witnesses their “Lives of the Rich and Famous” lifestyles. But He also sees into the recesses of their sin-hardened hearts and knows that they are uncaring and unrepentant of their many transgressions. That’s why He sarcastically challenges them to keep doing what they’ve always done. He encourages them to continue offering their sacrifices and tithes to their false gods.

“Go ahead and offer sacrifices to the idols at Bethel.
    Keep on disobeying at Gilgal.
Offer sacrifices each morning,
    and bring your tithes every three days.
Present your bread made with yeast
    as an offering of thanksgiving.
Then give your extra voluntary offerings
    so you can brag about it everywhere!
This is the kind of thing you Israelites love to do…” – Amos 4:4-5 NLT

They’re worshiping the wrong gods and for all the wrong reasons. They want to be recognized for their religious zeal and applauded for their sacrificial displays of self-righteous sacrifice.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus exposed this kind of hypocritical religious play-acting. He viewed it as nothing more than an attempt to gain the praise of men.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. – Matthew 6:1 NLT

These very same women who were oppressing the poor and crushing the needy were regularly offering their sacrifices and tithes at the temple. They even offered “extra voluntary offerings” but only so they could brag about it to others. Everything they did was all about inflating their own sense of value and worth. It wasn’t enough to be rich. They wanted to be esteemed. But to God, their acts of religious pietism were nothing more than evidence of their sin-hardened hearts. And Jesus would go on to point out the hypocritical nature of giving to get noticed.

“When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity!” – Matthew 6:2 NLT

But God makes it clear that these kinds of people will pay dearly for their actions. He cannot and will not tolerate this kind of behavior among His chosen people. God has sworn by His own holiness that the guilty will be punished. This statement is intended to stress the otherness of God. He is set apart and holy. He is fully righteous and without sin. He cannot simply turn a blind eye to the unrighteous behavior of His people. His holy nature requires that He deal justly with the blatant disobedience of those who bear His name and have been called to be His light to the nations.

And God announces that these self-absorbed, pampered, and pretentiously pious women will suffer a devastating and humiliating fate.

“The time will come when you will be led away
    with hooks in your noses.
Every last one of you will be dragged away
    like a fish on a hook!
You will be led out through the ruins of the wall;
    you will be thrown from your fortresses.” – Amon 4:2-3 NLT

God predicts a less-than-flattering outcome for these women. They will one day find themselves on the receiving end of the oppression and crushing. When the Assyrians invade Israel, lay siege to the capital city of Samaria, and eventually breach the walls, they capture these women, leading them out of the city with hooks in their noses – just like cows being led to the slaughter. Their wealth and luxurious homes will provide no comfort or protection. Their tithes and extra volunteer offerings will do nothing to garner aid or assistance from their false gods. They will be unceremoniously marched out of town and led to a life marked by poverty and oppression.

But it didn’t have to be this way. As Amos will reveal in the following verses, God had given them ample opportunity to repent and return to Him. He had warned them. He had even afflicted them with plagues, diseases, famines, and troubles of all kinds. But they had repeatedly refused to heed His warnings or be humbled by His judgments. And God will repeatedly remind them, “you did not return to me” (Amos 4:8 ESV).

In the book of Revelation, the apostle John records the words of Jesus regarding the spiritual state of the church in Laodicea, and it is not a flattering picture.

You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” – Revelation 3:17 NLT

This indictment from the lips of Jesus seems to apply to the wealthy women of Samaria who were living during the days of Amos. They were convinced that their wealth was evidence of their spiritual superiority. They were blessed. And they somehow believed that they deserved even more, which is what led them to oppress and crush the poor and needy. But like the Laodiceans, they were actually wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. And the day was coming when their true spiritual condition would be exposed for all to see.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Fakers and Frauds

53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. 54 And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him 55 and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. 

2 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” Mark 6:53-7:13 ESV

One can only imagine the conversations that took place in the boat as the disciples made their way to the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Just minutes before, they had been fighting the winds and waves of a ferocious storm when suddenly, Jesus had appeared to them, walking on the water. Not recognizing their friend and teacher, they had thought Him to be some kind of ghostly apparition. But Jesus spoke to them, entered the boat with them, and calmed the storm that surrounded them. And the rest of their trip to the region of Gennesaret must have been filled with whispered discussions about what they had just witnessed. These men, desperately trying to take in all that had happened over the last few days, were struggling to reconcile their experiences and expectations. They wanted to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and He had given ample evidence to convince them, but they were still doubtful. Mark indicates that “they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in” (Mark 6:52 NLT).

As they arrived in Gennesaret, they disembarked from their boat and were immediately engulfed by the crowds of people attempting to get to Jesus. News of their arrival spread fast and, before long, they found themselves immersed in the circus-like atmosphere that followed Jesus wherever He went.

Wherever he went—in villages, cities, or the countryside—they brought the sick out to the marketplaces. They begged him to let the sick touch at least the fringe of his robe, and all who touched him were healed. – Mark 6:56 NLT

It would appear that the people of Gennesaret had heard the rumors about the woman who was healed simply by touching the edge of Jesus’ robe. This news emboldened people to take matters into their own hands, likely resulting in Jesus being swarmed by those attempting to touch Him so they could be healed. And Jesus graciously allowed them to invade His personal space so that “all who touched him were healed.”

But there were others who wanted to lay their hands on Jesus, not to be healed but so that they might arrest Him. A contingent of Pharisees and scribes had arrived from Jerusalem and they had one purpose for their mission: Find evidence that would convict Jesus of breaking the law and justify His arrest.

The scribes and Pharisees, as experts in the Mosaic Law, were well-equipped for the task they had been given by the high priest. Their extensive knowledge of both the written and oral laws of Israel provided them with a virtual treasure trove of potential rule violations with which to convict Jesus. Surely there was some obscure law He was breaking that they could use as evidence against Him. If nothing else, they hoped to discredit Jesus by portraying Him as ignorant of God’s laws or guilty of willfully ignoring them.

So, it is no surprise that they approached Jesus and demanded that He explain the questionable behavior of His disciples.

“Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” – Mark 7:6 ESV

To help his readers understand what is going on, Mark provides a parenthetical explanation of Jewish purification rites.

The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they don’t eat anything from the market until they immerse their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to—such as their ceremonial washing of cups, pitchers, and kettles. – Mark 7:3-4 NLT

These “ancient traditions” were not part of the Mosaic Law but had been created and passed down by men. Essentially, they were add-ons or man-made additions to God’s law. And they had nothing to do with physical cleanliness or hygiene. These rules or rituals were followed in order to demonstrate and declare one’s righteousness. It was all about appearances. Jesus would later say of them:

“They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show.” – Matthew 23:4-5 NLT

And He would go on to level some serious accusations against these self-ascribed icons of righteousness.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:25-28 NLT

Their righteousness was nothing more than a facade, a carefully crafted image meant to obscure the true condition of their hearts. And when these men confronted Jesus about the unacceptable habits of His disciples, He responded by quoting Scripture.

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’

For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8 NLT

Jesus used the Old Testament Scriptures against them. Using the writings of one of their revered prophets, Jesus exposed their self-righteous indignation for what it was – nothing more than prideful pretense. They were nothing more than hypocrites and pretenders. In fact, the Greek word, hypokritēs was used to refer to an actor in a play, someone who assumed the character of another.

These men had fooled everyone into believing that they were holy and righteous. But they had made their own man-made rules more important than the commands of God. They were guilty of giving precedence to their “traditions,” even creating loopholes that allowed them to violate God’s laws.

“You skillfully sidestep God’s law in order to hold on to your own tradition. – Mark 7:9 NLT

And Jesus provides them with specific examples.

“For instance, Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’” – Mark 7:10-11 NLT

Jesus was referring to their law of corban. This man-made law allowed someone to dedicate something as an offering to God but did not require them to relinquish possession of it. As Jesus reveals, it was nothing more than a convenient way for someone to tie up their assets so that they wouldn’t have to share them with others. This was in direct violation of God’s law. The Ten Commandments had made it clear that the Jews were to honor their parents, and in a society that lacked any kind of welfare system, this would have included the provision of financial support. But corban provided a convenient loophole. By dedicating their resources to God, a Jew could excuse themselves from assisting their needy parents. And because they were not required to immediately turn over their assets to God, they were free to use them for their own personal benefit. And Jesus exposed corban for what it was: Lawlessness.

“In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition.” – Mark 7:12-13 NLT

These men had no right to question Jesus about the behavior of His disciples. They were nothing more than whitewashed tombs. Their sanctimonious self-righteousness was little more than a show, a poorly veiled display of moral pretense and hypocrisy.

In attempting to judge Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees left themselves open to judgment. And Jesus pulled no punches. He wanted His disciples to understand that the laws of God always took precedence over any rules or regulations made by men. And Jesus came to fulfill each and every one of the laws given by His Heavenly Father. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus declared His God-ordained mission to fulfill the law of God – down to the very last detail.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” – Matthew 5:17-19 NLT

And because the scribes and Pharisees were guilty of ignoring God’s law by replacing it with their own, they would be least in the Kingdom of Heaven.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Rest for the Weary

23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:23-28 ESV

The disciples of John had come to Jesus, wanting to know why He and His disciples didn’t follow their lead and keep the fast days appointed by the Pharisees. Their question has a certain sense of superiority about it because the brand of Judaism under which they were raised placed a heavy emphasis on religious performance. In a sense, the practice of one’s faith had become competitive rather than contemplative. It had become more about outward appearances than the inner disposition of the heart.

That is why Jesus dedicated a large portion of His sermon on the mount addressing the hypocrisy associated with a performance-based religion.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity!” – Matthew 6:1-2 NLT

“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. – Matthew 6:5 NLT

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting.” – Matthew 6:16 NLT

Jesus had come to free the people from this dead-end existence of religious ritualism and rule-keeping. Not long after delivering His sermon on the mount, Jesus had issued what has come to be known as His Great Invitation: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 ESV).

Jesus was offering rest to those who were worn out by the constant pressure to measure up and keep up with all the rules, regulations, rituals, and rites associated with their religion. It was a non-stop and never-ending treadmill of existence based on effort and earning. But Jesus had come to offer something far better: rest for their souls (Matthew 11:29).

Which brings us to today’s passage. The scene is a wheat field somewhere in Galilee.  Mark describes Jesus and His disciples taking a short-cut through the field and as they did, the disciples were casually plucking off the heads of grain and eating them as a snack. They were not doing anything illegal because the Mosaic Law had made allowances for such behavior.

“When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, but you must not carry any away in a basket. And when you enter your neighbor’s field of grain, you may pluck the heads of grain with your hand, but you must not harvest it with a sickle.” – Deuteronomy 23:24-25 NLT

But as Mark reveals, the problem wasn’t what they were doing, it was when they were doing it. It was the Sabbath. And there were all kinds of rules associated with this particular day of the week. God had originally established the Sabbath as a day of rest and had included its observance as part of the Ten Commandments.

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work.” – Exodus 20:8-10 NLT

And God had provided the people of Israel with the rationale behind His setting apart of this one day above all the other days of the week.

“For in six days the LORD made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.” – Exodus 20:11 NLT

It was to be a day of commemoration, on which the people were to set aside all their normal daily activities so that they might recall what God had done on their behalf. He was the Creator-God, who made the universe and all that it contained, including them. Observing the Sabbath was intended to remind them of their complete dependence upon God. Their human effort was of no real value. Their very existence was totally dependent upon God and by resting on the seventh day, they were placing all their hope in Him. He would meet their needs. And God had illustrated this principle to the people of Israel long before He set apart the seventh day as holy.

When the Israelites had been making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, God had graciously provided them with “bread from heaven.”

“Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” – Exodus 16:4-5 ESV

This bread from heaven (manna), was to collected daily, but on the sixth day, they were to collect enough to meet their needs for two days. On the seventh day, they were to “rest” from their gathering of manna.  God had provided all that they needed.

The Sabbath was to have been a reminder of God’s provision for all their needs. But over time, the religious leaders of Israel had managed to turn the Sabbath into a rule-laden, performance-driven day where everything was measured by human effort. They had transformed the God-ordained mandate to rest into a form of work. And the religious leaders had created a litany of man-made laws that were used to measure the peoples’ observance of this day of rest. It had become all about their ability to keep all the laws that had been placed on this one particular day.

According to the Mishnah (the oral law of Israel), there were 39 different categories of laws associated with the keeping of the Sabbath. They included laws concerning carrying, burning, cooking, washing, harvesting, and threshing. According to this oral law, a Jew was forbidden to light a candle on the Sabbath but could hire a Gentile to do so. It was also considered Sabbath-breaking to gaze at one’s image in a mirror. So, this day of rest had actually become a day of wearisome and burdensome rule-keeping.

So, when the Pharisees observed Jesus’ disciples plucking wheat, they condemned them for “reaping” on the Sabbath. And they confronted Jesus for allowing His disciples to violate their oral laws.

“Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?” – Mark 2:24 NLT

And Jesus, knowing these men prided themselves on their knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, used a story contained in the writings of Samuel, to justify the actions of His disciples (1 Samuel 21:1-6). Jesus recounts how David, who was on the run from King Saul, had arrived at the town of Nob and asked the high priest to provide food for him and his soldiers. The only bread available was “the holy bread—the Bread of the Presence that was placed before the Lord in the Tabernacle” (1 Samuel 21:6 ESV).

According to the Mosaic Law, this bread was reserved for the priests alone. Yet, Jesus points out that when David “was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him…entered the house of God…and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him” (Mark 2:25-26 ESV). In doing so, David was actually violating the law, but in this case, it was acceptable because David was the Lord’s anointed. David had been anointed by Samuel to be the next king of Israel. He was to be the God-ordained replacement for the disobedient and disappointing King Saul.

And Jesus points out a major flaw in their understanding of the Sabbath.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:27 ESV

God had set apart the Sabbath as a reminder to the people of Israel that He was their provider. He would care for them. It was to be the day on which they rested from all their vain efforts at self-provision and relied completely on the One who made the universe and all it contains. God had allowed the feeding of David and his men because David was the Lord’s anointed. The physical needs of David had taken precedence over the laws concerning the holy bread.

And Jesus points out to the Pharisees that he, as the Son of Man, was “lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28 ESV). As God’s anointed, Jesus had the full authority to allow the behavior of His disciples. He was placing their well-being above the oral law of the Pharisees. God had made the Sabbath and, as the Son of God, Jesus had every right to do what He deemed to be holy and acceptable on the Sabbath. 

Jesus had come to bring rest to the weary and to remove the burden of performance and religious rule-keeping. For the average Jew, the Sabbath had become a burdensome and tiring 24 hours marked by constant vigilance and fear of violating the rules. There was no rest. But Jesus had come to change all that.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Feasting, Not Fasting

18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. 21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.” Mark 2:18-22 ESV

Matthew, Mark, and Luke each recorded the following scene as having taken place immediately after Jesus shared a meal with “many tax collectors and sinners” (Mark 2:15 ESV). The timing is important because it establishes the context for what happened next. Jesus’ decision to accept an invitation to dine at the house of Levi (Matthew) had left the Jewish religious leaders disgusted. Their view of Him had reached an all-time low because He had chosen to consort with known sinners. In addition to being a blasphemer and trouble-maker, this radical Rabbi from Nazareth was a poor judge of character.

So, immediately after His dinner at Levi’s house, Jesus was confronted with a question regarding His behavior. But it came from an unexpected source. While Mark simply indicates that some “people” posed this question to Jesus, Matthew reveals that it was actually some disciples of John the Baptist.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” – Matthew 9:14 ESV

These men were confused by the behavior of Jesus and His disciples. It could be that they were just as alarmed at Jesus’ choice of dining companions, but rather than bring up what Jesus had just done, they chose to question what He and His disciples failed to do: Fast.

As good Jews, the disciples of John would have faithfully kept the various written and oral traditions of their people, and that would have included requirements regarding fasting. But according to the Mosaic Law, there was only one day set apart by God for fasting, and that was the Day of Atonement.

It will be a Sabbath day of complete rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. This is a permanent law for you. – Leviticus 16:31 NLT

But over time, the Jews had prescribed additional fast days. By the time Jesus appeared on the scene, the Pharisees had instituted a twice-weekly fast, and it was this fasting to which the disciples of John referred. These additional fast days were intended to be an outward demonstration of one’s dedication to God. They were visible acts of righteousness that let others know you took your religious commitments seriously. But it was just such outward displays that Jesus had warned about in His sermon on the mount.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. – Matthew 6:1 NLT

And Jesus had purposefully focused His attention on fasting and pointed out how this practice of self-denial had become a means for self-promotion.

“And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18 NLT

Yet, here were the disciples of John asking why Jesus and His disciples failed to honor the twice-weekly fast – as they did. By admitting that they were fasting, these men violated the warning Jesus had issued: “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious.” But for them, fasting had become a sign of righteousness. It was a mark of one’s spiritual commitment.

But they failed to realize that Jesus had come to bring something new. Their attempts at self-righteousness were totally inadequate. Their outward displays of self-denial were doing nothing to elevate their standing in God’s eyes. It brings to mind the stinging rebuke that God issued against the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah.

Bring no more vain offerings;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
    I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood. – Isaiah 1:13-15 ESV

And the apostle Paul brings up the same subject in his letter to the believers in Corinth,

So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. – Colossians 2:16-17 NLT

Paul provides a much-needed insight into what is going on in Mark 2:18-22. With the coming of Jesus, all of the rules associated with Judaism were changing. The temple, the Sabbath, the feasts, and the festivals were all intended to point toward the coming of the Messiah. They were, as Paul put it, “shadows of the reality yet to come.” And as Paul makes clear, “Christ himself is that reality.”

The author of Hebrews reinforces Paul’s understanding about the purpose behind the former system of rules and regulations associated with the law.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. – Hebrews 10:1 NLT

Jesus’ arrival had ushered in a new era. The old was giving way to the new. Jesus had come to do what the law was never intended to do: Restore sinful men and women to a right relationship with God.

The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. – Romans 8:3 NLT

And Jesus drives home the point that His presence with them ruled out the need for fasting and rule-keeping. All their self-empowered efforts to earn favor with God were no longer necessary. Just as a sick person cannot make themselves well, sinners cannot make themselves spiritually whole and acceptable to a holy God. They must simply admit that they are sick and in need of a physician.

So, Jesus attempts to inform the disciples of John that their fasting was in vain. Rather than deny themselves food, they needed to recognize the presence of the Messiah and feast alongside Him. Just as the tax collectors and sinners had dined with Jesus in Levi’s house, Jesus was inviting the disciples of John to celebrate alongside Him. And He used the metaphor of a wedding feast to illustrate His point.

“Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. – Mark 2:19 ESV

The scene of wedding guests fasting and mourning while attending the festivities was meant to be ludicrous. Fasting would have been the farthest thing from their minds. And Jesus wanted these men to know that His presence among them was intended to be cause for celebration. Their long-awaited Messiah had finally come, and He was bringing “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10 ESV). And as the angels told the shepherds in the field on the night of Jesus’ birth: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11 ESV).

The Messiah (the bridegroom) had come and that was cause for celebration. But Jesus indicates that a time of mourning would come soon enough because He would one day leave them.

“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.” – Mark 2:20 ESV

With this somewhat cryptic statement, Jesus made reference to His coming death. While this foreshadowing of His coming death would have escaped those in His audience, it was meant to reinforce His call to celebrate His presence. He had come and it should have been a time of joy and feasting. But the Jews were busy grumbling, doubting, and disbelieving.

Then Jesus reinforces the radically new nature of the days in which they lived. He was disrupting the status quo. He was turning everything on its head and introducing a whole new means for sinful mankind to be restored to God. And His arrival was not intended to be an add-on to the old way of going things. It wasn’t going to be the law + Jesus. Don’t miss what He said in His sermon on the mount.

“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. – Matthew 5:17-18 NLT

He had come to fulfill all that the law required. And in doing so, He was eliminating the any requirement that men keep the law in an effort to assuage the anger of a just and righteous God. Jesus was going to satisfy God with the sacrifice of His own life.

To drive home His point, Jesus used the analogy of using a new piece of unshrunk cloth to sew a patch onto an old garment. They would be incompatible and prove to be unsuccessful in solving the problem being addressed. And it would make no sense to store new wine in an old wineskin because the fermentation of the new wine would cause the old wineskin to burst.

Jesus had come to do a new thing. And while the way He lived His life seemed to be inconsistent and incompatible with what the Jews had come to know, He was introducing “new cloth” and “new wine” – a new way that was meant to bring new hope to a lost and dying world. And the apostle Paul would have us rejoice in the fact that old has been replaced with the new – all because of Jesus.

So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Danger of Self-Righteousness

13 He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. 14 And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

15 And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:13-17 ESV

Jesus has just displayed His power and authority over the physical realm by healing the paralyzed man. But, more importantly, His astonishing ability to restore the man’s health was a demonstration of His God-given authority to forgive sin. As the Son of God, Jesus had come to earth in order to set men free from their slavery to sin and their condemnation of death. The formerly paralyzed man, while physically whole and forgiven, would still end up committing sins and face the ultimate penalty for doing so: physical death and eternal separation from God.

But Jesus had become a man so that He might serve as the substitutionary atonement, the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of mankind. His death on behalf of sinful humanity would satisfy the just and righteous wrath of God, and provide all those who placed their faith in His atoning work with a way to be restored to a right relationship with His Father. And, as a result of Jesus’ selfless sacrifice, they would enjoy forgiveness of all their sins – past, present, and future. The author of Hebrews describes it this way:

…he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. – Hebrews 9:26 ESV

And the psalmist provides us with a powerful reminder of the sin-forgiving power of the Son of God.

As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.
 – Psalm 103:12 BSB

Mark transitions his narrative from the crowded confines of Simon and Andrew’s home to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. But will maintain his emphasis on Jesus’ power and authority to forgive sin, and continue to reveal the growing divide between Jesus and the religious authorities.

While walking along the seashore, Jesus continued to teach the crowds that continued to follow Him wherever He went. And as they made their way along the roadway that ran from Capernaum to Damascus and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they came across the tax booth of a man named Levi. This was not some chance encounter but a divinely-scheduled appointment. When Levi woke up that morning, he had no idea that his day would include a one-on-one meeting with the Messiah of Israel.

Luke describes Levi as a “tax collector” (Luke5:27). His chosen profession would have made Levi highly unpopular with his fellow Jews. He was an employee of Herod Antipas, the Roman-appointed puppet king of Israel. And his job was to collect all taxes having to do with trade and customs. Because Capernaum was located on a major trade route from Damascus, Levi would have been responsible for collecting export and import fees, sales and customs taxes, as well as tolls. But what made men like Levi particularly unpopular was their tendency to extort additional fees and surcharges from the fellow Jews. Tax collectors were seen as social pariahs who worked for the enemy and took advantage of their own people to line their pockets.

So, when Jesus issued Levi an invitation to follow Him, the Jews would have been shocked and appalled. In their minds, Levi was a traitor to his people and the epitome of a godless sinner. And to make matters even worse, Mark reveals that Jesus decided to share a meal with this social outcast. Luke records that Levi threw a party in Jesus’ honor and invited a large number of guests.

Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. – Luke 5:29 ESV

And Mark provides the added detail that “many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (Mark 2:15 ESV). It seems that Levi was forced to invite his friends, who like him, were considered to be the dregs of the community.

Yet, Jesus accepted Levi’s invitation to dine at his house and willingly chose to associate with those whom the Jews considered as unclean and unacceptable. And Jesus’ actions did not go unnoticed.

But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with such scum?” – Mark 2:16 NLT

They were shocked and disgusted by this shameless display of poor judgment on Jesus’ part. He should have known better. By entering Levi’s home and sharing a meal with this motley collection of sinners, Jesus had made He and His disciples ceremonially unclean. They had contaminated themselves.

There is a clear us-versus-them vibe going on. The Pharisees viewed themselves as righteous because of their meticulous adherence to both the written and oral laws of the Jews. They were the law-keepers and the law-enforcers. And, as far as they were concerned, Jesus had chosen to associate with the scum of the earth. By entering Levi’s home, Jesus had done the unthinkable and unforgivable.

The Pharisees had no compassion for people like Levi. They had no desire to reach out to those whom they considered sinners. They bore no sense of responsibility for the spiritual well-being less fortunate, whom they considered to be unworthy of mercy. In the minds of the Pharisees, it was the sin-prone common people who held back the nation of Israel and kept it from enjoying the full favor of God. To the self-righteous Pharisees, it was the sorry likes of Levi and his friends that kept Israel from being all that it could be. They were a blight on the nation and now, Jesus had clearly revealed His love for the unloveable and His heart for the irredeemable.

But Jesus knew exactly what was going on. He was fully aware of the disgust and distaste His actions had caused, and He chose to address the issue head-on.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Mark 2:17 ESV

With this simple statement, Jesus exposed the glaring difference between Himself and His accusers. They considered themselves to be spiritually healthy and whole. They were well and had no need of a Savior. But what they failed to understand was that their good deeds were of no value to God. As the prophet Isaiah had written hundreds of years earlier: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT).

Jesus was not impressed by the Pharisees and their outward displays of righteousness. He would later call them out for their hypocrisy and lack of compassion.

“…they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Matthew 23:3-4 NLT

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. – Matthew 23:13 NLT

These men considered themselves to be the cream of the crop, the religious elite of Israel whose unblemished behavior guaranteed them a place in God’s kingdom. But Jesus let them know that their self-confidence was misplaced and mistaken. He had come to minister to the sick – those who recognized their spiritual malady and sought help. Like the paralyzed man, the tax collectors and sinners gathered in Levi’s home were in need of assistance. They knew they were sinners and were fully aware that they lacked what was necessary to “heal” themselves.

It was the apostle John who wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 ESV). The sinners reclining around the table with Jesus were just the kind of people Jesus came to save. They were sinners in need of a Savior. And if they would only confess their sin, they would know the joy of having their sins forgiven and their spiritual sickness healed.

But the Pharisees, riddled with pride and a misplaced sense of self-righteousness, were unable to see their need and unwilling to confess their sins. But their self-confidence would ultimately result in their own self-destruction. Their stubborn insistence that they were well would be their downfall. And the apostle Paul describes the dangerous path they had decided to take and the deadly destination to which it would lead.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. – Romans 1:21-22 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Working On the Sabbath

13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. John 5:13-18 ESV

A man, who had been paralyzed for 38 years, suddenly found himself physically whole and able to walk. In a rather bizarre encounter by the Pool of Bethesda, a complete stranger had approached him and asked if he wished to be healed. This rather blunt question had only reminded the man of his complete inability to enter the pool when the waters were stirred. He was an invalid, with no one to assist him in his time of need. But to his complete surprise, the stranger demanded. “Get up, take up your bed, and walk” (John 5:8 ESV). And John records that “at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked” (John 5:8 ESV).   

One of the significant facts concerning this story is that the man who was restored to health was totally ignorant of the identity of the one who had healed him. He had no idea who Jesus was and, from John’s description of the event, it would appear that the man didn’t really care. His only concern was that he had once been lame but now he could walk.

And when the Pharisees confronted him for carrying his bedroll and breaking the prohibition against doing work on the Sabbath, he had blamed the stranger.

But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’ – John 5:11 ESV

In a sense, the man was excusing his actions by saying, “I was just doing what I was told to do.” And when the religious leaders demanded to know the name of the one who had told him to violate the Sabbath, the man pleaded ignorance. Jesus had simply disappeared into the crowd, having never identified Himself to the man.

This entire miracle appears to have been done in secret. No one seems to have witnessed what had taken place. The religious leaders make no reference to the healing. John mentions no reaction from the crowd. And the man who was healed had no idea that he had just met the Messiah.

While the miracle had been significant, John’s real emphasis seems to be that it had occurred on the Sabbath. This entire encounter has less to do with belief or faith than it has to do with Jesus’ divine authority. By healing the man’s long-term illness, Jesus displayed His authority over the physical world. But by performing this miracle on the Sabbath, Jesus proved His divine authority over even the law. Jesus was not in violation of the law because, as God, He was its author. He knew the true intent behind each commandment found in the law. And while the religious leaders were guilty of turning God’s law into a legalistic and restrictive set of regulations based on their own interpretations, the Son of God was fully aware of its original meaning and purpose.

Jesus would later condemn the religious leaders of Israel for demanding strict adherence to the law while neglecting and ignoring the very heart behind the law.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” – Matthew 23:23 NLT

The religious leaders had made the law all about earning favor with God through outward expressions of obedience. But, in doing so, they had missed the point. As the apostle Paul later pointed out, the law had been given not just to regulate man’s behavior, but to expose his problem with sin.

Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions… – Galatians 3:19 BSB

Therefore no one will be justified in His sight by works of the law. For the law merely brings awareness of sin. – Romans 3:20 BSB

This entire encounter between Jesus and the paralyzed man had been intended as a lesson about sin and man’s need of a Savior. Remember, when Jesus had first found the man, he had been lying by the pool, paralyzed and totally incapable of bringing about his own healing. His illness had left him incapacitated and unable to follow the rules required to experience the healing qualities found in the waters of the pool. He needed help. And Jesus had appeared on the scene, offering him the help he so desperately needed. But notice that Jesus did not help the man get into the pool. The water would not be the source of the man’s healing. It would come from Jesus Himself.

And when Jesus later encountered the man in the temple, Jesus gave him some interesting instructions.

“Look, you have become well. Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you.” – John 5:14 NET

Jesus seems to link the man’s illness to sin. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus was inferring that the man had been paralyzed as a form of divine punishment for some past sin he had committed. Jesus’ point seems to be that a life of sin has consequences. The very existence of sickness, disease, and suffering in the world is due to the pervasive presence of sin. And by demanding that the man abstain from committing any further sins, Jesus was requiring the impossible. This unredeemed man could no more refrain from sinning than he could have helped himself enter the waters of the Pool of Bethesda. He was in need of a Savior.

While this man had been freed from his physical paralysis, he still remained spiritually paralyzed by the debilitating presence of sin. He could walk, but he still lacked the capacity to walk in newness of life. He remained condemned by sin, even though he had met “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

This man seems to have been completely satisfied with what He had received from Jesus: His physical healing. He shows no interest in who Jesus was or how He had pulled off his healing. Receiving the ability to walk had been his life-long dream. It had been the reason for his presence at the Pool of Bethesda that day. Yet, while he had received his heart’s desire, he was still missing what he really needed: Salvation from sin and release from the condemnation of death.

Eventually, the man discovered Jesus’ name and reported it to the religious authorities. And John makes it clear that these men had no interest in the miracle Jesus had performed. The man’s healing meant nothing to them. They were only concerned with the fact that Jesus had violated the Sabbath prohibition against work. From their legalistic perspective, He was nothing more than a common law-breaker.

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” – John 5:17 ESV

This rather enigmatic statement from Jesus did nothing to pacify their anger with Him. It only infuriated them further. In their minds, by declaring Himself to be the Son of God, Jesus was claiming to be divine. And that was the unpardonable sin of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death.

Yet, Jesus was simply stating that His actions were in keeping with the will of God. He was only doing what He had been sent to do. To the Pharisees, the Sabbath was all about rest or cessation from work. But for Jesus, even the Sabbath was a day reserved for doing the will and the work of God. There was no rest when it came to accomplishing God’s plan of redemption. The original intent of the Sabbath had been to remind the people of Israel of their complete dependence upon God. By taking one day out of seven and ceasing from any form of labor, they would recognize that God was their provider. He would meet all their needs, even when they were restricted from providing any assistance.

But the Jews had turned the day of rest into a day of duty and a form of works. Rather than resting in the providence and provision of God, they put their hope in their ability to “work” at resting. By fastidiously keeping God’s command to cease from all labor on the Sabbath, they were earning their way into His good graces. They were not looking to God to provide for their needs. They were depending upon their own acts of righteousness as demonstrated by their strict, over-the-top adherence to His law.

And sadly, John reveals that the religious leaders failed to recognize that the Lord of Sabbath was standing in their midst. They firmly and angrily rejected Jesus’ claim to be on equal standing with God. And their frustration with Jesus turned into a firm resolve to see Him put to death.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

An Aversion to the Truth

“Do not preach”—thus they preach—
    “one should not preach of such things;
    disgrace will not overtake us.”
Should this be said, O house of Jacob?
    Has the Lord grown impatient?
    Are these his deeds?
Do not my words do good
    to him who walks uprightly?
But lately my people have risen up as an enemy;
you strip the rich robe from those who pass by trustingly
    with no thought of war.
The women of my people you drive out
    from their delightful houses;
from their young children you take away
    my splendor forever.
10 Arise and go,
    for this is no place to rest,
because of uncleanness that destroys
    with a grievous destruction.
11 If a man should go about and utter wind and lies,
    saying, “I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,”
    he would be the preacher for this people!
Micah 2:6-11 ESV

Micah was especially adept at using wordplay to drive home a point. In this section, he turns his attention to those who were begging him to give up his message of doom and gloom. Micah compares their words to a constant “dripping” of water.  He uses the Hebrew word, nataph, which means “to drop” or “drip.” It is not the normal word used for prophetic speech.

To the people of Judah, Micah’s prophecies concerning God’s pending judgment were like a steady and tireless trickle of water. He never stopped pointing out their sins and warning them of God’s anger. So, they responded in kind, persistently “dripping” their demand: “Don’t prophesy like that. Such disasters will never come our way!” (Micah 2:6 NLT).

These people wrongly assumed that if they could silence the messenger, the problem would go away. They failed to recognize the seriousness of their problem or to acknowledge their guilt and desperate need for confession and repentance. The idea that God would punish them was unfathomable to them. After all, they were His chosen people, the offspring of Abraham. He had promised to provide for and protect them. He had made a binding covenant with them, agreeing to bless and prosper them. But they had failed to remember that their covenant agreement with God had been bilateral in nature. It had come with conditions that God had communicated in the form of several if-then statements that outlined the behavioral requirements on Israel.

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, [then] the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NLT

“But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, [then] all these curses will come and overwhelm you.” – Deuteronomy 28:5 NLT

God had done His part. He had blessed them abundantly. They were living in the land of Canaan, which God had provided as their inheritance. Under the reigns of David and Solomon, they had experienced significant expansion of their borders, followed by a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Solomon’s dominion extended over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza. And there was peace on all his borders. During the lifetime of Solomon, all of Judah and Israel lived in peace and safety. And from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, each family had its own home and garden. – 1 Kings 4:24-25 NLT

Even after God split the kingdom in two because of the sins of Solomon, He had continued to provide kings for both Israel and Judah. And He had faithfully continued to send His prophets to call his rebellious people to repentance. But His “chosen” people had chosen to reject His messengers and His message. They preferred blessings over curses and good news over bad news. So, they ignored the warnings of Micah, choosing instead to believe that their unique relationship with God was going to protect them from harm. But Micah had news for them.

Should you talk that way, O family of Israel?
    Will the Lord’s Spirit have patience with such behavior?
If you would do what is right,
    you would find my words comforting. – Micah 2:7 NLT

Simply refusing to accept the reality of God’s judgment against them was not going to make it go away. Wishful thinking was not an antidote for what ailed them. God was demanding repentance and a return to faithful obedience to His commands. That is why Micah insists that if they would simply do “what is right” they could once again experience the blessings of God.

“…if you obey the Lord your God:

Your towns and your fields
    will be blessed.
Your children and your crops
    will be blessed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be blessed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be blessed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be blessed.” – Deuteronomy 28:2-6 NLT

But their tendency had always been toward disobedience rather than obedience.  And Micah supports this assertion by providing evidence of their most-recent sinful behavior.

Yet to this very hour
    my people rise against me like an enemy!
You steal the shirts right off the backs
    of those who trusted you,
making them as ragged as men
    returning from battle. – Micah 2:8 NLT

Micah provides damning proof of their ongoing violation of God’s law. He accuses the people of Judah of taking advantage of their fellow citizens in order to line their own pockets. Yet, God had warned against such practice.

“If you take your neighbor’s cloak as security for a loan, you must return it before sunset. This coat may be the only blanket your neighbor has. How can a person sleep without it? If you do not return it and your neighbor cries out to me for help, then I will hear, for I am merciful.” – Exodus 22:26-27 NLT

And Micah was far from finished. He had more evidence of their ungodly and unlawful treatment of one another.

You have evicted women from their pleasant homes
    and forever stripped their children of all that God would give them. – Micah 2:9 NLT

Greed, avarice, and an insatiable appetite for more drove their actions. And, once again, their behavior was in direct violation of God’s laws.

“You must not exploit a widow or an orphan. If you exploit them in any way and they cry out to me, then I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will blaze against you, and I will kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows and your children fatherless.” – Exodus 22:22-24 NLT

Interestingly enough, this is the exact charge Jesus leveled against the Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders of His day.

“…they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.” – Mark 40 NLT

Jesus went on to condemn the hypocritical conduct of the self-righteous religious leaders of Israel and He warned them of them that their actions would have consequences.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 NLT

And Micah had bad news for the people of his day.

Up! Begone!
    This is no longer your land and home,
for you have filled it with sin
    and ruined it completely. – Micah 2:10 NLT

They took great pride in their status as God’s chosen people, but they had failed to live up to their calling. They too were like whitewashed tombs, pristine in their outward appearance, but filled with the death and decay of sin. They still offered their sacrifices at the temple. They kept up with all the prescribed religious rituals and observances. But they failed to do what God had deemed as good, just, and right.

They would rather look good than do good. They would rather appear righteous than actually be righteous. And Micah saw through all their pretense and religious posturing. In fact, he knew that their tireless pursuit of pleasure and personal comfort made them suckers for any message that validated their lifestyle of sin.

Suppose a prophet full of lies would say to you,
    “I’ll preach to you the joys of wine and alcohol!”
That’s just the kind of prophet you would like! – Micah 2:11 NLT

And this tendency to seek out prophets, pastors, and teachers who will accommodate and even encourage godless behavior is always a danger for the people of God. The apostle Paul warned Timothy of this very problem.

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. – 2 Timothy 4:3 NLT

Micah was preaching the truth but the people of Judah did not want to hear it. They wanted someone to tell them what they wanted to hear. They were looking for validation, not condemnation. They wanted approval and a promise of God’s blessing, not a call to repentance and a warning of God’s judgment.

And Micah will close out this section with a reminder that God will one day restore His people. He will bless them once again. But in the meantime, the plan of God called for judgment. Their sins must be punished. Their rebellion again Him must be dealt with and their disobedience of His law must bear the appropriate consequences.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Just Say, “Yes!”

25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:25-30 ESV

Immediately after delivering a blistering indictment against the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, Jesus turns His attention to God. While His audience wrestled with the weight of His previous words of condemnation, Jesus spoke words of adoration and gratitude to God, the Lord of heaven and earth, who just happened to be His Father. This last designation would have seemed odd to the Jews in Jesus’ audience. This overly intimate appellation used by Jesus was not common among the Jews when referencing God. They viewed Abraham as their father and God as their sovereign Lord and ruler. Yet, Jesus blended the two titles together, declaring Himself to be the Son of the God who is Lord of heaven and earth. And Jesus made the nature of this Father/Son relationship quite clear in verse 27.

“My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” – Matthew 11:27 NLT

Jesus did not refer to God as “the” Father, but as “my” father. And the close relationship between the two of them was like none other on earth. Remember, Jesus had just condemned the three Galilean cities for their rejection of His as the Messiah. They had been eyewitnesses to His miracles and had heard the message of repentance, but had refused to accept Him as who He claimed to be. And yet, here is Jesus declaring that He has had divine authority granted to Him as the one and only Son of God.

The inhabitants of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum stood condemned for having failed to recognize and receive Jesus as God’s Son and their own Savior. He had come to release them from their captivity to sin by paying the penalty of death that hung over each and every one of them. But they saw no need for what Jesus was offering, which is why He refers to them as “the wise and understanding” (Matthew 11:25 ESV). In their minds, they were the chosen people of God and already enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Lord of heaven and earth.

In fact, at a later point in His ministry, Jesus would confront the Jews regarding their false and highly flawed understanding of their relationship with God. The apostle John records that Jesus declared that those who were His true disciples would listen to His words and keep them. And Jesus promised His disciples, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 NLT).

But the Jews, offended by Jesus’ words, had responded, “But we are descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, ‘You will be set free’?” (John 8:33 NLT).

And this is where Jesus dropped a bombshell of His predominantly Jewish audience, exploding their preconceived notions of ethnic privilege and religious piety.

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. Yes, I realize that you are descendants of Abraham. And yet some of you are trying to kill me because there’s no room in your hearts for my message. I am telling you what I saw when I was with my Father. But you are following the advice of your father.” – John 8:34-38 NLT

Here, as in Matthew’s account, Jesus is declaring Himself to be the Son of God and fully authorized to offer them freedom from enslavement to sin and its accompanying penalty of death. He fully acknowledges that they are descendants of Abraham, but that will not be enough to save them from the divine punishment awaiting them for their rebellion against God. Jesus infers that their rejection of Him and the determination of the religious leaders to kill Him comes from Satan, not God. But they boldly claim, “Our father is Abraham!” (John 8:39 NLT).

But Jesus contradicts their assertion.

“No,” Jesus replied, “for if you were really the children of Abraham, you would follow his example. Instead, you are trying to kill me because I told you the truth, which I heard from God. Abraham never did such a thing. No, you are imitating your real father.” – John 8:40-41 NLT

They were blind to the truth. And the apostle Paul explains why.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

They were blind to the truth that could set them free. And oddly, Jesus thanks His Father “for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike” (Matthew 11:25 NLT). The self-righteous and self-confident were unable to grasp the truth concerning what Jesus had come to do. But the childlike; those who were needy, dependent, and lacking any pretense of self-achieved righteousness, were able to recognize and receive the great gift being offered to them by Jesus.

There is an aspect to Jesus’ words that makes many of us uncomfortable. He seems to indicate that not all who hear His words will accept them. In fact, He clearly states, “no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27 NLT). He is presenting Himself as the sole point of access to God. And He later reinforced the exclusivity of His role when He stated: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT).

Knowledge about God was not going to be enough. Jesus came to offer a restored relationship with God. The Jews had failed to worship God faithfully. Their entire history is riddled with stories of spiritual adultery and unfaithfulness. And Jesus will later indict them once again for their misplaced confidence in their position as God’s treasured possession.

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

Jesus knew that the Jews in His audience were putting all their hope in their identity rather than His. Their self-righteousness would prove insufficient. Their over-confident trust in their status as descendants of Abraham would leave them disappointed and undeserving of God’s grace. They were going to have to come to a place of need and dependence. They would have to recognize their own insufficiency and their need for a Savior other than self.

And Jesus offers an invitation to any and all who will hear. He provides a clear and compelling call to those who will admit their weariness with a religion based on works, and righteousness dependent upon self-effort.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

Jesus wasn’t interested in what they could do. He wasn’t demanding that they keep a rigid list of dos and don’ts. He offered rest from all the weariness that is the inevitable result of trying to earn favor with God through self-effort. He presented Himself as the solution to their problem. He offered to be their teacher and guide, providing gentle instructions for life and a clear path to a right relationship with God. And all they had to do was accept His gracious invitation.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Proper Prayer

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. – Matthew 6:5-8 ESV

The Jews were a prayerful people. Prayer was an important part of their religious practice. They had prayers, like the Shema, that were to be recited both morning and evening. Services were held throughout the day at the synagogue where the people of Israel would gather for prayer. So, prayer was not uncommon or unfamiliar among those who heard Jesus speak that day on the hillside. But Jesus was not promoting the necessity of prayer, He was trying to expose the false motivation behind their prayers.

As He has done throughout His sermon, Jesus begins with a warning against hypocrisy – a form of play-acting, where outward appearances were meant to deceive or delude. The Greek word is hypokritēs and was used to describe an actor in a play. An actor’s job was to portray a particular character, altering his voice and appearance to give the illusion that he was someone else. A good actor was able to distort reality and suspend belief, if only for a short period of time.

The problem Jesus is attempting to address is the presence of hypocrisy in matters of faith. Posing and pretending was not to be part of the life of a child of God. Prayer was important to God. He considered the communication between Himself and His chosen people as vital and worthy of reverence. He had provided prayer as a means by which men could express their needs to Him, but also declare His goodness and glory. They could ask things of Him, but they were also expected to offer praises to Him for all He had done for them already.

And yet, prayer had become just another means of promoting personal piety. Praying in public, where others could see and hear you, was done to get noticed and to seek the admiration of others for your superior spirituality. Public praying was a way to put your righteousness on display, for all to see. But Jesus says, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them” (Matthew 6:5 NLT).

He redefines the purpose of prayer. It was not to get noticed by men, but heard by God. Prayer was not meant to be a public display of your piety or personal righteousness. Remember what He said just a few verses earlier? “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1 ESV). Like alms-giving, prayer had become nothing more than a means to an end, and the end was the praise of men. When Jesus warns them not to practice “your righteousness” before other people, He is not offering them a compliment for their apparent righteousness. He is not telling them that their giving of alms and public prayers were righteous acts. He is describing their actions as self-righteousness. They were guilty of displaying a self-produced brand of righteousness. And just so we’re clear, Jesus is not saying that alms-giving and public prayer are wrong. He is simply using these two things as examples of good and godly things that had become misunderstood and misused by those who were desperately wanting others to see them as something they were not. In a desperate desire to be viewed by their peers as righteous and holy, they did everything to get noticed.

But Jesus tells them that they are focused on the wrong audience. They are busy trying to convince others of their righteousness when it should have been God they were worried about. He should have been the focus of their prayers. Rather than wasting their time trying to convince others of their own righteousness, they would have been better off confessing their unrighteousness to God. It was Os Guinness who wrote, “I live before the audience of One – before others I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose, nothing to prove.”

It is important that we recognize that Jesus is not condemning public prayer. But prayer is intended, first and foremost, to be a spiritual activity. It is meant to be a conversation between man and God. Prayer is intended for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It is a way for man to give to God (glory, honor, adoration). But it also a means by which men can get from God (forgiveness, healing, guidance). Jesus is rejecting the idea of righteousness being inextricably linked to public prayerfulness. He is saying that, if you pray to impress men, you will fail to gain approval from God. Acts of righteousness done with nothing more than recognition in mind are not acts of righteousness at all. In a sense, they become nothing more than right actions done for the wrong reasons.

Jesus is exposing the kind of prayer that is self-focused and meant to get you seen and heard. It’s prayer meant to impress, not confess. It’s prayer meant to gain the praise of men, but that fails to offer praise to God. It’s prayer designed to boost our reputation before men and that lacks confession of our transgressions toward God.

So, what are we to do? Not pray? No, Jesus challenges His audience to rethink their perspective on prayer. He tells them to go into their room, shut the door and pray to God – in private – where no one else can see. And God, who sees all, will not only see them but hear and reward them. He will bless them, approve of them, and express His pleasure with them by answering their prayers. The apostle John would later expand on the message of Jesus,

And we are confident that he hears us whenever we ask for anything that pleases him. And since we know he hears us when we make our requests, we also know that he will give us what we ask for. – 1 John 5:14-15 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling us that if we pray to impress others, we will get exactly what we seek: Their praise. But we won’t get the approval of God. If getting noticed for our prayers is more important to us than getting our prayers answered by God, we will become well-known and revered for our prayer life, but God won’t receive glory for answering our prayers. Prayers prayed to get noticed by men, will always fail to get men to notice God. But our responsibility as God’s children is to bring glory to Him, not us. We are here to point men and women to God, not to us. We are meant to lift Him up, not ourselves.

Jesus goes on to describe an aspect of prayer with which we all struggle. How do you get God to hear and answer you? Even if you pray in private, where no one can hear you but God, how do you make sure He really does hear you? Once again, Jesus exposes a misconception. He states, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again” (Matthew 6:7 NLT).

When you talk to God, don’t try to impress Him with the length of your prayer or by the careful choice of your words. Don’t drone on and on, somehow thinking that God will be more prone to hear you if your prayers display a proper amount of fervor. It is neither the intensity or longevity of our prayers that cause God to answer. It is the motivation of the heart. James tells us, “when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong – you want only what will give you pleasure” (James 4:3 NLT). Wrong methods. Wrong motives. That’s the problem. Later on, in this same message, Jesus will say:

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” – Matthew 7:7-11 NLT

We are to ask. And we are to trust God for the answer. He isn’t going to give us something we don’t need or can’t use. But it’s important to remember that God is not going to give us everything we ask for because too often our motives are wrong. Also, we don’t always know what it is we actually need. We may think we need healing, but God knows that what we really need is increased faith. We may ask God for a solution to a financial need, but He knows that the real issue is spiritual in nature. We have a greed problem. So, rather than give us money, He teaches us to live within our means, learning to trust Him for our needs.

Sometimes, we spend far too much time asking God for things. But Jesus reminds us, “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:8 NLT). This doesn’t mean we don’t have a responsibility to ask God for things, but that the purpose behind our prayer is not to share information with God, but to communicate our dependence upon Him. We don’t pray to keep God up to speed with all that is going on in our life. He already knows. We pray in order to convey to Him our complete reliance upon Him for everything in our life. Prayer is an act of submission to God. It is the adoration of God. It is a means by which we offer up our thankfulness for all that He has done and is doing in and around our life.

Prayer isn’t meant to get you noticed by men. But, on the other hand, it isn’t intended to get you noticed by God. He already knows everything there is to know about you. Prayer is an expression of humility to God, showing Him that we are completely dependent upon Him for all things. But how easy it is to make prayer an expression of pride and self-promotion. So, Jesus warns us not to pray that way. And then He provides us with an example of how to pray. But that’s for tomorrow.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Giving to Get

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.– Matthew 6:1-4 ESV

Jesus has just dropped a bombshell on His listeners: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 ESV). And as disconcerting and discomfiting as His words may have been, He was simply trying to explain to them about the true nature of godly righteousness – that alien, outside-of-yourself kind of righteousness that comes from God and can’t be manufactured, only faked.

But how easily we trade in God’s view of perfection for that of man’s. How quickly we forget about what God expects of us and lower our standards. That is exactly what Jesus is confronting among the Jews in His audience. They had long ago traded internal holiness for external piety. They had learned to settle for the praise of men rather than the praise of God. They were stuck on a horizontal plane, viewing righteousness from a purely human standpoint, measuring themselves by comparing themselves with others. So, Jesus starts off this section of His message with a warning. He uses the word “Beware.” In the Greek, it is prosoche, and it means “to beware, take heed, be attentive to.” Jesus used this word a lot.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.” – Matthew 7:15 ESV

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues.” – Matthew 10:17 NLT

“Watch out!” Jesus warned them. Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16:6 NLT

Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets.” – Luke 20:46 NLT

In essence, Jesus is telling His listeners to be perfect and to be careful. His use of the word “beware” is designed to get their attention and to warn them to listen carefully to what He is about to say. Jesus is trying to open the eyes of those sitting on the hillside, using stern words of warning to make His point.

If you recall, the word “blessed” that Jesus repeatedly used in His opening remarks, really refers to the approval of God. So, those beatitudes or blessings could read like this:

Approved by God are the poor in spirit

Approved by God are those who mourn

Approved by God are the meek

Approved by God are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness

Approved by God are the merciful

Approved by God are the pure in heart

Approved by God are the peacemakers

Approved by God are the persecuted, reviled and slandered

We are to seek the approval of God, not men. We are to seek the reward of God, not men. And when we come to faith in Jesus, we receive the full approval of God. We are counted as righteous and adopted into His family as sons and daughters. And those who enjoy God’s approval become part of His Kingdom, receive comfort, inherit the earth, experience satisfaction, receive mercy, see God, and enjoy the promise of a great reward in heaven.

Jesus is speaking of the vast difference between man-made and spirit-induced righteousness. Jesus tells His audience that they are to beware of practicing their righteousness before other people. In other words, their motivation should not be recognition. Those who seek to do good things so that they will be deemed to be good people by those who see them will have all the reward they are going to get. They’ll receive the praise of men, but not the approval of God. That kind of man-pleasing, praise-seeking righteousness will get you no reward from God. Why? Because it is not the kind of righteousness He requires.

To make His point, Jesus provides three examples from real life. The first has to do with alms-giving, which was the act of providing for the needs of the poor and destitute as an act of mercy. The Greek word is eleēmosynē, and it refers to “a donation to the poor” and was sometimes called “compassionateness.”

Jesus is accusing His audience of giving to get merit, but not out of mercy. Their giving to the poor was motivated by a desire for recognition. That was the reward after which they sought. And Jesus tells them that they will have the reward they seek: The praise and approval of men. But they will not receive the one reward they so desperately need: The approval and blessing of God.

The kind of man-made righteousness that Jesus is describing is driven by one thing: The desire for the praise of others. It is done in order to be seen by others and to garner recognition and reward. But Jesus says that, when you give, you are not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. In other words, your giving is to remain private. So private, that it will be like one hand not knowing what the other hand is doing. Even your closest friends or family members won’t know what you have done.

What a different mindset. Instead of seeking recognition, you are to pursue anonymity.  You are to keep your actions hidden. Do what you do in secret, concealed, private, and hidden from the view of others. But know this, God will see what you are doing, and reward you, in His way and according to His own timing.

Jesus is not suggesting that there is anything wrong with alms-giving or charity. But anyone who thinks they are righteous because they give has missed the point and misunderstood the true nature of godly righteousness. In fact, giving in order to get recognition isn’t righteousness at all. At least, not according to God’s definition. And throughout this portion of His message, Jesus will emphasize that our greatest concern should be what God thinks and how He views our actions. In fact, Jesus will repeatedly emphasize that, when we give motivated by mercy, rather than the need for merit,  “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

While no one around us may know what we have done, God will and, more importantly, He will know why we have done it. He will know the motivation of our hearts. And that is still the key behind what Jesus is trying to teach here. This is all about the heart. Giving to get noticed is about the head. It’s about ego, pride, self-esteem and measuring our worth by what others think of us.

But alms-giving was intended to be an act of mercy. It was giving to those in need, not so you could get something out of it. To give to those who do not have, just so you can have what you desire, is a twisted and warped way of life. It is ungodly and unrighteous. It reveals a love of self, but not a love of others. And Jesus warns, “Beware!” Don’t do it. That kind of giving is hypocritical, mere play-acting, intended to give the impression of mercy but motivated out of the insatiable need for merit and men’s praise. And, Jesus says, practicing that kind of righteousness will get you exactly what you desire, but not what you so desperately need: God’s approval and blessing.

In his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul wrote:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

We did nothing to earn our salvation. And we can do nothing to earn a right standing before God now. Our acts of righteousness do not earn us God’s favor. We perform acts of righteousness because we have already earned His favor and have His Spirit living within us. It is the righteousness of Christ, credited to us by God the Father, that allows us to do “the good things he planned for us long ago.” We have been made new so that we might live new lives, motivated not by merit and men’s praise, but out of willing obedience to God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson