PREDICTIONS OF A PROGRESSIVE PASTOR IN TEXAS-“THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND”

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“Why did Jesus rebuke the scribes and Pharisees so harshly in Matthew 23:13–36?”

Answer: 
In Matthew 23 Jesus pronounces “woes” on the scribes and Pharisees, the religious elite of the day. The word woe is an exclamation of grief, denunciation, or distress. This was not the first time Jesus had some harsh words for the religious leaders of His day. Why did Jesus rebuke them so harshly here? Looking at each woe gives some insight.

Before pronouncing the woes, Jesus told His listeners to respect the scribes and Pharisees due to their position of authority but not to emulate them, “for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see” (Matthew 23:3–5). The scribes and Pharisees were supposed to know God and help others know Him and follow His ways. Instead, the religious leaders added to God’s Law, making it a cumbersome and onerous burden. And they did not follow God with a pure heart. Their religion was not true worship of God; rather, it was rooted in a prideful heart. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount emphasizes the true intent of the Law over the letter of the Law. The scribes and Pharisees emphasized the letter, completely missing its spirit.

The first woe is, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13). Jesus cares for people. He desires for them to know Him and to enter into His kingdom (John 3:16–1710:10172 Peter 3:9). After rebuking the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus lamented over rebellious Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37–39). Clearly, His heart is for people to find life in Him. It stands to reason, then, that He would have harsh words for those who prevented people from finding salvation. The teachers of the Law and Pharisees were not truly seeking after God, though they acted as if they were. Their religion was empty, and it was preventing others from following the Messiah.

In the second woe, Jesus condemns the scribes and Pharisees for making strenuous efforts to win converts and then leading those converts to be “twice as much” children of hell as the scribes and Pharisees were (Matthew 13:15). In other words, they were more intent on spreading their religion than on maintaining the truth.

The third woe Jesus pronounces against the scribes and Pharisees calls the religious leaders “blind guides” and “blind fools” (Matthew 23:16–17). Specifically, Jesus points out, they nit-picked about which oaths were binding and which were not, ignoring the sacred nature of all oaths and significance of the temple and God’s holiness (verses 15–22).

The fourth woe calls out the scribes and Pharisees for their practice of diligently paying the tithe while neglecting to actually care for people. While they were counting their mint leaves to make sure they gave one tenth to the temple, they “neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Once again, they focused on the letter of the Law and obeyed it with pride, but they missed the weightier things of God. Their religion was external; their hearts were not transformed.

Jesus elaborates on their hypocrisy in the fifth woe. He tells the religious leaders they appear clean on the outside, but they have neglected the inside. They perform religious acts but do not have God-honoring hearts. It does no good, Jesus says, to clean up the outside when the inside is “full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). The Pharisees and scribes are blind and do not recognize that, when the inside is changed, the outside, too, will be transformed.

In the sixth woe, Jesus claims the scribes and Pharisees are “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). The deadness inside of tombs is likened to the “hypocrisy and wickedness” inside the religious leaders (verse 28). Once again, they appear to obey God, but their hearts are far from Him (see Matthew 15:7–9 and Isaiah 29:13).

The blind leading the blind

Predictions of a progressive pastor in Texas

After the recent SCOTUS decision making marriage equality the law of the land, I have been drawn into conversations about predictions. Mostly I was asked about how the decision will affect The United Methodist Church.

Here are my five mostly hopeful predictions about the future of the UMC in the wake of this decision. And since gambling is not approved in the UMC, let’s just say that at least for now, all bets are off.

Prediction Number One: The far right in our denomination will up the pressure (both ecclesiastically and politically) against our LGBTQ siblings.

Given what’s happened in Texas and Kansas, this is kind of no-brainer and perhaps doesn’t deserve status as a “prediction.”

In the church, the pressure will come in several forms: there will be loud calls for trials for “disobedient pastors.” There will be a renewed movement against reconciling churches. And there will be increased pressure on boards of ordained ministry to “weed out” candidates who are “self-professed, practicing homosexuals.” All in the name of love, of course.

Prediction Number Two: There will be more same sex marriages performed by UM clergy and there will be more same sex marriages performed in our UM churches, particularly in the south.

Now that same sex couples who live in the traditional South can be married in their home states, I fully expect there to be more requests of UM pastors and churches for same sex weddings. Assuming that clergy tell their bishops and their district superintendents that they’re performing a same sex marriage, there will be charges filed against pastors. In my own conference, Rio Texas, there are now over a dozen clergy who are committed to performing same sex marriages as an act of pastoral care for those who have for so long been marginalized and maligned by our church. Some pastors have been asked to perform same sex weddings and at least one performed two weddings on the day SCOTUS made same sex marriage legal. (And, yes, charges have been filed.)

Prediction Number Three: In the face of prejudice and exclusion, there will be an equal, opposite and stronger reaction of grace. Our bishops, not known for their ability to agree on much or to lead us into bold new actions, will decide not to pursue trials. Most if not all bishops will work things out through just resolution.

Why? First, there is no money in most conferences for trials. Each trial costs upwards of $100,000 not to mention the time lost for all of those involved in the trial.

Second, the negative publicity generated damages the church’s witness, especially our witness among young persons who are overwhelmingly in favor of LGBTQ rights.

Third, like the court, the bishops know that the writing is on the wall and the UM church will be changing soon. When evangelicals like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and Tony Campolo have wrapped their minds around supporting gay marriage you know change is not far off. When over half of young evangelicals polled are in support of gay marriage you know it’s not far off. When pastors who have long opposed changing our discriminatory laws whisper to me at Annual Conference, “I’m on your side now,” you know it’s just around the corner for The UMC.

Prediction Number Four: The UMC will not split over this.

Yes, some will leave the church; some already have. And some churches will try to pull out with their property and perhaps as a gesture of love and kindness, we ought to find ways for clergy and churches to part amicably. Of course, there will be proposals to split, mostly from the right wing of the church. But the church as a whole will not undergo a split like we did prior to the Civil War.

Although many progressives have left the church, progressives will not be leaving The UMC to form a new church or join with the UCC. Nor will conservatives leave en masse. There is a great love on both sides for Wesleyan Christianity and we will renew our calling to find ways to work together, continuing to connect the social and personal gospel in a powerful ways.

Prediction Number Five: At the 2020 General Conference, there will be change. The changes may not be substantial, but they will allow pastors to perform same sex weddings, the ordination of LGBTQ persons, and same sex weddings in our churches.

I hope and pray for change next year at General Conference. Methodists, however, have always approached these great changes dragging their heels, so I’ll stay with 2020 as the year we make important changes in our relationship with our LGBTQ friends.

All of this change will not happen automatically. Moderates and progressives will have to work hard to elect delegates that more fully represent a view of same sex marriage that is in harmony with our general rules (do no harm) and that is in keeping with our charge to pastors to be in ministry with all persons (no exceptions).

In order to get there, we will have to draw deeply from the well of the social gospel, always a late comer to the table. We must also draw on our theological understanding of scripture that takes into account historical context and criticism, and that announces the moral arc of scripture toward equality and egalitarianism.

So these are my five and I’m sticking to them. I continue to remain hopeful about The United Methodist Church. Deeply saddened, yes, by the harmful ways we continue to participate in a system that is hurting our LGBTQ members, but still oddly hopeful.

Why? While we take great pleasure in our heritage and the goodness of God to us, my faith is grounded in the awareness that God is the God of the future. God is always coming to us, bringing resurrection and new life. Who knows? This may be just the change our church needs to move us from institutional preservation and identification with the status quo to a radical witness of love that is truly world changing. Source Rev. John Elford is senior pastor of University UMC in Austin, Texas

Jesus concludes His seven-fold rebuke by telling the religious leaders that they are just like their fathers, who persecuted the prophets of old. In building monuments to the prophets, they testify against themselves, openly admitting that it was their ancestors who killed the prophets (Matthew 23:29–31). Although they arrogantly claim that they would not have done so, they are the ones who will soon plot the murder of the Son of God Himself (Matthew 26:4).

Jesus’ words are harsh because there was so much at stake. Those who followed the Pharisees and scribes were being kept from following God. So much of the teaching in Jesus’ day was in direct contradiction of God’s Word (see Matthew 15:6). The religious leaders made a mockery out of following God. They did not truly understand God’s ways, and they led others away from God. Jesus’ desire was that people would come to know God and be reconciled with Him. In Matthew 11:28–30 Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Unlike the burdens the scribes and Pharisees laid on the people in a human effort to gain reconciliation with God, Jesus gives true rest. The religious leaders spread lies covered in a veneer of godliness (John 8:44); Jesus spoke harshly against them because He came to bring life (John 10:10).

Also, the word woe carries with it a tinge of sorrow. There is an element of imprecation, to be sure, but with it an element of compassionate sadness. The seven woes that Jesus pronounces on the religious leaders are solemn declarations of future misery. The stubbornness of the sinners to whom He speaks is bringing a judgment to be feared. The scribes and Pharisees are calling down God’s wrath upon themselves, and they are to be pitied.

Immediately after Jesus’ rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees, we see Jesus’ compassion. He asks, “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:33). Jesus then expresses His desire to gather the people of Israel to Himself for safety, if only they were willing (verse 37). God longs for His people to come to Him and find forgiveness. Jesus was not harsh to be mean. He was not having a temper tantrum. Rather, love guided His actions. Jesus spoke firmly against the deception of Satan out of a desire for people to know truth and find life in Him.

 “Why did Jesus refer to the Pharisees as a ‘child of hell’ in Matthew 23:15?”

Answer: 
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Matthew 23:15). This is one of the “seven woes” pronounced by the Lord against the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. To understand why Jesus would refer to a convert of the Pharisees as a “child of hell” (literally, “son of Gehenna”), we have to look at the context of Jesus’ words. Jesus is instructing His followers about the religious hypocrites who are themselves “children of hell.”

Jesus begins His condemnation of the religious leaders of the day in Matthew 22 with a parable. The story of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1–15) condemns the leaders’ self-righteousness and their refusal to accept God’s provision for their salvation. Because their hearts were still hard, they responded by trying to entrap Jesus with questions about taxes (verses 16–22), the resurrection (verses 23–33), and the Law (verses 34–40). Jesus avoided their traps and indicted them for knowing neither the Scriptures nor the power of God (verse 29). Then He turned the tables on them, asking them a question they couldn’t answer about the Messiah (verses 41–46). Once He had silenced them, He used the occasion to teach His disciples the truth about the teachers of the Law in chapter 23.

To be a child of hell is to be deserving of hell, that is, to be awfully wicked. In Matthew 23, Jesus explains that the Pharisees and Sadducees displayed their wickedness in many ways. They did not practice what they preached (verse 3). They burdened the people with religious rituals and ceremonies of their own invention and made no effort to help them to bear them (verse 4). All their religious rituals were done in a public manner in order to receive the praise and glory from others (verses 5–7). For all these sins and more, Jesus pronounces “woes” upon them for their guilt and the punishment that would surely await them.

The Pharisees and their converts were children of hell primarily because they rejected God’s provision for their salvation, attempting to justify themselves through their own righteous deeds. In so doing, they “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13). Jesus said that, when they made a Gentile convert, they made him double the child of hell that they were—the former pagan became twice the hypocrite that they were, twice as confirmed in wickedness. By opposing Jesus, the leaders tried to convince people that He was an impostor. Many were ready to embrace Him as the Messiah and were about to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but the hypocrites prevented it. Jesus says they had “taken away the key of knowledge” (Luke 11:52), meaning they had taken away the right interpretation of the ancient prophecies respecting the Messiah. In that way they prevented the people from receiving Jesus as their promised Redeemer.

Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees became children of hell by rejecting Jesus as their only Savior, so do millions today. All who remain in their sins are deserving of hell because God demands justice, and wickedness must be paid for (Romans 6:23). If we reject Christ’s payment for our sins, we must pay for them ourselves, thus rendering ourselves children of hell.

The scribes went beyond interpretation of Scripture, however, and added many man-made traditions to what God had said. They became professionals at spelling out the letter of the Law while ignoring the spirit behind it. Things became so bad that the regulations and traditions the scribes added to the Law were considered more important than the Law itself. This led to many confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes. At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shocked His audience by declaring that the righteousness of the scribes was not enough to get anyone to heaven (Matthew 5:20). A large portion of Jesus’ sermon then dealt with what the people had been taught (by the scribes) and what God actually wanted (Matthew 5:21–48). Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, He thoroughly condemned the scribes for their hypocrisy (Matthew 23). They knew the Law, and they taught it to others, but they did not obey it.

The scribes’ original aim was in earnest—to know and preserve the Law and encourage others to keep it. But things turned horribly wrong when man-made traditions overshadowed God’s Word and a pretense of holiness replaced a life of true godliness. The scribes, whose stated goal was to preserve the Word, actually nullifiedit by the traditions they handed down (Mark 7:13). 

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StevieRay Hansen
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