... continued from yesterday.
Jesus calls this approach to morality hypocrisy, putting on a good show on the outside while having nothing of value on the inside. One of the most striking images Jesus gives in this chapter is that of a "whitewashed tomb" that is clean on the outside but inside is "full of the bones of the dead" (Matt. 23:27). So it is all too easy to give the appearance of doing all the right things--dotting all the i's, crossing all the t's, and filling out all the paperwork in triplicate--when in reality one's heart is far from God (cf. Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).
In the end, it all boils down to the twin love commandments that the previous chapter explored: love God and love neighbor. We are faithful to God, centering our lives around his interests and values more than around ourselves. And we know that his values more than anything else are to love one another (1 John 4:7-8).
As I argued in chapter 3, justice in a Jewish context was not about making sure wrongdoers are punished. That's what we mean by the word "justice." In a Jewish context, justice was about making sure that those like widows, orphans, and the poor were taken care of. When Micah 6:8 says that the Lord requires Israel "to act justly," the prophet is thinking more than anything else about things like having "dishonest scales" (6:11). The prophet is thinking of the rich who cheat the people of Israel (6:12). It is from passages like this one in the Prophets that the phrase "social justice" comes.
The teachers of the Law that Jesus rails against were unjust in similar ways to those the prophets indicted. At one point, Jesus said that these people "devoured widow's houses" (Mark 12:40) at the same time that they make lengthy prayers and enjoy the most important seats in synagogues and in banquets (12:39). To clean the inside of their cup, Luke 11 says, they need to be generous to the poor (Luke 11:41).
One of the most fascinating parts of Matthew 23 is the fact that these Pharisees, although they acted exactly like those from the past who persecuted the prophets, somehow thought they were different from those who persecuted the prophets. "You say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets'" (23:30). It's something we need to be careful about today, that we don't find ourselves opposing Jesus' values while thinking we are standing up for him.
For example, we can certainly debate about the best way truly to help the poor or to address those who are illegally in the country. But there is little room for debate about what Jesus' values would have been. He would have strongly advocated to help those who are in need in the most holistic sense. A lot of Americans earn plenty of money but are "poor" in the sense of being overwhelmingly in debt. Jesus would have advocated a course of action to heal their lives and habits every bit as much as to heal those in a cycle of generational poverty, unable to see a way of living that is not dependent on the government for help.
We can debate about the best specific course of action in each case. What is clear beyond any reasonable doubt is that Jesus would have pushed to help them in the most wholesome way. He would not have advocated an approach that says, "They've made their bed. Now they need to lie in it." Justice for Jesus was not about making sure those who messed up got their "just desserts." It was quite the opposite, actually.
That is not to say that experiencing consequences should not be part of the equation. The key is that the function of consequences is to teach a person how important it is to do better. The function for Jesus would not be to punish them because they have violated some rule or law. That is where some Christians end up making the rules the goal, like Jesus' opponents did, rather than the true underlying goal and value, which was to help those in trouble.
An important moment in my own spiritual pilgrimage was an Easter morning in 1987 when I read through the book of Galatians. It dawned on me that my "rule-oriented" approach to Christianity was not that of Paul and Jesus. Imagine my surprise to realize that my way of thinking about God was actually much more like that of Paul's opponents and Jesus' opponents than that of Paul and Jesus themselves!
So when my forebears criticized Martin Luther King Jr. for being a law-breaker, they were on the opposite side of Jesus. Jesus would have seen the injustice of making African-Americans being forced to sit at the back of a bus and would have eagerly broken human laws in favor of the divine principle. The example he has left us is of someone who followed the rules when they were innocuous, but of completely ignoring them when a matter of injustice was involved.
So whatever we think about laws of immigration or about securing our borders, there is no reasonable doubt about what Jesus' approach would be to a specific human in need in front of him. His approach would not be, "Sorry, Charlie, you broke the law and now you're going to starve to death." His first thought would be, "What is the most loving thing to do for this person in front of me," not "Now you're going to pay for breaking the law."
Standing in the background of these sorts of judgments is our picture of what God is like...