Straining the Gnat

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

…If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

Matthew 12:1-2, 7-14

The Pharisees ignored all the good Jesus was doing. All they could see was minor infractions of Sabbath law. They couldn’t see that a man needed healing and Jesus provided that healing. They couldn’t see the life transformation. They couldn’t experience the joy of God’s Kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven in that moment. All they could see was what they perceived to be Jesus doing something wrong. They were so angered by Jesus healing a man that they wanted to kill Him.

Our culture is sick with this same attitude. Social media has made it worse. The one time something goes wrong becomes headline news and we ignore the 99% of the time when things go well.

The recent reaction to the six women who got blood clots is a good illustration of this cultural dysfunction. All six women who got blood clots also got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. So they paused the vaccine to check out the situation and if there was any connection. What we overlook is that 7 million doses have been administered. 7 million. If you try to do the math of how infinitesimally small 6 out of 7 million is, many calculators can’t even show you.

But what does social media and our culture obsess over? It obsesses over the 6 women who may or may not have gotten blood clots from the vaccine, not the 99.99999% of the people who did not. The colloquial phrase is, “We are missing the forest for the trees.”

This is the same on so many issues. Based on TV and the news one would think that transgender individuals are 50% of our population. The truth is that the LGBTQ community is about 5% of the total population. That’s it. 5%. They are massively over-represented on TV shows and in media. And people that identify as transgender are a small fraction of that 5%. Yet, the hispanic community makes up nearly 17% of the American population. When’s the last time you saw the hispanic community talked about that wasn’t about border walls and immigration. If you wanted proportional representation in TV shows, for every one LGBTQ person in a show, you should have 4 hispanics in that same show. It doesn’t happen.

When you start to realize how skewed our perception of reality has become because of media and social media, when you start to actually crunch the numbers, you realize that it’s not about equal representation but about who has the stronger and more forceful political machine.

Does the news cover the 99% of the time that things go well? No. It only covers the 0.01% of the time things go poorly. Our view of the world is becoming skewed. We are spending so much of our attention on the horrible stories that happen a small percentage of the time rather than putting those stories in the larger context. Every local problem gets nationalized by social media as if any problem in one place is a problem everywhere.

Jesus said of the Pharisees, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel“(Matthew 23:24). This is what is happening to our perception of reality. We tend to spend all our energy on the relatively rare traumatic story and have become blind to the bigger picture. We need to return to putting things in their proper context. We need to focus on all that is going right and not just the times things go poorly. We need more time celebrating the good and less time anxiously trying to problem-solve the bad.

Good Soil

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

Matthew 13:3-8

After telling the people the Parable of the Sower, Jesus pulled His disciples aside and explained it (Matthew 13:18-23). The seed is the message about the Kingdom of God. The different soils represent the various conditions of our heart. The fruit produced doesn’t have to do with the quality of the seed but the quality of the soil. And the truths found in this parable are true not only for the message of the Kingdom of God but also the demonstration of the Kingdom.

For instance, why didn’t everyone believe after seeing Jesus do so many miracles, signs, and wonders? They had just witnessed a demonstration of the Kingdom of God coming to earth. How could someone not believe after seeing that? The Parable of the Sower explains it. Witnessing a miracle is a seed of the Kingdom. Our response to a miracle reveals the condition of our hearts.

Jesus’s miracles were not occasional. They were a staple in His life. He was demonstrating the Kingdom everywhere He went. It was not a side ministry. It was His ministry.

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.”

Matthew 8:16-17

The Pharisees were particularly bothered when Jesus cast out demons. (This is still true today!) Maybe because they had seen faith-healers before who were easily falsified. But having authority over demons and casting them out was something no one could fake and something they couldn’t do. The soil of their hearts got exposed. Their only recourse was to claim Jesus was demonized Himself and using demons to cast out demons.

While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

But the Pharisees said, “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.”

Matthew 9:32-34

A little while later, they accused Him of being demon-possessed again after he delivered another man, so Jesus decided to clarify the situation.

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?…But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Matthew 12:25-28

The Kingdom had come in their midst. It had shown up right in front of them in the form of healings and deliverances. People being set free from illness and from demons was supposed to be a sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. It was good seed scattered by the Good Sower. It was supposed to be good news that people rejoiced over. Instead, because of their path-hardened hearts, the Pharisees used it as an accusation against Jesus. The very thing that should have been a reason to crown Jesus King of Kings was used against Him to bring a crown of thorns upon His head.

Yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees

“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”…

…How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:6, 11-12

We need to pay attention the fact that Jesus warned His own disciples to be on guard against the teaching of the religious and political leaders of their day. They needed to have their guard up. They needed to be discerning. They couldn’t just sit and listen without filtering the message they were hearing.

The Pharisees had a works-based teaching that was about earning God’s love based on what you did. It was a performance-oriented message. If you do all the right things, you’ll be acceptable to God. If you don’t, you won’t be. The way it is taught today is, “Just be a good person.” But this is not the gospel.

The Sadducees had strong political ties to the parties in power. Their teaching was about being a good Roman citizen. The goal was to be a good hybrid–a good Roman while being a good Jew. Their teaching was about the perfect blend between nationalism and religion. The way it is taught today is, “Love God and country” as if being a good American is what it is to be a good Christian. This is not the gospel.

When Jesus was warning His disciples to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees, He was warning us too. He was telling us to be on guard against a religious spirit and a political spirit. He was telling us not to allow these two demonic influences to infect the gospel that we preach and live.

The gospel says that we are not justified by our works, but by what Jesus did by His death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. The gospel says that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not our performance of religious actions. The gospel declares that our obedience is our joyful response to God’s unmerited grace and unconditional love, not a prerequisite for receiving them.

The gospel says that we are primarily citizens of the Kingdom of God, not the country we live in. The gospels says that our primarily loyalty is to King Jesus alone! The gospel says that our primary identity is not that we are American but that we are sons and daughters of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Has the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees infected the gospel you’re living?

Tradition and Command

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?

Matthew 15:1-3

The Pharisees were upset with the disciples for breaking tradition, but Jesus was upset with the Pharisees for breaking the command of God for the sake of their traditions. How often does the church break God’s command in order to follow our traditions?

Tradition itself isn’t bad. Tradition can help us keep a pattern of discipleship over time. It can help us to remember things we would otherwise forget. It can help us to hold fast to truth in the midst of changing culture. But if we’re not careful, it can also be used as an obedient-looking cover for our disobedience.

Do our church services have to look the way they do right now? Which part is us following God’s command and which is just us following tradition? Are there different ways to follow God’s command that don’t look like what we’re used to?

It is human nature to get comfortable and resist change. Change itself is uncomfortable. And with so much around us changing so quickly, more change just feels like chaos sometimes. But if we don’t stay open to change in the church, we can fall prey to one of the oldest tactics of the enemy. We can get fooled into thinking that holding to our tradition is the same as holding to God’s command. And over time, we can begin to use our tradition as a means to resist God’s commands.

Father, forgive us! Give us eyes to see and ears to hear where we’ve traded in obedience for tradition. Help us to have the willingness and humility to embrace change even when it’s uncomfortable! Thank you, Lord.