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How To Escape From Bad Religion

00:00 / 19:13

2 Jun 2024

First Sunday after Trinity

Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6

The Conflict

In the Gospels, you’ve probably noticed that certain groups of characters come up multiple times. They are called things Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Lawyers.

In our passage today, we see a typical example of the conflict between these groups and Jesus. To put it quite simply, we observe that there are two spirits at work that oppose one another. And this opposition is present throughout the Gospels.

As our Old Testament passage shows us, God commanded his people to observe the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy, and to do no work. The Pharisees had decided what this meant and had put all sorts of rules in place to make sure that people observed the Sabbath Day in a way that they considered to be correct.

When Jesus came with his disciples and plucked heads of grain from the cornfield, the Pharisees said to them, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24) Meaning, of course, what is not lawful according to their rules.

Again, in the following story from chapter 3, the Pharisees were incandescent with rage because Jesus healed somebody on the Sabbath Day. They had decided that healing was work and therefore was a violation.

The Issue at Hand: The Sabbath Day

The heart of this conflict can be seen in the words of Christ, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Jesus meant by that the Sabbath is a good gift from God for the benefit of humanity. It is a break from toil, precisely to remind God’s children that they were liberated from slavery in Egypt (Deut. 5:15). They don’t have to work every day now. One day a week will be a rest from toil to worship God and enjoy his good gifts. The Sabbath was made for man.

What the Pharisees had done was to turn this good gift of God into an instrument of joyless control. Worse than that, they had actually turned it into a vehicle of oppression, a slave-driver: further rules, meticulously policed, hedged about with threats of ostracization and punishment. ‘And they watched Jesus,’ we are told, ‘to see whether he would heal…on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him’ (Mark 3:2).

Their attitude was one of criticism and accusation. Christ was angry with them for their hardness of heart, their lack of compassion for those who were suffering (Mark 3:5).

There is a particularly telling verse in this story: ‘The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him’ (Mark 3:6). It is not entirely clear who the Herodians are as this is the only time they are mentioned in the Gospels. But it seems that they were probably a secular political organisation. The Pharisees were allying themselves with anyone they could in order to procure enough power to destroy Jesus.

Remember that this was immediately after Jesus had miraculously healed a man with a withered hand.

They were not interested in the question of whether he was doing the work of God or not. Even though these people were the religious officials of their day, they were uninterested in the only question that they should have been interested in: Is this of God and how can we be obedient to his purposes? How can we respond to him?

Instead, they saw Jesus as a threat to their power and position, and sought to destroy him.

The Psychology of the Pharisees: Bad Religion

Part of the reason that these characters are so compelling is that the psychology attitude is easily recognisable to us today.

Why did they behave like this? Elsewhere we see Christ’s analysis. He says that they ‘like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the place of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers’ (Luke 2:46-47).

They love to be thought pious and godly. They love to have control over people’s lives. They love to be put in a position of superiority. They use their position to enrich themselves financially. And the religious observances that they do make are not genuine acts of piety, but ‘a pretence’, a show in order to give the impression that they are religious.

They maintain this status through criticising other people and pointing out their own superiority.

This is a mirthless religion, framed by negativity. The only people who are doing the right things are the Pharisees. Everyone else is sub-par. Nobody is observing the religion correctly. Look at all these people sinning, whereas I am completely perfect.

Again, the reason it is so compelling is because it is true. We take the gift of God and we turn it into a manifestation of our own sinful desires for control, power, and superiority. It becomes an instrument of our pride, of our egotism. And we totally lose sight of what God is trying to give us through his Word and in the Gospel.

And the worst of all is that we become not only blind to the work of God amongst us but we hate it because it threatens our religious power.

The Gospel: Good Religion

What is the difference between the bad religion of the Pharisees and the good religion of the Gospels?

Firstly, the Gospel tells us that we are all fellow sinners and that we need to be forgiven by God on the basis of Christ’s death on our behalf. Therefore, everyone should recognise his own sin, repent, and be humble before God and other people. Examine the log in your own eye before you seek to remove the speck from your brother’s.

The first step towards slaying religious pride is continual self-examination and recognition of one’s own sin.

Secondly, the Gospel speaks to us of a God who loves us and wants to set us free from bondage. God’s law is not an instrument of oppression but liberation. It is given to us to bless us and set us free from the bondage of sin. The Psalms are especially good at this: ‘Lord, how I love thy law; it is my meditation all the day’ (Psalm 119:97).

Finally, the invitation of the Gospel is not to be enslaved to a joyless religion but to come into relationship with the God who loves us. This is an outgoing, overflowing love. It is a gift which must be shared with others.

And this leads us to a place of compassion for a sin sick and suffering world. We are no better than the world out there. We have simply received the gracious gift of God in Christ. We have tasted the heavenly medicine and now we offer the same to those we meet from day to day. We kneel before the cross of Christ and share the message that there is room here in this place.

Friends, let us understand the liberating power of the Gospel and let us therefore share it with the world around.


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