Sermon: Swallowing a Camel

I’m not really going out of my way to blog anymore with life pretty hectic, but I realized I should share a modified sermon I gave a months ago. There was another section that went further into atonement, but in my opinion it didn’t work very well, cramming too much into the last 5 minutes of a 20 minute sermon, so I cut that out here.

The Texts

Amos 5:18-24

Matthew 23


The Question

When I was younger, I wondered why Jesus was killed. I grew up in a moderate evangelical church, so I was given a big theological explanation of why Jesus died – penal substitution – but not why he was killed. I was a naïve white kid who generally thought that people got what they deserved in terms of justice from the state, so an innocent man receiving a brutal death penalty was tough to wrap my head around. Why would the religious leaders and the political leaders of Jesus’ day want to kill him, and how did they get away with it, if Jesus lived this perfect sinless life? Nobody else seemed to be curious about that question, or at least they didn’t talk about it. This was before I really started caring about theology, so it mostly sat in the back of my mind for years, but I don’t think the question ever fully went away.

Several years later as a young adult, I was involved in a Christian community on my university campus. I could start to see that there was meaningful harm being done by this community to a lot of people. Somebody who I barely knew at the time came to help me as I struggled through this and he quoted some of Matthew 23. I think it was the part about making converts to be twice the sons of Hell that they are. I must have read the chapter before then, but it had never sunk in what Jesus was doing here.

At first, this gave me permission to acknowledge that maybe religious leaders get it wrong sometimes. That’s a pretty important realization on its own. For the record, this is not a comment on our pastor or any of the other leadership at our church. I happen to think they do a pretty great job. But if you do see problems, you shouldn’t be afraid to bring it up, in a loving way of course. I would not suggest jumping immediately to Jesus’ more extreme language here in Matthew.

Jesus vs Religion

After catching on to this in Matthew 23, I started to see it everywhere in the Gospels: Jesus did a lot to get the religious establishment angry at him. Most of the time it was a case of doing something against the Law for the sake of better loving somebody. He broke Sabbath rules. He had women among his disciples and touched both women and men who were deemed unclean. He routinely ate dinner with the worst of so-called sinners. He rescued a woman caught in adultery, or as I’ve heard that story better labelled, he stood up to religious leaders caught in judgement. He turned holy water intended for important religious cleansing into wine. He adapted a reading from Scripture while teaching in the synagogue to eliminate the part about God’s wrath on non-Jews. He blasphemed, equating himself to the Father, and warned that the holy Temple would be torn down.

Jesus was a religious leader himself and many scholars even argue he was more likely a Pharisee than any of the other sects of Judaism at the time. But he also clearly stood in opposition to them on many occasions. Now I understood why they would kill him.

This doesn’t mean every religious person or even every religious leader stands in opposition to Jesus, of course. It helps to distinguish individual decisions with systemic problems. It’s analogous to how we talk about racism. White people tend to talk about racism in terms of individual conscious decisions to discriminate. I’m sure part of that is because it lets us off the hook more easily, but we’ve also just been taught to think that way and didn’t question it. It’s why a lot of white people will get defensive when racism is mentioned, seeing themselves as under a personal attack. Black people tend to talk about racism in terms of systemic inequalities. We can have a lot of individuals who are not consciously choosing to see other races as inferior – we may even consciously see ourselves treating everybody equally – while those same people can be furthering a system that advantages them at the expense of others, without even realizing it. I may not be using racial slurs, but I do benefit from social systems of white supremacy, which I need to be able to acknowledge to do anything about it.

I think that systemic injustice is what happens here with the scribes and Pharisees, too. It isn’t beneficial to demonize the individuals. They weren’t inherently evil people. Some even got on board with what Jesus was saying. They were, however, a part of a system that benefited them at the expense of others. I probably missed how radical Jesus was precisely because I took the easy way out by scapegoating the Pharisees as simply the bad guys. For the most part, they probably saw themselves as worshipping God the best they could, not in terms of hurting others.

Humanizing the Pharisees

I find it helpful to put myself in the shoes of the scribes and Pharisees while listening to the things that Jesus said to them. It helps me remember their humanity, and most importantly, it helps me see how I could and sometimes do fall into the same trap.

Burdens

Jesus says the Pharisees put unrealistic burdens on other people and then don’t do anything to help them. Why would they do this? They probably believed that these burdens were helping the people. It’s simple logic: if God gave a law that is good for humanity, aren’t we better off with more people doing it? It’s the same logic why conservatives might say that same-sex marriage shouldn’t be recognized by the state, or why liberals might say that we need to heavily tax the rich and redistribute to the poor. Who is right and who is wrong is not the point right now. Those are debates for another day. For now, we can probably agree that if we think something is good, we are tempted to enforce it on others.

Last weekend I listened to a podcast from The Liturgists about spiritual trauma. The Liturgists make great content, but this was by far the most impactful episode for me. They shared stories from their listeners of spiritual trauma they had experienced. One person describes how his father beat them while quoting worship songs and Bible verses about children needing to obey their parents. One person describes a “stoning” of a woman – not throwing literal stones, but they did call it a stoning as they instead hurled insults at her. One describes being physically dragged by her pastor through the church after he found out she got a nose ring. It’s a powerful episode, not just those stories but also great discussion with therapists and around other ideas like how to build healthier communities.

These examples are at the individual level. This isn’t even talking about the big picture corporate evils that have been done in the name of religion, Christianity or otherwise. Blaise Pascal once said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Crusades. Inquisition. Witch trials. Holocaust. The list goes on and on.

I hear these stories and get angry. Then I also remember that like the Pharisees, the religious leaders causing the trauma probably thought they were doing a good and loving thing. And I realize that I have probably thought like them and probably did some serious damage along the way, too. This is a tension that we live in.

Legalism

We can see one reason why the Pharisees put on these burdens in the text today. Jesus says they get overly legalistic about the minor details of the Law but forget the big picture. I love the hyperbolic image here of remembering to strain out a gnat but somehow swallowing a camel instead.

Christianity has always had a complicated relationship with interpreting the Law. It’s one of the earliest controversies in the Church, included in the book of Acts and some of the epistles. And there have been many debates with many different answers since then about which laws Christians are supposed to keep and which ones we aren’t. It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the time, the people making these decisions tend toward rules that help them or scapegoat somebody else, but even then, they typically thought they were doing the right thing.

I once asked some friends about the weirdest thing they’ve heard condemned in the name of God. I got some depressing answers like “peace” and “education.” I also got tough to explain answers, like wire rimmed glasses. I assume it’s the wire rims that are the problem if it was that specific, not glasses in general. Another mentioned somebody who was being hired by a church and she had to submit some hair for a drug test, but the church thought it was wrong for a woman to cut her hair. After a few weeks of debate, they concluded it would be fine to pluck a hair from her arm instead.

I’m not saying I always understand why the rules are the ways they are, or even that they remember the reason after a couple generations, but there probably was originally a reason.

The Pharisees were following the Law as they understood it, much like we do today when we fall into similar patterns. I think a big reason is that it’s a lot easier to know what you mean to say “tithe from your harvest” than it is to say “seek justice”. We don’t even always agree on what justice looks like, let alone how to best seek it. Working out those details can be helpful. Taking that to the extreme, though, by sticking to the details as a rule while losing track of the big picture reason… that can be very harmful.

Often it happens something like this. We find something that works to connect us with God. It becomes normal, even if not an official rule. Sometimes we forget why we did it in the first place. Often we don’t consider if it is stopping other people from being included. You can fill in more of your own examples, but I think of practical things like the way we dress – would someone feel welcome here if they can’t afford nice clothes? Or how about the songs we sing? A simple one that happened to me this week had to do with formatting in the bulletin. Emily [my wife, who was worship leader the same week] asked me if the Call to Worship needed to specify leader and people, and I said, no, people know the default notation of bold meaning the congregation and plain text meaning the leader. I’ve been in many churches that all used that formatting the same. Fortunately, our pastor caught it and suggested that Emily specify when she announced it. It does not mean these ideas are bad – there’s nothing wrong with dressing up for church, or singing familiar songs, or using consistent formatting in the bulletin – but we do sometimes need to stop and analyze the implications.

Again, we find ourselves in this tension. Most people most of the time are doing what they think is best. Rarely do people consciously make up what they think God says, just so they can exclude other people. Most of the time our motives are more innocent than that. We can’t solve this by simply swinging back the other way and say there is no such thing as morality, so instead, we’re left with this constant wrestling.

Closing

I’ll close with some wisdom from the Netflix show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Obviously the only appropriate way to end a very serious sermon is to quote The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If you haven’t seen it, the backstory is that Kimmy spent her teen and young adult years being trapped in a bunker as a part of a doomsday cult. Now she’s free and learning how to be a healthy adult in the real world while dealing with the spiritual trauma she experienced. It’s one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in the last few years, but it also has some great moments of insight. One of those moments in the new season has Kimmy saying:

“So, I guess real religion is about knowing we’re not perfect but trying to be better… together.”

Let’s learn from the mistakes of the Pharisees and not be afraid to examine ourselves, not just our motives but also the consequences because they will not always line up neatly. Instead, let’s acknowledge that tension and work through it. We know that we are not perfect and we will hurt each other even when we try our best, but we don’t give up. We continue to try to be better, together.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Peter Stockman

    Hi there, I came across your site and have been enjoying a lot of the content, especially this idea you’ve been exploring about placing unnecessary burdens on one another, a form of legalism. May I ask how you would approach certain scriptures that do seem rather legalistic as face value? A good example would be the set of ‘vice lists’ in 1 Corinthians and in Galatians where it is stated that these people would not inherit the kingdom. These lists seem so long that almost everyone is included and it makes the process of salvation seem like an impossible task.

    • Hi Peter,

      Glad you’re finding something helpful here.

      Alright, this is a really big question and I can only quickly touch on a few of the elements involved. I’ll try to do some justice to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 as a sample:

      9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (NRSV)

      I’m going to ignore the questionable translation of “sodomites” here, since that is an entirely different question.

      First thing I would want to do is add some context. Here’s what comes next:

      12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,”[e] and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple[f] of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

      That section is fairly clear that there is a positive motivation here rather than a negative one. It’s not about avoiding punishment. It is about being made into a new creation in Christ. As you become more Christ-like, there’s going to be less room in your life for those vices. We aren’t bound by the Law, but we are bound by something greater: love. As we pull deeper into Jesus’ love, we love others better. If you love somebody, you’re not going to commit adultery against them, for example.

      That gets to the idea of “inheriting the Kingdom”. Another question we should ask is “what is the Kingdom?” I like to start to answer that with a fairly literal reading of the term Kingdom: it’s where the King has authority. And in this case, Jesus’ authority is “love.” That’s why the earliest and simplest Christian creed – Jesus is Lord – is fantastic news. It’s also important in my opinion to remember that the Kingdom is in place already in the world, not (just) some magical place after we die. So in as much as your life is not embodying Jesus – that ethic of love – that is not the Kingdom of God. On the other side, we might disagree about some of the things in this list with questions of translation and cultural context, but the point is: when we embody Jesus by acting within that love authority, that’s really another way of saying we inherit the Kingdom.

      Not going to touch on Heaven/Hell/afterlife stuff, which is another tangent. I’m probably a purgatorial conditionalist, which I’m sure you can find more about somewhere on this site. That position is really an extension of this idea.

      Getting to this took me a long time because it upends the basic legal framework for how a lot of us talk about theology in the West. Within that framework, we tend to be stuck with a couple of options: you didn’t break the rules so you’re saved, which as you point out would be pretty much nobody if we interpreted it that way; or you broke the rules but God offers some kind of loophole in God’s own rules so that you can be forgiven anyway. The latter makes God somewhat arbitrary – why can’t God just forgive without the loophole? Again, that’s a bigger discussion than I can fit here, but it tends you put you back toward being tempted to throw morality out the window again. You’ve got the loophole anyway, so who cares what else you do? Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians refutes that idea very strongly. In that wider context, it seems Paul here needed to get specific to name things going on in that community which they were ignoring because they were already forgiven anyway.

      So the question becomes: what if God is not concerned with following the rules? What if God is drawing us toward love? That’s a very different image of God which will have a lot of ripple effects in your theology and life, but that’s the image of God I see in Jesus, who is the ultimate revelation of God.

      • Peter Stockman

        Thank you for your in depth response and for getting back to me so quickly. How you interpreted those verses really does help and it does make sense. One last question if I may be so bold: Do you know if this type of interpretation can be found in any of the early church fathers? My only reason for asking is that from what I have read they seem to have been very legalistic whereas this interpretation definitely seems to demonstrate God’s grace whilst also encouraging believer’s to grow in holiness. Thank you again for your earlier response, it really was helpful.

        • Admittedly it’s been a while since I read much of the Church fathers, so I can’t say much concretely or with direct quotes behind it, but some tangential thoughts come to mind:

          I do think it is fair from my understanding to say that in general, the West adopted the legal framework moreso than the East. To this day, the Eastern Church will be more likely to talk about sin as wounds to us needing healing rather than breaking God’s rules needing punishment.

          The penal substitution atonement theory as well as its predecessor the satisfaction theory – which both start with some kind of slight against God committed by humanity – came much later. Most of the early Church didn’t really get into details of how atonement worked, but when they did, the emphasis was more on defeating evil rather than satisfying God.

          It’s safe to say some early Church fathers condemned Jewish legalism as they tried to differentiate themselves. That probably doesn’t count, but it was mostly in the language of grace over law. Not sure I can think of anything off the top of my head for them explicitly condemning Christian legalism.

          There were debates like whether a baptism by a priest who later renounced the faith was still valid, and the majority ended up on the more “grace” end of things (e.g. yes, that baptism is still valid). They were definitely legitimate debates between emphasizing the church as holy ones and the church as a place of grace, though, as it is still in modern churches.

          If you haven’t yet, check out the works of Greg Boyd including reknew.org. He’s probably my largest influence, and he probably could answer this question about the Church fathers, too.