The Best Dressed Corpse in Town (1): Targeting Trivialities
April 26, 2015
Intro – (Read Lu 11:37-42) I love gifted impressionists. A favorite was Rich Little. John Wayne was one of his staples. The first time they met, Wayne demanded, “Little, let me see you do that walk.” Little bravely demonstrated his John Wayne gait to which Wayne said, “I’m glad you’ve still got it; I’m losing it.” The truth is while impressions are fun, it doesn’t take long to spot an imitation. It’s shallow; it’s fake; it’s exaggerated and eventually it shows.
Well, the same thing is true of spiritual impressionists -- moralists – someone looking good outwardly, but without any inward reality. They might also be called a religionist. Paul warns in II Tim 3:5 that they are “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. (nothing supernatural). Avoid such people.” And make sure you are not one of them. Moralists are all dressed up but with no place to go. They look great, but are spiritually dead. That is the Pharisees that Jesus bluntly addresses in our text. Churches have moralists, too – people thinking they are saved by good works. Usually putting on an outward show for Christian friends, but living like the world the rest of the time.
Jesus point here is simple. You may be the best dressed corpse in town – tie on, every hair in place. But in the end, you are still a corpse – impressive outside, cold dead inside. Unless morality is driven by an inner love for Christ and response to the HS, it is meaningless – a shabby imitation of reality.
Background: v. 37: “While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine [noon meal] with him, so he went in and reclined at table.” Jesus accepts a lunch invitation. But this one gets awkward fast. Typically a Pharisee would never eat with a non-Pharisee who didn’t share his passion for law-keeping. Jesus’ reaction suggests that this man was just looking for some way to trip Jesus up. With time running short, Jesus wastes no time on small talk.
He bluntly tries to wake his host with 4 hard verbal punches to the chin, calling this man and his companions “fools” for their misplaced piety. A lawyer interjects in v. 45, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” That leads to 3 more devastating punches to men who were not used to being questioned about their moralism. Thus, in these vv, Jesus gives a total of 7 descriptions of how these men were dressing their dead selves to no avail. Jesus rebuke here is intentionally direct. It’s edgy to get attention. But it is also an act of mercy, essentially calling these men to repentance while there is still time. So, what constitutes a well-dressed corpse? Looking good outwardly, inwardly dead? More importantly, are you one?
I. Exhibitionists of Externals (37-41)
Trouble strikes immediately. V. 38, “The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.” Pharisees were big on hand-washing, not as a matter of physical or hygienic cleansing, but of ritual cleansing. It was to offset any ceremonially unclean thing they may have touched – like a Gentile!
The method for washing was precisely defined. For example, if you poured water over one hand, it was clean, but if you rubbed the other hand without pouring water on the second, everything was again unclean. They were scrupulous – like a surgeon preparing for surgery. So, was this washing prescribed by the Law of God? No, it was not. This was just one of the hundreds of interpretations to the Law that the Pharisees had made so they could say they were perfect. They were moralists of the highest order.
So here comes Jesus – and He doesn’t wash His hands at all. Why? He was not about to obey a tradition that the Pharisees considered more binding than God’s Law itself. This is a pre-meditated, calculated move by Jesus to provoke a reaction. He did that often to these religionists, trying to shake their confidence in ritual to appeal to their hearts. He wants them to see that God’s law is about clean hearts, not clean hands. He challenges them.
V. 39, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.” Some criticize Jesus for bad manners, but, Beloved, Jesus came all the way from heaven to earth – “to seek and to save that which was lost.” That’s the reason He came to lunch. But He could not save someone who thought he did not need saving. You can be sure that while His message was offensive, His manner was not. Yet He could not compromise and let people go on thinking they were okay. He wasn’t driven by 21st century PC concerns against hurting anyone’s feelings by suggesting that they are okay when they are not.
So, Jesus illustrates. He compares their moralism to cleaning the outside of their dishes while leaving the inside dirty. They were striving for holiness. But they thought of it only in terms of external actions. Their unattended hearts were so distorted with pride of position and ceremony they were in reality the very opposite of what they wanted. Inside they were wicked,– totally missing the spirit of the Law. Their traditions were mere loopholes for them. By their own rules they were clean, but God looks on the heart. And what He found there was pride, greed, selfishness, lasciviousness, anger, hatred and violence, all covered with a façade of moralism. Like the little boy who came running to Mom: “Mommy, mommy, I’m 9 feet tall!” Mom asked, “How do you know that?” The boy replied, “I just measured myself with this measuring stick I made. I’m 9 feet tall.” That’s the Pharisees – “We’re morally 9 feet tall! We just measured with the ruler we made!” Jesus counters: “You’re 9’ by you; 0’ with God – no standing at all!”
They were totally focused on what one does. Jesus was focused on what one is! The word translated "greed" (αρπαγνησ) means to plunder or pillage. In classical Greek it meant rape. That’s what religion does. It rapes people of their eternal souls by getting them focused on outward appearance. God has always been about the heart. The Pharisees should have known that. V. 40, “You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also?” Fools ignore God. He’s saying, “You guys focus on what you see -- outside. You’ve forgotten who God is; He sees inside as well.” Do externals matter? Of course they do – but only as they reflect a heart of faith and love for God. These guys had a huge disconnect between who they were inside and who they were outside. That doesn’t work with God who made and sees both!
Moses challenges Israel to return to God Deut 6:2, then says in Deut 6:6, “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Jeremiah 4:4 challenges the people: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; [Physically? No] remove the foreskin of your hearts.” God says in I Sam 16:7, “For man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.” It’s what’s inside that counts. Another way to say this: Moralism is right things separated from right motives and it is therefore useless. That’s Jesus’ point in v. 41, “But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.” He’s saying, “What you do outwardly must reflect a clean heart inside.” The Pharisees lived in a Fantasyland that suggests you can do one thing outwardly and be something else inside. Jesus says, “No way.” You’re just a well-dressed dead man.”
Remember the opening scene of The Big Chill? It’s a movie about a bunch of friends who gather for a college group reunion. It shows close-ups of a corpse being flawlessly dressed. Cuff links. Brand new white shirt. Tie perfectly tied. New suit. Hair combed just so. Outwardly perfect – but never got to the party. Why? Dead! That’s the Pharisees and all who are like them. Religious to a fault. Never miss church. Give to the building fund. Say long, theological prayers. Outwardly perfect. But inside – dead as a doornail. They were having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” Moralism without heart is dead.
And believers can fall into the same trap. Coming to church, being on the Praise Team, reading the Bible and praying occasionally, but it is all a façade. We are Rich Little imitating John Wayne. It’s not real for us. Our heart is not in it. Hating every minute of it. Why? Because we’ve lost touch with our Lord. We’re not a corpse, but we’re just a well-dressed fake, living a useless life. We’re the little boy who was ordered to sit quietly by his mother. After several threats he finally complied, but could not resist the last word: “I’m sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.” Going thru the motions, but resenting the whole thing. How can that be true of a believer? Because he has left his first love (not lost, but left – the fault is ours). In Rev 2 Jesus compliments the church at Ephesus on avoiding false teachers, but then He says in Rev 2:4, “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” We must repent, Beloved, and ask the Lord to fill our hearts again with that love we had at the beginning.
II. Trivializers of Truth (42)
Here’s a second garment of the best-dressed corpse – he wears trivialities proudly – majors in minors to look good. V. 42: “But woe to you Pharisees! “Woe” is a strong warning, spoken with regret. Jesus picks on the point of greatest pride for these men. They were nothing if not tithers. This was what most set them apart from the hoi polloi. But Jesus notes: “For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Did God’s Law prescribe a tithe of 10% on crops? Absolutely. But the Pharisees had taken that general requirement for major grain crops and applied it to everything, including garden-variety herbs. They were going above and beyond on this one.
So, is that a problem? In itself, no. Jesus doesn’t condemn tithing. He says, “These you ought to have done.” So what’s the problem? It’s a heart problem. It was all for show. They gave ostentatiously to be praised by man – but the state of their heart was shown by what they neglected. They neglected justice and love of God. Those were also required by God. Deut 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” These major things were not even on their radar. The very way in which they paid their tithes showed this to be true.
Mt 6:2: “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” There is no record that anyone actually sounded a trumpet to announce their giving. But they had subtle ways of trumpeting their generosity. They gave to the needy with great ceremony at the places where streets and roads met, at times when large crowds around to see. They waited for max crowds when giving at the temple. They tithed meticulously, but only to be honored by men and to buy God off. Compassion, generosity, justice and love for God—all absent!
Jesus knew. Mark 7:9-13: “And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” ’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” These guys were stealing from their own parents in order to give more ostentatiously at church. Thus in one fell swoop they failed to do justly and love kindness (by honoring their parents) and failed to love God because those who love Him keep His commandments. And they did all that for the sake of their own tradition which said you get double points for tithing! They gave from a rebellious heart. They were just dressing up a dead man.
So what can we say by way of application? First to those who have not truly come to Christ. Many think they have because they are doing some little things. Many think their church attendance or giving to the United Way or working for a charity or giving to a mission project or the building fund earns favor with God. None of those things are bad, Beloved. But unless they are motivated by a heart love for God who has saved us by grace, whose favor we could never earn, then they are useless. Worse than useless for they build a sense of entitlement – a feeling that we have put God in our debt.
We’re like the little boy whose friend got a new bike so he said, “Mom, can I have a new bike, too?” His mother saw a teaching moment and said, “Why don’t you ask Jesus for a new bike?” So the boy went to his room and began a letter, “Dear Jesus. I have been really good. Can I please have a new bicycle?” Love, Leroy.” Realizing that was a little strong, he tried again, “Dear Jesus. I have tried to be good. Could I have a bike please?” Realizing he was still stretching it, he tried a third time. “Dear Jesus. I have meant to be good. Could I have a bike please? Love, Leroy.” Still not satisfied he took a walk down the street to the church. While meditating his attention was drawn to a statue that he thought might solve his problem. He grabbed it, ran home and started another letter. “Hey, Jesus. I’ve got your mama. If you ever want to see her again, I need a new bicycle.” Do you see, Beloved? You can’t buy your way to God. You can’t hostage your way to God. Nothing you can do can put God in debt to you. It’s all just dressing up the corpse. Instead of dressing a dead person, accept God’s gift of eternal life by faith – then serve Him from a heart of love. That’s what Jesus is saying.
But what about believers? Are we ever purveyors of trivialities? Majoring in minors? Do we criticize the music but never think to pray for our missionaries? Do we object to the noisy, messy kids who occasionally spot the carpet -- but have no interest or desire to help with or pray for the Good News Club we’re sponsoring at our local school? Are we quick to criticize how the leaders do certain things, but never pray for them? We are too often trustees of trivialities, Beloved – purveyors of pettiness, protectors of paltriness.
Conc – How is it with us? Is it all about externals? Are we just playing church – giving a poor imitation of what we think it means to be spiritual, or are we the real thing? What we do matters only as it reflects who we are in Christ. I am so grateful to see God continually calling various ones of you to areas of service and to see your response from the heart. Not something we’re programming, but a real work of the HS. But we have to be careful. If it’s all about externals, we’re just a well-dressed corpse.
My Uncle Gene served for 35 years as a missionary in West Africa with WEC which was founded by C. T. Studd. Studd came from a wealthy English family, was a Cambridge graduate and was the best cricket player of his time. But he came to Christ while listening to D. L. Moody during one of his revivals in England, and there was nothing half-way or trivial about his commitment. He could have lived a life of ease and triviality, but he said, "What is all the fame and flattery worth ... when a man comes to face eternity?” He took the gospel to China, then India and finally to Africa saying, “Some want to live within the sound of church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell." That, I think, captures the heart of God. Let’s not mimic the real thing. Let’s be the real thing. Let’s pray.