The Best Dressed Corpse in Town (2): Carriers of Death
May 3, 2015
Intro – (Read Lu 11:43-44). Jesus has a message in this passage. He’s teaching that many people put on a façade of godliness to fool others, then end up believing it themselves – but all the while what is inside is destroying them. They are like Pete who had an appendectomy. Bill asked how he was doing. Pete replied, “I’m fine, but the doctor did leave a sponge inside me.” Bill asked, “Have you got any pain?” “No – but boy, I sure get thirsty.” All seemed fine on the surface, but a killer lay within.
People trying to earn their way to God may look great outwardly. Pillars of the community. Oblivious to the killer who lurks within. For to those who reject Him, Jesus is saying, “You’re just a well-dressed corpse.” People like this are moralists or religionists, doing all the right things outwardly, but without any inward reality. Paul says of them in II Tim 3:5 they are “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” In this passage Jesus defines 7 ways that people dress up death. Christians can fall into the same trap – putting on an outward show for the benefit of believing friends but living like the world the rest of the time. So there is warning here for all of us. What characterizes moralists?
I. Exhibitionists of Externals (37-41) – This is the umbrella category. The chief characteristic or moralists is that they are focused on the external. They believe their standing with God can be summed up in this creed: “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew and I don’t go with girls who do.” To the moralist it’s all about what you do; to God it’s all about who you are!
II. Trivializers of Truth (42) – Moralists get hung up on trivialities. For the Pharisees it was all about tithing. That was their ace in the hole. We don’t go for that one so much today. We’re more about getting our kids to SS, or working for a charity or getting to church at least on Communion Sunday or some other little tid-bit we count on to get us in God’s good graces. Something that keeps us from looking deep into our heart to see what’s there.
III. Passionate About Position (43)
Outfit # 3. Pride of position. People look up to me for my leadership. I must be okay with God. V. 43, “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” These guys were consummate ladder-climbers, the higher the better. Somehow believing the more forward their position, the more “in” they were with God.
When I was in seminary, we had daily chapel. The faculty sat behind the speaker facing us in the audience. Now, I’m not saying they were Pharisees, altho those selected to give class sermons no doubt thought so, but that’s the idea here. In the synagogue someone would read Scripture, then sit down and deliver a sermon. High ranking community elders would also sit facing the audience. Men vied for a lifetime for that privilege. They loved it, Luke tells us. And if you weren’t in one of those seats, you wanted to be as far forward in the audience as possible.
And they loved “greetings in the marketplaces.” Matt elaborates in 23:6-7: “and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” These guys reveled in recognition. They loved it. They thought it was a sign of their righteousness and would get them to heaven, but it wouldn’t. Not unless their heart was clean. They loved being called Rabbi – teacher. Great, but that didn’t save them. Titles are meaningless to God. People can call you Pastor, Elder, Doctor, Bishop, Cardinal, Pope. It doesn’t matter. It won’t get you to heaven. You know what? The titles come off at the door. You can’t sneak one in. The only one that counts is “child of God.” That’s the only title any of us should ever want or need.
People ask me occasionally what to call me. I tell them, “Dave” is great. It’s worked all my life. They say, “Not pastor?” Sure, if you want. Some of you do for your kid’s sake, to teach respect for the position. And, may I say that I love being your teaching pastor. I do. But that doesn’t make me any better than anyone else. Dave is great. I’ve been called a lot worse!
It’s so easy to get pride of position, thinking it somehow speaks to our spirituality. In Lectures to My Students Spurgeon warned of the danger of trusting in positions and symbols of importance. He said, “I know brethren who, from head to foot, in garb, tone, manner, necktie, and boots, are so utterly parsonic that no particle of manhood is visible. One young sprig of divinity must needs go through the streets in a gown, and another of the High Church order has recorded it in the newspapers with much complacency that he traversed Switzerland and Italy, wearing in all places his biretta (a stiff, clerical cap, different colors for rank); few boys would have been so proud of a fool’s cap.”
They’re still with us. I had a friend in seminary who was asked to speak at an Easter Sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl. When he agreed, the committee asked, “Where can the helicopter pick you up?” He answered there wasn’t room on his street for a helicopter to land. They responded, “But the man who spoke last year had to have a helicopter!” He was offered a police escort but turned that down too saying he’d get there on his own. When he arrived he noticed another participant dressed in T-shirt and Levis. That seemed a little casual even for LA, but not to worry, just as the service was ready to start the guy put on a robe of multiple colors that my friend said would have made the Queen of Sheeba blush. Strutting ecclesiastical peacocks we don’t need. I’m not against robes or title or anything else, but look out. They often cover an unrepentant heart.
Chief seats. Grand regalia. Special privileges. Exalted titles. We’re all susceptible, aren’t we? I saw one folder advertising an “All-Star Worship Band.” I’ve known people to get all bent out of shape and refuse to serve because they were not given a leadership role. We’d do better to worry about our character as opposed to reputation, right? Reputation is what people think you are; character is what God knows you are. “Child of God” is the only title that counts. Others are just dressing up the corpse if the heart isn’t changed; or just window dressing for a believer who is living a fake existence.
Arturo Toscanini finished directing Beethovan’s 9th one night to wild applause and a standing ovation. He signaled the orchestra to bow, then turned to address them as the noise abated. Clearly moved, the brusque director said, “Gentlemen, I am nothing.” That was news because Toscanini had an enormous ego. He continued, “Gentlemen, you are nothing.” No news there; they’d heard it every day in rehearsal for the last two weeks. Then he continued, “But Beethoven is everything, everything, everything!” And that’s just who Jesus is to us, Beloved. He is everything. Our salvation and our standing with God has nothing to do with our goodness, or even our badness. Absolutely nothing. It has everything to do with, do we know Jesus? Have we bowed to His lordship? Is He the king of or life? Anything else is just dressing up the corpse. So, we must serve Him wherever, caring nothing for titles and acclaim and recognition. His recognition is the only one that counts.
IV. Distributors of Defilement (44)
If you think Jesus was meek and mild, you don’t understand how this would have fallen on the ears of the Pharisees. 44 Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.” This was a horribly offensive accusation to make against these paragons of self-righteous virtue. The background to Jesus’ comment is given in Num 19:16, “Whoever in the open field touches someone who was killed with a sword or who died naturally, or touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.” To touch a dead body or even to touch a human gravesite rendered one ceremonially unclean for 7 days. That would be devastating, especially for someone who might have traveled for days to be in Jerusalem during Passover, but now finds himself unable to offer the sacrifice which was his whole reason for coming. People in Jerusalem knew where the graves were, but out-of-towners might inadvertently walk over one. So prior to feast days, gravesites were whitewashed and thus clearly marked to prevent anyone from inadvertently stepping on one.
And now here is Jesus telling his fellow-guests at dinner, “You know what you guys are like. You are like unmarked graves. You’re dead inside, but people don’t know that. They look up to you. They admire your piety. But they don’t realize that in dealing with you, they are being contaminated. You carry disease wherever you go. You contaminate, defile, infect, pollute and destroy everything and everyone you touch. You are the kiss of death.”
In 1906, Dr. George Soper was hired by a NYC family to investigate an outbreak of typhoid fever in their family and others in the surrounding area. Soper eventually discovered that the common factor was an Irish cook about 40 years of age. The problem was, no one knew where she was. Every time there was an outbreak, she left that family with no forwarding address. Eventually, Soper was able to track down Mary Mallon, but she adamantly refused to cooperate, insisting that she was in perfect health. So Soper compiled a five-year history of her employment and found that she left typhoid in her wake everywhere she had been. Eventually she was forced to submit to testing and it was found that her gall bladder was teeming with typhoid salmonella. Typhoid Mary was a perfectly healthy carrier who was eventually forced to live in quarantine the rest of her life when she would not consistently practice prescribed hygienic precautions. She refused to accept that she was a carrier.
That’s what Jesus is saying of the Pharisees. They are Typhoid Mary’s of death – bringing eternal condemnation on all who follow their fatally flawed attempts to approach God on the basis of their own self-righteous deeds. So it is not just themselves that are missing salvation by grace thru faith but everyone who follows them. They should have signs around their necks like our cigarette packages that warn “Carrier of Death”. They should be like the lepers who were forced to shout out “Unclean” if anyone should approach them unaware. The should be quarantined, but instead they roam free, lording it over the populace at large, teaching their doctrine of works-righteousness and leading others down the broad way that leads to destruction.
In His last discussion with them prior to His death Jesus castigates them in Matt 23:15, “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” You can’t really say it any stronger than that, can you? “Not only are you a child hell yourself, but you are leading others to that same awful destiny. Jesus is not patient with those who pervert His gospel. Neither would you be if you took a fatal bullet for a friend, only to see him stand up and expose himself to further gunfire saying, “I’m invulnerable,” and take a few others along with him. Jesus is about to give His life to provide the opportunity of redemption from sin not only for these men but also those they are misleading. No wonder He doesn’t cut them any slack.
So, let me ask, are you a carrier of death to those around you – your family, friends, acquaintances? It’s one thing to decide you don’t need Jesus yourself – that you can be good enough to get by. But you are not alone. Others are looking and saying, “If he’s good enough, then surely I am too.” There is only one way to be redeemed, and it is not by being good enough, or being baptized, confirmed, giving to the poor or being better than the next guy. Those are just description of a well-dressed corpse.
Jesus give another example in Luke 18.9 “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ [Substitute what you are trusting to make you right with God and you will see the point. But this guy is a carrier of death, just like you if you are trusting anything other than this] 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” Thankfully this tax collector refused to be taken in. He broke the cycle of contamination. How? By throwing himself on the mercy of God. That’s salvation by grace thru faith. That is the gospel. That is the only gospel.
Just before we moved to Colorado, PBS ran a film called My Boy Jack, which depicts a true story from the life of author Rudyard Kipling. WWI has broken out and Kipling’s only son,17-year-old Jack, declares his intention to join the Royal Navy to fight against the Germans. The elder Kipling, who encourages his ambition, arranges several appointments for him to enlist in the Army and Navy. However, Jack’s poor eyesight prevents him from passing the medical examinations. Both he and his father are devastated. However, Rudyard continues to use his influence as a highly regarded author and eventually secures Jack an officer’s commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Irish Guard. His mother, Carrie, and sister, Elsie disapprove of this post as it will send him directly to the front line.
Jack goes, however, and proves to be a popular and effective officer. Within six months he is sent to France and on his 18th birthday, Jack receives orders to lead his platoon “over the top” – out of the trenches and into a charge during the Battle of Loos. Shortly thereafter the family is notified that Jack is missing in action. Three long years follow during which Jack’s parents methodically track down surviving members of Jack’s platoon and interview them. The climax of the film comes when one of Jack’s platoon members confirms the worst – that Jack died while “doing his duty.”
After the soldier leaves Rudyard and his wife have a talk. Rudyard explains that Jack was lucky to die before facing a lot of pain. But his wife reacts predictably by saying that she misses him whereupon the stoic Rudyard breaks down and says he misses him too. He begins to question whether he is responsible for sending his son to his death. He then says, “If I am to blame – what have I sent him to [meaning after death]? Have I sent my own son to oblivion?” Kipling had no faith and now when it was too late was haunted by what fate he had sent his son to. He was a good man who was a carrier of death.
Beloved, don’t wait until it’s too late to consider what comes next. Don’t be carrier of death. And if you are being influenced by someone who is, break it off. Learn to say and mean, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Father can and will be merciful. That’s the gospel, the only gospel. Be a carrier of life. Let’s pray.