Hypocrite: Artificial Distinctions

Matthew 23:16-22

Years ago a Christian lady often remarked to fellow Christians, “I would never say that in a church building!” The “that” was rarely something evil. To her, it was just an inappropriate statement [or action] for “inside a church building.” She had a strict spiritual protocol for what was appropriate and inappropriate in church buildings. Some things always were inappropriate to be said or done “inside a church building.” While those things were never “evil” things, they were inappropriate “inside a church building.” For example, business was never to be mentioned [let alone discussed] “inside a church building.”

In each age people hold strong opinions about what is and is not appropriate in God’s immediate presence. Sometimes those distinctions primarily involve people’s concept of worship. Sometimes those distinctions primarily involve a separation between what is regarded secular and what is regarded spiritual. Sometimes those distinctions primarily involve people’s concepts of being in God’s immediate presence.

The above distinctions commonly focus on matters of conscience rather than God’s nature or God’s directives. Such concerns often have more to do with the person’s views or their community’s views than God’s concerns.

However, there is at least one more distinction. It primarily involves the person’s greed. It has little concern for respecting God [though it camouflages greed with a covering of personal piety]. It is basically concerned with obtaining an advantage through deception. It is not about honoring the supremacy of the sovereign God. This is the distinction Jesus targeted in today’s reading. The problem was produced by making nonexistent distinctions to deceive people.

Today we would label this practice as a discussion of business ethics. Israel made no distinction between behavior in daily life and honoring God. To deceive “in or out” of the “church building” [synagogue or temple] dishonored God – all technicalities aside! It was as evil to deceive “outside” as it was “inside.” Where the deception occurred was beside the point! Dishonesty never honors the God of truth!

In ages of limited education and educational opportunities, vows were extremely important. On any occasion when it was necessary to affirm the trustworthiness of one’s statement, it was customary to use a vow. Vow taking was not intended to be a means of deceiving. Vow taking was not intended to legalize deception. Vows were intended to be a powerful way to affirm truth.

Jesus rejected vow taking only if one used vow taking as a means of deceiving. Jesus endorsed honesty! He endorsed a person being so honest, so truthful all the time in everything that a lifestyle of truthfulness made his vow unnecessary. Jesus’ position was simple: the God of truth does not sanction deception. God does not sanction people deceiving people.

Note a distinction in this “woe.” While the other “woes” are pronounced on the scribes and Pharisees, this “woe” is pronounced on “blind guides,” “fools,” and “blind men.” The people addressed have not changed. Jesus still spoke to scribes and Pharisees. However, the artificial distinctions they made in vow taking were ridiculous, stupid, and indefensible. To anyone who “saw,” the distinctions they acknowledged obviously did not exist. Only those blinded by foolish thinking would not see how ridiculous these artificial distinctions were.

What were these artificial distinctions? Things that made a vow not “binding” included these: the temple and the altar. If a Jew swore by the temple or the altar, the oath was not “binding.” He could deceive by using a “non-binding” oath. He was not obligated to keep promises because he swore by something they said did not obligate him to keep his promised. Therefore, he could use a “non-binding” oath to deceive and continue to be loyal to God!

Things that made a vow “binding” included these: the gold used on or in the temple and the sacrifice [gift] that was on the altar [presented as an offering to God]. If a person swore by these things, he was obligated to speak truth, to keep the promise. He was obligated to what he declared in the vow. If he swore by these things, he could not escape his obligation and be loyal to God.

In our concepts of today, vows could be used by people “who belonged to God” as a means of lying, of deliberately deceiving other people. Thus if my greed motivated me to exploit another person, I would affirm a promise or declare something was true by swearing a “non-binding” vow. I could lie without placing my relationship with God in jeopardy by swearing in a way that meant nothing to God! What a concept! “If you do it the proper way, you are not obligated to keep a promise or to tell the truth, and God does not care!” The God of truth does not care if His people deceive? Truthfulness is a matter of procedure, not a matter of integrity?

No wonder that Jesus classified religious teachers and leaders who taught this position as blind guides, fools, or blind men! It took little integrity to see that swearing by the temple or the gold of the temple was based on an artificial distinction, or swearing by the altar or the gift on the altar was based on an artificial distinction. To swear by heaven is to swear by all that is in heaven – and that includes the God of heaven Himself!

The God of truth Who is faithful in all He promises cherishes people of truth who are faithful in their promises! “Non-binding” vows misrepresent God! To misrepresent God is to engage in hypocrisy!

Thought Questions/Requests:

  1. Share examples of Christians making artificial distinctions.
  2. In every age people hold to strong opinions about what is and is not appropriate in God’s immediate presence. Most of those strong opinions are based on what?
  3. What distinction camouflages personal greed with pretended personal piety?
  4. What was the purpose of a vow? How were they to be used by Israel?
  5. What did Jesus endorse? Why?
  6. Explain the artificial distinctions the scribes and Pharisees made in the use of vows (taking oaths, swearing).
  7. What was this an attempt to do?
  8. Explain the basic flaw in the concept of “non-binding” vows.