Read Matthew 23:1–13
Famous author Ernest Hemingway prided himself on living life with no moral code. But few people know he was raised in a conservative Christian family. His grandfather? A friend of the legendary evangelist Dwight L. Moody. His parents? They went to conservative Wheaton College.
Yet when Ernest was just a little boy sitting on his father’s lap, his dad would criticize him for saying things “in a wrong way” and immediately spank him and then order him to get on his knees and beg God for forgiveness.
Young Ernest tried so hard to be good. One writer says, “Trouble was, Ernest could never be sure he had been good. He might have done something bad and not known it was bad. It was so hard to obey every rule, so hard to please his mother, his father, his teachers, his minister…”
He sure tried, though. One time Ernest read every word of the King James Bible to win a prize. As a young man he was his church youth group’s Program Chairman and then its Treasurer. Worked so hard. Tried so diligently.
Then his father committed suicide. Ernest began writing to ease the pain, but his mother said she was very disappointed in him for “not serving the Lord.” One year on his birthday, she sent him as a gift the gun his father had used to kill himself. In the card she wrote again about how disappointed she was in her son.
Is it any wonder Hemingway eventually rebelled, rewriting the Lord’s Prayer as “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name”? Is it any wonder he said, “My soul feels as empty as a vacuum tube”? Any wonder that he became known for his womanizing, drinking ways, trying to find freedom from a stifling upbringing by going as far as he could in the other direction? Is it any wonder he found no freedom there either and ended his life in the same way his father had?
Bad religion can kill people.
How do you think Jesus feels about the kind of religion Hemingway was exposed to? In today’s passage, Jesus skewers the religious leaders of His day for a performance-oriented religion that He says can actually shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.
Maybe you also experienced what author David Seamands calls “dysgrace” from parents or religious authorities. That’s his term for any system or relationship that essentially teaches the opposite of grace. It’s so difficult to unlearn these patterns. But it is possible!
In my observation, churches today don’t usually express “dysgrace” in classic legalism (as in, you have to keep the Hebrew law), but in a form of legalism you could call moralism. Moralistic leaders provide a cut-and-dried list of what is right and what is wrong, and then define the goal of Christianity as keeping those rules.
Because these leaders see themselves as helping people live up to certain standards, their job becomes mainly about explaining the rules, training people how to keep rules, teaching people how to interpret Scripture to find rules, and finding out whether or not people are keeping the rules. Consequently they are able to produce only two things: rule-keepers or rule-breakers. Either way, their followers’ souls are empty as vacuum tubes.
Jesus talked a lot about the danger of such law-oriented leadership.
He pointed out how in such systems that even Bible study, instead of being a way to get to know God better, becomes an end in itself — or a search for more rules:
“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” John 5:39–40
Instead of helping people begin a relationship with God, He said these leaders were oppressing people with pressure to perform. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
That’s why Christ’s offer of grace was so appealing:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28–30
If easy, light, and rest are not words you associate with your faith, then you may be under the heavy yoke of religion instead of the yoke of Christ.
In Mark 10:42, Luke 22:25, and 1 Peter 5:1–3 church leaders are told not to “lord it over” people under their care. What does it mean for a Christian leader to “lord it over” someone? How does this relate to grace?
How can a faith meant to set people free become a means of oppression?
Is your faith making you feel weary and burdened, or is it light and easy?
Pray that you will be an example of someone leading by grace, not law. Pray for the leaders in your church — that they will grow in their skill at leading people into a relationship with God and true holiness through grace.