More Important Matters

Look - I'll just start the post with the fireworks, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Rob Bell.

Everybody over it already? I said "Rob Bell", and now you can all just settle down and listen to me for a minute. We have a new reader, or a lurker who came out of lurking to comment on a post last week, and I popped over to his blog to see what sort of blogospheric fauna he represented, and all in all I liked his blog. It's a little, um, dark in template for me as I am old and getting more and more squinty-eyed, but at least he doesn't play his music too loud.

Of particular interest today would be Tyler's review of Velvet Elvis to point out that he's no raving sycophant for Bell and his teaching.

This is important to point out because of this post by Tyler which leads us to this sermon by the afore-mentioned Rob Bell. The version I have linked to is at for the sake of having a static link which is unlikely to be banished or shuffled by the needs of someone else's server.

Tyler says this, among other things about Bell's sermon on a section of Mt 23:
It was awesome. It was fantastic. It was balanced, clear, biblical, exegetical, and utterly entirely convincing. In his opening prayer he even mentioned that the words of Jesus contain edges, which was nice to hear. I honestly cannot think of any one point where I would disagree or ask for clarification. Listen to it yourself, because it was awesome.
Which, of course, causes one to want to listen for one's self because who wants to miss "awesome" and "fantastic" "balanced" preaching? It caused me to listen, anyway.

Now, here are some highlights from the mp3 I listened to:

[*] A really, really good cross-reference to the OT laws on tithing and dietary law; very useful in exposing the problem Christ was condemning the Pharisees and Teachers for, especially in the context that they were Jews who were in Moses' seat and were teachers of the Law.

[*] A really, really good exposition of the counterpoint between the keeping of the Law and the "weightier matters" of the Law ("justice and mercy and faithfulness" in the ESV; "judgment, mercy, and faith" in the KJV).

[*] And all things considered, a really good view into the faulty heart behind legalism which seeks, as Jesus says elsewhere, to get the outside of the cup clean but forgets that it's the inside of the cup that needs to be cleaned up - which is an important contexter here, which we will also come back to.

So yeah - on the on hand, there's something worth listening to in Bell's presentation which, I think, any decent Bible expositor would be excited to hear in and of itself.

That, however, is not all. And I think it's somewhat interesting that this sermon turns out the way it does in the context of some of the larger conversations and meta-threads in the blogosphere these days - because it winds up pointing directly at the question of what it means to have a "kingdom on earth" in some relationship with "salvation in heaven".

Here's what he says:
All of this wasn't because you don't want a gnat - because a gnat had religious significance. For a Pharisee, their understanding of why things had fallen apart for them - remember, you're a good Jew, you live in Israel, you believe you're God's chosen people, you believe that God called your father Abraham and you are one of Abraham's sons and Abraham's daughters and your job is to show the world what God is like. SO your whole worldview is built on, "you are chosen, special and predestined". But something unfortunate has happened: world history hasn't really worked that way. You've been conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, you ancestors were slaves in Egypt, you have now been conquered by the Romans. And this giant global military super power, the Romans, has just crushed you. And so you've got Roman soldiers in all of your streets, and these Roman soldiers don't even believe in your God. Your God is like, what, the God of the Jews? I mean, you don't even have statues, c'mon.

So as a good Jew, you live with this aching {sigh} ... we were supposed to be the ones who, like, showed the world what God is like, and instead we just get beat - who-whoever seems to be in charge of the world, we just get beaten up, just consistently, and now with these Romans have taken over [sic].

And so for the Pharisees, central to their worldview is, "I'll tell you why this has happened to us. I'll tell you why our country is under oppression and occupation. I'll tell you why this has happened: because of sinners. God is judging us because we haven't been pure and upright." So the problem is all of these, ah, prostitutes and sinners and unclean people. And so for a Pharisee, their, uh, drive to be what's called 'ritually clean' - we want to show God that there are some of us who aren't like "them". And so for a Pharisee, your spirituality was tied up in how well you could distance yourself from anybody unclean or any sinners. They're the reason why we're in this political mess.
Now, listen closely here because this is sort of tricky. Ultimately, Bell is right about this. To a large part, there was an apparently-good motive behind what the Pharisees did. It wasn't the only motive, but it was one of them. There are other motives which the Pharisees are given woe over by Jesus - in the rest of Mt 23. Woe for taking the best seats; woe for being greedy; you read Mt 23 and decide for yourself how much woe Jesus calls down on these guys - because there's a lot of reason for Jesus to call woe to them, not just a mistaken sense of how kosher works.

But let's first be completely fair about this one section: it does, in fact, point out that one of the problems that the Pharisees had is that they thought that if they kept all the rules, God would like them better - God would be faithful to them if they were faithful. Any reader of this blog ought to recognize that as rank legalism, and in that we can applaud Bell for recognizing rank legalism.

Now before we go on, it would be useful to keep in mind the rest of Mt 23, which goes something like this:

    Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you— but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

    "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! 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.

    "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? And you say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.' You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it.

    "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

    "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

    "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

    "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

    "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
See: Jesus isn't just concerned with so-called "legalism" here, right? Jesus is concerned about something which He labels "hypocrisy", which looks like "cleaning the outside of the cup and the plate, but [leaving the] inside they full of greed and self-indulgence". In that, what Bell misses pretty boldly is that Christ is not merely saying, "legalism is bad": He's also say that legalism for the sake of oppressing others and lifting one's self up is bad.

The "woe" of the Pharisees is not merely personal holiness: it is also leveraging holiness for the sake of trodding others down.

That's why we should have some kind of qualm with Rob Bell saying this:

So the reason you don't want a gnat in your wine is because you are a Pharisee and you want to be ritually clean as a way of saying, "we understand how we got in this mess, and if people would just be righteous and pure and holy like us, then God could show up and do what God's supposed to do." So for them, the gnat was about their standing with God, their holiness, righteousness, uh goodness, and at the same time simply them being, uh, holier, better, more righteous than the sinners around them.

So Jesus says, "you strain out a gnat, you are so devoted to personal holiness and cleanliness - your own definitions - before God, but the problem is in straining out a gnat you swallow a camel." ... (riff on Lev 11)

... It's a crushing blow to the Pharisees because for them, everything was about being right with God, being clean, being holy, being pure, being in right standing with God. It's the driving thing for a Pharisee is I wanna be right before God [sic]. And Jesus says, "you are so consumed with being in right relationship with God and your own personal holiness and purity and cleanliness, you are spending so much time making sure that you don't get gnats in your wine that in the process you have neglected the bigger issues of the suffering of the world.
The context of Mt 23:23 is far broader than Rob Bell wants it to be – because Bell is frankly trying to imply something here that impugns traditional, conservative Christian churches. And that is: somehow, churches don’t do enough for the world.

Here's how he phrased it:
And because God's heart beats for the suffering of the world, and because you have missed the more important matters (Jesus' words) all of your efforts at cleanliness have actually lead you to be unclean before God. You strain out a gnat, yeah, but in the process you're swallowing a camel.

Well, uh, what do you do with that? What do you do with that? Perhaps, by way of reflection, just a couple thoughts. Sometimes you will hear somebody talk about "It's all about me and God".

Sometimes you will hear among Christians spirituality as defined the kind that pleases God, when it all comes down to it, it's all about me and God. And that sounds great, but the problem is that it's not what Jesus teaches. The obsession of the Pharisees, which started as a very righteous, good, beautiful impulse, which is we want to be standing right with God, we want personal cleanliness, had become so far out of wack - and once again, it's not to neglect this, isn't not like, "hey just live however you want, but what matters ... " no no no: cause Jesus says you gotta do both. It led them to miss the larger issues of justice, mercy and faithfulness which God never stops talking about. Which Jesus never stops talking about. Which the first Christians never stop talking about.

Be very, very careful. When somebody takes their relationship with God and says, "all that matters is me and God". Because Jesus didn't teach that. God isn't just interested in saving you. God isn't just interested in redeeming me. God isn't just interested in help you work through your stuff. God isn't just interested in your own morality purity and devotion to the way of Jesus. God wants to use us to do something about the greatest suffering in the world.
What he does is make that same phony distinction which some of you have seen Doug Pagitt make recently over at the TeamPyro blog – that is, that somehow there's no "already"/"not yet" tension in the message of the Gospel and Jesus' message of the Kingdom – and he translates that into something wholly-bizarre.

In Bell's view, personal holiness tracks parallel to the Pharisees' obsession with the keeping of the whole law – but somehow, the social gospel, and doing acts to relieve "the suffering of the world" is not a dangerous and legalistic way of interpreting Christ's message.

Listen: the works-righteousness of "I don’t drink or smoke or cuss or go with girls who do" is not any more or less legalistic than the works-righteousness of "I don't waste paper or water or gasoline or go with humans who do, without regard to their sex or gender". If it's the works which make us closer to God, we are only trading one menu of laws we can't keep for another menu of laws we can't keep – in spite of our very humble smugness as we shop at the mall or drink coffee which costs $5 a cup.

What bothers me about this talk is not the mulling-over of what kind of works-righteousness the Pharisees had: it's the failure to mull over the works righteousness someone is trying to put in its place.