Friday, September 28, 2012


SCRIPTURE: Matthew 5:20
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 28 September 2012

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20)

Antidote: Humility with open hands
In the days of Jesus, Pharisees are the spiritual masters. Whenever one needs a word, an advice, or a teaching, go look for a Pharisee. They are the experts. They are the ones who have spent years studying and practising the Scriptures. They teach. They speak. They dish out authoritative advice. 

Much like people who need legal advice, they go to the lawyer, and if the case is extremely important, they engage the best lawyer money can buy. Or the best surgeon for medical procedures, or the best teacher with the greatest educational accolades. In the academy, we look for PhDs, for academics who have years of experience or have published many papers at world renowned conferences. We even compare PhDs as if certain doctorates are more prestigious than others.

For the Jewish community in the first century, if you need an interpretation of the Scriptures, a word of advice from a spiritual guru, you go to the Pharisee. They are the ones with the equivalent of a "Dr" or a prestigious title to prefix their names. To be a Pharisee is not easy. It takes years of hard work and training. It takes a lifetime of dedication to study and to soak in the Torah. In those days, a Pharisee is highly respected. Their words speak volumes and their interpretation of the law is more accepted than criticized. In those days, people do not question their words or wisdom. They are more than willing to receive them humbly.

Yet, Jesus sees through the truth from the untruths. He is able to recognize the less than pure interpretations of the Scriptures. Himself an avid student, Jesus is disgusted with the double standards the highly regarded Pharisees are practicing. Since Jesus' days, we see a 180 degree change of perception of a Pharisee. How on earth can a highly respected Pharisee in the 1st Century becomes so despised in modern times?

A) The Pharisee in Jesus' Days

Last week, I preached on the story of the lame man at the pools of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Jesus has done a wonderful thing. He heals the lame man by simply asking him to "Get Up! Pick up your mat and walk!" Immediately, the man who has been lame for 38 years gets up, picks up his mat and walk. Yet, the healing itself is not the main thing. The main thing that John the gospel writer is trying to highlight is not the healing but the DAY of the healing. It is the Sabbath Day. According to the Pharisees of that day, picking up a mat is considered work. Healing is also considered work. That automatically incriminates both the lame man and Jesus as having broken the law. The punishment is severe. Making others commit a crime is even more severe.

I know. For those of us who have witnessed healing, the first thing is joy and wonder. Not the Pharisees of that day. So focused are they on the practicing of the law, that they fail to see the merits of mercy and grace. Instead of rejoicing in a good turn of events, they choose to harp on the legalistic practice of their INTERPRETATION of the law.  Jesus sees through all of these. He knows the thoughts and intents of the religious leaders of that day.  That is why He challenges the people,

"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:20)

B) The Accidental Pharisee

Larry Osborne recently wrote a book that talks exactly about how believers in our times can become such a Pharisee, the wrong kind.  He observes one way in which a believer of good intent turns into a pharisee of selfish intent. Let me explain it simply in three stages. Let me call Stage One as Good Intention stage. Like most people, we all want to grow and bear fruit. We desire to be faithful and want to be better people. So we read books. We attend conferences. We sign up for Bible classes or intensive seminary courses. For some, like me, we dedicate years to study theology.

Stage Two is the Great Impression. Here, the believer gets transformed dramatically through some life changing event. It can be an amazing mission trip experience, or a powerful conference speaker. It can also be a great impression from a powerful preacher or influential teacher. It can be a great new idea that grips the heart so much that one starts to think mighty thoughts on how to change the world.

Stage Three becomes the fork where one either becomes a person who is humble and holy, or a person who moves toward arrogance and self-righteousness. It is at the juncture that we are at greatest danger of becoming an "Accidental Pharisee." Osborne gives this observation of people at this juncture.

"But as you press forward, it’s inevitable that you begin to notice that some people lag behind. And it’s at this point that your personal pursuit of holiness can morph into something dangerous: a deepening sense of frustration with those who don’t share your passionate pursuit of holiness." (Larry Osborne, Accidental Pharisees, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, p20)

C) Misplaced Zeal

When our zeal becomes misplaced, we substitute the desire to glorify God with the desire to glorify self. We let our knowledge become the key to humiliate or embarrass other people. We use our experience, knowledge, and qualifications as conduits to show off our great learning. As a result, our zeal becomes misaligned with God's will, and we have turned away to the dark side. We grow scales of the old-time Pharisees of the age.

I often warn myself the dangers of accidental pharisees. One thing I do is to make sure people in my Church call me by my name. I like to say, "Only strangers call me Dr." That said, there is a place to use titles and our experiences. Having it does not mean hiding it. What matters more is not the using it, but HOW we are using it.

When it comes to people with great knowledge, the journey only gets tougher and sometimes rougher. We need to let mercy and grace follow us right through. For every piece of knowledge, double pad it with grace and mercy. For every piece of experience, triple load it with gentleness, patience, and humility. For every person we meet who does not have the expertise or experience we have, be more ready to listen than to speak. Then, when we speak, we can speak not to boost our own ego, but to help the person as best as we can. Humility also means we need to ask permission to help them. It also means learning to receive advice as well.

Perhaps, this is something we all need to learn. Humility is not something that only the learned needs to learn. We all do. That way, our kind of righteousness is on the way of exceeding that of the Pharisees in Jesus' days, and the "accidental pharisees" of our times.

Be humble, for Christ is humble.

THOUGHT: “Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.” (Jane Austen)


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