Danger – Men at Work
Cones on a motorway. Flashing overhead signs. You drive on for miles and there is no hint of any activity or any danger. And the eventual effect is that you are lulled into a false sense of security. The next time you see similar signs you’re sceptical that there will be any problem ahead and so you keep your foot down hard on the accelerator pedal.
On the spiritual front there are warning signs that we may also be sceptical of. Some folk are always sniffing a rat or seeing a dire problem looming and then nothing at all happens. When you hear another warning you too might be in danger of ignoring it but more fool you when the warning comes directly from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus and Crowds
The scene has changed. Jesus is no longer to be found at a dinner party in the home of a unnamed Pharisee. The memory of the exchanges that took place there however provides the backdrop for what comes next.
Jesus is once again in the open air and once again he is surrounded by crowds of people pressing in on him. There are simply thousands of them eager and keen to get as close as they can. It looks more like a rugby scrum than a regular congregation.
This isn’t the first time that such crowds swarmed about the Lord Jesus. Back in ch.9 Luke has already told us about the time when he fed some 5.000 men who had followed him into a desolate place so that they could listen to what he had to say. Matthew and Mark both record that incident but they both also supplement it with a similar event when Jesus fed 4.000 followers (not including the women and children who were there).
A common feature of each of these great crowds was the inconvenience men and women were prepared to put up with in order to be with Jesus – how keen they were to hear what he had to say!
Concerning the first crowd, they had travelled on foot to be with Jesus. They followed him to a location that Luke described as "a desolate place" – it was long way from home for most of them.
Concerning the second crowd, they had spent three days with Jesus with little in the way of physical refreshment and nourishment. Jesus compassionately fed this crowd because he was fearful that otherwise some would faint as they attempted the journey back home.
Now there is a third crowd and they are suffering from the limitations of space and so cramped as they gather round Jesus that Luke tells us graphically that "they were trampling one another"!
These large crowds were prepared to pay a significant price to be with Jesus and to learn from him.
I wonder if the same could be said of us.
How important is it to us to be able to hear and understand the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ? Are we bothered enough to put ourselves out to be with Jesus?
Do we order our lives so that we can carve out the necessary time to hear him and what he has to say to us? Are we ready to make readjustments to the busy and comfortable schedules of our daily lives so that our knowing Jesus can be pursued as a genuine priority? Are we prepared to put up with potential inconveniences that may well impinge upon our personal ease and comfort? Or are we subtly determined that Jesus will not bring too much disruption into our lives and so we’ll only pursue Jesus when we’ve nothing else to do? I was tempted to say "nothing better to do" but I baulked at that because there really is nothing better than being with Jesus – but do I always act like that, do you?
Jesus and Warnings – some General truths
With the crowds pressing round Jesus began to speak and Luke tells us he addressed what he had to say to his disciples.
Given the context we shouldn’t take that in too restrictive a manner. The word "disciple" isn’t restricted just to the 12 men specially chosen by him but is used to describe those who sympathetically followed Jesus, at least for a certain amount of time.
In speaking his words would have carried far beyond a tight inner circle – his words were serious then and remain serious for us as well today. There are a number of lessons which we would do well to hear and to heed.
This is what Jesus began with and it takes the form of a warning:
Before we consider just what Jesus meant in issuing this particular warning I want us to step back for a moment and think about the simple fact that Jesus actually issued warnings at all.
A warning is only sensibly issued if there is some danger to be encountered. A warning will help us either to avoid that danger or to prepare ourselves to meet it if it can’t be avoided.
The identification of danger involves a judgment call. You simply don’t warn others about good things coming. But Jesus hears does warn, that is what the word "Beware" implies. In other words Jesus has made a judgment and it is a judgment that concerns the action and behaviour and beliefs of others. According to our wise Saviour there is a difference between truth and error and it is a difference that matters.
There are a number of implications that flow from this.
In warning his disciples Jesus expects them to carry out certain judgments themselves – in order to follow his instructions his disciples themselves must be able to recognise those actions, beliefs and behaviours he warned against when they encountered them.
I want to emphasise this point because it is important: Jesus judged and he expected/expects his disciples to make judgements too.
Of course the type of judgment he expects of his followers to exercise is not a crass dismissive condemnation of others, nor is it a carping criticism that is always looking to find fault. No, the judgment Jesus calls for is that of a careful evaluation – after all "all that glisters is not gold". In other words Jesus’ disciples are not to be dupes who take absolutely everything at face value or assume that the outward appearance corresponds necessarily to an inward reality. We know this in other areas of life and must not imagine it to be otherwise in matters of spiritual importance – you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Now some folk don’t like this at all. There are plenty of people in the world whose favourite Bible verse includes the simple words "Judge not". Such folk like to imagine that religion is all about personal opinion and that the opinion of one person is just as valid as that of the next.
This sort of thinking has very little indeed to do with the man from Nazareth. The man from Nazareth was the man who declared "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Jn.14:6) and he also taught that God the Father actively seeks for those who will worship "in spirit and in truth" (Jn.4:23-24).
It is possible to make too much of the phrase "judge not" and to try to turn it into an absolute principle which it was never intended to be. Those who do so are guilty of a ‘pick n mix’ approach to the Christian faith. It involves a latching on to some of the words that Jesus spoke (and which they like and are prepared to endorse) while at the same time rejecting some of the other things that Jesus said on the same subject.
He who said "Judge not, and you will not be judged" (Lk.6:37) also said:
"Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment." (Jn.7:24)
Do you want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Then you keep on the alert. There are forces, influences and teachings out there that are destructive and you must be prepared to go against the flow at times and reject such worldly thinking. This won’t make you popular, you may well be insulted and called judgmental or lacking in love but Jesus your Lord tells you that not everything you encounter is what it purports to be.
Now it is time to turn to the specific warning that Jesus issued at that time.
Jesus and a Specific Warning
Lk.12:1 "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees..."
The phrase "the leaven of the Pharisees" recurs a number of times in the Gospels and where it appears it draws attention to one or other of two related ideas.
In Mt.16:12 the "leaven" refers to the teaching of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Now these two groups really didn’t get on representing very different approaches to religion within Judaism. Jesus regarded their teachings as equally dangerous and insidious because neither corresponded to the truth.
The teaching of the Sadducees was something of a front designed primarily to protect their own privileged status within the society of their day. On the other hand the Pharisees made much of religious observance and rigorous observance at that and yet their practise fell well short of what they proclaimed. In short both were guilty of hypocrisy. Neither group was what they wanted others to think they were.
In Lk.12:1 Jesus specifically identified "the leaven of the Pharisees" as hypocrisy.
Beware of those whose lives are significantly out of step with what they teach. True religion is not a matter of mere words nor is it about play-acting. To follow someone who is only himself interested in external appearances and not inward reality is a recipe for disaster.
Jesus’ choice of words is interesting. He compared the hypocrisy and the hypocritical teaching of the Pharisees to leaven. Now leaven is a substance (be it yeast or baking powder) that is added to bread made with flour in order to make it increase in size when cooked.
In the Bible "leaven" is used as a symbol to represent human evil and corruption which has the effect of quietly and completely permeating what it comes into contact with. One commentator has written that "yeast was an appropriate metaphor for something that spreads; today we might employ the negative image of cancer." And you all know how important it is to treat a cancer at the earliest possible moment before it has time to spread and destroy the whole.
According to Jesus’ estimate the Pharisees pretended to be something that they were not and it would be highly dangerous for anyone to follow them or to welcome and accept their teaching and general outlook.
Jesus went on to explain that eventually the truth would come out. You may for a time try to be one thing in public while being something else in private but sooner or later the mask will slip. If you wear the religious mask to try to maintain outward appearances all the while having nothing of worth in the inner man, in the heart; then know too that one day that religious mask will also slip and what you really are we be clear for all to see.
Men may try for a while to keep up appearances but why? After all God is not and never has been focused on the outward appearance! As the psalmist put it in Ps 51:6 "Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being", "truth in the inward parts". He is looking for reality and will not be impressed or fobbed off with hypocrisy:
1Sam.16:7 "For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."
If it is so important that we avoid being contaminated and destroyed by the pervasive wickedness of hypocrisy and hypocritical teaching then it is surely also important that we seek to avoid becoming the kind of person who might contaminate others by our life and example.
The preacher of teacher of the gospel is perhaps at greater risk here than others.
The preacher is exposed to a special set of pressures and temptations that include the following:
The temptation to tell others to do the right thing while failing to do it to ourselves. This the particular danger that haunts the spiritual "professional".
The temptation to tell others what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. This is the peril of slipping into being more concerned for man’s approval than it is for the Lord’s. It is the danger of becoming a mere man-pleaser. And believe me the temptation is real – who doesn’t want to be liked and appreciated?
A similar though slightly different temptation is to hold back and only to share part of the truth.
So as you pray for yourself not to be led astray into serious spiritual error, or kept from ever finding the truth, pray too for the Christian teachers and preachers you know. Pray that they be enabled to avoid this leaven of wicked human hypocrisy.
Finally pray that by your own reaction to the truth you do not become one of those who puts pressure upon your teachers and preachers to not tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If you do and succeed then it will be the detriment of your own soul and to the spiritual well-being of others around you.
Truth matters and it matters all areas of life. You don’t want a doctor to prescribe the wrong medicines for you because he knows you like the colour of the box or the taste of the tablet. No, you want what will make you better and you go to a qualified doctor because you trust his judgment more than you do the man in the newsagents – you don’t act as though every opinion is equally valid when it comes to matters of your physical health so don’t allow the leaven of the Pharisees to creep in and ruin your life.
How grateful we should be to Jesus for telling us as it is.
This is the man you must trust for he alone is able to make you the kind of person (from the inside out) who is acceptable to God. Don’t go away whispering your objections, your reservations and your hesitations to yourself rather go to God in Jesus Christ and ask him to forgive you your sins and to make you anew so that you too can follow Jesus as a genuine disciple.