Honesty Seeks No Loopholes
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 23:14b (Holman) [. . .and make long prayers just for show. This
is why you will receive a harsher punishment.]
Hell is not a “one size fits all” place. God will be just in meting out future everlasting punishment. None will ever be able to say He was unfair.
These religious leaders will suffer worse treatment because they used religiosity, especially offering long prayers, to con people. The problem was not the length of the prayers. Jesus at times prayed all night, and we are to pray without ceasing. We all need to pray longer. We have many sins to confess, countless thanks to offer, and numerous troubles to seek help for.
The Pharisees’ problem was; they prayed “just for show”, to impress people, while with wicked hearts they took advantage of the helpless. Some widows were destitute because Pharisees had siphoned off their money.
These men were covetous and cruel. Yet there they stood, offering long prayers. They wanted their piety to help them be trusted by the weak.
They made it look like happy was any widow who found men like them to help her. Evil is most evil when religionists use a facade of religion to practice evil. Their actions upset Jesus. He thundered woes against them.
Matt. 23:15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You travel
over land and sea to make one proselyte, and when he
becomes one, you make him twice as fit for hell as you are!
To win converts they tried everything in their power. They left no stone unturned. Their zeal for winning others to their cause should shame us.
Unfortunately, they led people not to God, but to Pharisaism. Their converts were fanatic legalists, not YHWH-followers. They had no desire to honor God. They were more worried about protecting their position than about extending God’s influence. They were soul ruiners, not soul winners.
Missionaries must beware this grave temptation. They can easily slip into a bad practice of trying to win people to denominational persuasions rather than simply to Jesus and the Bible. Vincent Donovan was a Catholic missionary to Africa’s Maasai in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than impose on them a western-style Catholicism, he let them decide how to “do church” in a way that expressed their culture. He won many to Christ, and set them free to make their own Bible choices. Multitudes of them became Baptists.
A Kingdom mindset can be hard to maintain. It is easy for us to let our spiritual world shrink. Our little group can become all that matters. Some think Bible rules should be defined and interpreted solely as they see them.
It is common for such groups to forget not only about lostness. Even fellow believers become suspect, not good enough. Some people spend more time building fences than bridges. Jesus told the Jews He had “other sheep that are not of this fold” (John 10:16). He did not like Israel’s exclusivism.
Not wanting cliquishness to be the main focus, He always looked for more people to reach out to. He kept His eye beyond only those in His camp at a given moment. There were others, many Gentiles, He had His sights on.
To complicate the proselytizing of Pharisees, and others, new converts are often more radical than the zealots that win them. Extremists from our own country are some of the most radical terrorists in the Middle East today.
New converts often feel a need to do more than the bare minimum; they want to convincingly prove their commitment to becoming insiders. Becoming more bigoted than the others, they develop a hellish disposition.
The word here for hell is “Gehenna”, the name of the valley outside Jerusalem that served as the city garbage dump. King Josiah cursed it (2 K 23:10) because children had been offered in it as burnt sacrifices. In Gehenna, fires never went out, and worms proliferated. Jesus, deeming it a vivid picture of Hell, used it to describe the place of eternal punishment.
Matt. 23:16 Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever takes an
oath by the sanctuary, it means nothing. But whoever takes an oath by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by his oath.”
The leaders were “blind guides”, leading people far from the truth. Even their claims to help verify truth were untruthful. They distorted oaths.
By taking an oath, promisors forcefully vow they are telling the truth. It submits their honesty to God’s omniscient justice. An oath is a prayer for Him to rain down anathema on the promisors if they lie. Taking an oath is serious business. It subpoenas God to serve as a witness to a promise. Since it pulls God down into human affairs, Jesus felt obligated to deal with oaths.
Oaths were widely used in Israel. If people chose to take an oath to confirm their honesty, the religious leaders said promisors could be trusted more if they swore not by the temple, but by gold they gave to the temple.
The Pharisees, in their mumbo jumbo, said swearing by something that was always changing gave swearers the option to change their mind, to weasel out of a promise if they wanted to. By this ruse, they made breaking promises a fine art, and built a way whereby one could get away with lying.
This and their many other silly petty rules helped the Pharisees keep people confused about the validity of oaths, and created loopholes to avoid doing their duty if they took an oath. The leaders were driven not by concern for truth, but by how to evade an oath if it later did not suit their selfishness.
Jesus, intolerant of chicanery, unmasked this, and in essence called them liars. Masters of evasion, the Pharisees were dishonest and deceitful.
They used holy things to disguise unholy lying. Jesus forbade trickery and playing word games to escape our grave responsibility of being honest.
We serve a God whose every word is true, thus our every word must be true. Jesus expects believers to speak truth, allowing for no escape routes.
The Godly always tell the truth. To them a simple yes or no should suffice. One of my favorite Bible verses (PS 15:4b) teaches us a righteous person “swears to his own hurt, and does not change” (NAS). “He keeps his word whatever the cost” (Holman). If what we promise later proves to be disastrous to us, we cannot recant. We keep our word. We should never profit from, or cause others to lose from, our own rashly spoken errors.
My ancestors moved from West Tennessee to Northeast Arkansas in 1921. Soon after they arrived, a family member, Edd Hill, my Grandpa Marshall’s brother-in-law, announced he would be gone for a while and would return someday. Months later he reappeared. He had traveled back to Tennessee to work off debts the family had left behind.
Our word is to be as good as our bond. Our bare word should be as sacred to us as a solemn oath. Because we are committed to truth in our promises, we have nothing to fear by taking an oath before God.
If called on to take an oath, Christ-followers are free to consent. Paul did. We will gladly put our hands on a Bible, but should not need to for the Bible is engraved on our hearts. If need be, we will lift our hand to Heaven, but should not need to because Heaven has been put in our innermost being.
Jesus taught us; the maximum regard we hold for the most sacred oath is to be the minimum standard for our bare word. If people make promises, God is always present and listening. We are to act like we believe this.
Some religions teach it is okay to lie to outsiders. Some are okay with lying to the government. Christ-followers, though, make no such distinctions as words that have to be true versus words that do not have to be true.
I remember when people assumed honesty in interpersonal dealings. My Grandma Marshall once put a note on her front door, “Front door locked. Back door open.” She missed the point. People had told her to lock her door. She did, but did not want people to think she did not trust them.