Summary: When the world is telling everyone else that don’t have this, or they’re not like that, or they’re not good enough, Christians should be the ones sending the message loud and clear, “we love you anyway!”
There are many things I admire about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He was intentional about spending time with God each day, even getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. to do so. He took the gospel seriously and wasn’t afraid to remind the people of his day of many long-forgotten truths about Christ and discipleship. He wrote powerful sermons and beautiful prayers, and like his brother Charles, he even authored a few hymns. Yet, for all his writing, there is one lesser known quote from John Wesley, which stands out above all to me. When asked about the distinguishing marks of a Methodist, among many other things, Wesley said this, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”
I could almost imagine that John Wesley had Jesus’ words of warning about the Pharisees that we heard a few moments ago in mind when he said this. “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” You see, just before Jesus begins speaking to the crowds here in this passage, he has responded to the lawyer’s question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And Jesus answered him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then Jesus ends by saying, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In essence, Jesus is saying, “Here it is; here is the root. When it comes to following God, this is what’s most important. Sure there are plenty of laws and regulations, but when it all boils down, this is what matters.” After answering the lawyer’s question, Jesus then turns to the crowd and speaks the words we heard a few moments ago. And basically, Jesus is telling his followers that the Pharisees are good in their devotion to God, and that what they teach is right, and good, and pure, but that when it comes to actual practice they’re not so good; they’re not focused on the root, but rather they’re worrying about other matters. They’re caught up in the mundane, they’re “majoring in the minors” as it were. They’re saying one thing and doing another, they’re talking the talk, but not walking the walk. They’re not practicing what they preach.
In short, in their insistence on strict adherence to laws and regulations, the Pharisees have neglected the most important things, which Jesus describes as “love of God and neighbor.” And instead, they’ve heaped upon their followers these “religious burdens” that do nothing to help people grow in their relationship with God. One biblical scholar translates the verse this way, “You see, they talk but they don’t do. They tie up heavy bundles which are difficult to carry, and they dump them on people’s shoulders – but they themselves aren’t prepared to lift a little finger to move them.”
Now, it is easy for us to read Jesus’ words, to nod our heads in agreement, and to think to ourselves, “those awful Pharisees.” But Jesus isn’t trying to throw the Pharisees “under the bus,” so to speak, if he was, he wouldn’t have complemented their teaching at the beginning of the passage. And so, we too must be careful about our rush to judgment. As with all of Jesus’ teachings, we need to ask the question, “What is Jesus saying to me?” That’s the question we always need to ask, and today we need to consider the possibility that, when it comes to our spiritual lives, we may be more like those Pharisees than we realize.
As Jesus is teaching the crowds about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, in essence what he is saying is this: that they would load people down with guilt, judgment and condemnation; and then, having done this, they would condemn them as godless! Is it not true that God’s Word and law can be imposed upon people in such a strict way that any sense of mercy is lacking? All kinds of problems can arise out of a condemning and judgmental attitude toward others. We are all sinners, and we all fall short of God’s glory. None of us can stand up under the burden of the strict letter of the law. To try and do so, would be insane!
And yet, do we not go down that road sometimes? Do we, as the Christian Church, in the twenty-first century, make it difficult for others to turn to God by putting on them “a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” If so, then in what ways are we doing this? What judgments are we casting down upon our fellow human beings that make it difficult for them to turn to God; that make the Church of Jesus Christ look like a hypocritical, bigoted group of nutcases to much of the world?