Our dishwasher broke a couple weeks ago and just got fixed this week, thanks to CenterPoint Energy’s Home Service Plus program. It wasn’t a huge inconvenience, except that it required us to wash our dishes by hand for a while. The nice part about washing by hand is the built-in opportunity to ponder (as I am wont to do when involved in menial tasks).
One day I was washing glasses that our grandsons had used after eating something sugary. The outsides were sticky, clear evidence of the sugar. As I started to wash the glasses, I realized something interesting was taking place. In the process of washing the inside, the outside naturally became clean. I wasn’t focused on washing the outside. I was focused on washing the inside. The cleansing of the outside was a natural outcome. I began to wonder if Jesus’ dishwasher might have broken once because he talked about the same thing. Sort of…
When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal. Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?” (Luke 11:37-40)
In his Gospel, Matthew records a similar discourse between Jesus and some Pharisees in which Jesus concluded, “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26). The context of Matthew’s narrative? Prior to 23:26, the editors of the NIV translation added the heading, Seven Woes on the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. Seven times Jesus said “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Ouch! Jesus wasn’t mincing his words with the religious leaders. Seven times he called them out for their hypocrisy, for missing the mark. And they knew it. It would have been difficult for the hearers to respond, “I wonder what he meant?” They knew exactly what he meant. And they didn’t like it. It was around this time that they stepped up plots to kill Jesus.
What was the sin of the religious leaders? I would suggest moralism. The religious leaders had reduced God’s steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness (hesed and emet) to a recipe for moral improvement. In the 21st century, we can also succumb to the (some would say seductive) false gospel of moralism. Moralism in our context is the reduction of the Gospel – the outrageous, extravagant, radical, unconditional, love of Jesus – to moral improvement.
How might we know if we have culturally or personally succumbed to the false gospel of moralism? What might be some indicators? We might have been seduced by “christian” moralism:
- If we find ourselves using the word “should” to describe the state of our faith journey (i.e., I should pray more or I should read the bible more, etc.). Brennan Manning always used to say, “Thou shalt not should on thyself.”
- If we find ourselves reading scripture and seeing our own character flaws and missing the character of God.
- When we read stories about bible heroes, wondering if we could ever have that kind of faith and miss that the stories are actually telling us about who God is.
- When we miss the fact that the Gospel accounts were written to tell us who Jesus is and not just what he can do for us.
- When we think living the Christian life looks like “Do good; try not to do bad.”
- When we read a scripture passage and think of others who ought to be reading this. Ouch!
- When we tell people (especially younger people) how Christians should act. (We want to keep in mind that the Greek word for hypocrite is actor. Jesus was calling out the religious leaders for being actors)
Read the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and you can see the results of 50 or so years of the presence of the false gospel of moralism. Listen to sermons. Are they about who Jesus is – his character? – or do they lean toward moral improvement and how we should act? The Gospel of Jesus and the “gospel” of moralism are diametrically opposed to each other. Don’t be fooled into believing the false gospel of moralism. It’s more prevalent than one might suspect. Be aware. Be wise as serpents. I don’t know about you, but I would never want to hear Jesus say to me, “Woe unto you!”