Seeing the Forest Through the Trees



MATTHEW 23:1-12


A minister decided that a visual demonstration would add emphasis to his Sunday sermon.

Four worms were placed into four separate jars.

  • The first worm was put into a container of alcohol.
  • The second worm was put into a container of cigarette smoke.
  • The third worm was put into a container of chocolate syrup.
  • The fourth worm was put into a container of good clean soil.

At the conclusion of the sermon, the Minister reported the following results:

  • The first worm in alcohol .. . . . . . Dead .
  • The second worm in cigarette smoke . . . Dead .
  • Third worm in chocolate syrup . . . . Dead.
  • Fourth worm in good clean soil . . .. Alive

So the Minister asked the congregation,

“What did you learn from this demonstration?”

A woman sitting in the back quickly raised her hand and said . . .
“As long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate, you won’t have worms!”


I think it is part of human nature to often miss the point, to not see the Forest for the trees, to take a good idea and use it to bad ends, to focus more on the letter than the Spirit of the Law.

We see that exemplified today in our Gospel lesson. Even an initial reading of this story might cause us to loose the point because we don’t really understand the context that it was written in. This passage is part of a larger section in Matthew where Jesus proclaims his “woes” against the Pharisees. In these woes he calls the Pharisees “hypocrites.” Today we would define a hypocrite as one who says one thing and knowingly acts differently from what they say. Some commentaries even point out that the Greek word hypocrite might have been applied to actors playing a part on a stage, thus confirming the modern notion of someone who is being disingenuous. Yet, some commentaries I have read point out that the term hypocrite wasn’t used to describe an actor till the second century A.D, about a hundred years after Matthew wrote this story down.

Indeed, if we look at the Greek parsing of this word, and the context the word is being used in, we might get a better understanding of the word’s original meaning. The Greek word from which hypocrite is derived consists of the prefix hypo, which generally means under or below. This is where we get the term hypodermic needle, because it is a needle that goes below the surface of your skin. The opposite prefix would be the Greek word hyper which we might be more familiar with because it is used in such English words as hyperactive. The second part of hypocrite is where we get our modern word critical from. The Greek means to examine or to understand. Thus, the original meaning of hypocrite is not someone who is knowingly deceiving people, but someone who lacks understanding.

Thus, in portraying the Pharisees as disingenuous religious leaders who are playing a part for their own gratification, we have missed the point of this passage, we have missed the Forest for the trees. The failure of the Pharisees is not that they are liars or disingenuous, indeed Jesus tells his disciples to listen and follow what they say. Their teaching is sound, but their focus is off. They use the Law, The Torah, which God designed as good, as something to sit on, as something to lift them selves above other people, and thus miss the point of the Law, which is to elevate all people towards God. It was not the deception of the Pharisees that was their downfall it was their sincerity. It was their sincere commitment to observing the commandments of the Law, such as the Sabbath, that caused them to be blinded to the fact, that as Jesus pointed out, God created the Sabbath for man, and not man for the Sabbath. We are not dealing with liars and swindlers here. We are dealing with sincere people. The problem is that we can be sincere but be sincerely wrong.

The problem is that if we put cause or ideology above of God and people this can lead us into pride. I call pride the invisible sin because so often we can’t see it in ourselves, and even when others point it out in us, it is truly a gift of grace that we receive such constructive criticism instead of becoming offended. Not only are prideful people destructive to themselves they are destructive to others. They chain people down and place upon them burdens that they themselves cannot bear. Jesus had compassion on a whole host of people dealing with a whole host of issues. But when it came to the Pharisees, when it came to sincere but prideful people Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 15:14, “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit.” I don’t know anywhere else in scripture that Jesus, the good shepherd, the one who will leave the 99 sheep to save the 1 lost sheep, says I can’t help that person. It is the scariest verse in all of scripture in my opinion.

So how do we prevent Jesus saying to us, “Leave that guy or gal alone….I can’t help him or her?” What are some steps to repentance that this text suggests to us? While there are many points touched on in this story I will focus on three.

  1. Don’t be Offended
  2. Have a right view of yourself
  3. Direct the eyes of your heart to the right place.

Point number one; don’t be offended. The scriptures record that the main reason that the Pharisees could not accept Jesus’ teachings is that they were offended. It wasn’t that they disagreed philosophically, theologically, politically, or ideologically. It was that they had an initial emotional reaction of offense that prevented them from even seriously considering what Jesus was saying. In Matthew 11:1-6 John the Baptist sends his disciples to Jesus while he is in prison to ask Jesus whether he is the long awaited for Messiah. Apparently being in prison caused John to have some serious doubts about whether Jesus was legit. Jesus replied to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” The Greek word for offended here basically means one who trips over a stumbling block. So Jesus is basically saying blessed are those who do not trip over him.

This passage has always mystified me. Who would possibly think lepers being cleansed, blind people seeing, deaf people hearing, dead people coming back to life ( though not in the zombie way), and the poor having good news preached to them, would be a bad thing? But think for a minute. What would you do if people came to this church and started being healed of blindness, deafness, leprosy, or perhaps Ebola would be a more pertinent disease today? What would you do if the pews started to fill up with drunks, prostitutes, single moms on welfare, and struggling youth from Pierceton woods? Would you rejoice? Or would you be offended? Personally, my initial reaction would be to be offended because the order I am used to is being disrupted. My comfortable world is being torn apart. Jesus is supposed to get me into heaven not bring troubles to my door.

What are some signs that you are offended and not having a legitimate disagreement towards what someone is saying or doing? Thoughts like, “How dare you!” or, “That’s not the way we have always done it!” might come to mind. Also when someone is speaking truth into my life I often find that I think, “What does this person know only God can judge me.” It is true that only God can judge you and that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people of sin and not ours. But I often I find when I think that only God can judge me that at that time in all honesty I don’t really care what God thinks about what I am doing, I am just trying to justify myself before others. So much of the church simply cannot see the Spirit of God moving because we are too easily offended. But Jesus tells us if we are not offended by what he is doing we will be blessed.

Point two: Have a right view of ourselves. Jesus tells his disciples to not let anyone call them “Rabbi” or to call anyone “Father”. I think if we take this verse to say that I have to call my dad Bob for the rest of my life, that like the Pharisees, we have missed the point. The point is that we are not to be defined by titles but we are to have a right view of ourselves. If Lebron James said, “You know I am really not that good at basketball,” or Tiger Woods said, “It is just shear luck that I keep making holes in one,” than we would call that false humility. So often in our culture humility is defined as thinking bad about ourselves. So often we are so willing to say, “Oh Lord have mercy on me a sinner,” but are we also willing to cry out “Abba, Father,” are willing to call ourselves Sons and daughters of the Father and to claim the inheritance we have in Christ? Are we willing to say that I am a sinner but somehow I am also beautifully and wonderfully made? As Richard Foster points out in his classic book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, the word Humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means fertile ground. To quote Foster, “Put in simple terms, humility means to live as close to the truth as possible: the truth about ourselves, the truth about others, the truth about the world in which we live.” To be a servant as Jesus was a servant is to declare as the Lord declared from the burning bush, “I am who I am.” I accept my beauty and my frailty and with the Lord’s help I will be who he makes me to be.

My final point is that we need to know where to direct the eyes of our heart. The Pharisees failed because they thought that life was about keeping the Law when in fact the Law was designed to lead us to God. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” The Greek word for fulfill here means to complete, to fill up. In Romans 10:4 Paul calls Christ the end of the Law. The Greek word here is Telos where we get our modern word telephone or teleportation. The word means to make complete or bridge a gap between two places. Christ came not to destroy what had come before but to bring to fruition its fullness to bridge the gap between this evil age and the age to come. As Dietrich Bonhoffer often put it Christ is the ultimate truth of life, the way the truth and the life, and everything else is secondary, or penultimate. He is the image of the invisible God, the Wisdom of God, the Author of Life, the Word made Flesh, the worthy lamb who was slain, thus everything in our lives must be filtered by gazing first upon Christ through the eyes of our heart. This is more than asking what would Jesus do it is asking what is Jesus doing. In the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18;

“Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

The veil has been lifted. So let us not miss the Forest for the Trees.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


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