Modern day “Pharisees” in our institutional churches still do what their predecessors did in Jesus’ time—they do “the right thing” for the “wrong reasons”. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount criticized the Pharisees of his day in these words: Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. ...” (Matthew: 23:23)
Today we erect buildings we need to produce worship services. Today we collect tithes and offerings in those churches. Today we seek to increase membership in our churches. All of these are “right things” to a point. The point to question is what is our reason for doing these things? Are we doing the “right things” but for the “wrong reasons”? What is the reason for all of the above? Too often the reason is to build for the comfort of the congregation. To provide educational and enrichment programs for the congregation. To spend the money from the tithes on the buildings and equipment and programs that are meant for “members only.” When this happens, I think Jesus says: Woe to you, Pharisees!
I don’t deny that it is good to pray, but do we need a beautiful church to do it in? Or is it better, as Jesus taught, to “pray in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”I don’t deny that it is good to sing praises to God, but must it be with a $50,000 organ while we sit on cushioned seats in an air conditioned sanctuary and watch the words on an expensive video screen and sound system? It is good to give gifts to the church, but to do so in expectation of being memorialized with a plaque, etc. is the wrong reason. Woe to us, scribes and Pharisees! Hypocrites! We are doing the “right things” but for the “wrong reasons”.
Jesus’ reason for doing things is found in the words of the Shema he is quoted as saying in response to a lawyer’s question as to which is the greatest commandment: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? Jesus said to him: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-40) These words were the guiding light for Jesus’ ministry. They also should be the same to us if we are followers of him.
My final interim ministry serves as an unfortunate example of doing the “right thing” for the “wrong reason.” While I was there a woman in the church who had a passion for the poor, needy and homeless started a program at the church for a Friday night meal, called Bread and Cup, served every Friday of the year. It was a great program for the needy and homeless and was attended by over 100 persons at times. In addition a food pantry was maintained for emergency use during the week and a clothing closet full of donated clothes was maintained. The church was located in the downtown area where many of those who needed such help were located. This was the right thing to do! It was what Jesus led us to do! But alas, it is no longer at that church. The church members were afraid these people would do something to their beautiful sanctuary. They also voiced their concern that if they fed people and helped clothed them they should attend church and add to their membership numbers. Too many of the membership did the “right thing” for the “wrong reason” and when the opportunity came after my ministry was finished and the guiding person who founded the ministry also moved away, the church, with no notice, informed the Bread and Cup ministry that their building was no longer to be used by them.
In my ministry to the poor and needy, I have found many churches with beautiful buildings, lots of members, a large budget, but with a policy that informed those approaching them for aid: “Sorry, you have to be a member before we can help you.” Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees!
The Apostle Paul, in I. Corinthians 13, summed up the problem well for our churches in these words: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals, and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing….” (I. Cor. 13:1-3)
The church today exists to transform people by bringing them into a loving relationship with God. It exists today to carry out the Great Commandment of loving God and our neighbors and ourselves. All that the institution of the church is in terms of building, worship, and day to day action should follow that Great Commandment. Every thing else the church is and does is really on the periphery. Our ministry is to the ones that Jesus sends us—-the poor, the marginalized, the spiritually empty who need to be transformed and filled by God’s love, the physically hungry who need to be filled in the name of that loving God—–that is the “right reason” for the institutional church’s existence. Unless that is reason for the church’s existence, they will always do the “right things” for the “wrong reasons.”