The gospel community was created to be winsomely countercultural: we are a healing place for the needy, sick, and broken. The church welcomes all who come, regardless of socioeconomic status, zip code, or political affiliation.
Yet often in practice, our actions as the church have opposed our mission and even been hypocritical in nature: we demand that people straighten out, or worse, hide their flaws before they are welcome—as if they can modify their hearts along with their behavior without the Holy Spirit! We have been hostile to lamentation. We have aligned ourselves along political lines, shunning and denigrating anyone on the “wrong” side of that line. Brokenness is messy. Our divisive culture gets the best of us. We don’t want to deal with it.
The church should be the most welcoming and inviting to all people. We live by a Book that expresses lamentation (a passionate expression of grief or sorrow) through psalms and poems of anguish; we know death and sin are not vanquished; we know we need fresh grace as we walk with God. In Luke 6:42, Jesus says, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” When we are at our worst, the church can be religious experts, blinded to our own hard hearts and the priority of mercy and humility. The church is at her best when we’re clear-eyed about our brokenness, yet eager to exalt and share the salvation of Jesus Christ with other broken people.
In Matthew 23, Jesus laid out the definition of hypocrisy to the religious experts. Let’s highlight selected admonitions from Jesus and pull out the lessons of mercy implied.
“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matthew 23:13).
The only time Jesus breaks out the whip of cords—two chapters earlier in Matthew 21—was because the Jews used the court of Gentiles as a marketplace instead of an invitation for Gentiles to worship (Isaiah 56:7)—physically pushing non-Jews further away from God (Matthew 21:12). This enraged Jesus because it was an attempt to keep people out of the kingdom of God.
Lesson of mercy: We open heaven’s gates when we create an atmosphere where all are welcome.What does this look like? Accessibility for people with physical and mental challenges. Hiring staff and volunteers who speak the languages and represent the demographics of your town. Pictures and media that represent senior citizens as well as young families. Licensed counselors for assault and trauma victims.
“You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (23:23).
This woe is the vile heart of hypocrisy; the center of the woes. Godly priorities value the flourishing of people over insignificant details. The same group that tithed mint as a way to show strict obedience to the law also wanted to kill Jesus for healing on the Sabbath! Don’t fall for the lie that the gospel does not include social justice. Doing justice is a Micah 6:8, Matthew 23:23 mandate straight from the mouth of Jesus Himself. A justice-optional gospel mocks the necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross. God did not skirt the issue of justice when He saved us.
Lesson of mercy: Make justice, mercy, and faithfulness a higher priority than individual comfort.Work to make your community a place where everyone’s sons and daughters can be safe, healthy, and educated. Support the local churches in blighted areas and partner with them, then plead their cause to those in power. Do not hesitate to protect the abused.
“You clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence…you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:25–27).
First Samuel 16:7 says, “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Selfish gain had deadened the hearts of the men positioned to lead the people to God. We can build palatial churches and amass huge operating budgets, but if the Spirit isn’t necessary to inspire our motivations, we are as good as dead. Spiritual death looks a lot like self-centered opulence in the face of need.
Lesson of mercy: Examine not just your deeds, but also your motivation. Are you serving from a place of partnership or condescension? Moved by compassion or legalism? Are you performing for the praise of your peers or the pleasure of God? Matthew 5:3–8, part of the Beatitudes, is a primer for the heart of those whom God blesses: the spiritually poor, those who mourn, the gentle, those famished for righteousness, the merciful—these are characteristics of the pure-hearted.