Sunday Morning Greek Blog

February 21, 2011

Careful Christianity

Filed under: Biblical Studies,Greek,Matthew Gospel of,New Testament — Scott Stocking @ 5:58 pm

From February 6, 2011.

Woe is I is the title of a popular grammar book that deals in a light-hearted manner with the complexities of the English language. More often than not, “woe” is a self-proclamation of the troubles (real or exaggerated) we face in daily life.

 But in Matthew 23:13–36, when Jesus pronounced woe (οὐαὶ, ouai ooh-EYE!) on hypocritical scribes and Pharisees, he was not making a playful jest with them. You can certainly hear the “sound of ultimate suffering” (to quote Inigo Montoya) when you say that word with all the pathos you can muster. His pronouncement of woe was about the severest form of judgment that could be pronounced, short of the ἀνάθεμα (anathema ‘curse’) of 1 Cor 16:22. In my UBS3 dictionary, the translation is given as “1. interjection how horrible it will be! 2. noun horror, disaster, calamity.”

 The reason for the woe, however, is what I want to focus on this morning. Other than the repetition of the “woe” phrase, another prominent word appears three times in this text: ἀφίημι (aphiēmi ). The word is a workhorse in the Greek New Testament, appearing 112 times, but having a variety of loosely related meanings. The three basic English meanings/translations of the word are “forgive,” “leave/left,” and “allow” or “let.” Other derived meanings or translations  are “cancel,” “tolerate,” “neglect,” or even “divorce” (1 Cor 7:11–13 would read very differently if English translation had “neglect” instead of “divorce” there!).

 The TNIV translates the word as “neglect” twice in Matthew 23:23. “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” The little things are important, but we have bigger fish to fry as well. Later, in 23:38 as Jesus closes out the curse, he warns the hypocrites “Your wilderness house is neglected by you” (my translation).

 The idea of “neglect” came home to me while reading through Deuteronomy last year. More than once in that book, Moses warned the Israelites to “be careful.” Jesus warns the hypocrites that they are majoring in the minors while neglecting the more important commands of God. In other words, they’re being careful about the wrong things. Herein is a call to be intentionally Christian: don’t be passive about your faith or relationships; don’t think the sins (big or little) that no one sees don’t matter. Don’t neglect your faith.

 I say this at the risk of being accused as a legalist. I’m not a legalist, though, at least not about the small things. I have, however, in the last few years come to see the absolute importance of justice, mercy, and faithfulness for the Christian community. These rank right up there with faith, hope, and love, and are intertwined with them to boot. What I am saying is that we should evaluate our priorities and see if we have the mind of Christ. His ministry was one of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. I recently listened to a message by Ravi Zacharias entitled “What Happened after God’s Funeral?” He laments the fact that, in modern entertainment, we tend to laugh at sin rather than be offended by it. I have a hard time seeing how that fits in with the big three. Maybe I’m just a stick in the mud, but Charlie Sheen’s recent troubles bring this truth home quite clearly. How many of us (myself included) have laughed at his exploits on Two and a Half Men, only to discover that the show is a not-so-fictional biography of his real-life exploits?

 Have we neglected God’s righteousness in favor of entertainment? Have we neglected our faith to the point that we have trouble distinguishing good from evil any more, and worse, to the point of not being able to respond appropriately in Christian love? Let us go forward in love, bearing a witness of integrity for Christ.

 He has shown all you people what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

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