By Tim Harlow
The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were great at it. The religious leaders I looked up to as a kid were great at it. And as a religious leader today, I am great at it, too.
I call it “Simon-Says Religion.” Here’s how it works: I, as the all-knowing “Simon,” call out my interpretations of God’s rules, and everyone else must conform their behavior.
Woe to you, blind guides! You say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.” You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.” You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? (Matthew 23:16-19).
Jesus goes on to decry their practice of perfectly following the law to the point of tithing the tiniest of seeds—while they neglect the “more important matters of the law. . . . You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23, 24).
Let me reinterpret in a more modern context:
• Gluttony at the church potluck was expected, but drinking alcohol was off-limits.
• Watching certain movies or television programs was forbidden, but if you were a mean and hateful parent or spouse, it was nobody’s business.
• Dancing was wrong, but hayrides were a part of every great youth group event. (Which one do you think led to more inappropriate behavior?)
Of course, every church leader would say that, at the core, these made-up rules were just ways of trying to help everyone have a good heart. We’d all say, “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew—or go with girls who do,” was a way of helping make disciples, because the newer or younger believers given to our care needed guidance. And guidance is given most easily by making rules. Every parent knows this.
The Heart of the Issue
However, at some point the rules become more important than the heart of the issue—which is the heart.
We all know Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, so I’m not arguing that doing the right thing is somehow the wrong thing to do. God’s given us the recipe for a fulfilling life by giving us loving guidelines. But we all have this funny tendency to attach the same weight to our own opinions, traditions, and interpretations as we give to the actual Word of God. Remember—Israel started with 613 guidelines in the Torah, and by Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had turned that into thousands. It begs the question: Did Simon really say, or are a bunch of people needlessly trying to jump on one foot (and missing the gospel because they are so exhausted)?
“You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” A modern version of this metaphor might be, “You’re missing the forest for the trees.”
I still remember my parents agonizing over the decision to let me go to my high school prom. Going to dances was seen as “evil,” but they decided to let me do it. To tell the truth, my “white-boy” dancing ability was never going to lead a member of the opposite sex to want to engage in inappropriate behavior with me—problem solved. But I gained so much respect for my parents in that decision. They knew my heart was good. We had rules, but at the core—they trusted my core.
Ridiculous Rules, Helpful Laws
The problem with made-up rules is they can quickly become ridiculous. The gold of the temple—not just the temple. Stuff like that.
I was at my alma mater (Ozark Christian College) recently, and the students told me my friend Monte Shoemake, the vice president of student life, got up at the beginning of the semester and read some of the school policies for students. However, he withheld a minor detail—he was reading the school rules from the 1940s. The students said it hit them when he said, “Women shall not wear polka dots on their apparel, as this only encourages boys to want to poke them.”
Seriously, that was a rule. Doesn’t it make you want to go poke a dot? Right now! Which, of course, is the problem with adding rules. Maybe I’m just a rebel—OK, I am a rebel—but dumb rules are made to be broken.
Again, I’m not against rules or guidelines. As the old adage says, I’d rather have guardrails at the top of the cliff than an ambulance at the bottom. This is actually the point. If I can see that the law of God is for my good, it will change everything.
Psalm 119:14-16 says, “I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.”
The author doesn’t say this because he enjoys following dumb rules, but, instead, because following God’s rules simply made sense and were life giving.
This is why Jesus said it’s not about the rule, for example, of adultery. It’s about the heart of lust. He said, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29).
Please, by all means, follow God’s rules. Don’t wreck your life with adultery. But don’t become estranged from your spouse because of a lustful pattern of thinking in your heart, either. The rule comes from a God who wants us to reflect his faithfulness in our marriages, and we all know that faithfulness is about a lot more than just not sleeping around.
Clean behavior is very important, but if it’s not coming from a clean heart—it’s just a sham.
“First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26).
Let’s not just stick to God’s rules—let’s examine the heart behind them and ask God to cultivate that heart in us. If you need to miss Sunday night church because you don’t spend enough time with your kids and need to go for a family bike ride, do it.
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).
That one, I’m pretty sure, “Simon” actually did say.
Tim Harlow serves as senior pastor with Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois, and as president of the 2014 North American Christian Convention.