This is the second of seven woes Jesus aims at the Pharisees. These lessons are as potent today as they were then:
“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? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it." (Matthew 23:16-22)
It seems that the Pharisees are making a distinction between the things of God and the things of man, and that the things of man win out. Jesus takes to task the teaching that swearing by the Temple and its altar means nothing. What gives the oath value is the human element present.
How odd, given that the Temple was God's dwelling place on earth. It was large, beautiful and the center of Jewish religious life and yet an oath with it as the sacred element, means nothing. OK, Mr. Pharisee, what makes an oath with the Temple binding, important and well worth the making?
The gold? What?
The gold is what man brings into the Temple as an offering or lays it on the altar. Gold is brought out of the earth by people. People fashion it into currency (for human transactions) or for decoration (on human buildings). Gold has value to human being because of its rarity and beauty.
The most telling thing about how the Pharisees ascribe value is because gold is essential to run the Temple and sustain their religious monopoly, its value outshines even its location, i.e., the Temple or the altar.
Human beings have determined value based on its functionality and its role in aggrandizing people's power and status.
Kingdom of God values?
The value of the gold is not because we say it's valuable. Its placement on the altar, within the Temple sanctifies it, makes it valuable and acceptable to God. It has no inherent value; where it is makes it what it is, because of God's anointing presence.
Makes sense, doesn't it? The Pharisees equate their rules and regulations are holy because they say they are holy, and whether they admit it or not, what they preach gives them power and status.
Just because we make something big, expensive, awe-inspiring and valuable, doesn't make it so in God's eyes, because the Kingdom of God is not about accommodating man's standards. It's about a revolution in thinking about what is truly important, through the lens of Jesus, His teachings and His sacrifice on the cross.
Paul indicates that even Christians get into the "Hey! I follow that guy!" as a way to validate their position, in the same way the Pharisees wanted the gold to validate an oath. He says that this need comes from our sinful nature:
"You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world? When one of you says, 'I am a follower of Paul,' and another says, 'I follow Apollos,' aren’t you acting just like people of the world?After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building." (1 Cor. 3:3-9)
It's about following God, not whose church we attend or who we think is so important that everyone needs to get on board. We gain prideful traction by associating ourselves with what we have determined is valuable, and then turn it into something spiritual and lofty.
"Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 3:10-11)
"Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames." (1 Cor. 3:12-14)
We build upon the foundation of Christ. What materials do we use? Ones that the world values? Or what God values? God sanctifies what He wants us to use. God's judgement of fire will be merciful, for even if what we used was not of His choosing, the person's salvation will allow an escape.
I am deeply worried that our consumerist approach about church, giving it value only if we get something out of it, instead of asking ourselves how can we further the Kingdom of God, will be tested someday, and will be terribly lacking.