Everyone wants change. Politicians dominate our screens every day, demanding change from the opposition. Managers want team members to ‘shape up or ship out’, and most employees will be able to give you a multiple-point checklist on what needs to change at their workplace. Husbands expect wives to evolve into their idea of the ideal spouse and vice versa. Parents constantly desire that their kids would do better in every sphere, and children are often convinced their lives would be bliss if their folks would just stop being a certain way. Are you seeing a pattern? Whenever we think about change, our natural tendency is to seek it in everybody — except ourselves.
In Matthew, Jesus explicitly calls out the Pharisees for this same hypocrisy. These religious leaders, He says, were always happy to lay down the law, but their hearts were far away from following them. They “tied up heavy loads and laid them on men’s shoulders” but would be “unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” themselves (Matthew 23:4). The Lord also made similar reference to such double standards in His sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7. And in His teaching, He sets forth an important principle on the subject of change.
The absurdity of our typical attitude to change is drawn out in Matthew 7:3-5, when Jesus notes how we often prefer to point out the speck of dust in our brother’s eye, while ignoring the log in our own. I don’t know if anyone has ever seen a person with a log in his eye — but I think we can all agree that it would take a lot of work for such a person to pinpoint a speck in anyone else’s eye without tackling the log impairing his own vision first. Yet, isn’t that what we all love to do? When we know there is something wrong in our lives, we’d much rather ignore it and focus on the mistakes in others’ lives, because that allows us to stay comfortable and please our own hearts. This was exactly what the Pharisees did — and Jesus had just one word for them: hypocrites.
When we know there is something wrong in our lives, we’d much rather focus on the mistakes in others, because that allows us to stay comfortable
It’s not wrong to desire change in someone else. But the interesting paradox Jesus highlights here is that living a changed life is a far more effective formula for inspiring change, than demanding, criticising or condemning someone. He wanted to make the pitfalls of hypocritical and judgemental attitudes clear to His listeners — and so He says: don’t be a Pharisee and expect change, when you don’t live a changed life yourself.
Anyone remember the trash compactor analogy? A preacher once reminded our congregation of our penchant for accumulating trash (negative behaviours, bitterness, grudges etc) as we go through life, and how instead of working to throw it out, we squeeze it in and make space for even more trash to carry around. When we don’t take care of the undesirable in our lives, we start to accumulate more of it and it inevitably starts to stink. When it stinks, nobody wants to be around us — and they certainly don’t want to hear anything we have to say about why they should change, because they don’t see us taking care of our ‘trash’ either.
This is important for some of us who call ourselves Christians. If we believe in the gospel of Christ and don’t live changed lives, we have no business asking others to embrace that gospel. To point people to Jesus effectively, His gospel must be at work in our lives. If the world cannot spot the difference between us and themselves, why are we asking them to change?
If we believe in the gospel of Christ and don’t live changed lives, we have no business asking others to embrace that gospel
Of course, the natural question is: now what?
I really like how Jesus moves from this instruction to the next section (Matthew 7:7-12), where He explicitly talks to his listeners about being persistent in prayer. I believe He was drawing a connection between the first six verses and the next six. We ask God for a lot of things, but do we ever get on our knees to ask Him to help us deal with our sins? Ask, seek and knock. God will answer, as Jesus reminds us in verse 11: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?”
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