Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Tyranny of the Tiny

He who lightly esteems hand washing shall perish from the earth – The Talmud

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!’ Jesus replied, ‘and why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?’” (Matthew 15:1-3)

In his book, A Church That Flies, Tim Woodruff tells of a devastating controversy that erupted in the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. The accepted way to make the sign of the cross was to place the thumb against the ring finger and raise the remaining three fingers. Certain outlying churches, however, began a practice of placing the thumb against both the ring finger and the little finger, only raising two fingers. In 1684 these “schismatics” were outlawed. They were arrested, tortured, dissident priests were executed, churches were burned, and entire communities were wiped out!

We could so easily dismiss these people as confused or tragically off-center, but to them, this matter was critical – it was a test of “faithfulness.” We could multiply stories of religious people consumed with tiny things. For centuries, the Catholic Church insisted that services be conducted in Latin – long after that language was dead. Quakers still used “thee” and “thou” long after Elizabethan English had passed from use. The Amish still cling to 19th century modes of transportation. Why? They will all say, “faithfulness.”

I call tiny things tyrannical because of the disproportionate amount of time and energy we spend on small things. Jesus criticized this kind of spiritual microscopia in Matthew 23 when he told the Pharisees they strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel! That’s what the tyranny of the tiny does – it makes one blissfully ignorant of what’s important. It focuses on a tree rather than the forest. The tyranny of the tiny persuades one that small things are important. This is why Jesus despised Pharisaism. That is what he found so pernicious about their faith. They ignored what mattered, they deified details, they valued what was worthless – and in so doing they turned God’s Kingdom on its head. In our efforts to be “faithful” let’s not fall into the same trap as so many others. Let’s see the big picture. Let’s join with Jesus in his mission so seek and save the lost!


E-Mail Direct: said...

A. Tim Woodruff's book probably did me more good than any book I've read in a long, long time.
B. We've got to start calling this stuff what it really is – idolitry.
C. I have to look at myself in the mirror every morning and ask myself if I'm falling into the same trap. All too often the answer is: YES.

Charles Sean North said...

Yeah that was a book that changed my thinking about the church in lots of ways. His arguments about form and function led to a more missional way of thinking for me. This post is a condensed version of a sermon I preached at BH and may do at Kaufman some time!

E-Mail Direct: said...

It's probably a sermon we all need to hear about once a month.

Nelda said...

As Paul Faulkner used to say, "Don't sweat the small stuff; it's ALL small stuff." He used this during his Marriage Enrichment Seminars, but I believe it applies here as well. We do tend to focus on tiny, unimportant things and neglect the weightier things of the heart.