Sermon delivered May 24, 2008 by Gordon Bietz

McDonald Road Seventh-day Adventist Church

McDonald, Tennessee

The Danger of Being Right

Matthew 17:24-27

(RealAudio Version available)

You’re driving along the road at the speed limit, maybe a little faster than the speed limit, on I-75. There’s a fair amount of traffic and you’re passing the cars that are in the slower lanes, and somebody comes up behind you at some incredibly fast speed, gets right onto your bumper, flashing their lights at you. You think about slowing down a little bit, but your better judgement gets hold of you and so you move on a little faster and slowly drift into the slower lane. He zooms past you accelerating to 90 miles an hour. Five miles down the road you see him again, parked by the road, in front of a car with flashing red lights, and sure enough the Georgia Highway patrol is standing next to his car, ticket book in hand.

And you gloat, or as Webster says, "To gaze with malicious pleasure." You’re tempted to toot a little hello as you go by, such is your sense of smug satisfaction. It serves him right. Idiots shouldn’t be allowed to drive on the road like that.

It feels good to be right, to be justified.

You have an argument with your spouse about when day-light savings time starts. Will you have more light in the morning when you get up or will it be darker in the morning when you get up? And when the morning comes you’re right and you “gaze with malicious pleasure.” You may even say, “I won’t say, ‘I told you so’” which is the same as saying “I told you so” with a little touch of humility.

It feels good to be right, to be justified.

You’re in your office. The boss comes in and asks a question about some project that you were assigned, and he wonders how come it hasn’t been delivered, and you remind him that you gave it to him last week, and sure enough, it’s discovered on his desk. He remembers and apologizes and it feels good to be right.

To be in the right can make you feel so righteous, especially if others notice. In fact, if others don’t notice it doesn’t feel quite so good.

You receive that long letter. “I simply don’t believe you sent me that letter that you said you sent me." And so you go to the file and there you find the copy of the letter along with the return receipt with their signature on it, and you gloat.

You always knew the Detroit Pistons could beat the Celtics in Boston and so your team has the home court advantage. You are right. They are wrong. Your team is better than their team. Your daddy can beat up their daddy.

And from the beginning of life’s insecurities we have a need to be better than, more right than, smarter than, stronger than, richer than, others.

Now it’s one thing to be right when you choose the basketball team, and it’s another thing to be right if you are right about when the time changes. Because I can be right or wrong about the basketball team and there’s no big deal. I can be right or wrong about when the time changes, and I may be late to work or early for work.

But when it comes to religion, when it comes to my faith, well, to be wrong about that is maybe to go to hell. The stakes are really high! Getting it wrong about a football team or baseball team or basketball team is one thing, but getting it wrong about God; well, that’s something else again.

Have you ever been in a religious discussion or debate with somebody? Your heart beat tends to increase, blood pressure may rise, there’s a little more anxiety. The stakes are high. It’s important. It kind of goes to the core of our being, that we need to be right.

I Googled “The Truth about Seventh-day Adventists” and received 350 thousand hits. A sampling of one page:

1. Articles by ex-Seventh-Day Adventists about why the teachings of Ellen White and the Adventist church are not in accord with the Bible. 2. The 2nd MOST important thing that Seventh-day Adventists need to know is that your church has not told you the whole truth.

It‘s not the kind of material I enjoy reading. I don’t like to read and/or hear about people who don’t see things the way I see them. Who don’t understand truth the way I understand truth. Who don’t believe the way I believe. It threatens my security. My blood pressure rises.

I remember in my first pastorate in Cloverdale, California, if anybody knows where that is. I was giving Bible studies to a family and we had had a few Bible studies and then one time I went to their house one evening and I found some other people there, giving Bible studies. They were missionaries of another denomination I won’t mention, that you probably know, and so we got into conversation, as you might understand. And I can remember making a point that they didn’t really have a ready answer for and so I felt so righteous, right, that I gloated, you might say. By the way, those people did eventually join the Seventh-day Adventist church in Cloverdale. See, so now I’m gloating.

The religious rulers at the time of Christ had that feeling a lot. They lived their lives making water tight cases for their religion by Talmudic arguments and counter arguments. I think they frequently feel like I feel when I drive by the policeman standing, giving the jerk the ticket. I think they frequently feel like I feel when I read an article where someone is tying some other cult in Gordian knots by their arguments.

Now it’s important to be right. I don't deny that. The other option would be to be wrong. It’s not something that we would seek to be. So we should seek to be right. I mean, we should try to be right when it comes to daylight savings time, and we need to be right when it comes to our understanding of God, when it comes to the truth. Especially when it comes to religious belief it’s important to be right, because religious belief is at the heart of our being. Having “The Truth” is good. Being “Right” is good.

But it is also dangerous to be right, and to know you’re right, and to feel a bit smug that you’re right, and maybe to gaze with malicious pleasure at those that you know are wrong. For being right can lead to gloating.

The story that at a COMDEX computer exposition, Microsoft's Bill Gates compared the computer industry to the auto industry, and he said, "If GM had kept up with the technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that get 1,000 miles per gallon." General Motors responded to Bill Gates by saying, "Yes, but would you want your car to crash twice a day?"

Being right can result in being a Pharisee. Remember it was the religiously robed, recently washed, truth filled, Bible believing, Bible text quoting church leaders who gathered in a committee to discuss how to kill Jesus.

Why would they do that? Well, they Googled “sayings of Jesus” and they found things like Matthew 5:20, "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." And they read in Matthew 23:13, “Woe to you, teachers of the law, Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to enter." Their righteousness, their rightness, was challenged and it didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel good. So they sat in a “Protect the Truth” committee planning how they could catch Jesus. I mean, why would you kill somebody who thinks differently than you do? Ideas can be dangerous, and those ideas were threatening the status quo, and they felt very threatened by the things Jesus was saying.

What would they do this time? How would they try to come to the place where they could once again feel their rightness?

Well, there’s a clever young lawyer that had an idea. "We’ve been aiming at the wrong target," he said. “If you want to get at the King you first capture the pawns. And so we need to confuse His followers, and place questions in their minds.” And so the young lawyer continued with his argument. "So as to not raise suspicion let’s have the temple secretary ask one of the disciples why Jesus doesn't pay the temple tax?"

"Well yes," another Pharisee suggested. “That’s a great idea. If He pays the temple tax He admits He’s not a religious teacher, or prophet. If He doesn't pay the temple tax, then He’s disloyal to the temple."

So they lay this plot and they select impulsive Peter for the hook. “Peter!” The temple secretary says, Matthew 17:24, “Doesn't your Teacher pay the temple tax?" Now Peter, not thinking through all the issues, figures they were suggesting Jesus was disloyal to the temple and he knew that Jesus wasn’t disloyal to the temple so he quickly replied, “Of course. Of course Jesus pays the temple tax." The Temple Tax Collector replies, “Well, you know, we have the records here, and I just, I don’t see where He’s paid.” Well, Peter probably started to argue about the sloppy records that they were keeping in the temple, and the Temple Tax Collector countered that they had just received a clean audit. And Peter replies, “Well, so did Enron.” And the argument goes down hill from there.

And so to be justified, so Peter can be justified, so he can demonstrate that he’s right, he goes into the house where Jesus is to get a receipt for the temple tax. But before he has a chance to say a word, Jesus says, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of earth collect duty and taxes, from their own sons or from others?" Peter, quick to respond always, replies "Well, from others." "Then the sons are exempt," Jesus says.

So Peter receives his answer before he even asked the question. It’s the Pharisees who can gloat this time. Jesus is exempt from the temple tax because of His spiritual claims. He’s a prophet.

And then Jesus says, “But so we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for My tax and yours.” “But Jesus!” Peter might have responded. “It’s not right for You to pay the tax. You just said You are a Prophet, You don’t have to pay the temple tax. The sons are exempt, so You shouldn’t do this.” And Jesus says, “We will pay the tax so that we may not offend them.” “So that we may not offend.”

Let’s not offend. But we are right. Let’s not gloat. But we have the truth. Let’s not press the case. But we can win.

Peter would not hesitate offending someone if he knew that he was right. Whether it was calling fire down from heaven on a Samaritan village like James and John suggested, or whether it was cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, as Peter would later do himself, when he was right he was right, and he wanted everybody to know it. He loved to “gaze with malicious pleasure.” Peter loved to gloat. He loved to be on the right side.

But now, Peter was confused. Jesus was making a concession to the temple taxing Pharisees. He was doing something He didn’t have to do. He paid the bill, He didn’t owe it. He was slapped and He turned the other cheek. He stopped His car and paid the fine of the speeding driver that almost ran Him off the road. Jesus was right, but He chose not to make an issue out of it, He chose not to offend. Jesus was right but He wouldn't flaunt it or gloat. He was right, He was always right, He was God, after all. The lesson Jesus wanted to teach was as much for Peter as it was for the slippery lawyers a few steps away from Him, that were trying to put Him on the cross.

Jesus didn’t come to condemn. He came to save. He was right and could have condemned everything He saw. He came not to show off His righteousness. He came to give us righteousness. He came not to show off that He was right, but to enable us to be right. He came not to impress us with His wisdom. He came to make us wise unto salvation.

Our rightness, our righteousness, is a gift to strengthen others, not to build pride in ourselves. So we must be careful when we are right, because the temptation to gloat is strong. There is something dangerous about being right. It can create a sense of selfish of superiority. It can lead to righteously robed lawyers manipulating religious words and texts with legalese. When being right is more important than being sensitive to human needs, when holding to right church policies is more important than people, when being right is more important than being righteous, then we have taken "rightness" as our gospel instead of Jesus. We’ve made a god out of “The Truth”, instead of Jesus.

Now Jesus was right! He was not obligated to pay the temple tax, "But so that we may not offend them, Peter, go and pay it anyway.”

It is the self-centered individualism of our culture that is offensive so easily. When I’m the center of the universe and my needs are the most important, I don’t care if I cut you off on the freeway because I deserve to be first. Such arrogance can be a national disease where our country believes it is so right it can offend other nations. Such arrogance can be a church disease where our church believes it is so right it can be offensive, and even intentionally offensive. Like those who might seek to offend the Catholic Church by putting up billboards. Such arrogance can be a personal disease resulting in egotism and pride.

It is so easy to get caught up in ourselves. Why do we stand in line to be the first one on our block to get the new I-Phone, if not to gloat? Why do we pay more for the brand that’s no better than the generic, if not to gloat? It is so easy to find ourselves righteously selfish, at the head of the line and feeling like we’re the most important, forgetting all those around us.

Like the pastor who was officiating at a funeral and when he was done officiating the funeral director asked him to lead the procession to the cemetery. So he got into his car, and he started driving at the head of the funeral procession. He flipped on his radio and became a bit preoccupied, lost in thought and forgot where he was going. About that time, he passed a Wal-Mart and thought of something he needed to pick up. So he turned into the parking lot. And as he was looking for a parking space, he glanced in his rear-view mirror and saw a string of cars following him with their lights on. Not sure how he got out of that. But I’m sure he was lost in, maybe, his rightness.

The danger of being right, the danger of being right, is the danger of pride and selfishness. It’s the danger of gathering into enclaves of truth where we gloat our way to hell, gazing with malicious pleasure as we stand in the church thanking God that we’re not like those other folks who worship on the wrong day and eat those disgusting things. When we have righteousness that comes from Jesus rather than self we can be secure, we don’t have to prove anything.

Paul was right. He knew it meant nothing to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. He could eat it with a clear conscience. He was right. Others were wrong whose conscience was bothered by eating such food. But he didn’t use his freedom to gloat. But he said, "Be careful,” First Corinthians 8, “that the exercise of your freedom doesn’t become a stumbling block to the weak....if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not be a cause for them to fall." Paul chooses not to offend with his righteousness. So Peter, pay the tax. Pay the tax, Peter. We don’t want to offend these people. It does no good to believe right things in an offensive way.

One commandment trumps the others. Jesus says, “’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these."

I have a question. Would you rather live next door to a loving Atheist or an offensive Christian? Would you rather live next door to a loving Muslim or an offensive Christian? Would you rather spend time with a loving Catholic or a legalistic, hateful Adventist. Would you rather be a loving Catholic than a hateful Adventist? There are those who have elevated what they believe over how they live. What is the point of doctrines if it isn’t to make us more loving? What is the point of teachings if it isn’t to help us love our neighbor? What is the point of church if it isn’t to show the love of Jesus in our communities? We are not to wear the 28 fundamental beliefs like some kind of immunity necklace that leads us into heaven.

James says, "What good is it, dear brothers, if you say you have faith but you don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? …Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye, have a good day, stay warm, eat well.’ but you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it’s dead and useless. Now someone may argue, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.’ You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good! The demons believe this, and they tremble in terror." The demons believe the 28 fundamental beliefs.

There is danger of being right, of using rightness as a badge of honor rather than a badge of service. Instead of finding common ground with our neighbors, too often we seek a battleground, because we are right.

It’s a little bit like the man I met once who asked what religion I was. I told him I was a Seventh-day Adventist, at which point he opened a rather large brief case that was hanging off his shoulder, and he thumbed his way through a number of file folders and pulled out a brochure, against Seventh-Day Adventists. His vision of witness was to attack whatever there was.

Paul said in Romans 14:15, "If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love." The greater my focus on my rightness, the less my ability to be loving! The more I focus on God’s righteousness and His gift of grace to me, the more I am able to not be offensive to my neighbors. So Peter, rather than offending them, pay the bill anyway.

Once upon a time in Fenton Forest, Sweetpea the Skunk, basket in hand and daisy propped over her ear was waiting for the Nut Hut to open. She wanted to be the first one in the store today because there was a special sale on chocolate dipped almonds and no one liked chocolate dipped almonds better then Sweetpea. Unless, perhaps, it was her good friend Freddy the Fox.

She was going to be the first one in the store today because Scamper's advertisement said supplies were limited and the chocolate almonds would only be available as long as they lasted. She wanted to buy some to give to her good friend, Freddy. The two of them had been friends ever since Freddy had rescued one of her children from Slippery Rock right next to Crashing Creek.

As she stood on the big root by the door of the Nut Hut, who should come by but Freddy the Fox. Freddy stopped suddenly and with a surprised look on his face said to Sweetpea, "What are you doing here so early? The Nut Hut doesn't open to sell chocolate covered almonds until 9:30 today."

"Oh no" replied Sweetpea, "It opens at 9 this morning."

"Oh, no it doesn't!"

"Yes it does!"

"No it doesn't!"

"Yes it does!" They argued back and forth for a number of times.

"Well we’ll just see about that." said Freddy. "It’s almost 9 o'clock now, and I will just wait with you, and you will see that I am right."

"Ok, you wait,” said Sweetpea, “and you will see that I am right."

Nine o'clock came and Scamper did not show up to unlock the door. Freddy began to smile the smile of the smug. Freddy continued to argue with Seetpea. Five minutes passed and Scamper did not show up, again. Freddy began to gloat. Began to gaze with malicious pleasure. Fifteen minutes, Scamper still didn’t show up. All the time Freddy and Sweetpea's friendship began to deteriorate as they argued about who was right.

Finally, close to 9:30 Scamper bounced up the narrow, worn path to the porch of the Nut Hut. Immediately, both Freddy and Sweetpea said in unison, "When does the Nut Hut open today?"

"You want those chocolate covered almonds don't you." replied Scamper, "Well it opens in just a few minutes, at 9:30 just like it said in the advertisements."

"See!" gloated Freddy as he danced a little jig and sang, "I'm right, I'm right, I'm right!" “I told you so! I told you so!”

"Well!" said Sweetpea. "I'm not going to wait that long for any chocolate covered almonds. They probably are old anyway." and Sweetpea walked away in a stink.

Wise Old Owl, who had been watching all this from a tree limb said, "Gloating over being right may not only lose you friends, but chocolate covered almonds as well."

It feels good to be right, but being right is God’s gift, not our work, to be used to build His kingdom, not our importance.

Turn in your hymnals to hymn number 326. We’ll sing together, Open My Eyes That I May See.

Hymn of Praise: #230, All Glory, Laud, and Honor
Scripture: Matthew 17:24-27
Hymn of Response: #326, Open My Eyes That I May See

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Sermon at McDonald Road transcribed by Steve Foster 6/4/08