One of the sillier things that happens in sports sometimes is the “players-only meeting.” These usually occur when things are looking awfully dire for the team. For whatever reason, they’re either grossly underperforming or just not executing properly. In order to correct what’s wrong, the players, then, take it upon themselves to get out of the rut by calling a meeting like this to clear the air and find out what’s really going on. You hear about this phenomenon once in a while during the course of the season, usually with the unprecedented star or leader or, perhaps, a savvy veteran player calling and leading the meeting. And, at first, this appears to be a reasoned and responsible solution. The players have recognized that they have a deficiency and they’ve determined to identify the source and rectify it. This seems to be the right move and, in fact, “players-only meetings” are often lauded by sports pundits as good indicators of the players taking their performance (or lack thereof) seriously.
But, the fact of the matter is, these rarely work. I tend to think that “players-only meetings” only serve to exacerbate the problem rather than eradicate it. By pushing the coaches out of the room, the players have excluded the problem-solver. For all the strategy and skill coaches are praised (and paid) for, when it comes down to it, they’re really just glorified people managers and counselors. They have to balance egos and personalities and make sure that the team’s not just learning the tactics but chemistry too. What makes any sports team truly great, what makes them really thrive and succeed — especially basketball — is when the team learns to play with each other, when they forget about stats and personal records and play for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the one on the back of it. (I know, that sounds cliché, but it’s true.)
The coach often has a better perspective on matters than players do. They can see things the players can’t, which is why “players-only meetings” seldom bring any fruitful outcomes. The players don’t have the same point of view the coach has. This is why you usually see coaches positioned way above the players, like in football, for example. They sit in those booths not just to enjoy the A/C on blistering hot days but more so to get a better outlook on the events of the game. From their viewpoint, they can see things that get missed at ground-level. The coach can see tendencies and weaknesses, allowing him to adjust his gameplan on the fly. Without that perspective, the players’ overall success would dwindle. And while they might get by on talent alone for a while, even that would wear out if not for the intervening word of the coach. The players need a word from the outside if they truly want to return to and maintain their winning ways. No “players-only meeting” will do.
In a similar fashion, we’ve pushed God out and called for a “believers-only life.” The religion of the world is the religion of the “players-only meeting,” rejecting the notion that external aid is necessary. “I have a problem, so I am going to solve it,” we declare, determining to fix ourselves. And by endeavoring to remedy ourselves by turning to ourselves, we’ve resorted to brokenness to repair what’s broken. This is the definition of insanity — returning to a faulty formula to find a lasting solution. It’ll never work. The outlook for this plan is as hopeless as the “blind leading the blind” — it results in nothing but more fallenness, more brokenness, more defeat. Similar to the players, we need a word from outside.
Jesus wasn’t one to mince words. I write a lot on this blog about the kindness and compassion of Christ, and rightfully so. But the other side of Jesus that’s often overlooked is his harshness, his bluntness. Our Savior was sometimes a brash Nazarene who understood that the thickest sanctimony required the deepest cuts. Such is what we find in Matthew 15:14, where Christ says, “Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
One of the recurring themes throughout the Gospels is Jesus’s continued dialogue with the Pharisees concerning their interpretations and practices of the Mosaic Law. Matthew 15 continues this divine diatribe against these religionists but contains, perhaps, one of the more revealing libels laid against the Pharisees’ record. The chapter begins with “some Pharisees and scribes” looking to trip Jesus up and refute all his Messianic claims (a continual motivation for this bunch) This time, though, they attack Christ’s disciples, stating, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” (Mt 15:2) Once again, by assailing Jesus’s ministry, the Pharisees hope to magnify their own religiosity.
During the times of the Tabernacle, the priests were mandated to wash their feet and hands prior to performing any and all of their sacred duties. And, so, the Pharisees, in their brash attempt to continue meriting and earning God’s favor by their actions, determined that this religious rite was applicable to everyone all the time. They were still abiding by the rigorous ritual code of the Old Testament and had even added their own codes, which they were forcing others to follow. The Pharisees ascribed to what’s called the Talmud, which basically served as the rulebook of the Rabbis of the day. More specifically, though, the Talmud was a system of oral traditions written down and codified and pressured onto everyone. In their oral tradition, the Pharisees had expanded on the commands for handwashing, among other things, transforming this matter from one of bodily cleanliness to ritual purity. Where the Mosaic Law insisted on handwashing as a ceremonial expression of reverence and worship, the Pharisees had turned this practice into a rule of religion.
Frustrated once again by the Pharisees’ continued disregard for his message, Jesus proceeds to explain the real purpose of the Mosaic code for handwashing. (Mt 15:10) It wasn’t to be seen as a religious rite for moral purity. It was a ceremonial practice that represented the holiness of Yahweh that cleans dirty, bloody hands. Christ, here, essentially continues his exposition of the Old Testament Law which he began back in Matthew 5. As is made abundantly evident there, so too in this chapter, the Pharisees had missed the point. They had misinterpreted the law and morphed it into a code they could keep. But Jesus exposes them for the failures that they are, for in the Father’s sight, all their handwashing is in vain. It hasn’t done anything to rid them of the filth on their hearts.
What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. (Mt 15:18)
Jesus makes the point that external cleansing doesn’t do the trick. Just washing your hands isn’t enough. Just loving your neighbor isn’t enough. Not having sex with a woman outside of marriage isn’t enough. Not killing your brother isn’t enough. It’s much deeper than that. Changing the outside doesn’t get to the real problem because the real problem we have is a problem of the heart. External behavior modification might affect surface-level badness, but the grime of our hearts still remains. The stain of sin can only be washed away by the blood of the Lamb. No coercion of deportment adjustment will do. No “players-only meeting” will cut it.
Essentially, that’s what these Pharisees were attempting to do: fix the problem of sin and establish their own righteousness through rigorous adherence and attention to their codes and traditions. They had lofted their traditions up to the same level as God’s law, making their perspective on religion and purity equal to God’s. They were “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mt 15:9) The Pharisees’ accusation against the disciples was really just another charge that they were antinomian, that they were against the law. “You guys don’t wash your hands like we do? What, are you guys just lawless men? Are you anti-law?” they seem to say. But Christ’s correction and subsequent scathing of them reminds us — once again — that he’s not against the law. Not at all. He’s just against the exaltation of man’s law above God’s. He’s utterly against the notion that humans can pull off the divine.
In actuality, the Pharisees’ view of the law wasn’t high enough. The supposed experts on the law had actually denigrated the law by bringing it down to man’s level. They attempted to make the impossible achievable, thereby spitting in the face of the God they claimed to serve. Jesus’s levy against the Pharisees, then — and, really, all other religionists who seek to pacify God on their own accord — that they were “blind leading the blind,” is the outside word they needed. In fact, it’s the outside word we all need, reminding us of the categorical impossibility of salvation being found in us. The Pharisees, and us too, are in a perpetual state of needing a word from the outside to remind us of the grace that comes to us. This is Jesus. Jesus himself is the Word of God that comes outside of us, comes to us, comes for us. He is the Good News from a far off country. (Prv 25:25) “The Gospel,” says Luther, “exposes to us the One outside of us, who gives himself to us.”1 “Grace,” writes Spurgeon elsewhere, elsewhere, “brings into the heart an entirely foreign element.”2
And so it is that Christ would have us learn that the salvation he brings is one that’s given to us, it’s not earned by us. It’s only the Word from the outside that brings about transformation on the inside. It’s not through religious ritual or ceremonial devotion but only by faith that this deliverance comes. For faith, you see, is the admission that you can’t do it. Faith is an owning of your own desperation and a laying hold of the grace of Jesus, which is made available for the desperate. Faith isn’t an attempt to perform better or try harder — it’s actually a relinquishing of our performances in favor of Jesus’s performance for us. Faith is the recognition of the absolute necessity for divine intervention.
The incarnation of Christ adjourns all our silly “players-only meetings” and puts an end to our “believers-only life.” Grace pours from the lips of the Savior, as he comes to interrupt our boisterous self-sufficiency with the quiet words of reconciliation. The foreign Word comes close that the foreigners might be drawn closer. The report from heaven has been pronounced, and though you’ve been found wanting, Christ has been found faithful.
Martin Luther, quoted in RJ Grunewald, Reading Romans with Luther (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2017), 13.
Charles Spurgeon, Grace: God’s Unmerited Favor (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1996), 103.