"Woe to you, lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering."
(Luke 11:52)

There is a hierarchy of sin outlined in the Bible. I know, I know—most of us have our own hierarchy of sin, our view of which ones are the worst. Usually they’re the sins of others, not our own sins; typically, they’re the more scandalous and dramatic sins, concerning which we can make a fuss without fear we might ever fall into them (here parade the usual suspects: homosexuality, abortion, and—well, that about does it).

We might be surprised at what Jesus considered the worst sin of all. I’m not thinking here about the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit—in which someone condemns as evil or false that which God declares to be good and true, such as the Gospel. When the Holy Spirit is bearing witness one way, and someone rejects His witness, this is tantamount to calling Him a liar, and that is an unforgivable blasphemy, as long as it remains a person’s position. This sin is sui generis; my focus is elsewhere.

Preachers today may be a little queasy talking about sin. It sounds so negative. Besides, our secular generation long ago gave up believing in any such thing. If we want to reach them, we’ll have to stop talking about things they simply dismiss outright and find other ways of wooing them with the Word. That, at least, seems to be current homiletical wisdom and practice.

We don’t talk about sin for two reasons. First, we know the topic is offensive. People don’t like to be told they’re sinners. People don’t like to be told they’re exceeding the speed limit, either, or that their house is on fire. But, you know, sometimes people just need to hear things that aren’t necessarily pleasant or welcome. The second reason we don’t hear much about sin today is because, after all, we’re all sinners and most of us, at least, seem to know it. Besides, God loves us anyway, so why dwell on the negative stuff when there’s so much more of a positive and friendly manner that we could expound?

But Jesus, God love Him, talked about sin. All the time. And not in couched words. Especially with those who thought themselves to be about as holy and righteous as good as you could get, but who were actually living the lie of mere self-interest, Jesus was brutal about sin—their sin. And in an explosive response to one of them we discover what Jesus seems to have regarded as the worst sin of all.

What's Wrong with Wanting to be Liked?

I’m always amused by the way this encounter with the lawyer begins. The lawyers were scribes, members of the Pharisees who maintained a kind of separate guild. They were like researchers and fact-checkers with the Pharisees. By Jesus’ day, their job had degenerated to being mere “yes-men” to the religious leaders. The Pharisees would say, “This is what the Law of God requires.” And it was the duty of the lawyers to back them up. (Think of the scene in Amadeus when the emperor says of one of Mozart’s pieces, “It has too many notes.” Then he turns to Salieri, and says, “I believe I have this correct, do I not, Court Composer?” Well, of course, boss!)

So the lawyers were very closely identified with the Pharisees and even enjoyed some of the public perks—the nodding heads as they passed by, deference in the synagogues, respectful greetings, and even, no doubt, the skimmed proceeds from temple offerings and monetary exchanges. They liked being Pharisees, who liked being liked—at least, deferred to. And what’s wrong with that? Shouldn’t we want to be liked by everyone? Shouldn’t we try to make sure our bosses like what we’re doing to support their program, especially since our livelihood depends on pleasing them?