Episode 10 Transcript

Episode 10: Hic Sunt Dracones


One of the byproducts of a law-based understanding of God’s will, is a necessary fixation on knowing what is core. Which of the laws are essential to our salvation—to pleasing God—and which will He give us grace on? The answer to this question is the key to being right with God, when being right with God means complying with His great cosmic rule book.

How you answer this question determines your disposition to those around you, your neighbors. Your answer defines the characteristics and identity of the church within the larger community of culture, nation, and world. And, your answer tells you what you have to do in order to be part of fixing what is broken with the world. Of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

The Pharisees, the Good Church People of Matthew’s day, had a pretty good idea of what was core. And, as we’ve explored in this podcast, their definition is not too far off how Good Church People today would understand the core. 

It is this core that the Pharisees are testing Jesus on in Matthew 22, when they ask him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

[Jesus answered], “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus answered their question well. But it wasn’t really a question. It was a test.

Simeon: Matthew, I’m starting to see that God is much bigger than I imagined. That his plan for the world is so good it makes me gasp. It’s all so—  big. So— good.

Matthew: That’s right, my friend. You are starting to see how the way of Christ transforms everything. How, a lot of what you believed before turns out to be chaff that blows away in the wind, but when it’s gone you’ve lost nothing essential. And what you gain… well, there’s no imagining it until you experience it.

Simeon: But, why couldn’t I see it before? Why was I so resistant to it?

Matthew: Ahh. You have a way of finding the big questions. In my experience, it’s the righteous who think they have the most to lose when confronted with Christ’s way. They’ve invested their entire lives in another way. Their barns are full of all the good works they’ve stored up for themselves. 

When they hear those barns aren’t needed, that their good works have no real value, it feels like an attack on everything they’ve lived for. And so they can’t hear the rest of the story. The good news that is so much better than what they could have ever asked or imagined. The story you’re beginning to see now.

Opening Titles:

This is—

Jesus for Sex Workers, Church People, and Me

A podcast hosted by Todd Austin

Episode Ten: Hic Sunt Dracones

The Teaching

If you cornered ten random people at church and asked them to give you a comprehensive list of what is essential to pleasing God, of what the core is, what do you think they would say? This might start off well enough, with two or three quick answers, but it wouldn’t take long before most people would start to stumble, or even contradict themselves. Most people wouldn’t be able to give you a good answer.

Why is that? For something so seemingly fundamental to our faith, why would we struggle to answer this question?

In this podcast we’ve talked a lot about maps. Each of us, like Jesus, was handed a map when we were born. It’s a map that Jesus wants us to turn away from, to repent of, just like he did with the map that was given to him. 

He offers us a new map. A map where true-north points to love, not law. A map that redefines how we treat people we once thought of as untouchable, as sinners, or as enemies. A map that leads to a people who walk the narrow, uncommon way of Christ, who can be described by the fruits of the Spirit, and who share the traits of the beatitudes. It’s a map that redefines what is core.

But the map we were given when we were growing up is difficult to turn away from, to repent of. It’s a map that also has an answer for what is core, but it is tucked away in a black box that we’re not allowed to question. It’s the part of the map marked with the inscription hic sunt dracones—”here be dragons”— warning us to stay clear. Because, it’s not safe to open the box on your own. You’re not qualified to question, or even fully understand, what’s inside. 

But, if you’re reckless or brave enough to ignore the warning, cross the line, open the box and really look at what’s inside, you’re going to find that it’s a mess. 

The contents of the box—the map’s definition of what is core—turns out to be a hodgepodge of superstitions, checklists, “right answers,” salvation formulas, prayer words, disconnected snippets of scripture, and performance standards. A lot of performance standards.

It’s a box that contains all the words we’re supposed to say, like how God loves the whole world, how his grace is both generous and sufficient, how the greatest commandment is to love, and how the second greatest is, too. But, in addition to what we’re supposed to say, the box also contains a much longer list of all the things we’re supposed to do, as well as a picture of the person we are supposed to be. And the person we’re supposed to be and the things we’re supposed to do don’t necessarily line up with the words we’re supposed to say.

The things in the box, these expectations, this core, weren’t things that we consciously chose. They were never assented to. They’ve never been examined, or tested. They’re not even fully understood. 

They came with the map. 

And yet, even though the contents of this box are largely unexamined, good church people have a deep psychological attachment to the ideas inside. You can see it when you question anything in that box. That’s when the knives come out. 

Because the map came from the tribe, from the core community that gives us our identity. If you want to keep your place in the tribe, this is the map you have to follow. These are the things you have to accept. This is who you have to be.

And that’s why it’s so hard to repent of this map. Repentance comes at a cost—the cost of rejection, of losing your identity and your home in the community where you belong. This is what Jesus meant, when he said that turning from that map can cost you father, mother, sister, or brother. 

So you can see how a question about the core isn’t just a question. It’s a test. 


One of things I love about the gospels is that they don’t hide the humanity of Jesus. We see him surprised, shocked, annoyed, and saddened. We also get to see his anger. And although the episode where he clears the temple may be the white hot peak of his anger, Matthew 23 has to be a pretty close second. This is the chapter where the good church people get called on the carpet.

A quick skim through the chapter is all it takes to see that what sets Jesus off is hypocrisy. And, really, who can argue with him? We all hate hypocrites. 

We have a sixth sense when it comes to these fakers. Their lives are just a little too perfect, their hair a little too neat, their teeth a little too white, their smile a little too wide. There’s something about them that makes us feel like we need to wash our hands after we’ve been around them.

And when they’re finally exposed, when their dark impurities come to light, we feel a sense of closure, of vindication. A sense where we say, “I knew there was more to this story.” 

So we can understand why Jesus was angry. Hypocrisy sets us off, too.

But Jesus’s issue with hypocrisy was not that he hates hypocrites. Hypocrisy is a sin, but Jesus is a friend of all sinners. Even the fakers we despise. Maybe especially the fakers, because they ARE so despised.

We’ve talked about the cost of turning away from our tribal map, the cost of repentance. But there’s also a cost of holding onto this map. Of keeping the lid tightly closed on a box of answers about what is core, a box of answers that aren’t true. The cost is that, in order to keep your place in the tribe, you actually have to live up to the standard of what’s inside that box. Or at least make a good show of it.

These standards, these expectations, are clear to everyone, even if most are unspoken. But living up to those expectations is something no one can do. And so, most good church people have to “fake it ‘til we make it.” We curate a carefully crafted image of ourselves as someone who has their act together, while on the inside we’re desperately trying to fix ourselves, to erase our doubts and questions, to live up to that image we hope no one can see through.

Our churches are ordered around maintaining appearances. Everyone is pretending to live up to a standard that none of them can meet. And it’s this hypocrisy that Jesus takes issue with in Matthew 23.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

It’s critical to note here again that the problem is not hypocrisy, per se. Jesus isn’t disgusted because people are having to pretend to live up to an impossibly heavy burden of expectations. His problem is with the heavy burden itself — the weight these expectations place on people’s shoulders, especially on those who are outsiders. 

Because, no matter how big you smile, how sweet you act, how careful your words— no matter how loving you try to be, there’s no hiding the weight of those expectations. A weight that is essentially the same as holding up our hands saying, “Sorry, you’re not worthy to have a seat at the table— until you can carry this.” 

This is what makes Jesus angry. Then and now.

The Anti-Beatitudes

The biggest challenge in reading Matthew 23 today is understanding that it isn’t a history lesson about why Jesus and the Pharisees didn’t get along. The Gospel of Matthew was written to instruct the church, and the message of chapter 23 is just as relevant for us as it was when Jesus was saying these words out loud.

The instruction for us is in learning to see the effects of the yeast of the Pharisees in our own lives and churches. The yeast of an understanding of God’s will that is based on purity, compliance, and law keeping. An understanding that necessarily leads to a community built on appearances. An understanding that leads to the anti-beatitudes.

Starting in verse 13 of chapter 23, Jesus issues a series of woes against the Pharisees. These woes match up almost perfectly with the beatitudes in chapter five, but as their dark counterparts. If the Beatitudes are the markers of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, then these anti-beatitudes are the signs of a community going in the wrong direction— following the wrong map.

In the last episode we had a quiz about the people we would, and would not find in our churches. In most churches, we would find a lot of people like the rich young ruler, and not many of what Jesus would have called “the least of these,” the sinners, the outcasts, the poor.

But all through Matthew Jesus has told us that these are the very people the kingdom of heaven is for, going all the way back to the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the least of these, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” When the people of God are following the way of Christ, when they’re using the correct map, the church is a place for the least of these.

But the consequences of a law-based, purity-focused understanding of the core is that it requires us to believe that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who comply: the law-keepers, the pure, the clean. Fixing what is broken with the world, under this understanding of core, is all about getting people to follow the rules, often through the application of power and coercion; supreme courts and presidential elections.

And so we become sentries, gatekeepers, bouncers. The church is only for those who comply. Those who fit. No shoes, no shirt, no service. 

Instead of the kingdom being a place for “the least of these,” for “the poor in spirit,” we have the first anti-beatitude:

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

The yeast of following a map based on law-keeping, purity and compliance, is that it excludes the very people Jesus says will be the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. 

The second anti-beatitude is:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance you make long prayers; therefore you will receive the greater condemnation.

The beatitude it opposes is “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” 

There is a famous passage in the gospel of Mark about the Widow’s Mite. In this story, Jesus and the disciples observe a widowed woman putting a couple of pennies in the collection for the temple treasury. Jesus comments on how this woman has contributed far more than others, because she put in all she had to eat on.

Now, I bet you’ve heard some bad teaching on this story. This is a story that often gets rolled out in lessons on giving and generosity, especially when there’s a big project that needs to be funded. “If this widow can give all she had, surely you can give sacrificially as well, regardless of how meager your financial circumstances. This is what Jesus expects of you.”

But Jesus isn’t celebrating the widow as an example of sacrificial generosity, although I’m sure he loved her. His comments are an angry rebuke of a religious community that would prioritize a beautiful temple over the daily needs of the poorest of its members.

One of the fictions of modern church life is the drive to create the appearance of success, the appearance of God’s favor and blessing, through work we do wholly on our own. If we can manufacture the appearance of blessing, especially in comparison to the churches down the street, then we can believe, and claim, that God is on our side.

This fiction—the appearance of success— is the motivation behind many visionary projects dreamed up by church leaders. The question to ask, the test these projects need to pass, is, in the end, who will this serve? Will it be for the “least of these?” The widows, the poor, the sinners? Or, instead, will it be built on their backs, for the glory of the pastors and leaders who dreamt it up?

The third anti-beatitude is in verse 15: 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

It is thought that the conversion Jesus is referring to here would have been a well-known story to his audience. The details are lost to us, but it seems that the Pharisees went to great lengths to target some person of influence for conversion, that they were successful in that attempt, and that the convert became, like Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee of Pharisees. 

We, too, have a fascination with people of influence, with celebrities. Our churches celebrate the powerful and the influential. The great. We treat it like a big deal when someone famous or wealthy joins us. To us, it’s another sign of God’s favor. It’s the outward appearance of success. Look at us, we have the great on our side. It’s like our own celebrity endorsement.

But the opposing beatitude says, “Blesssed are the meek [those at the bottom], for they will inherit the earth.” The test of whether a church is following the way of Christ is, who is celebrated? the least, or the great? 

The fourth anti-beatitude is:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’”

Is the core of pleasing God about love? Or law-keeping? 

The subtle allure of law-keeping is, if we can rightly figure out exactly what the standards are, then we’ll be able to follow them. If we can figure out where the fences are, we can keep ourselves safely inside them. But the text of the New Testament does not conform to this kind of reading. The clear fences we want just are not there. And even if they were, we wouldn’t be able to keep ourselves in bounds. Sin is not something that we can master.

According to the fourth beatitude, the blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not a righteousness we can achieve on our own. Not the salvation we create for ourselves through careful parsing of scripture to find the laws. But rather a hunger and thirst for the mighty saving action of God. A righteousness that is given, not earned.

The fifth anti-beatitude is:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

If pleasing God is about compliance, about living up to the standards of his cosmic rule book, then you are going to live a life with a lot of uncertainty about where you stand with him. 

If the law says to tithe, but it’s not exactly clear what all you’re supposed to tithe, then you carefully find a way to tithe everything you can think of. All the way down to the smallest herbs that your garden yields. And you hope you don’t forget something.

If the law tells you that to touch something dead is to make yourself unclean, then you carefully strain out even the smallest of gnats that drowns in your coffee before it touches your lips. 

But what if you miss something you’re supposed to tithe? What if you accidentally swallow a dead gnat that you didn’t see?

Well, you are in violation of the law. Your status is that of a law-breaker. Your only hope is that God’s mercy will cover you in the end. 

This life of gnat-picking, of never being sure if you’ve missed something, of having no clear sense of your standing with God, is the reason for the angst-filled, small-mindedness of many Christians today. They’re fearfully fixated on their own eternal destiny, hoping God’s mercy will cover anything they’ve missed.

But the path to God’s mercy isn’t compliance. It’s paying attention to what Jesus calls “the weightier matters.” Like mercy. As it says in the fifth beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

A church that is generous in mercy is following the way of Christ. A church that believes the essence of pleasing God is in complying with his standards inevitably descends to gnat-picking and dill-tithing. They can’t confidently extend God’s mercy to others because they’re not sure of it for themselves. They’re missing something big. Jesus says it’s like missing a dead camel in your coffee.

The sixth anti-beatitude is:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.

This is the opposite partner of the sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

There is a purity that we try to achieve on our own through law-keeping and compliance, that ultimately and inevitably leads to a “fake it til you make it” external cleanliness. To churches that are all about maintaining appearances.

And then there is a purity that comes from following the way of love, mercy, and forgiveness. A purity that can be experienced by a tax collector, a sex worker, and a leper.

The seventh anti-beatitude is: 

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

If the woes of chapter 23 DO pair up with the beatitudes in chapter 5, then this woe’s opposite beatitude is, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” But I’ll confess that, while the other pairs seem crystal clear, I’m not sure I get the full meaning of this one.

I think this woe is a bridge between the previous anti-beatitude about the inside and outside of cups, and the following one where he talks about the tombs of the prophets. 

If that’s so, then the skeleton-in-the-closet of a church clinging tight-fistedly to the wrong map is its history of bloody battles and warfare. War with the larger culture. War with our neighbors. War and divisions within our own ranks. This carnage is a clear sign that we’re on the wrong path. That we’re following the wrong way.

But churches walking the path of Christ are people of peace. People who make peace. Peace is the marker that identifies them as the true children of God.

The final anti-beatitude is:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets…

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth…

This, of course, is in opposition to the final “blessed” of the beatitudes, summed up with, 

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This brings us back to the ideas we were talking about earlier in this episode. What happens when we’re confronted with the reality that the way of Christ, the map he asks us to follow, calls into question the tribal map we’ve been following all our lives? 

We, like the Pharisees, think that if we had lived in ancient times we would have been different. We wouldn’t have persecuted the prophets. We would have listened to them. We would have changed our ways, turned away from our map, and adopted the new map they were bringing us. 

But the witness of good church people over the millennia testifies against us. They are us. We are them. 

When Jesus sends a prophet, a sage, or a scribe to give us a new map, we treat them in just the same way prophets have always been treated.

We start by questioning if they’re really a prophet. “Who are you? Where did you come from? What makes you special? How are you any different from the rest of us? What are your credentials?”

The same questions that were asked of Jesus: ”Isn’t this Mary’s boy? The carpenter’s son? Isn’t he from Nazareth? Has anything of value ever come from Nazareth? By what authority are you saying and doing these things?”

We question their motives, or their purity. “You seem to have an agenda when you preach. What are you hiding? What secret sin are you covering up? Who are you trying to protect? Who are you trying to please?”

“This man eats with tax collectors, and sinners. He must be in league with Beelzebub, the ruler of demons.”

If they keep going, we stop listening to them altogether. We undermine them around others. We plot in secret about what to do with them. Finally, we call them on the carpet. We demand an explanation. We demand a confession.

Sound familiar?

And, just like our predecessors, we’re not above violence. We think we’re above such things now, but we don’t have to go back very far in our own history to see that violence is never out of the question if the issue is threatening enough.

And so, it is always the good church people who persecute the prophets. 

It is always the good church people who find themselves so threatened by the way of Christ, that they crucify their own Messiah.

Matthew & Simeon

Simeon: Matthew, we have to warn them!

Matthew: Warn who, Simeon? 

Simeon: My brothers and sisters. They are causing so much harm. They believe they are doing good. But they’re on the wrong path. I can see now where it’s going to lead them. We have to warn them!

Matthew: I understand. But listen, my friend. How do you think they will receive this warning?

Simeon: What do you mean?

Matthew: They’ve had Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist, and the testimony of many of their own kin. What makes you think there is anything you can say to move them?

Simeon: But we have to try!

Matthew: You cannot convince them. At least not with any words of warning or reason. It is only through suffering that they will be able to see. Your task is not with the righteous. Your path now is to follow the way of Christ. To be among the sinners, the outcasts, the unclean, and the poor—the least of these. Go, walk in the way of love and mercy, and be free.

Test This Teaching

As we wrap up this episode, I want to go back to the modern day applicability of Matthew 23. This is not dry history. It’s a present day warning. It’s a description of what happens when the church loses its way, or loses The Way. It’s a contrast between what should be, in the Beatitudes, and what shouldn’t be, but often is, in the anti-beatitudes. 

In this episode we’ve tried to read this chapter into our current moment. If Jesus were walking around in jeans and a t-shirt, we would have to expect him to be just as angry with us today as he was with those Pharisees back then. 

But the problem doesn’t end with the anti-beatitudes in chapter 23. The next two chapters are a stern warning about where the yeast of the good church people inevitably leads. For the Pharisees, it led to the destruction of the temple, the burning of Jerusalem, and exile. 

For us— well, it doesn’t take a prophet to read the signs. The path we’re on leads to a similar end. It always has. It always will. We desperately need to turn away from the map of the Pharisees, and start using the map Jesus wants us to follow. The map where true-north points to love, not law.

We’ve talked more about testing in this episode. The test we want to apply is, does this teaching validate what I want or need to believe? Does it confirm that the map I’m following is just fine? That’s the test the good church people have always wanted to use, but Jesus and the prophets failed that test.

A valid test isn’t about our comfort or discomfort. It’s not centered on us, our map, or our tribe. A valid test is oriented around the words and actions of Jesus. And that’s the test you need to apply to the teaching of this podcast.

Is what I’m teaching in this episode consistent with the message of Matthew? Is it true that Jesus was angry because the expectations of compliance and purity create too heavy a burden for outsiders? And if that’s true, then what are the implications for us and our churches?

Are the woes of chapter 23 a counterpoint to the beatitudes? Together, do they give us markers for seeing whether the church is on track or off track? Does the evidence point to us being off track, as I’m teaching? Or is this chapter just an interesting historical footnote?

And then there’s the big test. If you apply this teaching to your life, will it make you more, or less like Jesus? If you adopt this understanding of Matthew 23, will it lead to you getting angry about the same things that made Jesus angry? Will it lead to you siding with the same kinds of people he sided with? Will it lead you down the path he walked? Or will it take you down another path?

Any teaching that doesn’t make you more like Jesus needs to be discarded. Including this one. But if a teaching IS consistent with the character of Christ, then it needs to be adopted, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel, or what it costs.

Please continue to test this teaching. Let me know if I’m saying anything here that needs to be corrected or clarified. I want and need the feedback.

Ok, that’s enough for this episode. I hope you’ll join us for the next one. Thank you, as always, for listening. 

Closing Credits

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