"Blessed are the poor in spirit..."
He changed the world by calling the least, the last, and the lost. In a world that only knew how to use the poor, He only gave. They were not any more loyal than the rich and powerful. They came to be fed, healed, delivered from spiritual oppression. Some of them said thank you. Some did not. Many people followed Him. A few actually put His words into practice. In the end, they all either turned on Him or abandoned Him, and He died... perhaps the poorest spirit of them all.
"You are the salt of the earth... the light of the world..."
But they were not. They were nobodies. The man who memorized this message was a hated tax collector and traitor to his own kind when he first heard these words. He rated below Judas the thief. On their best days, they were just people, trying to get by in a world that seemed set against them. Whatever He saw in them, they did not see in themselves or in each other. It is a strange thing to have the one in Whom you hope, put their faith in you.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets..."
The laws and their interpretations piled up more and more all the time. It seemed impossible to please God. How can you earn a life of peace and comfort? Nothing seemed to work. They wanted to give up and come up with new laws, simpler laws. They wanted to start fresh. He looked at the broken mess of their lives and told them they were not far from God at all. They were just missing one thing.
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder'..."
Justice, in its purest form, has always been 'an eye for an eye'. Justice had gone missing though. When the Jews were trampled down by the Romans, where was their justice? When their property was confiscated and their people sold into slavery, where was their justice? Injustice led to anger and desperation, and that led to hate and violence and vengeance. That story ends with rivers of blood poured out across the nations. He does not deny the injustice. He denies the vengeance. He denies the violence. He defies the hate and the desperation, and He even defies the anger experienced in the face of injustice. What are we to do in the face of injustice? Seek reconcilliation above all else, He says.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery..."
To be poor is to know want and to want what is not yours. He proclaims that it is not merely the act of taking that which is not yours which is wrong, but even the wanting itself. Not only is anger intolerable, so is desire. Anything that causes uncontrolled desire should be cut off. Marriage is a calling from God and it is to be entered into and lived trusting in God's provision, not demanding fulfillment from one another.
"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely...'"
It is a human privilege to be able to speak truth. The powerful ability to speak is part of our connection to the image of God. Lies therefore are a desecration of that image. This desecration becomes even worse when we speak untruth and point to God. There are no need for vows. Every person carries the seal of heaven as one of God's creations, as one of God's children. That is enough, and more than anything else we can call up to vouch for us.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye...'"
Injustice is not defeated with punishment. Injustice is defeated by reconciliation. In a complicated world of desperate needs and broken dreams, sin compounds upon itself as one misdeed is countered by one worse. Evil snowballs into atrocity. 'An eye for an eye' was the attempt to cut the cancer out before it spread too far. He is not proposing surgery though. What He speaks to them is a cure for the cancer. He will not cut anyone out and He will not let us cut them out either.
"You have heard that it was said 'You shall love your neighbor...'"
You have set the bar too low, He explains. From the beginning, we were meant to be extraordinary beings. We were made in the image of God. We were taught to be Holy, because He was Holy. When we saw the world fall apart around us, we lost our confidence in God. We failed when we tried to fix the world ourselves. We made it worse. So we lowered the standards for ourselves and repeated this process over and over and over again. Now we have no standards and we still cannot seem to satisfy that overwhelming sense of injustice in us. Depression sinks in as our hope goes out. There is no way out. We are powerless against the waves of death and destruction that come our way.
But His voice rings out from the chaos. It's time to raise the bar. It is time to set your sight back on the God who made you. You will never hit the target if you keep aiming below it. Anyone can just get by... You are a child of God and it is time to start acting like one.
I have wondered over the years why the gospel writers were so critical of the Pharisees compared to the other groups of Jewish people that lived in Israel, let alone the Gentiles. There are some moments when Jesus seems to stop his lessons about God and God’s Kingdom start picking on the Pharisees. (See Matthew 23) Why would the early Christians have been so critical of this particular group of Jewish teachers.
One thought is that it was because they were so wrong. I think there is some merit to this, particularly to the Early Church as they grew in Gentile territories. Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome demonstrated a close evaluation of the purpose of the Law of Moses in the life of the Christian. Both in that letter, as well as in Philippians, where he specifically identifies himself as a former Pharisee, as well as in Galatians, he concludes that both Jews and Gentiles find equality through faith in Jesus Christ. (Romans 3; Philippians 3:1-11; Galatians 3, 5:1-6). The Pharisees were a big deal to Paul and his ministry to the Gentiles. Yet it is not Paul calling these Pharisees out by name in Asia Minor and Rome. It is Jesus calling them out in Jerusalem.
It is possible that the Gospel writers, Luke in particular whom we know traveled with Paul, may have been influenced by him in writing that gospel account. I think that may have defeated some of his attempt to write an orderly and accurate account if he was intentionally adding in some verbal jabs Jesus gave to the Pharisees on behalf of Paul and his frustrations that occurred years after Jesus ascended to Heaven.
That brings me to a third alternative. It is possible that Jesus did indeed make those verbal jabs not because the Pharisees were so wrong but because, out of all the groups of Jews out there, they were so close to getting it right. If you read the comments Jesus makes about the Pharisees closely, you will discover that much of his criticism of them is not about their beliefs or their verbal teaching - it is about their practice. In fact, he explicitly tells His disciples to do as they say, but not as they do. (Matthew 23:2-3).
We know that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both Pharisees that followed Jesus - so it was possible to be both, it just presented its own challenges. In fact, given that the Pharisees eventually conspired to end the life of Jesus, I think the Pharisees had much more problems with Jesus than He had with them. Joseph and Nicodemus had to be careful, not of Jesus or His disciples, but of their fellow Jewish community leaders. For them, it was not just a matter of religious differences, it was an issue of political alliances.
There is also one final reason for the abundant presence of Pharisees in the gospels. They were simply more prevalent in the region of Galilee than the Sadducees were. Although Jesus spent a significant amount of time in Judea, he grew up and spent the majority of his three years in ministry in Galilee. Whether they came out from the towns and villages he visited, or actually followed him on the road, it was simply more convenient for the Pharisees to have access to Jesus, so it makes sense that, of all the Jewish groups near him, the Pharisees would have been better represented.
I think, in light of these reasons, that the Pharisees may well have deserved their part in those woes Jesus pronounced upon them. However I think they also in part were representative of all the groups in Israel at that time. They represented those who know what is right, but do not do it. At the end of the day though, as critical as Jesus was about the Pharisees, He let them follow Him… and He made disciples out of some of them.
I've been doing some reading up on Frederick Douglas this week. He has been a breath of fresh air in the midst of the tragic violence our nation has faced and the turmoil occurring in our political parties. President Obama continues to call for unity, but our nation, our culture, our lives are incredibly divided. Read these words, delivered to Congress in the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
"It is no disparagement to truth, that it can only prevail where reason prevails. War begins where reason ends. The thing worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion. What that thing is, we have been taught to our cost. It remains now to be seen whether we have the needed courage to have that cause entirely removed from the Republic."
Truth does not prevail in violence. Emotion does. Personal agendas and ambitions do. Certainly sin and evil do as well. But Truth does not prevail in that. Instead, it prevails in reason.
Take a step back and ask, why now? Why do these attacks happen in the heat of summer and in times and places where the economy struggles? Why do we hear about these attacks in places with greater population density and not in the rural villages that predominate our country? We get hot and stressed... and our frustration overides our reason, so we find someone to take it out on. That someone is almost always the wrong person, not the person with whom we are truly frustrated.
I don't know about Frederick Douglass's faith, so I cannot comment on that, but I noticed he applied some of the spiritual warfare principles of Jesus to politics in the 1800's. He taught us to name the root cause, the evil spirit tormenting us, and to have the courage to cast it out instead of just dealing with the symptoms. It reminds me of the demoniac of Gerasene that was chained outside the town, near the tombs because he was so enraged that he would wound himself and anyone around him. Jesus, was not afraid of him, but asked the demons their name. They replied "Legion, for we are many". Jesus then cast them into a herd of pigs when they begged him not to send them away and the man was restored to sanity. (Mark 5:1-20)
We need to name those root causes, those spiritual evils that are tormenting us and have the courage to cast them out. I don't mean the evils our neighbors have, I mean the ones that we have in our own lives, in our own houses, in our own hearts. I'm sure the devil loves nothing more than a bunch of tormented fools taking out their distress on one another, all the while being blind to the root of our strife.
I've not seen any quotes of Frederick Douglas posted but I encourage you to check him out as he spoke from a place of peace, grace, strength, and unity, in a time when those qualities were most lacking in our nation. We may be in times like those again.
Disclaimer: I am personally a terrible example about the following subject.
I'm coming close to 20 years of experience serving in churches. One of the common stories I have heard told or seen demonstrated in almost every congregation I have been a part of is the growth toward becoming Pharisees. Depending on how my day is going it strikes me as either funny or sad the way it seems everyone, and I mean everyone tells this story on someone else. It goes something like this...
Once upon a time, I was a young Christian who had just discovered the love of Jesus for the first time and was reveling and excited about the freedom and forgiveness I found in His grace. I couldn't understand all these "older" Christians who were always reading from the Old Testament and talking about the Law. Come on people! Jesus died so that we could get away from all the Law stuff that only holds us back from God. It was offensive to me how complicated they were making the simple love and grace of God out to be. They were just like the Pharisees in the Gospels.
To make matters even worse, I found out that they were still sinners. Not only were they keeping people out who were the ones who really needed God, they weren't even following all the rules they were so insistent on others keeping.
This story often ends with a call to ministry, perhaps a church split, or some other form of starting ministry from a fresh new perspective. The world turns, and another generation arises. Those who were once adamant that grace theologically outranks works every time have grown a few years older, and perhaps more importantly taken up the mantle of leadership and their perspective changes.
Suddenly, they are not sure that everyone deserves grace all the time. Now, they should only receive that forgiveness and acceptance if they apologize... and not just a half-hearted apology. They need to really mean it. It needs to be actual repentance, so everyone knows they will never do it again. They should also pay for whatever pain or damage they caused if at all possible. The list goes on...
The funny thing is that so much of this depends on context. It is not age that makes people Pharisees, it is responsibility. I have seen young adults in college ministry be so pro-grace/anti-law in their college ministry groups on campus who, when put in charge of a cabin of middle school students at camp, suddenly transform into the master of parliamentary procedure for the Sanhedrin Council of the Pharisee sect.
Why is this? Simply put, we would rather receive grace than give it. Even those of us who struggle with our own pride and desire to earn our keep... we certainly don't want to give out more grace than we have access to ourselves. That cuts us to the core. Yet what did Jesus say about giving and receiving? Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:8) or more pointedly in Luke 6:30 - Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
Jesus didn't deal with what was fair. He dealt with what was right. Those are not always the same thing. It is those moments when it is not fair but it is right that we probably cringe the most. Especially when it is unfair to us.
The question today is not, where do you stand? Where we stand depends on the day and how much responsibility we have. The question is: how are we giving out grace?
Trying to hear the music in the din of many voices.
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