Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Using or Receiving?

If you watch enough news video from the Middle East, you will eventually see an interesting custom play out. Some people, immediately after speaking a particular name (often George Bush) will emphatically spit on the ground before they continue with their sentence. The thinking behind this custom is: This person is so vile and repugnant to me I want to get the bad taste left by saying their name out of my mouth immediately. It is a most vile comment on an individual, reserved only for those for whom the individual feels the greatest hatred.

As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him. (Matthew 9:9)

It doesn't take a lot of research to discover that, in Jesus' day, this spitting custom was widely practiced whenever anyone said the word nagas or in Greek telones - tax-collector! Only lepers were given a wider swath than the tax-collector. This was largely due to the fact that most tax-collectors were regarded as traitors, Jews who, for financial reasons (they got a commission on the money they collected), decided to cooperate with the Roman occupiers of Israel. In the first century Jewish mindset, the only thing more remarkable than Jesus asking Matthew to follow him is the fact that Matthew left his tax booth and followed!

Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” - (Matthew 9:10-13 NKJV)

The Pharisees, as usual, have a valid point to make when they ask why Jesus is keeping company with people who engage in sin as part of their lifestyle, even their livelihood. The Old Testament admonition not to follow the crowd into evil (Exodus 23:2 ) and the declaration that "sinners will not stand in the congregation of the righteous" (Psalm 45:6-7 ) were, in their minds, validation for creating a social barrier between the two groups. This is the danger of legalism in Christian practice.

Righteous practices are supposed to be expressions of the love for and of God that resides within us. But all too often they can become an end in themselves, with no foundation in love or even faith, but rather just an expression of our own self importance as we strive to prove to ourselves and others that we are more religious. It was this trap the Pharisees had fallen into.

Jesus however, sought to turn this idea on its head. He fully understood that the righteousness and justice of God is not complete unless it also incorporates His love and compassion. This Son of David, who had never sinned in his life, never-the-less understood the cry of David's repentant heart when he declared "Restore to me the joy of your salvation... Then I will teach transgressors of your ways, and sinners will return to you." (Psalm 51:12-13 )

What appeals to me most about this exchange though, is the subtlety of his comment. I'm sure his declaration that the righteous would have no need of his ministry would have massaged the egos of the Pharisees. I can picture them thinking to themselves, " Oh! All right then, that makes sense. We are righteous and good in God's eyes, so it's no wonder he ignores us and talks to them. They certainly do need someone to show them the error of their ways. But it is a lost cause however, so better him than me." The irony is, of course, Jesus didn't consider them righteous at all. Jesus understood that the lowliest sinners who throws themselves upon the mercy of God is closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than the self-declared righteous will ever be.

This is the point behind his quotation of Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." The Pharisees considered their interpretation of the scriptures as being a sacrifice that all people should make to demonstrate their obedience to God. Their zero-tolerance philosophy served only to make themselves look good; it did nothing to draw those who had fallen by the wayside back into the embrace of God's love. Jesus' ministry is not about keeping people out of the Kingdom, it is about welcoming them in.

And while it doesn't seem so on the surface, Jesus words to John's disciples are part of this same exchange.

Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often,but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse. Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matthew 9:14-17 NKJV)

Have you ever noticed that in this question John's disciples group themselves in with the Pharisees? "We and the Pharisees fast often.." A strange comment from the disciples of a prophet who had challenged the validity of the Pharisees repentance. (Luke 3:7-9 ) It demonstrates just how ingrained the idea of pious acts equating with righteousness was in their culture. With the metaphors of the cloth and the wineskins, Jesus tries to help them understand that if the Kingdom that is coming is going to take hold, then the old way of thinking about the Word of God must be set aside. His words must be examined with fresh spiritual eyes, better enabling them to see the truth of God for what it really is rather than for what they had been told it was for generations.

In his essay An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis makes an interesting observation about the nature of reading. He observes that there are two kinds of reading. In the first kind we read a book so that we can "use" it. We are looking to endorse or enhance our own existing world view. The second is when we read a book to "receive" the message that the author is trying to convey. As an avid cyclist I like his explanation of the difference...

"The one [receiving]... is like being taken for a bicycle ride by a man who may know the roads we have never yet explored. The other [using] is like adding one of those little motor attachments to our own bicycle and then going for one of our familiar rides."

This is what happens to all too many of us when it comes to the Word of God. It happened to the Pharisees. They "used" the Law of Moses to their own ends, interpreting it to shore the social/political structure they thought was best for them and for Israel. Jesus recognized that, in truth, it was good for neither and sought to teach people how to "receive" the Word once again by receiving Him - the Word made flesh.

I challenge you, dear readers, to examine your own hearts and ask yourself, "Do I believe what the Holy Scriptures say? or do I believe what I have been told they say?" Ask yourself, and be as honest as you can be, "When I read the Holy Scriptures, am I looking to "receive" the message God has for me, or to "use" it to support my own theology?"

Until next time... Shalom.

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