Saturday, October 13, 2012

Essays on Christianity - 1. Not Religious

If one takes a cursory look at the Gospel accounts in the New Testament, one thing will be abundantly clear:  Jesus did not get along with the established religious folks of His day.  It wasn't that they had some disagreements over doctrine.  It was that they belong to two totally different and opposing spheres.

The Pharisees, the Jewish religious elite in the day of Jesus, were highly revered and knowledgeable about all of the religious and moral in-and-outs of their religion.  They strode through their society like religious celebrities.  But to be fair, trying to paint them all as scoundrels wouldn't be right.  Suffice it to say that they were devout.  They were known for taking their religious beliefs very seriously.

You might think that Jesus would appreciate that.  But He didn't, and they didn't appreciate Him either.  The religious people were actually the ones who had Jesus killed. 

What was the problem, in a nutshell?  The Pharisees represented the "religious" tendency of mankind.  They represented mankind's unswerving, committed inertia toward creating a reality that they control, established firmly upon a "ladder" of the moral or the ethical or the intellectual or the financial or whatever.  This tendency need not be theistic, so I am using the term "religious" loosely, since people do this this by "transcendentalizing" anything... their civic involvement, the "state", their intellect, their self-sufficiency, their moral convictions, their "progressiveness", their "tolerance", etc.  But in the case of the Pharisees what made matters worse was that they were supposed to be the people who directed themselves and others toward God, something they were failing miserably to do on their blind march off the cliff of religious moralism.  Their eyes were utterly fixed on what rung of the moral and spiritual ladder they were on and how much higher they were than those filthy prostitutes and tax collectors.

Yet who did Jesus choose to hang out with?  Prostitutes and tax collectors.  Jesus stood outside of the ladder system, the "religious" system of mankind and of the culture He lived in, that system which loudly and brazenly exalts those who are on the "good list" and condemns and oppresses and ostracizes those who are on the "bad list," whatever that list may be comprised of.  He stood outside of that system and condemned it, calling it what it is, pointing His finger at it.  This really irked the Pharisees.  He challenged their illusion of control and power over people and their illusion of moral and spiritual superiority.  He challenged, in short, their usage of good and true things (such as the revelation that God had given through in His dealing with Israel over the centuries) as a means to exalt themselves, convince themselves that they had some share in the market of God's favor because of their alleged spiritual awesomeness, and look down their noses at the "dogs" who were not of their elite class.

Jesus made a mockery of it all from the outside, by refusing to play this game on their terms, if not with His words then with His open actions.  He, a rabbi, ate with those the religious elite loathed and assumed must be terrible sinners -the sick, the treacherous, the hated, the marginalized of society.  He did "work" with his disciples on the Sabbath, by taking the time to care for and heal someone who was disabled and sick.  He taught the crowds by pointing out that even looking at someone with lust was the same, at heart, as committing adultery, thus knocking even the religious elite down off their moral high horse and showing us how we're all in the same shipwrecked boat -no exceptions.

Did Jesus believe that the prostitutes were not morally corrupt?  Did He believe that they were less corrupt than the Pharisees?  Did He pretend that sin didn't matter?  Nope.  But see, these people knew they were morally and spiritually bankrupt.  They had ears to hear it.  They were not deaf from the sound of their own voice rattlling off the reasons why they are "good enough" or "better than those people" or why they "deserve" this or that from God.  They were not blinded by their own spiritual or moral pedigree, nor where they bitterly stuck on how God somehow shortchanged them and failed to give them the good they deserved.  They were broken and they knew it.  There was no denial.  And this drew them to Jesus and Jesus to them.

There is a clear disinction found in the mix of all of this.  This distinction is brought out explicitly in a number of Jesus' recorded sayings, such as when Jesus said that He "came to seek and to save the lost" and that, "It is not those who are well who need a Physician but those who are sick." (Luke 5:31)  But to me, one of the most haunting places where Jesus brings this to light is in His parable known commonly as the "parable of the prodigal son" found in Luke 15.  In the story, there is a father who is a wealthy landowner, and there are two sons -an older and a younger.  The younger son typifies the common "sinner", like the prostitutes and tax collectors Jesus hung out with and ate with.  As the story goes, this younger son asked for his portion of the father's inheritance before the father was even dead, and if that wasn't insulting enough he squandered every penny frivolously on wild and openly repugnant living, only to return to his father's house in shame, hoping that his father would at least let him work with the hired workers on the plantation.  The elder son, however, always did what the father asked and knew it.  So, when the father saw the younger son return and happily reinstated the young man as an heir purely by his love and mercy, requiring nothing of him, and even throwing an expensive party for him, the older brother became bitterly angry and felt that the father owed him something for all of his obedience.  The truth came out...the older brother worked so hard not because he loved his father but because he thought it earned him something.  He thought it gave him control.  He, it turns out, really just wanted his father's things, just like his younger brother.  And the parable ends with the older brother, though he was invited, wallowing in his own bitterness outside the party -a common metaphor used for "heaven" or the kingdom of God restored to earth.  This parable is much more than a touching story about the father's forgiveness.  It is a warning to those of us who are pridefully like the older brother:  unless we see that we, too, are selfish and alienated from God, wanting God's things more than God Himself, we will find ourselves outside the party... not in spite of our alleged "goodness" but because of it.

Our common problem is that we all want to put self on the throne of our lives and live, in God's universe, as though there is no God.  And to the degree that we have "God" in our lives, we still seek to remain on the throne, determining what we deserve and why, what others deserve, what is right and wrong, and what God is or should be like -a god of our own liking and making.  God made us in His image, but we are heartily intent on returning the favor and trying to remake Him into ours.  We are blind to the seriousness of our problem, and we only want God for a Santa Claus or for a little "help" when our plans start to crumble to the ground.

Now, although not all of us are Hitler and not all of us are axe murdered and child molestors (thank God), the world is not divided in God's eyes between "good" and "bad" - the religious versus the pagan, or the progressive versus the old-fashioned and bigoted, democrat versus replublican, Red Sox versus Yankees.  Those are our ways.  The world, according to Jesus, is made up of a race that is bent toward self and away from God, and it is basically divided into those who know this and seek God's mercy and those who are blind to it and like staying that way.  The world is divided into those who are humbled and broken by the reality of their own spiritual bankruptcy and their need for God to cover their sins purely as a gift, by His mercy, just like the father did with the younger brother, and those who are blind to the reality of the place they are in, by their ardent and foolish belief in their own goodness and just desserts.

 "After what I've been through, God would be a @#$ to judge me."

"I don't want to be like those people.  They are hypocrites."

"I'll never worship a God who lets all these bad things happen."

"I'm a good person, at least compared to others.  Look at what I do.  If there is a God, of course He would accept me into heaven some day."

I spent the majority of my life thinking I was a "good person" and that God would obviously let me into "heaven", if there was a god and if there was a heaven... because I didn't sleep around, I didn't drink, I didn't smoke, I didn't do drugs, I wasn't a liar, and I tried to treat people well.  I was, in my mind, somewhere on the higher rungs of the ladder.  I wasn't like those annoying "religious people," and I rejected organized religion because that was "fake".  But then when I realized that Jesus died for me on the cross, and that He had to die for me in order for me to be made right with God and secured in a place with Him, it became clear to me that my goodness, my self-sufficiency, my comparisons to others... it was all a sham, an illusion, a lie, something I told myself because I wanted to believe it.  There was no ladder.  It was my own personal god delusion.

Our connection and relationship with God is either all by His mercy and grace, as a free gift, or it is not at all.  God is no debtor to any of us.  As God Himself said in the Old Testament, "All your righteousness is like filthy rags."  There is no ladder, and there is no place for those who think they can, and should, have some kind of entitlement because of the list or resume they carry around in their pockets.  Why does this matter?  Well, first, I hope it shows you that Jesus and real "Christianity" are just as against oppression and moralistic religiosity as you may be.  But in the bigger scheme this truth is important because it strips us of all our pride-filled religious and secular pretense and levels humanity.  It means that God can and wants to be known personally, as a Friend, as a "Father," as a "Husband," and as any of the other metaphors in the Bible depict it, rather than as a debtor or boss.  God is not interested in your trinkets and your resume.  That attitude reflects what is wrong with the world, what is wrong with us as people.  He wants to have you, not your things, not your claims, and not your demands.

Jesus is not a friend of religiosity, in any of its many, many forms.  We can see those things in personal life as well as on the news all the time.  He came and died to put an end to that very thing.  Jesus is a friend of those who wake up to the realization that they fall under the same spiritual sickness as the rest of the world and need not just a little help but a full-on rescue.