When I began a close reading of the gospels some months ago, I studied a chart of the major Jewish groups at the time of Jesus. I was shocked that I found myself identifying most closely with the Pharisees (the group we love to hate). They believed, for instance, that both free will and the sovereignty of God exist together without cancelling each other out, in the resurrection of the dead, in the immortality of the soul, in a view of the afterlife with retribution and reward which many Christians would consider orthodox, in human equality, and in an ethical emphasis in teaching, even that human sin and movement away from the law was preventing God’s blessing. Sounds like me; sounds like most of my Christian friends and acquaintances.
So if the Pharisees who are much like us could not understand Jesus’ challenge, is it possible that most middle-class Christians today would have the same blind spots? Do we want Jesus to heal us, keep our fortunes secure, find us a parking place when we are running late, and keep us and our children safe, in return for our going to church, tithing, recycling, and not swearing, drinking, dancing, or having sex outside of marriage? Have we transactionalized our relationships with Jesus? “Okay, God, I’ll have family devotions and make sure my kids go to church, and then you make sure they don’t do drugs or get pregnant and that they get into a good college and have a comfortable life that causes me no worry.” We may not say these things out loud, but our lives reveal that this is what we at core believe.
Jesus said some shocking things. He asked us to hate our family members, to refuse to worry at all about tomorrow or our clothes or our food, to become like children, to pray and fast and give to the needy in secret instead of publicly, to act like a slave in order to be great, to rejoice in persecution, to avoid sin not only in action but even in thought, to store up treasures in heaven instead of on earth, to refuse to judge others, to move mountains, to be utterly dependent on others when we share the gospel, to forgive others who don’t deserve forgiveness, to prefer children and the oppressed to those with status and honor, to choose the kingdom of heaven over absolutely everything else, even our own lives. To the Pharisees who were probably very sincere in their efforts at avoiding sin, Jesus said they were following the law in very particular ways and missing its heart—“justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Jesus preached a discipleship that demanded everything, that cost everything, that was radical and counterintuitive in almost every sense. Do we get it?
What would it mean to follow Jesus the way he asked to be followed? Maybe more of us would lend to those who need help without expecting to be repaid. More of us would donate money anonymously and sacrificially; the widow would give her mite and the wealthy would give their fortunes, and neither would make the evenings news. More of us might sell our property and go where Jesus asks us to go in radical dependence on him. More of us would see our vocations not as security but as a means of service—to our coworkers, clients, and customers, with the salaries or profits that we earn, or even by choosing lower-paying careers in the fields of justice, health care, education, immigration, and social services, or by serving populations who cannot afford to pay us what we deserve. More of us would truly recognize that everything that we have—our resources, talents, skills, educations, homes, children, and time—are gifts from God intended to be used for his kingdom purposes, and we would constantly be asking how we can invest those gifts wisely. More of us would take seriously learning how to hear God’s voice through study and prayer, and we would be so radically transformed by God’s love and presence that our radical love for God and neighbor would not seem radical at all to us, but the natural outpouring of God’s character through our lives. God would get more of us.
Jesus Christ, have mercy on us! We know not what we do! We know not what we know not! Heal us of our blindness, and give us the courage and understanding to be true disciples!