One of the very clear messages to come out of the gospels is the attitude of our Lord towards the lawyers, religious experts and well-to-do of his day. Over and over again he had very scathing things to say about them. Lets look at a few of them:
For I say unto you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees. You shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matt 5.20)
…But when the Chief Priest and the scribes saw the wonderful things he had done, and the children who were crying out in the Temple saying ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ they became indignant And said to him ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus replied ‘Yes, have you never read ‘out of the mouth of babes and sucklings Thou hast prepared praise for thyself?’
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees…. (seven times - Matt 23.13 +)
And when the scribes and Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax gatherers…Jesus said ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners’ Mark 2.16
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and Chief Priests and scribes and be killed …’ (Luke 9.22)
And the Chief Priests and elders came to him and began saying to him ‘By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you authority to do these things?’ (Mark 11.27)
And there are many more places in the gospels where we can see the antagonism and conflict between Jesus and the authorities.
I think that it is really very significant that Jesus was so very caustic about the leaders of the religious/legal/social elite of his times. Why did he have such an objection to them? Did he have a bias against them?
If you look again at what Jesus is quoted as saying in the gospels it is clear that he just had no time for the well off and the elite generally. So vehement was he at one point of his ministry that the Scribes and Pharisees started to plot from that time on to bring about his downfall (Luke 22.2).
If we look at the sort of sayings that we know came from Jesus we can see that he never spoke in a way that was complicated. There were two languages in use at that time – a more formal language used for religion and legal matters and state affairs and by the educated people. And there was the very common vernacular language that was used by the uneducated. Apparently it was a very much rougher language – more at home in the market than among the educated.
It is thought that Jesus always spoke in this way. He chose to speak the common down-to-earth language that was readily understood by ordinary folk. The language of the street. You could not get more basic in your manner of speech. It was earthy, common and vivid. We have a few of his special Aramaic words preserved in the gospels.
Why did he use that language? Because he wanted to connect to the down-to earth ordinary folk. He was not addressing the educated and refined people of his day. He was not attempting to influence the rabbis or the Roman Occupiers. He wanted to speak directly to the common, ordinary folk.
What was his intention when he spoke to people like that? What was he trying to do? Clearly he wanted to say something to the ordinary people of his day – but perhaps he especially wanted to connect with the marginalised people of his day. Why do I say that? It is clearly recorded that he went to eat with the very people who were outcasts as far as the orthodox Jews were concerned. Which orthodox Jew would have anything to do with a tax collector? They were regarded as rabble, as beneath contempt. But Jesus connected with them. He even had one for a disciple! What self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with prostitutes? But clearly, Jesus did. Which rabbi would touch a leper? But Jesus did.
It is reported that the common people heard him gladly (Mark 12.37). He spoke simple language to simple people – the poor and the needy and the outcast from ‘decent’ society.
So how does this match with his attitude towards the leaders of society – the Scribes and Pharisees - the leaders of religion? The two attitudes seem complementary. His message was not for the educated people - the ‘acceptable’ society – it was primarily addressed to those on the edges of society - to those who were on the margins.
A third clue fleshes out this picture for us. We don’t see any religious arguments. When we look at the key stories Jesus told, what do we see? We see very simple, totally true to life stories. The prodigal son – surely many in the crowd would know of some family where just such a thing had happened. The story of the mugged Jew on the way to Jerusalem – who of his audience did not know the reality of such a situation. Maybe some of his audience had been the muggers in times past! Although there would not be much that the crowd of hearers would be carrying that would be worth stealing! But the story rang true for them. Likewise the story of the shepherd and the lost sheep, the woman who dropped her beads, the noisy intrusive neighbour and so we could go on and on.
So when we really look, we can see a Jesus who turned away from respectable society, a Jesus who made the marginalised his friends, and who spoke, simply, to their hearts in stories they could easily understand. A Jesus who addressed crowds of people who were mostly desperately poor, often without work or money.
Indeed, at one point he is reported as telling folks from ‘good society’ that he had not come to help them, but to the poor who needed his help. (Mark 2.16-17). He told the comfortably well off to look after themselves – perhaps something that he thought they were doing quite well already!
And when learned men questioned his attitude and approach, his intentions, his aims, how did he respond? He told them that unless they became like little children they could not even see the kingdom of God (Matt 18.3).
We have perhaps given too little emphasis to this aspect of the gospels in the past. There has been the tendency to take each sentence written in the gospels and to analyse it and refer it to others and cross-reference it to other sayings. To study it’s wording and it’s meaning endlessly. Of course we need to do this – to study the text deeply. But if we stay at that level we miss this most significant aspect of what Jesus said to the crowds – we miss the very point and purpose of his discourses.
He was rejecting the religious route to God that went via reasoning and ritual, and involved argument and study. That approach made religion elaborate and elitist. It produced rules and laws for people to follow. It produced a strict morality to follow. It produced an approach that said that people were either in or out.
We all do this even today. It is a very human thing to do. We complicate. We analyse and organise. We build a theology. We construct a whole edifice on the ground where Jesus was living without any building at all! We make a set of rules and laws. We build a system of ethics. And then we say that all followers of Jesus must observe these rules and follow this ethic. To be frank, it has very little of Jesus about it!
He would have left us long ago. He would be out there, living it up at a tax collectors party! He would be a ‘real’ person to the poor needy people who didn’t have any time for all that flim flam! His would have been the simple approach – the simple message – simple humanity.
Was he like that just because they were uneducated poor people? Speaking simply in order to reach them? No! He was like that because that is how – and only how – one can approach the kingdom of God. Any other approach fails. It doesn’t get off the ground because it is man made. Man-crafted. Man-complicated. Man-produced. And above all – man-centred.
The simplicity of the Jesus message has largely been lost to us by our love of logic, systems and regulation. Our rules and moralities. Our ethics and our rituals. Our so-organised religion.
Jesus speaks simply to us all because that is the only way into the Kingdom. There are no complicated rules and conditions. You don’t have to be this or that. You don’t need education or learning. You don’t require a degree or money. In fact, these may even prove to be an obstacle! You don’t even need to be good. It is a simple message for everyone, whatever their circumstances. It’s about God, and his forgiveness, his love, his call.
Do I forgive my brother seven times? No, says Christ, you go on to seventy times seven (Matt 18.22). In other words, by that answer, the listener is suddenly lifted out of calculating and estimating, and suddenly realises that God goes on forgiving, and forgiving and forgiving again. And loving, and loving and loving again. If that is what God is really like then of course we must follow suit. It is as simple as that.
We err greatly in religion when we approach with a legal mind. Perhaps it would be more true to say that such an approach misses the best of what God has to offer us. This, of course, is the most basic problem with fundamentalist and conservative evangelical religion. Christianity is not made up of religious laws. It is not a system of ethics that must be followed slavishly, so that you become acceptable. It is not anything to do with instituting systems of morality. It does not consist of being with the ‘in’ crowd. It is turning towards your father and learning from him how to love.
Every society in every age has had its hierarchy of social classes. Seventeenth Century England had its social layers. The Vikings had a hierarchy with its leaders and its followers. The Aztecs had the kingly caste and the priestly caste and various social layers. And today our society also has a social hierarchy. In all social systems there is always a group at the bottom - the marginalised folk.
What would that bottom layer include for us today? The asylum seeker, the transvestite, the drug addicts, the homeless, the street people, the teenage tearaways, the prostitutes (still with us), the gay people (marginalised in some people’s eyes), etc. Where would Jesus be? You may rest assured that he would be nowhere near the churches and cathedrals! They would be for the ‘good’ people who could look after themselves. No, he would be down there with the people on the edges of ‘good society’. He might just possibly also visit one of the property barons – if they were throwing a party Jesus might be right in there with them.
Jesus was saying, to everyone who would listen, one simple message: relationships are the key to life, and we can enter quite simply into the kingdom of heaven here and now if we will open up to it – which is, in truth, opening up to reality.
All our churchy know-how is useless to Jesus. He isn’t interested in it. He is away with those folks who are so poor and so rejected – so looked down on (or pitied) – that they are open to hear the gospel.
And what is that gospel?
It is that we have a father who loves us beyond anything we can imagine. Who leans over backwards to forgive and encourage us. Whose love and forgiveness – when it is genuinely received – evokes in us exactly the same feelings and attitudes towards others. It is as simple as that. Love God with all your being and love others as yourself. This encapsulates all the Law and the Prophets – and overtakes all the religious claptrap of religious bigots.
Dear Father, Please help me to be more childlike. Let me see your love and forgiveness operating in my own life so that all who meet me are received with warmth and sent away with a blessing. And help me be more like Jesus today.