our justifications

18 December, 2007

It’s been a while, two months I think.  But I’m still here, still reading, still primarily hanging out in the gospels and still getting to know Jesus, the Way he responded to people, the Way he thought, re-discovering the things he said.  I finished reading Matthew a couple weeks ago and there were a three things this time around that have messed with the way I think about Jesus and the Way I want to do life…

The first was in Matthew 5:17-18, when Jesus said “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”  He then goes on to say just how hard it is to live up to the law.  Remember the whole need for our “righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees” bit?  And cutting off your left hand if it causes you to sin?  How about being in danger of judgement just for being angry with your brother without cause?  Or adultery of the heart?  You don’t actually have to “commit adultery” you just have to think about it to be guilty of it!  What on earth?  The “Law” just became and even harder task master.

But wait a minute, what did Jesus start with?  He said that he came to fulfill the Law, and nothing of it would be changed until it was fulfilled.  But He’s done that!  He said it was over!  Paul explains quite succinctly in Romans that there was no way we could live up to the law and that the only one that could save us from the wretched people that we are is in fact Jesus!  He did it.

Now, what strikes me about this passage in Matthew is that I’ve heard it taught as something we should aspire to.  We do our very best not to do the things Jesus talked about here.  Don’t call someone anyone a ‘fool’, don’t be angry without cause, don’t look at someone lustfully, be prepared to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin (although I don’t know of anyone who actually takes this one seriously, nor the one about gauging out an eye), but seriously folks, isn’t this the very thing that Jesus came to set us free from?  We no longer live by the law.  He made it clear!  He has fulfilled the Law.  It is finished!

I think what He was doing here was just highlighting our inability to fulfill the law ourselves and our need for Him to do it.  We can’t but the separation between Heaven & Earth has passed away, the Law & the Prophets are fulfilled, and the more I get to know the One who brought the cure, the less I want the sickness that is this sin.

The second thing that stood out was in Matthew 18, you know, the passage about how we’re to treat the “sinning brother”?  Briefly, if a fellow follower of Jesus sins against you, you’re to go to him and call him/her on it.  If they ignore this, then take another follower with you, if that’s ignored take it to the larger community of believers, and if they ignore that, then treat them like a sinner.

Now the thing that really bugged me about this is that I’ve heard this used over the last 17 years as a justification for cutting someone out of our lives.  Expelling them from “fellowship”.  In effect, it’s the old term “excommunicate them”.  They can no longer commune with us.  The justification being that we’ve called them on their sin, they ignored it and so Jesus said to treat them like a sinner.

But… wait a minute.  How did Jesus treat sinners?  He spent most of his time with them!  He went to their house for lunch, he talked to them by the well, he made a point of not condemning them, he went fishing with them, he even drank with them (remember the ol’ “wine bibber” accusation?).  In short Jesus was their friend.  He lived his life with sinners.  Lovely.

I don’t think Jesus was giving us an excuse to cut people off at all.  I think he was telling us to let them off the hook.  To no longer have such high expectations of them.  So they don’t want to live life according to the ways we think they should, so let them off the hook!  Free them from our expectations, but, love them.  Keep loving them.  Be their friend and love them.  I think that’s why he goes on to say “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”… let them loose He cries.  Beautiful.

Thirdly, Matthew 20 & 23 (and I’ll emphasise the text to make my point quicker)…

Matthew 20:25-28
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;  therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.  “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.  “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments.  “They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.

But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.  “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. “Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. “But the greatest among you shall be your servant. “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” (emphasis mine).

Strangely, or perhaps “perversely”, this one kind of made me laugh.  These passages have been used time and again as the basis for “leadership training”:

“If someone wants to lead, let them first serve.  You can’t lead others if you don’t know how to follow.”

Now, I say that’s just plain old nonsense, that is so not what Jesus is saying here!.  He wasn’t giving us a leadershipprinciple, he was saying exactly what he said.

“Do not be called leaders!”

“Do not be called Teacher, Father or Leader, that’s My role with you.  Don’t lord it over one another, you’re all brothers, equal.  If someone insists on leading you, don’t let him/her.  Let them serve you.  Not in order to lead, because I’ve said don’t be called Leaders!  Serve one another in love, just as I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Jesus never demanded anyone obey him, on the contrary, he said that as we get to know him we will find ourselves doing the stuff that he’s taught us (John 15:14) and though he has the title of Lord, have you noticed he never enforces it?  It’s always by invitation.  I follow Him because of His great love for me.  I trust Him, and yet, even that relationship is not really as Lord and servant, it’s as friends.  He has allowed me to get to know the Father in a way I never could have before, because he came as my friend, my brother.  He never condemns, never manipulates, never shames, never condescends.  If you don’t believe me, have a look for yourself.

So why do we insist on taking up positions of leadership over one another?  I suspect it’s more to do with our own need for significance than it is anything that God is truly doing in us, because I’m fairly certain he hasn’t changed his mind about this stuff….

John 15:15-17

“No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.  “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.”

“This I command you, that you love one another.”