The comments of Jesus to the Pharisees and scribes are well -known. (See, for instance, Mark 7 and Matthew 23).; stated, I suspect, to bring them to a truer knowledge of God rather than condemn them. It is so easy to gloss over these passages, to assume they are speaking in a first century context, not a 21st century one; that they are therefore not relevant to us, and, of course, we don’t behave in those ways, for we are followers of Jesus, Christians, we have the gospel and we know better (even if we would never state it that way consciously). And yet … What would Jesus say to us about the Church? Are we sure that we don’t behave in similar ways in our own context, if not worse? Are we sure we don’t insist on the keeping of rules, and neglect weightier matters? Are we sure we don’t keep others from seeing the Good News of Jesus Christ? Might we not, in fact, be better acknowledging that we do behave in these and similar ways, and seeking God’s mercy?
For the Pharisees were not, I suspect, bad people; they were probably sincerely focused on serving God and, in their own context, that almost certainly meant sticking to the rules that made them distinct from their Roman overlords. They would have had good and sincere reasons for what they criticised in Jesus and his disciples. Just as we do. I mean, we need to keep ourselves distinct from an increasingly secular culture, don’t we? To be counter cultural, and stick to following God, even if that means going against differing cultural standards (or especially if that means going against differing cultural standards?). We need to ensure people stick to the laws, and that our religion doesn’t just become a wishy-washy way of spending Sunday mornings. We need to confront people when they’ve done wrong, and ensure that sinners know their iniquity, if only to save their immortal souls. Don’t we?
But … do we? What if, in some instances our increasingly secular culture is nearer to God’s way than we are? What if, in ensuring the rules are kept, we miss the entire point of the Good News? What if, in ensuring that sinners know they’ve done wrong, we condemn them, and ensure they miss also the mercy and love of God? What if, in doing these things, we are actually hiding from our own sins and therefore also missing the mercy and love of God? As Jesus says of the woman who was a sinner anointing him… those who have been forgiven much love much … What if we’re too busy ensuring that others do not sin (for whatever good religious reason we do that) that we hide from ourselves and from others the total, amazing love and mercy of the God, who on earth sought out and spent time with sinners?
Look at this scenario: Jesus is walking along the road, among crowds of people all yearning to see him, when he looks up. He sees Zacchaeus in a tree watching him. ‘Zacchaeus’, he says, ‘I would very much like to come to your house for dinner today, but, unfortunately, I cannot. The invitation remains open, however, but at the moment you are an iniquitous sinner, so first you must change your job and then repent at length in sackcloth and ashes. Once you’ve done that, you will be okay for me to visit. Do let me know when you’re ready.’ Can you imagine what Zacchaeus’ reaction might have been? Very different from what it actually was, I think. That is not what Jesus said; there was no condemnation or criticism of Zacchaeus’ way of life, however far it had led him from God. He merely stated that he was staying at Zacchaeus’ house; and Zacchaeus response is immediate; or, rather, not quite immediate. The immediate response, possibly while Zacchaeus is climbing down from the tree, is that of the people: Jesus has gone to be the guest of a sinner. Zacchaeus’ response comes straight afterwards: he will give half his possessions to the poor, and pay back anyone he has cheated four times the amount. Jesus points out to the crowd that salvation has come to this house today, for Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. (See Luke 19:1-10). Ah, but we do that, I hear you cry. We do try to reach out to sinners, and we wouldn’t dream of criticising anyone working with them. But still … what is it we’re not seeing? Do we truly relate to others, to those we see as sinners, as directly and lovingly as Jesus did? Do we insist, even if non-verbally, on a certain standard of behaviour before people can come to God? Do we call people sinners, and distinguish them from ourselves as ‘righteous’? Do our churches truly welcome all people, or do some feel unwanted, for whatever reason?
What would Jesus say if he walked into our church today? ‘well done good and faithful servants’ or ‘woe to you...’ I suspect a bit of both. After all, Jesus had meals with the pharisees as well as criticising them, and I think (I hope) we’re not doing everything wrong, that many people do feel drawn in by the church, and that churches do go out to work with and meet those in need. I am not saying that we have missed the point completely. But still … there may be a few ‘woes’. Woe to you, for I came to share my unconditional love with the world, and you have told people that I come with judgement to condemn them; woe to you for I came to give everything for you, and you have made my love conditional; woe to you, for I came to share mercy and seek out the lost, and you have told them that they must be right with God before coming to services; woe to you for I love the lost and seek them with open arms, and you have made others feel lost and unwelcome in my church; woe to you, for you keep my love for those who have found it, and those on the margins must become ‘normal’ before accessing it; woe to you for you know the secret of my love, yet fail to communicate it effectively to those who do not know …
I think that we live in the real world; that we are all sinners, and we are all both lost and found. Therefore, the church is unlikely to be perfect, and will always have some issues that it is struggling with. That is the nature of church and humanity, and that is the world we live in. Hopefully many of us do what we can to spread the love of God, as far as we know it, and to bring in the lost and the lonely. But I think too that there are some questions which we might want to ponder. How accessible is our church context? Physically (how accessible is it to the disabled, for instance) and in its services – but also, too, in its culture. How welcoming are we to those who haven’t quite ‘got it’ or who aren’t (for example) aware of the particular cultural mode of our church. For however counter-cultural we may think we are – and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be – but so often it can be that we are merely different-cultural or even past-cultural rather than counter-cultural. Moreover, how far do we actually spread the good news of God’s love, or are we in danger of spreading the bad news of God’s condemnation? and are we, in condemning sin, also condemning sinners? – and in condemning the sin of others, are we either actually condemning our own unacknowledged sin, or possibly hiding from our sin, in our outrage at the actions of others? Others who are, after all, the beloved children of God. ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ – and that includes us … and them. Maybe we could spend some time picturing God, with arms wide open, waiting for us to come as we are; waiting for others to come as they are, however and whoever they are; waiting for us to see that it is God who saves the world, and all we need to do is open that invitation to others.