Posts Tagged mercy

Which One Are You?

Taken as a whole, the teachings of Jesus are the most subversive, radical, counter-intuitive philosophy ever thrust upon the human condition.  The statement “Love your enemies” alone could inspire many volumes as we seek to apply its weight and gravity to all areas of life and civic interaction.

The same could be said for Jesus’ parable known as “The Good Samaritan”

I think it’s the most radical story ever told.  If you don’t know the story, read it here.

Most interesting to me is Jesus’ choice of characters.  There’s the Priest and Levite, men known for their strict adherence to religious rule and ritual.  Men who would have had more than sufficient means to take care of the injured man.  Men who, had they understood the teachings of which they so proudly considered themselves experts, would have been compelled to stop.  But they didn’t.

No explanation of why, no mention of prior engagements or work that was more important.  They simply didn’t stop  But Jesus took it one step further.  Not only did they not stop, but they passed by on the other side of the road.  They altered their path so as to avoid the suffering of the wounded man.  They went out of their way to ignore him.  It’s not simply that they didn’t stop, but that they knew they should stop and didn’t.

Then there’s the Samaritan.

That word “Samaritan” just doesn’t carry the emotional weight for us that it carried for those who heard it from Jesus’ lips.  I don’t think Jesus could have chosen a more controversial protagonist for His story than a Samaritan.  To say these people were hated would be a gross understatement.

There was a racial and religious hatred centuries old between the Jews and Samaritans, dating back to the Assyrian occupation of Israel during the 8th century BC. When the Assyrians conquered Israel, they settled conquered peoples from other lands in Samaria, Israel’s capitol.  These pagans over the years intermarried with the native Jews left in Samaria, creating a race of what the Jews considered to be “half-breeds.”  The hatred and antagonism was present when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity.  In fact, just thirty or so years prior to Jesus telling this story, Samaritans had entered the temple in Jerusalem during Passover and desecrated it by spreading human bones in the porches.

Jews hated Samaritans.  They were racially impure, their food was considered as unclean as swine flesh, their religion was illegitimate. In fact, when the Pharisees could think of no greater insult to hurl at Jesus, they called Him a Samaritan.  Even Jesus’ own followers couldn’t believe He was talking to the Samaritan “woman at the well.”

And so Jesus chose a Samaritan to stop and help the wounded man.  A Samaritan showed compassion on a Jew.  A Samaritan did what the “righteous” priest and Levite would not: he stopped and helped. He treated the man’s wounds, took him to a local inn and provided for his care and recovery.  He promised to return and make sure the man had recovered and the bill was paid.  He didn’t just stop and help, he committed himself to a man who hated him.

Jesus could have chosen anyone.  It was His story.  He could have made the man a fisherman, a commoner, even a leper.  But He chose a Samaritan.

His meaning couldn’t be any clearer. 

The Samaritan who stops is better than the Priest who doesn’t.  The half-breed, unclean, reject who has mercy is better than the morally righteous person who doesn’t.

Jesus is clear in His teaching, and the essence of that teaching boils down to one word: love.  And the outcast “sinner” who loves is, according to this parable, more a part of the Kingdom than those who appear to keep all the rules except one: to love.

There is no other rule in the Kingdom.  Jesus said all the law and the prophets could be boiled down to love. So any rule or moral obligation that does not result in love is not scriptural.  Any “religious” person who does not love is simply wearing a facade.  He’s a fake.  He who does not love is not a follower of Christ.

Everything is upside down in the Kingdom.  The last become first.  The poor become preferred.  The rejects get moved to the front of the line.  The sinner who deserves death gets life.  And the “Samaritan” who stops and helps is better than the “Priest” who doesn’t.

Which one are you?

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Legally Blind

In Luke 13 Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  He noticed a woman in the room who was bent over and could not straighten herself up, an ailment from which she had suffered for eighteen years.  Jesus immediately had compassion on this precious woman, laid hands on her and said, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  In an instant, her crippled and broken body became whole.

A great miracle, right?

But instead of rejoicing, the ruler of the synagogue became indignant, because Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath.  He said to the crowd that had gathered, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.”   His words reeked with cold-hearted judgment.  Can’t you just feel his condescension and arrogance?  This leader of the synagogue cared more about the technicalities of his legalistic system than he did about a woman who had suffered for eighteen years.

This is but one confrontation of many Jesus had with the Pharisees regarding healing the sick on the Sabbath.  And to me, this is the essence of what it means to be a Pharisee.  The leader looked right past a woman who had spent almost two decades in pain, blinded by his need to be right.

How often do we do the same?

Just like the Pharisee that day, the church has allowed our need to uphold the law to leave us indifferent to the needs of people. How often have we focused on the sin, instead of the person?  How often have we been so concerned with our own sense of right and wrong that we have ignored the suffering of an individual?  How often have we also been blinded by our need to be right and our need to win?

The Pharisee saw a Sabbath, Jesus saw a precious woman who needed to be released from her pain. The Pharisee saw a law that was broken, Jesus saw a woman who was broken.  The Pharisee saw the letter of the law, Jesus saw its heart.

It’s a matter of focus

All too often we focus on the sin and forget the person behind it.  We condemn the abominable act and ignore the person who has struggled with feelings they cannot just ignore.   We are indignant against the addiction and look past the suffering of a precious soul locked in a prison he cannot escape.  We judge the behavior of the poor, never stopping to examine the dehumanizing effects of poverty.

Are we so blinded by our need to condemn sin that we forget who we are condemning?  We are condemning people.  It’s easy to pass judgment on a group.  We can dismissively write people off when they are part of the faceless “them.”  But what about individual people with hearts and feelings? We have fought political battles and drawn lines in the sand.  We have created a culture of “us” against “them.”  We have polarized ourselves into groups and separated ourselves from the ones who need His mercy the most.

Jesus didn’t see groups, He saw people.  He didn’t condemn “adulterers,” instead He showed mercy to a woman who had been caught in the act.  He didn’t dismiss “Sabbath violators,” he simply healed a woman who had suffered for eighteen years.  He didn’t ignore a thief on the cross, but even in death had compassion on a repentant soul.

We are called to love

I think many feel to simply love another without judgment somehow makes them guilty of approving of the person’s sin.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The fact is, they are sinning against God, not us.  And He is more than able to hold them accountable for their actions.  When they stand before their maker, they will have no excuse.  Besides, Jesus was accused of being easy on sin as well.

We seem to feel the need to confront evil.  So did Jesus.  He confronted the evil of arrogant, hypocritical condemnation and judgment.  He confronted the Pharisees and the evil of their adherence to law at the expense of mercy.  He regularly confronted those who placed their own need to be right ahead of the needs of others to be healed.

Jesus called us, by His words and actions, to love the sinner and have compassion on the outcast. There were no qualifications.  There were no conditions. Mercy trumps judgment.  Grace overcomes condemnation.  Jesus heals, no matter what the law says.

The Pharisee sees sinners in need of judgment.  Jesus sees sinners in need of redemption.

What do we see?

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Planks and splinters

I got a question from someone who read one of my recent posts called “I’m going AWOL.” I thought his question was a good one, it made me think a little and pray a lot about my answer. And I think it’s an important enough issue to answer his question publicly and give all the readers of this blog a chance to be in on the conversation. (By the way, he actually agrees with me, so I’m not “calling him out” publicly or anything.)

Here’s his question:

In the epistle to the Ephesians is written: “and have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of the darkness, but rather reprove them.” (Ephesians 5:11 KJV) That “reprove them” could mean that we as God’s children are entitled and exhorted to confront the ungodly in his/her unrighteousness? 

I gave him my short answer on the blog post, but here is the more complete answer. As always, I’d love to hear from anyone on your thoughts as well.

It’s the sin, not the sinner

The first thing that strikes me about this scripture in Ephesians is that it refers to the “unfruitful works of darkness,” not the “unfruitful workers of darkness.” The focus is on the sinful acts, not those who commit them. It seems to me, our focus these days is more on the sinners around us than the grace of God that has freed us from the bondage to sin.  This idea of “taking a stand for God” has consumed us, and has only served to erect a wall between God and those who need Him most.

It’s me that has to change

The next thing about this scripture is that word “fellowship.” My study shows it would probably be better translated as “participate in.”  This is an encouragement to believers not to participate in the works of darkness that are practiced by those in the world around them. “Don’t live like them, don’t behave like them. You have been redeemed by Christ, everything should have changed. Desires, focus, passions should be directed toward Christ and not pleasing yourself.”

This is not a fight

Then there’s that word “reprove.” Again, I think a better translation would be “expose.” I don’t think this is an invitation to do what we’ve done many times. It’s not permission for us to fight and picket and protest those with whom we disagree. It’s not an encouragement for us to point our bony fingers of judgment at others. Rather, I think it is a challenge for us to live our lives in such a way that, by contrast, the works of darkness around us will be exposed for the evil they are.  By doing so, we earn the right to speak into the lives of others.  When we live lives ruled by love, not judgment, those around us become much more receptive to what we have to say.

The bottom line

Look, I know we are called to “come out from among them and do not touch the unclean thing.”  But that command has nothing to do with “them”, it has everything to do with me.  I do not have to shake my fist at the world.  I just stop acting like them.  I don’t have to point out the sin in those around me, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

The weapons of our warfare are not of this earth.  Our enemy is not of this earth.  Our battle is not with the sinners, the gays, the atheists or anyone else.  We belong to the Kingdom of Heaven.  That’s a Kingdom that has no end.  And it’s a Kingdom that aims to change me first.  It’s a Kingdom that requires me to lay down my life, my dreams, and my hopes before its King.  It requires me to start with my own planks, not their splinters.

The path of love is a slower, more deliberate pace.  It’s a journey, not a sprint.  It’s a lifestyle, not a marketing ploy.  It takes commitment, patience, and…well…love.

If it is a battle, and we’re going to fight against the sin around us, I think love and mercy are much more effective weapons anyway.

Maybe that’s why Jesus used them.

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My way or the highway

Have you ever noticed how the church talks about the concept of “absolute truth?”  For the most part, we use that term as a weapon.  We wield it like a giant spiritual baseball bat to bludgeon anyone who does not agree with us.  If you think differently than what our doctrine clearly states, you are wrong.  And we wast no time or effort in quickly convincing you of that fact.

The funny thing is, I always think of what I believe as absolute truth, not what you believe.

I never stop to consider that those who disagree with me feel as strongly about the “absoluteness” of their truth as I do of mine.  So we let something that should unite us divide us instead.  Instead of rallying around what should be obvious to all, we instead polarize, demonize, and politicize.

It seems we Christians love to look backwards.  We look at the way things have always been done and elevate our traditions to the level of absolute.  Then when anyone dares disagree with us, they become an enemy who must be silenced.  Our truth is better than yours, so we protect ours by eliminating yours.

Why do we have to proclaim truth in such a negative way?

The good news seems more like bad news when it makes you right and me wrong all the time.

In John 14:6 Jesus proclaimed Himself to be the “…way, the TRUTH, and the life…”  So, as His follower, my definition of truth must begin and end with Jesus.  His words, His actions, His example gives me a road-map to follow in my pursuit of truth.  If it looks and sounds like Jesus, then it is truth.

Jesus certainly didn’t beat people over the head with doctrine or dogma.  He didn’t use the truth of who He was as a weapon against the infidels.  The Pharisees did that.  They were the ones excluding and judging, condemning and executing.  They were the ones enforcing every letter of the law, while forgetting mercy.  The Pharisee’s concept of absolute truth said the woman caught in adultery should be stoned.  But Jesus – the truth in human form – said, “neither do I condemn you.” 

So what am I saying?  Am I saying we are wrong to believe in absolutes?  Have I become some sort of relativist?  Some postmodern who believes that all truths are equally valid?  No, I believe in absolutes.  I believe in the absolutes Jesus taught, and they are not that complicated:

I believe that love overcomes evil.
I believe that mercy triumphs over judgment.
I believe we will be judged by how we treat the poor, the oppressed, and the helpless.
I believe “love your neighbor” transcends race, creed, nationality, and bigotry.
I believe loving our enemies is better than hating them.
I believe in returning good for evil, love for hatred, mercy for wrongdoing.
I believe we are never so tall as when we stoop to embrace a leper.

Yes, I believe in absolute truth.

I believe we are all absolutely depraved, and that Jesus came to absolutely redeem all of us to Himself.  And I absolutely don’t get to decide what that looks like.  He is the Redeemer, He gets to decide.  He has redeemed even people I might not like, agree with, or understand.  He is more than capable of revealing the truth of His love to the world He came to redeem.  He doesn’t need me to swing Him around like a blunt object used to beat sinners into submission.

Besides, love is a much more effective weapon anyway, and that’s the truth.

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