To me the key to understanding this section of Scripture is the concluding parable Jesus shares: two people are asked to go and do some work. One says “yes” to appear cooperative, but then slinks away into the shadows without putting the hand to the plough. Another argumentatively says “no” but, later, thinks better about it and gets about the business set before them. Jesus suggests the second, not the first, person is the one of these two who is the best example for us to follow
The reading contrasts two kinds of individuals: First, the outwardly religious, highly educated scholars of Scripture who pepper Jesus with hard questions. They present themselves as if they are close to God. After all, they can quote Scripture from memory, always show at worship, and say long beautiful prayers. Yet they feel threatened by Jesus’ words and example. It challenges their status quo, questions their privilege, and calls them out of their comfort zones. They won’t have it. So instead of asking “how can we take up our cross and follow?” they devise complicated theological questions in order to justify things staying as they always have. They demand Jesus prove to them by theology his authority.
In contrast, Jesus describes another group. These are the seemingly unreligious whom those in power have deemed sinners, outcasts, and undesirables who see Jesus’ lifestyle, hear Jesus’ message, and know God is breaking into their life through his life. They can’t quote the Scriptures, don’t know the theology, and couldn’t care less about the ritual and fancy words. But they know love. They know justice. They know too their lives ought to mean more, and choose to transform their lives so that they can become people of this beloved community of peace, love, and justice Jesus describes as the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ words challenge us to ask about our religion and our spirituality. Both can be venues through which we open ourselves up to encounter God. They can be means of hearing Christ’s voice and becoming transformed. They can be ways to becoming people made new, transformed into the hands and feet of God, exhibiting God’s healing grace, reconciling justice, and loving compassion. They can also become masks we put on to convince ourselves and others we are good people. We can say to ourselves “I prayed the right prayer, so even though I don’t do or say a thing, I’m forgiven”. We can tell ourselves we are better than “those people”. We can isolate ourselves through our religion to any people not like us.
For me the reality Jesus is showing – that it is better to embrace the transformation Jesus shows and not hold onto the trappings of religion than to hold to religion in a way that hides from ourselves and others our need for transformation – was demonstrated to me by a man I’ll call “J”. While pastoring in a military town, Kat and I had a church member come face to face with their need to confront their addiction. They joined a twelve-step meeting and invited us to come as a show of support. Through the twelve-step meeting, we came to know “J”.
“J” was a grizzled, hardened biker guy. He had a sharp tongue, and didn’t do much with religion. But when his life hit rock bottom from his drinking, he realized he needed a higher power and got involved with twelve-step spirituality. Now he still didn’t look the part of a religious man. But I’ll tell you what, he was spiritual. He’d become a man, too, of compassion. The church member whom we were supporting had lost it all – job, home, their significant other – due to their substance abuse. “J” took them in, letting them stay in his home. He would give folks the shirt off his back if it would help them. I saw him do that – actually give people clothes from his closet – on many occasions. And give them food, and rides on his bike. And though he didn’t wear it on his sleeve, he was a praying man, praying for every downtrodden person he faced. Why? Not because of some abstract theology, but because he knew what it was like having hit the bottom himself, needing a hand from others and from above to get up again.
About a year ago, “J” passed. But “J” left an impression on everyone he met, one that many people who claim the title of “Christian”, “Jew”, “Muslim,” or whatever religious title fail to do since far too often we use our religion not as a means of confronting who we really are and how we can be transformed into people of compassion but as a means of hiding our failings and appearing better than we are.
“J” became a model for me, an example of what Jesus is saying. Learning such openness, willingness to change, and compassion for others is the point of our religious teachings and our spirituality. Jesus calls us to follow such examples by becoming people who are authentic, true to who we are, while also true to the call to love, to serve, to care selflessly.
In doing so, we fulfill the spirit of our faith and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
Let it be so for us this day.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,