A friend of mine re-posted one of those anonymous quote pictures on Facebook the other day. You know the ones that are basically just a regular post quoting anonymous words but someone took the time to package it as an inspirational poster with a pretty background so it can be recirculated virally… or at least like a virus?
Anyway, this one read, “Dear Church, Stop gathering around the name of Jesus while ignoring the ways of Jesus. Remember the poor. Visit the prisoner. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Deliver the oppressed. Serve the least. And rise for the marginalized. He waits for us there.”
Is the Church really guilty of ignoring the “ways of Jesus?”
Is this list a fair and adequate summation of the “ways of Jesus?” or at least the “ways of Jesus” that the present Church is guilty of ignoring?
I’m not convinced that it is.
In fact, this list seems to me to be a pretty selective, faddishly “social justice-oriented” list of some of the least offensive “ways of Jesus” that even a non-Christian couldn’t disagree with. Throw in a popular buzz word like “marginalized” and you’d be a monster not to “like” and “share.”
So, who’s ignoring these things? These seem to be things that get all the attention and outcry and social media appeals whenever someone celebrates a birthday on Facebook. In fact, it seems to me that even most non-Christians regularly rally to support these kinds of causes. If there’s a single Christian value the Church has been extremely effective in convincing society to adopt it is this value of compassion. The rise and proliferation of charitable organizations, both Christian and secular, testifies to this. Most people, Christian or not, are willingly, even forcefully championing these compassionate “ways of Jesus.”
So who’s forgetting what?
In James 1:27, the brother of Jesus defines “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless” as: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and ______fill-in-the-blank_______.”
I think many Christians think the verse stops before the second “and.” That’s the part that gets quoted. Many don’t recall the words that complete the rest of the verse because they’ve never heard or read them. They are ignored. The remainder of the verse reads, “… and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
It is my observation that most Christians I know are well-informed and sincerely practicing that part of religion that relates to charity and compassion toward others but are either genuinely ignorant or actively ignoring the part about holiness and resisting things in the world that pollute the spirit. It seems to me that this is our modern way of tithing the mint, dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters; of straining at gnats and swallowing camels; of picking at specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the planks in our own eyes. Somehow, the charitable “ways of Jesus” have become a way of ignoring the holy “ways of Jesus.”
Some even seem surprised when they encounter Jesus or his apostles pronouncing judgment on sin and immorality unless it is against the powerful or the privileged. Some even seem to have concluded that Jesus’ charitable teachings are in conflict with his moral teachings and if one must be ignored, it should be the moral teaching.
This isn’t fully a new phenomenon. Even Jesus experienced this disconnect in his ministry. As long as Jesus was meeting their perceived physical needs and expectations the crowds of “marginalized” people swelled. They were even with him as he exposed and accused the powerful “others” of hypocrisy and abuse. As long as Jesus followed their preferred narrative of victimization, marginalization, social justice and free health care for everyone, they were on board. But when Jesus started talking about holiness and sacrifice the crowds began to thin rapidly and dramatically. People didn’t care to hear those ways of Jesus. Those were the ways of Jesus that they, like many today, wanted to ignore.
Jesus’ way was so much bigger than a compassionate program of charity and social reforms. Even as he met physical needs, his desire was always to move people on to spiritual matters (Mk 1:29-39; Jn 6:26-27). Jesus, himself, noted that “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” It is clear from his statements and practices, that Jesus absolutely expects us to take care of people in physical need. But it’s also abundantly clear that the main purpose of Jesus’ ways was to preach and prepare a path to holiness; a path which he made available to everyone regardless of their present moral, economic, racial, health or social status.
Meeting physical needs was both a method and a means for Jesus that proved his compassion and his power so that people might recognize his ability to meet the more important needs of the spiritual. Jesus wanted people to understand that he was offering something more holistic and substantial- the forgiveness of sins to those who earnestly seek moral holiness. Anyone, anywhere, anytime, who was ready to change course and pursue righteousness with gusto and sincerity was welcomed by Jesus. But if you just came for a handout of food, shelter, physical healing, or personal affirmation you were summarily rebuked and dismissed.
The real poor Jesus sought to help were those who admitted that they were spiritually destitute. The real prisoners he sought to free were those bound by sin. The real hunger he was sent to satisfy was a hunger of the soul that could never be satisfied with bread alone. Those who admitted they were spiritually naked, he provides with spiritual garments so that they not will face God feeling naked or ashamed. It does people little good for us to feed and clothe them for this physical life if we ignore the needs of our spiritual life. This is truly a matter of “practicing the latter, without neglecting the former.” Jesus’ way is a primarily the way to spiritual things. And we cannot afford to ignore these “ways of Jesus.”