Saturday, October 10, 2009

The True Authority

Jesus is deeply concerned about God’s reputation. He acts, more than anyone else in the Bible, as God’s PR agent. He truly acts as God’s Son, and, as any child of a famous parent, he is constantly living in the midst of his parent’s reputation, whether good or bad. This could be both exciting and disturbing. Exciting, because of the attention one receives that most people do not. But mostly, the child of a famous parent is disturbed, even if the reputation is generally positive. Such a child would be disturbed by the fact that most of what he or she is hearing about the parent is fundamentally misguided. Not necessarily wrong, but one’s reputation rarely is a reflection of the true personality or motivation of the one with fame—no matter how often the misconceptions are re-explained.

For instance, Jesus was constantly confronted with the reality of who people thought best represented God. If Gallup or Barna had done a first century survey of Jews throughout the world, asking the question “What person or group of persons could you trust to speak authoritatively for God?” the surveyors would get a number of responses: Priests at the temple; the Sanhedrin; the High Priest; or a particular School of Law, such as the Pharisees or the Sadducees. The interesting thing is not so much the differences of opinion, but their similarities—all of these authorities center on one place: Jerusalem. And many of them center on one person: The High Priest who was the leader of the temple priests, the Sanhedrin and the Sadducean school of Law. This fairly unified group of leaders are called in the New Testament Ioudaioi, often translated “Jews”, but better understood as “Judeans”. They could just as well be understood as “Jerusalemites”, for there was the center of political/religious Ancient Judaism. This would make sense, since the High Priest was the political/religious authority in Judea since the second century BC (as long as the U.S. have had presidents).

So when Jesus walked around ancient Galilee, people would always be referring to God’s authority as “the Judeans say this” or “the elders say that” or “the teachers say this.” The content of what they said would be some interpretation of the Law, but if it came from Jerusalem, it was authoritative—the final word.

Now Jesus had some issue with this authoritative approach to theology. This is not to mean that he was not authoritative. He was, certainly. But that was the problem. As the authority, the Son of God, the king of Jerusalem, Jesus found that the Sanhedrin and the High Priest had many things they disagreed with Jesus on. The disagreements came to a head when representatives from Jerusalem formally declared Jesus' teachings to be false and his healings to be empowered by Satan. The Judeans weren’t very diplomatic. But they didn’t need to be. They were the Accepted Authorities. They could say whatever they thought was true.

But setting aside, for a moment, the fact that they rejected Jesus’ authority, Jesus didn’t think that they qualified to be real authorities. The reason for this, Jesus said, is that they reject and even kill the ones who truly represent God—prophets and teachers such as John the Baptist. This meant that these leaders, rather than representing God’s authority and truth, actually represented their own interests. And, in the end, they would be crushed. Again, more about this later.

But who did Jesus say have God’s real message for his people? Who did Jesus say were the true authorities of God? Who should actually be listened to, if not the Judean authorities? Well, Jesus said, the folks like John the Baptist. People who spoke God’s word and were rejected, even killed for it. Folks like those who listened to John the Baptist—prostitutes and tax collectors who were rejected by the Judeans, but they listened to God’s word in humility and repentance. Folks like the man who was demon possessed with a huge crowd of demons, but who was healed by Jesus and then told to speak about what God had done for him. Folks like the Gentile centurion, rejected by the Judeans, but accepted by Jesus for his faith. Folks like the disciples who were never properly educated, but could be taught to say “The kingdom of God is near.” Jesus calls them infants and contrasts them with the well-spoken and educated. Jesus calls them poor and contrasts them with the rich and comfortable. Jesus calls them unimportant and contrasts them with the Judeans.

But Jesus also said that these are the ones who will enter God’s kingdom—receive God’s greatest blessings, exult in God’s greatest joy. These are the Anawim. The poor,and outcast-- they are the ones best suited to represent God's plan to humanity.

High Volume Meekness

Meekness isn’t exactly in demand today. Nobody wants it. Sure, people will buy books on love, on peace, on joy, on self-discipline—but how many people want Meekness for Dummies? Microsoft Humility? (Whoa, talk about a contradiction in terms!) McLowly? Meekness just doesn’t sell.

And why should it? Meekness doesn’t comfort us, it doesn’t make us more successful, it doesn’t help us make friends or influence people. Let’s face it—the meek in our society are rejects. They are the outcasts, the people who don’t really fit in. Let’s see, who are the professional meek in the U.S.?

• Homeless
• Elderly in nursing homes
• Those living in low income housing
• Poor immigrants
• Mentally ill
• Those who work for minimum wage
• Panhandlers
• Those on Disability or Food Stamps
• Non-English speakers

Not exactly whom you want to be like? Perhaps not the friends and neighbors? Nor your usual upstanding church members? Of course not. These are not the building blocks of society, the ones who can make things change for the better, the righteous, the acceptable. Again, the meek are the rejects. Not just the unimportant, but the unwanted, the unacceptable.

And how do the middle-class church members—the Uptight Upright—treat these folks, the meek and lowly? Sometimes they treat them with pity, feeling sorry for their plight, perhaps seeing how they can help them. That’s typically the best response. If only the best response were the only response. Often the meek are treated as a “problem” that needs to be solved, the solution of which has avoided the minds of all the mighty. The meek usually are ignored by most—best not seen, not dealt with. The apathetic aren’t interested in judging the lowly, but they aren’t interested in doing anything else with them either. But there are many that do wish to judge the lowly.

These judges use the logic of Job’s friends—These meek are in the positions they are in for a reason. Perhaps in these post-modern times we do not want to use the argument of God only offering material blessings to the righteous, but we would use other arguments. “They made terrible errors in their lives, and so they ended up where they are.” “They will have to work hard like we did and then they can get out of that situation.” “This is the land of opportunity—anyone who works hard enough can get ahead.” “They just need to apply themselves.” “Lazy.” “Addicts.” “Trying to take advantage of good people.” These labels are used on the meek, even if they are not known. And if you think you are immune to this, how many times have you ignored a panhandler whom you have never seen before because, you assume, they would use the money you might give them for their addiction? This is judging by stereotype. Would we assume such things of our neighbor who lives on the same suburban street as us?

If we looked at these meek with God’s eyes, we would see that these meek are not the insignificant and hopeless as we might first have imagined. Just the opposite. We need to remember that God does not choose the powerful, the rich, the ones who already have everything in place. God chooses the needy, the insignificant, those for whom everything is falling apart. This means, biblically, when we look at our world around us, we need to see it with new eyes. Next time you see a panhandler, instead of seeing him or her with pity or disgust, think, “This is one of the ones whom God chooses.” Next time you see an elderly woman, living alone, respond, “I wonder if God will give her a son.” Next time you meet a mentally ill person, consider, “I wonder what God is going to do in this person’s life—it must be magnificent!” Next time you hear about the starving in Africa or Asia, instead of being overwhelmed with a mix of compassion and guilt, pray that God would do a work of power there.

Poverty and illness are not dead-end streets—they are opportunities for God to act.