Recent communiques with church leadership prove very discouraging. In fact, it’s not just recent. I was shunned at one church, kicked out of another, and recently confronted by leadership in the latest church I joined, where not only is my ministry outright rejected, but I am told I “do more harm than good”.
It’s all unsettling, really. I pay a LOT of money in monthly payments for the Bible education I received at two highly regarded schools – highly regarded by the very churches that find me so offensive. I can’t see the end of that bill anywhere in my future, but that education should qualify me for a better hearing than I get – at least a modicum of respect. I definitely invested myself in it, but for all that trouble you can bet there won’t be any job offers. It is clear that the church that rejects me has no use for me.
With this in mind, I seek solace in prayer every day, and the Word that comes back to me is: Look at My Son. He knows how you feel, and if you consider things carefully, you know how he feels too. You are in communion with him there at the place of shame, pain, and despair. Take heart; I made you for this.
And so I am looking at Jesus vis-à-vis the religious leaders of his day. And here is what I find:
And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins—and the wine is destroyed, and so are the skins. But new wine is for fresh wineskins.”
Do these sound like harmless questions?
They are not. They are loaded questions, actually. Jesus, the Son of God who did not grasp at deity, as St. Paul tells us, but humbled himself – yeah… him, he faces these scrutinizing questions. Bringing his healing love to the “unlovable”, he now deals with religious leaders bringing critical questions that express their displeasure with him and the work he does.
How do you think Jesus feels, personally, about this? He lets go of his own deity, humbles himself, and goes to work serving the lowliest of his own chosen people out of the abundant overflow of love from the heart of God. But leadership comes grilling him about his work? Really?
Shouldn’t leadership, with all their studies, all their experts, all their experience serving God be able to recognize when God is at work in their midst? Shouldn’t they recognize the day of their visitation? Why aren’t they endorsing him?
So far the questions seem harmless enough. This early in Mark’s Gospel, the confrontation is not all that heated yet. But just wait. Not long, either, but just give it a moment… just a turn of the page….
One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Are you seeing the tension beginning to develop now? Jesus is accused of hanging out with a group who breaks the law. He is leading a group of criminals in criminal acts. He doesn’t deny it at all, but that is really beside the point at present. Don’t you think? Because for me, the point at present is that the religious leaders effectively say Jesus’ ministry does more harm than good.
This isn’t a matter of nervous questions anymore; it’s accusation. The minister of all ministers, the prophet of all prophets, comes in their midst and they oppose him with harsh words. We can already see the theme that will come to a head in Mark 6:4 where he will say, “A prophet is not without dishonor except in his hometown among his own people!” Yes, Jesus is feeling the dishonor, the disrespect, the misunderstanding, and the heat of accusation meant to cause him frustration.
OH! But, keep looking…
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Oh my… the religious leaders are now holding leadership meetings to talk about him behind his back and attempt entrapment, and Jesus steps right into it. They see a guy get healed of a life-long affliction, and it is so upsetting that they make common cause with Herodians so they can find a way to destroy him.
Now, “destroy” is a big word. We don’t have any reason to believe they are thinking of crucifixion – just yet. Religious leaders generally hope it won’t come to all that. It doesn’t look good or feel right for them to be so openly hard hearted as all that. They might even give Jesus a hug after arguing with him, just to feign “love” for him. He needs discipline, they think, but if he won’t take to that….
Hopefully just a good embarrassment will discredit the prophet, and his career will be destroyed. I honestly think they hope for something a little less distasteful like that at this point in the drama. But the word “destroyed” is a big word, alright, and if it comes down to it, their darker angels might need to be deployed after all, and hopefully the Herodians can help. One might think it’s like as if the church leaders called the cops to watch this guy and see if he pees in a bush, gives money out a car window where panhandling is prohibited, or if he sleeps under a “no loitering” sign so he might get a ticket, face arrest, or anything that could destroy his credibility and career as a minister. The religious leaders could then point to that and claim Jesus is not serving God!
How do you think Jesus feels about now – you know, vis-à-vis the religious leaders? Aren’t we all working for the same goal here? Isn’t it their purpose and his to serve the same God? How is it that in everything Jesus does, it seems he fails to be a team player? By all usual standards, it looks like Jesus is going rogue! It looks like he doesn’t play well with others. He appears irresponsible – by the usual standards.
He faces tough issues on two fronts. On the one hand, he wants to reach out to the poor, the broken, the lost, the hurting with a personal, healing touch. On the other hand, he gets no support from the “legitimate” authorities, who should recognize God’s love at work through him, but does not. And yet, lack of support is not the whole story, rather leadership actually opposes him! Elsewhere in the gospels, you see Jesus speak out against this “leadership” in various places with very harsh words, and it becomes clear that he is not going to be a “career” minister. There won’t be a plush office in the back, no secretary to field calls and file papers, no vacation in the Bahamas with the little umbrella drinks, and not a shred of respect or support from those who would paint him as a poor team player.
By now, if not long before, he sees a cross on his horizon. When he withdraws to pray alone, he knows he has come to a place amid God’s people, where only he and God know the love of God. It is a lonely place for love to be. Love that is meant to be shared, endures alone until God’s apocalypse amid open hostility that has no limits except its own exhaustion.
But that is to get ahead of ourselves, I think. But not Jesus. What do you think it is that drives a man to pray all night? Go to Gethsemane and see; the man with this agenda can’t stop praying, while those without it cannot keep awake. But as I said, that is getting ahead of ourselves.
Meanwhile, all the “little people”, the broken, the sick, the poor, the sinners – all the riff raff you normally see sleeping under “no loitering” signs (but you DON’T find in church) are hearing about his care for them, and they are getting excited about his ministry. Check it out, this is what Mark says next:
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a GREAT crowd followed, from Galilee AND Judea AND Jerusalem AND Idumea AND from beyond the Jordan AND from around Tyre and Sidon. When the GREAT crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him.
Let’s talk about this a minute.
The religious leaders think Jesus’ ministry does more harm than good, and the more he engages it, the more he enrages them. His engage is their enrage. Hmmm… But the poor little people come crowding around him. They see what God shows them while the religious leaders totally miss it!
Am I making sense here?
And I don’t need to tell you how the story ends. You already know. I can stop quoting passages now, I have made my point. I will merely say that it keeps escalating until they crucify him! Even before we get out of chapter 3, the religious leaders will accuse him of having an unclean spirit! What a petty smear is that??? Thus Jesus will warn them not to blaspheme the Holy Spirit!
So, it turns out that religious leaders have a really bad track record dating all the way back to the earliest gospel (and beyond that too, actually!).
Am I saying religious leaders are a worthless lot, and we should be done with them?
No. I make no such claim. However, I do show how fallible they are on the one hand, and I invite them to get with Jesus on the other.
But down where my own prayer life is concerned, where my own ministry is concerned, I find encouragement from God in the face of church leadership’s very damaging discouragement. And I stand justified by faith, when I trust that following Jesus, doing what he says (rather than what Lupton and friends say) and when I trust that doing like he does actually serves God.
In that I have hope.
And when I go to God in prayer, Jesus (this Jesus – Jesus vis-à-vis the religious leaders), joins me there. He says, come sit a minute here in this place. Take a load off. I have prepared this prayer from long ago. It is for you now. You felt alone at the threshold, but once you entered into this place, you found that I am here with you. I built this place of prayer! It is my house. It is full of love and mystery. There is refreshment here, encouragement, welcome, and love here, and you are welcome to explore it all.
Yeah. And when I come back from that place of prayer, I have a new perspective that maintains me until I come again.
Thank you for reading and caring.