In John Leith’s tremendously insightful and well-articulated book, The Reformed Imperative: What the Church Has to Say That No One Else Can Say, among other things, I have especially appreciated the following paragraph with reference to John Calvin and Martin Luther:
“. . . they insisted upon giving a theological answer to the human problem and steadfastly refused to allow the theological message to be identified with any human cause. The Marxists have never forgiven Martin Luther for his refusal to allow either himself or his preaching or his movement to become identified with the cause of the peasants. The Protestant Reformation, paradoxically, mightily influenced and shaped political, economic, and social life.
Leith cleverly uses this “have never forgiven” phrase to show that the Reformation was not taken up with a political, social, or ideological agenda. As Leith says in another one of his volumes, From Generation to Generation: The Renewal of the Church According to Its Own Theology and Practice,
They strenuously rejected every effort on the part of special interest groups and of the political structures to use the church.
The Reformers refused to allow their theological movement to be co-opted by those who wanted to make the Reformers their poster boys for their own special interests, and their own political and ideological agendas.
It strikes me that the same thing is happening with another person today, one whom people like to co-opt, namely, Jesus Christ. So, using this rubric, “have never forgiven,” I argue below that there are a number of groups which, however strenuously they assert that they are committed to the teachings of Jesus, are not nearly so committed to those teachings as they loudly profess. They claim to be “red-letter” Christians who believe that everything in Scripture has to be run through the prism of Jesus’ teachings, in such a way that other parts of the biblical revelation can be ignored, relativized, or even denied. They like Jesus and his teachings, but don’t like the rest of the Bible. The problem, however, is that when the proverbial smoke has cleared away, when it comes right down to it, they don’t actually like Jesus and his teachings that much either. So, here goes.
Those who believe that the most important thing that Christians can do today is to work for peace have never forgiven Jesus for saying that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. And they have never drawn up posters depicting their adopted hero, Jesus, driving the money changers out of the temple with a whip.
Those who believe that the most important ministry in which Christians should be engaged is that of ministry to the poor have never forgiven Jesus for his answer to those who were so incensed about the woman who poured a jar of perfume on Jesus’ head and feet. The disciples complained that this was a waste, and that the perfume could have been sold for the equivalent of a year’s pay and given to the poor. Jesus’ astonishing answer is that poor people will always be around, and people can carry out ministry among the poor whenever they like. But, at that moment, a wasteful act of devotion to Jesus was more important than giving money to the poor.
The environmentalists have never forgiven Jesus for putting a curse on a perfectly good and healthy fig tree, a tree whose only crime was not having produced figs early in the season when fig trees were not even supposed to be producing figs yet. Evidently, Jesus felt that the tree was better used as an object lesson for a point he wanted to make, than to let it “grow wild and free, the way God meant a tree to be.”
The animal rights activists have never forgiven Jesus for giving permission to a group of demons to enter a whole herd of pigs, two thousand of them, and allowing the herd to drown in the lake into which they rushed after being possessed by the demons. Evidently, it was more important for Jesus to show his mastery over the demons than it was to preserve the lives of two thousand of God’s creatures.
The labor unions have never forgiven Jesus for telling a parable in which the protagonist of the story is an employer who paid out a full day’s wages to his employees, regardless of whether they had worked twelve hours or only one hour. And Jesus tells this story as a picture of the kingdom of God. Evidently, God’s ideas about fairness do not necessarily correspond to those of the union bosses.
The liberation theologians have never forgiven Jesus for not joining the party of the zealots and advocating the overthrow of the oppressive Roman government. It appears that political and tyrannical oppression was not the most important issue with which Jesus needed to deal. When Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world, evidently, what he meant was that his kingdom was not of this world.
The political activists have never forgiven Jesus for neither organizing, nor participating in, protest marches, demonstrations, boycotts, and letter-writing campaigns. Jesus’ mission was too great, and his task too important, for him to get sidetracked in all kinds of petty, special interest side issues.
The inclusivists have never forgiven Jesus for making so many exclusivist statements, detailing who’s in and who’s out. Evidently, Jesus did not think everybody was in, regardless of their religious affiliation, persuasion, creed, or sexual lifestyle.
The universalists have never forgiven Jesus for preaching so much about punishment, hell, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and torment. They have never forgiven Jesus for saying that one day, the Son of Man, Jesus himself, would send his angels to gather together all the evildoers and throw them into the fiery furnace.
Those who would argue that stopping victimization is the most important item on the agenda have never forgiven Jesus for telling the woman taken in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” Apparently, her real problem was not so much those wanted to stone her, as it was her own sin.
Those who would argue that ending hunger, promoting education, and insuring good health will cure all society’s ills have never forgiven Jesus for declaring that the most important thing he did for the paralyzed man was to forgive him for his sins, rather than healing him of his paralysis. And they have never forgiven him for getting upset with the crowds who followed him more for the purpose of getting food to fill their hungry bellies than to listen to his teachings.
Those who would like to portray Jesus as the “man of the people,” the “champion of the common man,” have never forgiven him for telling his enigmatic parables to large crowds, then sending the crowds away and explaining only to his much smaller circle of disciples what the parables actually meant.
The postmodernists have never forgiven Jesus for saying that he was the way, the truth, and the life. They have never forgiven him for being a biblical theologian, one who was not only the main actor in, but also the playwright, producer, and director of, the great historical drama of redemption, the great “totalizing” narrative that explains, accounts for, and relativizes every other possible narrative. Evidently, Jesus thought that his story was, in fact, the story.
Those who continually declare that Christianity is a relationship to be experienced, rather than a set of propositions to be believed, have never forgiven Jesus for saying things like, “Unless you believe I am he you will die in your sins.” Or, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” or “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned,” or “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken,” or any number of other passages from the gospels. Evidently, Jesus thought his propositions were pretty important.
The antinomians, those who are ready at the drop of a hat to cry “Legalist!” every time a Christian talks about obedience to God, have never forgiven Jesus for saying that he did not come to destroy, but to fulfill the law, for including the phrase “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” in the Great Commission, and for teaching that someone who would tell others to ignore God’s commandments would be called least in the kingdom of heaven, and that if indeed they actually caused others to sin, would be better off at the bottom of the sea. It seems that Christ put a pretty high price tag on keeping God’s commands.
Those who don’t like the way God is portrayed in the Old Testament have never forgiven Jesus for claiming that he was the Son of that same God. And they have never forgiven Jesus for praying to that same God, loving that same God, worshiping that same God, and obeying that same God; that is, the God who sent the flood on the earth, fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues on Egypt, the Israelites against the Canaanites, and the Assyrians and Babylonians against the Israelites, and who was about to destroy the city of Jerusalem by the hand of the Romans for their centuries-long practice of murdering the prophets and finally murdering God’s very own Son. They have never forgiven Jesus for not distancing himself from that God, the one whom the apostles repeatedly referred to as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Many of the things I mentioned in the above list are good and tremendously important. We should work for peace, help the poor, promote good health, education, economic equality, fair labor conditions, human rights, preservation of the environment, creation-care, animal rights, and any number of deserving causes. There are Christians who commit their entire lives to these causes, and God, I am sure, will honor them for the way the way they have honored him in the passionate dedication of their lives to these important causes. However, we should not, we must not, take any one of these issues or combination of issues, and make them to be the thing that Jesus was about. And we should not insist that the church, in order to be the church, has to be involved in them. Jesus, by his teachings, and by his actions, relativizes every one of them. In fact, it may well be the case that Jesus intentionally distances himself from these things for the express purpose of making sure that his purpose in the Gospel does not become confused with any one issue or set of issues. None of them constitute the essence of Gospel. They are all affected by the Gospel, but none of them is coterminous with it. The Gospel, the Good News of the kingdom, is what God has done in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ to save his people from their sins, and the Good News that one day God will complete that redemption when Christ comes again in great power and glory.
Other things I mentioned above are not good; indeed, they are insidious and perverse: the attempt to separate Jesus from his Father, the attempt to co-opt the teachings of Jesus in such a way that his other teachings are denied, the attempt to downplay Jesus’ propositions and commands. All of these attempts, paradoxically, take authority away from Jesus and ultimately serve as attempts to subvert and deny his lordship.
As I was writing this article, I became aware of a blog post written just today by Andrew Wilson, entitled, “The Jesus Lens, or the Jesus Tea-Strainer?” reflecting on a debate he had with Steve Chalke regarding “Scripture, the Old Testament, the atonement, and sexuality.” I encourage you to read the entire article. Here is the last paragraph of that article, where he deals with those who claim to be reading through the “Jesus Lens”:
I don’t think Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Rob Bell and co are reading the Bible through a Jesus lens, as much as they are reading Jesus through a selective, progressive postmodern lens, and then reading the rest of the Bible through that. The end result, ironically, is that while the Jesus we find in the Gospels fits well with the rest of the scriptures – as you might expect, given that he inspired them – neither the Jesus of the Gospels, nor the Bible, fit particularly well with the pastiche of Jesus that the Red Letter guys want to promote. When all is said and done, the biblical Jesus cannot be squeezed thorough the fine mesh of the progressive Jesus tea-strainer. Given the choice, we’re probably better off with the biblical one.
That “pastiche” reference is an important one. It is not dissimilar to Irenaeus’s complaint that the heretics are those who take the beautiful mosaic portrait of God that we have in the Scriptures, take the mosaic apart, and then reassemble the pieces in such a way that now the figure in the mosaic looks more like a dog or a fox than the splendid and glorious king that he is. This can be done to the portrait of God in the entire Bible. But it can also be done to the portrait of Jesus in the gospels. The perverseness of it is exacerbated by the fact that the heretics not only take the pieces apart and reassemble them in such a way that the original portrait is distorted, but they also intentionally leave a good number of the pieces out.
They have never forgiven Jesus for being who he really is.
February 26, 2014