The Law and Love and Mercy
By Fred Pruitt
(I wrote this years ago under the title, “Who’s Offending Who?” This is an updated rewrite.)
The name of Jesus offends a lot of folks these days, I’ve noticed, especially those of my generation (baby boomer) and following.
Their “being offended” used to offend ME. “How could anyone be offended with Jesus Who gave His life for us?” I thought.
But after a bit of consideration (a few decades), I realized many are not really offended with Jesus, not with the real one anyway. The offense is with the caricature which has been presented to the world as the real Jesus. With this false Jesus put forth as the real Jesus, some think they are offended with the real Jesus and want nothing to do with Him or with those who claim to represent Him. No wonder. Who can blame them?
Our day is the same as the day when Jesus of Nazareth walked around. As in His day, so in ours. Some of the “religious” people have presented to the “world” a caricature of God and told them they can only find God in that man-made caricature, and that if they reject it they are condemned. It is a caricature that is covered over with the self-interests of men masquerading as the truth of God.
But those who are looking for true Life, sense, perhaps unconsciously, that the caricature is abhorrent to them, because in it they see an active opposition to Life, and so they give it a wide berth.
Jesus was a friend of sinners, the Gospel says.
Not “acquaintance.” Not as an unfeeling, uninvolved “clinician,” who had come to heal them while wearing masks and gloves so as not to be infected with their diseases. Nor as the righteous goody-two-shoes older brother on hand to tell them where they had messed up. But simply friend. Somebody with whom they could laugh at a joke or remember the old days, or who could tell funny stories, but also someone who would come in the middle of the night if someone was sick.
Now some might be offended with that Gospel term, “sinners,” because in our modern psyche it constitutes something dirty and depraved, another falsehood from “religion,” but that isn’t what the Gospel term means. In the Gospels it means all the people Jesus accepted and whom He claimed as His friends. And most of those were unacceptable to the religious society in which they lived. They weren’t good synagogue people. But they were the ones who were Jesus’ friends, who invited him to weddings, banquets and parties, and who also sought him in sickness and hopelessness.
Who is a friend to us? We might say, “Someone who tells us the truth.” That would be one thing, but do we look for that first of all? No, we look for a haven in a storm. Our friends are comfortable to us. They are not “above” us, but are like us, the same as us, so that in that sameness we can find familiarity and comfort. Friends don’t judge us, even if we have disappointed them. They love us as we are right now.
The “sinners” in the Gospel stories were glad to see the real Jesus coming. (In the Gospels the “sinners” are everyone, including all the Apostles. Only those who already considered themselves “righteous” by their own self-efforts – i.e., the Pharisees and Sadducees — were not glad to see him coming.) But the “sinners” (those who were not self-righteous) heard him gladly, and sought Him wherever he went. They wept to see Him.
Zacchaeus, the tax collector and the most hated man in the community, had hidden in a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus passing. He hid because he felt unworthy, yet Jesus looked up and saw him in the tree and said, “I am dining at your house today.”
It was those who sat “in Moses’ seat” who were not glad to see him coming. They were teachers of “the Law,” the Jewish religious Law, and they ruled over the people* of Israel by using the Law unlawfully, as a means for their own personal gain. They had abandoned the true heart of the Law and used it as a means of getting fat in the flesh and lean in the spirit. Instead of feeding the people with the good Word of love and mercy which truly is the “heart of the Law,” they used only cruelty and disdain for others to elevate themselves to positions of wealth, prominence and authority over others. They made the Temple a for-profit shopping mall, instead of a house of worship. *(The Pharisees and Sadducees ruled over the Jewish religious matters. The Romans were the political rulers.)
They were out to make a profit from the people. Instead of helping the populace to prosper, they bound them to Temple fees and high prices for the required sacrifices of the day. They were all about money, filthy lucre as it is called in the King James. But as Paul said, who had been one of them before his conversion, “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Tim 6:9-10).
He told Timothy to tell the rich: “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate (give financially); Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life. (1 Tim 6:17-19).
Likewise, the Apostle James wrote: “Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?” (James 2:5-6)
Jesus corrected them when they tried to trick him into saying something contrary to the Law by telling them, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:37=40) In other words, the heart of the Law!
Most people who have only heard of “the mean Law God of the Old Testament” do not realize that the heart of the Law was mercy and kindness. They despised Him so that he could not be their friend. It was those who Jesus said would be ground to powder, whose buildings would not stand — “not one stone left upon another.” They were the husbandmen to whom the Lord had rented a field, from whom He had come to collect his rent. Out of envy and pride they destroyed him, because they knew he had come to take their place as rightful Lord of the manor.
They are the ones who are REALLY offended with Jesus, not those out “in the world.” “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” the Lord lamented, “thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” (Matt 23:37-39)
Jesus said to the disciples that whoever received them, had also received Him, and the Father who sent Him.
John the Baptist, from prison, questioned Jesus one more time: “Are you He Who is to come?” (John already knew, but like all of us, in a dark place we look again to see Him come anew.)
Jesus replied, “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the Gospel is preached. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in Me.” (Luke 7:22)
When those who could see only dimness and obscurity suddenly see the clear light of day; when someone who has been crippled by some calamity finds strength he did not have before; when the unclean, rough and ugly are in a moment made clean, smooth and beautiful; when those who could never hear anything suddenly hear everything; when those who had given up all hope of going another step are somehow lifted up and find themselves walking; and when those who have nothing, find in that nothing that everything is Good News, then John’s question is answered. He Who is to come is among us NOW!
This is the great offense, as much in this day as in Palestine in A.D. 30. The same people are the outcasts now as back then. The same people who were offended with Jesus then are offended with him now. They aren’t the Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Taoists, Atheists, Agnostics, or any of those people. They aren’t the people out in the world drinking too much and going home with strangers late at night, even if they are “looking for love in all the wrong places.” At least they’re looking for love.
The ones who are offended with Jesus are often the ones who pretend to love Him the most in a big show. To prove their zeal, they continually attempt to rid the world of evil, and in so doing often seemingly kill Jesus again and again and again.
Of course, Jesus just keeps rising again and again and again. In you and me and in everyone who by grace is glad to see him coming.
“And by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Love is gladness for the good things that happens others, and knows no personal offense. It isn’t sad or mad that good things happen to others, even if they have not happened to us. Love is love in whatever circumstances or issues of Life we find ourselves. Love has no politics nor any partiality. Love is international – but even more so Love, true Love, is of the Eternal. It does not originate in this world. Which further underscores the attention needful to see to its continual expansion and multiplication.
When we are branches of Him Who is the True Vine, so that love, gladness and lack of offense is exactly Who we are. (John 15).
Thanks be to God.