“To Write or Not to Write,” or better, “To Be Right or Not to Be Right”

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A caveat: What I say next is meant to challenge and I have wondered whether or not I should post something like this on Christmas Day. However, with the tone of Al’s post, I will continue along those lines, so if you don’t want to read from this point forward, here’s your chance to stop reading now.

I don’t necessarily remember a lot of Christmases growing up. There is one, though, that sticks out pretty clearly in my mind. I’ll just have to say I was in grade school because I don’t remember more specifically than that. We had gone to my grandparents’ double-wide trailer up in northern Arizona as was pretty common growing up. Back when all of my aunts and uncles were still living, we were all there from my mother’s side for the Christmas occasion. That would give us a total of about thirteen to fifteen, including five to seven kids, all in a two-bedroom, two-bath, double-wide trailer. I don’t know exactly what the argument was, but as I remember, it was Christmas Eve, after supper, and there was some dispute about who was sleeping where, as you might imagine. Our tradition was to open all of our presents on the night of Christmas Eve rather than in the morning of Christmas Day, and I think we might have already done that, but I’m not sure. What I do remember very clearly is that it was late in the evening, probably around eight o’clock, and my dad got so angry about trying to determine who would sleep where that he decided our family would just leave and drive the two hours back to our house on Christmas Eve night. I remember my grandparents trying to talk him out of it for maybe half an hour but to no avail. Before I knew it, we had everything loaded up and were on our way back to our house to spend the rest of the Christmas holiday. Such was part of my experience growing up. This was not an isolated event, but part of what life was like in my house. It did not make it any easier to swallow, though, and I don’t remember enjoying Christmas very much that year.

Oh, one last thing. I don’t remember my father ever telling anyone he was sorry for what he did. In fact, quite the opposite. I have never, ever heard my father apologize for anything he’s ever done. The words “I’m sorry” are not in his vocabulary. Why? He’s never wrong. At least from his point of view, that is. So there’s never any reason to say those words despite all the times when he was clearly in the wrong.

The reason I bring this up is not to shame my father, who would likely not read this anyway as I don’t think my parents have an internet connection. Nor is the reason because I need to vent and am having problems resolving issues in my past. That’s not it either. I bring it up as an illustration of the way many “Christians” behave when they are defending “the truth.” There’s no reason to apologize no matter how vitriolic your language gets because if you are right, anything you might say or do in defense of the truth is okay because you’re doing God’s work. (Note the sarcastic tone.)

What gives us the right to treat those with whom we disagree as less than human? Where does that come from? It certainly does not come from our Scripture, our holy book. When we do this, how does this make us different religious extremists such as those who happen to be Muslim? Terrorists believe that any activity is sanctioned to get rid of the infidel, even suicide bombing. Now, I know we don’t kill anyone necessarily, though there are those who kill doctors who perform abortions in the name of Jesus, but is enraged, demeaning, invective language any less damaging to the other person, or indeed, Christianity’s reputation as a whole? Is it?

Is this what our Lord did? Did he insist on being right on every occasion and use whatever means necessary to do so? Take a look at Jesus’ trial before the Pilate in Matthew 27:11-14:

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (NRSV)

All of these people were bringing false charges against Jesus. Why didn’t he speak up? They were not even telling the truth! The truth was at stake and yet Jesus said nothing! But, perhaps you might suggest that it was necessary for Jesus to die and so he did not stand up for the truth because there were extenuating circumstances. Okay, I’ll give you that one. But let’s take a look at another story. This time from Luke 7:36-50:

36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him– that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.””Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (NRSV)

What did Simon say that was wrong? Did he say anything wrong? Of course he didn’t. He was exactly right that this woman was a sinner, very likely a prostitute is what is intended, especially considering her sin is well known so that Simon knows of it. No matter the sin, which is not specified, Jesus says that he does not condemn her. What? He doesn’t condemn a sinner? What about the truth of how heinous her sin was? Is there no concern that he will be seen as condoning sinful behavior? What is Jesus doing? That and he doesn’t even tell her to stop sinning, he merely says, “go in peace.”

Okay, one last story, this time the famous one from John 7:53-8:11:

53 Then each of them went home, 8:1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (NRSV)

Now we like this story a bit more because in it, Jesus clearly does not condone sin. However, he does say once again that he does not condemn the one who was clearly a sinner. It was clear from the situation what was the “right” thing to do. The Law commanded stoning for one caught in adultery. The truth is at stake and God’s justice is at stake. How can Jesus take the Law’s stipulations so lightly? Didn’t God give the Law? Isn’t it important to stand up for what is right?

Something was more important and it had to do with loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It doesn’t mean to agree with one’s neighbor in all things; it means to love one’s neighbor on all occasions. But it goes beyond that to the point of loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44), whether they are right or not.

Coming back to the sinful woman at Simon’s house, Jesus shows that she loves so much, i.e. in what she does for Jesus, because she gets it. That’s right, she gets it. What does she get? She gets the love of God. She gets how much she was forgiven and so she lives out that forgiveness in the love she shows other people.

We love the book of Romans but we ignore what Paul says right after the verses about being a living sacrifice in Romans 12:1-2. Right before he talks about spiritual gifts and using them appropriately, he knows there might be some arrogance with those whose gift seems more important. So he says in 12:3, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” This is the same approach he takes in Philippians 2:5-11, when he talks about Christ emptying himself to become human to save us sinners. It is humility, not arrogance.

Coming back full circle, when we condemn others, use hateful language toward them, attack them, or however you want to put it, we are wrong. It does not matter how factually correct we might be. If we don’t treat people in a loving way, we are wrong. Dead wrong. No excuses. No loopholes.

In such cases we need to learn the words that my father still has not learned–“I’m sorry.” It is a sign of humility. It is recognizing that we don’t have everything right and that we are all still struggling sinners, trying to do what is right as we are traveling on the path of life. It doesn’t mean that you’re telling the person “You’re right.” It is saying “I was wrong, please forgive me.” Until we learn to do this, we show that we don’t really get God’s love and we don’t really get the attitude of Christ.

Sorry for the sermon, but I’m in a preachy mood.

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22 Responses to ““To Write or Not to Write,” or better, “To Be Right or Not to Be Right””

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Wow, thanks, Duane. I don’t mind you being in a preachy mood at all.

    I’ve always been troubled at how regularly and quickly folks point out that Jesus told the lady “go and sin no more” instead of being appalled at the scandalous grace. Like we didn’t even notice.

    My thinking is all jumbled up right now, but I want to respond again to the can of worms I agitated. I may post something again to deal with it, at least until I come to some resolution at least in my mind.

    Thanks for your valuable thoughts.

  2. Brandon Says:

    Duane,
    I appreciate your point. In fact I very much agree with it and struggle to practice it: showing love to everyone around me, even those with whom I disagree.

    To quote you: “Coming back full circle, when we condemn others, use hateful language toward them, attack them, or however you want to put it, we are wrong. It does not matter how factually correct we might be. If we don’t treat people in a loving way, we are wrong. Dead wrong. No excuses. No loopholes.”

    So how about when others condemn me, use hateful language toward me, attack me? Do we wait patiently and respond with love? Do we try to reason? Do we forgive and walk away leaving the discussion where it lies? Do we teach with the kindness of a kindergarten teacher or the strictness of a college professor?

    When Jesus was attacked, mocked, beaten, and accused of who-knows-what, he didn’t respond. We don’t know why he didn’t. But we know he didn’t. There is a time for silence.
    In the temple, after seeing what the “house of God” had been turned into, he acted. Throwing/chasing everyone out. There is a time for action.
    On the cross, agonizing in death. Watching his mother watch him die, he asked his killers be forgiven. There is a time for forgiveness.

    I appreciate Sandi and her point of view more than I can explain or reason out in a single sitting. My opinion of her is that she is a mature, wise, intelligent woman with insight and ideas/opinions I will never have. I saw her posts as an opportunity to learn more about myself, what really matters, and how I can come to understand why people think what they do on subjects I disagree on. However her most recent post was … difficult. I felt condemned, insulted, and attacked. Please do not misunderstand, I do not seek forgivenss for what she said as I don’t think she intended it in that manner. But the ability of learning to react to such situations/opinions/subjects with love is one ability I truly long to learn.

  3. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Hey Brandon,

    I know your comment is directed to Duane and not me (which is a good choice since Duane is a whole lot smarter than me anyway), but I’ll comment from my perspective for whatever its worth.

    Your question was how to respond when people attack or condemn you (from a Christian perspective). That question seems to be addressed directly by Jesus in Matthew 5 at the end of the Beatitudes as well as at the end of the chapter that I’ll type in here in just a second.

    The anomaly that is often cited in Jesus’ stories is the cleansing of the temple (which I’m sure Duane has TONS more insight than me). From a surface reading such as mine, Jesus’ anger does not seem to be related to any attack on himself. Instead, he seems to be protecting the right of others to have access to God. A little righteous anger toward religious pretenders who keep people from accessing God seems quite different from retaliation. I’d appreciate Duane’s thoughts in this regard.

    But to the straight up answer to how to respond when a follower of Jesus’ teaching feels attacked, here’s the paraphrase of the end of Matthew 5 from The Message:

    “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best – the sun to warm and the rain to nourish – to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matthew 5: 38-48, MSG)

  4. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Oh, and one more thing about the temple cleansing. Though often cited by Christian folks as justification for throwing a fit, it is interesting to note that it was only Jesus and not his followers that ever took such drastic action. Nowhere in Acts or the following books of the NT is there any instance of Jesus-followers mimicking this seemingly out-of-character action by Jesus. And as far as I know, it wasn’t until Christianity came to power in the Roman Empire (an anomaly in and of itself) that Christians began to talk about pulling out whips again.

    The temple cleansing may have been more symbolic than anything – a temple takeover if you will. A coup de tat of God’s house by God himself.

    I still see nothing in Jesus’ teaching or the teaching in the early church of retaliation, or to scratch my liberal politics itch this Tuesday, pre-emptive strikes.

  5. Brandon Says:

    Al,
    Thanks for the thoughts on the issue. I think you misunderstand me though. I’m not interested in retaliation or “pre-emptive” strikes. I’m interested in “communication.”

  6. Sandi Says:

    I am very surprised to hear that anyone felt attacked by my post. I just went back and reread it to see what part could have been read that way. The only one I could see is maybe the part about conservative parenting, but I didn’t think I was specific enough about what I meant by that for it to hit home with anyone.

    I should address this later in a post, instead of on the comment board, but I did freak out a little that day. I had gotten a little lulled into complacency by some good discussions and thought that it was safe to share a story that I knew could be inflammatory to some people. I probably didn’t take enough care in using my words just right to express what I wanted to say in a way that showed the reverence I felt for the subject matter. I do have a little sarcastic streak, it’s part of my charm in person but doesn’t always translate well online.

  7. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Sandi,
    Glad to see you back. Like you, I have a sarcastic streak, and I’m sure it showed more than I wanted in my comment last week. For that I apologize.

  8. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Two things:

    First of all, what just happened here?
    🙂

    (If I followed Sandi out of here like a sad little puppy dog, then I’m following her back in, too!)

    Second: I think I see what you were saying now, Brandon. And me thinks the different types of reactions depend on the person with whom you or I are trying to communicate. Which is where the Golden Rule comes into play, leading to different reponses to different people – all motivated by sincere love of that person.

    So my basic response is that from a Bible perspective it seems that our reaction to another human being would depend on whatever it takes to communicate sincere love. Never retaliation. Never pre-emptive strikes. Never ANYTHING intended to hurt. Love always protects. Is always kind. Is never rude.

    And from that perspective, sarcasm (implicating the whole lot of us) should be used with great care.

  9. DeJon Redd Says:

    I feel this has been a hard fight, but maybe we’re getting there.

    I believe we are slowly moving matters of faith and spirit from their neutered realm of Sunday morning church to real life where there are real stakes on the table; where people are risking themselves. I’m very sad to see that most of us have had some personal moments of pain, no matter where we feel the wounds might’ve come.

    Sandi, you absolutely killed me when you pulled that post. I can certainly understand, but you’re words were courageous and an absolute gold mine for discussion.

    I don’t know why, but I don’t really feel attacked when people attack Christians. Maybe its wrong, but I’ve recently come to agree with a lot of the criticism.

    I’m starting to really dislike church as an institution. But I’m not ready to flush it … not yet. Because while my faith group as an institution suffers from all of societies worst stigmas (prejudice, hypocrisy, selfishness, condescension, et. al.) there are people there that serve as my heroes.

    But I’ve also found other heroes in other very odd places like AA meetings and a gathering of HIV & AIDS survivors.

    What am I saying?

    Well, I don’t mean any disrespect but in most of the discussions I’ve had with my church friends related to matters of faith — usually triggered by this blog — I don’t agree.

    I haven’t had the chance to talk to my friend brandon specifically, but I’d like to. I suspect we’ll disagree, and I’ll still be a big fan of his.

    I’d like this web log to be a non-attributional place of unfettered yet responsible discussion. I’d love for it to be a place where juvenal could come back and have some people willing to learn from him. (It’s taken me almost a year to “get” most of what he said anyway!)

    I hope to learn more from Sandi. And I hope that my friends that visit this public community can get over the fact that I don’t want to be another sheep in their pasture.

    I wish this could be a place where those that are scared to death of examining why we do what we do and think what we think are not comfortable. I hope this is a place where I don’t feel comfortable, but only because I’m stretching and growing not because someone is belittling me or minimizing my thoughts.

    I’ve deciding that if this isn’t that kind of party, I’ll start contributing for my other friend’s blog, “Commies for Christ.”

  10. Al Sturgeon Says:

    “I don’t know why, but I don’t really feel attacked when people attack Christians. Maybe its wrong, but I’ve recently come to agree with a lot of the criticism.”

    I really appreciate that statement of yours. Your thinking to me reflects the humility we’ve seen discussed here a few times in the past, and it reminds me of a line from a T.S. Eliot poem I read in a formative book for me a long time ago that said, “The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying from within and attacked from without.”

    I don’t think Christianity needs to be preserved. In that state, it will decay. I don’t think any of us have even really approached Christianity yet – it is some lofty goal that we reach toward. Can anyone here say they truly live like Jesus lived, or love like Jesus loved? I can’t.

    Thanks for helping me keep reaching.

  11. Duane McCrory Says:

    All,

    Sorry, but I have been out of town since the time I posted this and did not have a chance to respond until now.

    Brandon,

    Thanks for your questions, and I must say that there is no single answer to give that would apply in every situation we might encounter. I struggle with knowing what is the loving thing to do in many situations I encounter. Going back to my personal experience, I see many married couples and singles as well, many of whom do not claim Christianity or any faith commitment, but nevertheless are having marital or personal problems and they are coming to me as a Christian chaplain for some help. I try my very best to listen and draw out their stories and help them put some pieces together that will help them. At times, I challenge them and point out inconsistencies in what they say and how they act. I do that very carefully and not very often. They have come to me at a vulnerable time and it has taken them much courage to share their lives with a stranger. I have been placed in a position of trust and do my very best not to violate that, no matter how heinous I believe their behavior to be. Here’s why I try to handle those situations in that way:

    One of my other chaplain friends, Gary, told me about a chaplain candidate (that is a person who has not completed his/her master’s degree but is interning at a chapel to learn more about chaplaincy) that saw a couple that was living together and struggling with their relationship. That chaplain candidate could not see past their “sin” of having a sexual relationship before marriage and focused on showing them the “error of their ways” trying to correct their behavior rather than advise them on their problem. Needless to say, they did not want to see him anymore but did come back to see Gary. The difference–condemnation versus love and acceptance.

    This is the bedrock foundation of the “Golden Rule” in my opinion. Love and acceptance does not mean condoning a person’s behavior. It means realizing that the other person is a human being, made in God’s image, and deserves the same love, respect and care that we would show our spouses or our closest friends. We do this because they are human; to do otherwise is to dehumanize and treat them as less than us. When we do the former, we open up a possibility for friendship and dialogue; when we do the latter, we close the door to any friendship or communication we might have otherwise had with them.

    Here’s where another of our difficulties arises. We think that whatever approach we take is always with an eye toward converting them, as if that were our job. Jesus didn’t follow around the woman caught in adultery to try to make her a Christian and to make sure she stopped committing adultery. Instead, he showed her God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness, then left the rest up to God. This is, I believe, Paul’s approach, when in 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (NRSV)

    We need to realize our place in the big picture.

  12. Duane McCrory Says:

    Sandi,

    I did not catch your post before you removed it. Everything I have said is related to what happened there, but I must admit that I’m in the dark and would love to read it if you felt like sharing it again. I have personally learned quite a lot from your posts related to the topic of abortion, embryos, and the like and appreciate your perspective. From what I understand of the post, you courageously put yourself in a very vulnerable position, and I think that is laudible and requires a huge amount of risk on your part. I’m just sorry that “we” (I don’t know who all posted comments) did not realize your openness and vulnerability by responding appropriately.

    All,

    I’m with DeJon and Al here in seeing this blog as a place for open, honest dialogue. I guess also we need to realize that mistakes will be made. In a society where most refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, but seek to blame others, I hope this will be a forum where we own up to our culpability in creating problems and make the appropriate amends when we have wronged others. It is not fair for any of us to expect perfection from any others of us. While we strive toward that end, none of us have attained it and that is where the love and acceptance–as well as mercy and grace–come in.

  13. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I can’t seem to get my work done today, but I’m learning a lot anyway. Duane’s comment addressed to Brandon is a comment I learned from. I have saved it. So well-put.

    I’m a bit unsure how everyone feels right now, particularly toward things I have said in the last few days. I’m an easygoing sort of guy, so it has been stressful for me to become emotional like I have been. I really don’t know how to act afterwards. If I have hurt anyone, I’d hope to discuss it with them somehow. As Duane taught in his latest comment, I’d like to admit my culpability and make “appropriate amends.”

  14. Duane McCrory Says:

    Brandon, to speak to your thought about when it is appropriate to use harsh language, here is Matthew 23:13-36:

    13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.
    For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. 16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.’ 19 How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; 22 and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it. 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have
    neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have
    practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! 25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. 27 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the
    outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate
    the graves of the righteous, 30 and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in
    shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33 You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some
    you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to
    the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.

    This is absolutely some of the harshest language Jesus uses. We might come to this and think to ourselves, “If Jesus can do this, surely I can, too.” That is where we need to be sure we understand what it was he was doing and what the circumstances were. I don’t want to spend too much time here so this will be a much abbreviated discussion of this passage.

    At the very least, it must be recognized that this was an intra-Jewish discussion. Jesus was not talking to outsiders, or even those condemend as “sinners” like the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. He is talking to religious leaders, those who are not only mistaken in what they are doing, but are teaching others to do the same. Jesus is a Jewish rabbi talking to another Jewish rabbi, having an intra-Jewish dispute about the “weightier matters of the Law”.

    He has just told his disciples,
    2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:2-4, NRSV)

    There is a concentrated effort on Jesus’ part to show that they don’t do what they teach, and that even though some of their teachings are mistaken, some are correct and so his disciples should respect them and follow their teaching that accords with Jesus’ own instruction.

    Why this harsh language though? Was it to set an example? What it to confront them and to take some of their authority away? There is certainly an aspect of that here. I think the crucial point to recognize, though, is that he never speaks this way to those outside Judaism. He accepts those who are rejected by others and offers them forgiveness and hope.

    Is there a similar circumstance in which we could be justified using harsh language today? If so, it would have to be among Christians and even then, the dynamic is so different today than it was then and there is so much greater a chance of misunderstanding that I personally don’t think it is worth it in the end.

    That’s a much longer answer than what I intended and still leaves a lot unresolved, but I hope it is a start.

  15. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I’m glad someone brought up this story in our discussion here. To me, it shows an apparent contradiction to the Golden Rule, or at least the interpretation of the Golden Rule that has been discussed in other posts recently. Surely these Pharisees did not want to be called “hypocrites”, “whitewashed tombs”, or “snakes.” If Jesus had “put himself in their shoes” before saying these things, he would have realized that this name calling and string of accusations might cause anger, or embarrassment, or hurt feelings.

    Duane said:

    “At the very least, it must be recognized that this was an intra-Jewish discussion. Jesus was not talking to outsiders…”

    “I think the crucial point to recognize, though, is that he never speaks this way to those outside Judaism.”

    Juvenal used similar arguments when discussing Jesus clearing the temple. That this was between Jesus and the Jewish religious insiders. That he treated outsiders differently.

    I don’t buy this, because, after all, aren’t the Pharisees human, too? Didn’t they have souls worth saving? Didn’t they deserve to be treated according to the “Golden Rule”?

    I’m left with two possibilities here:

    a. Jesus ignored the Golden Rule at times and flat out broke it.

    -or-

    b. Our “put yourself in their shoes” approach to the Golden Rule” is not the same approach that Jesus used.

    I’m leaning towards “b”.

    What say you?

  16. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Joe. We’ve got a long ways to go to get Duane to pass my 100 comment Houseflies record, but your comment can help unleash a great discussion and give it a good try! 🙂

    I think you help lend credence to Duane’s pet project in teaching us that the Bible isn’t as easy as we’d like to make it.

    Example:
    (a) Did Jesus love the Pharisees?
    (b) Was Paul telling the truth when he said that love is kind and not rude?
    (c) Did Jesus say unkind and rude things to the Pharisees?

    So who was wrong: Paul, or Jesus?

    This is so hard to add up the whole Bible in some blanket statements, but I’m going to try.

    In the Old Testament, God’s overarching concern seemed to be justice (boy could Sandi hammer me here with some OT gender references, but I’ll just cross my fingers and hope she lets me slide!). Punish the wrongdoer and lift up the oppressed. Things got screwed up really bad and the prophets pointed this out ruthlessly. “Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right. Seek justice.”

    The Gospels teach us that Jesus came as Israel’s longed-for savior – a harbinger of justice, but he didn’t look just like they expected. His theme was a new kingdom, but it turned out to not be of this world. What he taught followers to do was not punishment of wrongdoers (leave that to God – e.g. parable of wheat/tares), but instead he taught his followers to follow the precept of loving neighbor as self – lift up the fallen, care for the outsider, etc.

    The Pharisees (and many since it seems) claimed to speak a different message for God (or maybe not always a completely different message, but they modeled one). Jesus, with full authority of course, called this blasphemy what it was…blasphemy.

    So did Jesus break the Golden Rule with the teachers of the law (the insiders). Maybe. He sure could have if he wanted to since, after all, he was teaching his followers how to live their lives and not instructing himself.

    But even if that isn’t so, we need to turn to the rest of the New Testament (post-Gospels) to see where his followers fit into this Golden Rule equation. Paul taught they we are to “judge” those inside the church and not those outside.

    So here goes…

    * When “insiders” – meaning those claiming to follow the teachings of Jesus – turned their back on this teaching, it was imperative for the church to warn them, discipline them, etc. Of course this probably wouldn’t look very Golden-Rule-ish while you were doing this, but in their shoes (claiming they wanted to follow Jesus), your love for them would compel you to do such things… You see this in the letters.

    * When “insiders” who go this path choose to turn their back on “the Way” completely and go their own way, then the instruction was to let them go out of your pastoral care. Once again, my Golden Rule interpretation seems to apply – “in their shoes” they don’t want to follow Jesus after all. Let ’em go.

    * As to “outsiders,” there is nothing in the life of Jesus or the NT writings that follow that suggest that Golden Rule behavior would involve anything less than words and actions that offer acceptance and forgiveness and grace and hope.

    So after all this back-story, I would answer your question of whether or not the Pharisees were humans who deserved being treated with the Golden Rule (interpreted as “putting yourself in their shoes”) with a resounding “yes.” And Jesus did treat them like that… They wanted to have their important seats and phylacteries and power and punch out renegade messiahs and Jesus let them have their way. He didn’t have to, you know?

    They didn’t seem to mind having their feelings hurt as long as they could kill it (demonstrating their blasphemic [new word!] injustice).

    So I’ll go with “c” – Jesus did treat outsiders and insiders differently, but this did not violate his Golden Rule.
    🙂

  17. Duane McCrory Says:

    Joe,

    If you don’t buy the fact that the Pharisees were Jews and that this was an intra-Jewish discussion, I’m not sure how else to make that clear. All involved were Jews and Jewish religious leaders. What about that don’t you buy? Take a look at the Mishnah sometime and you will realize that there were all sorts of schools of Jewish thought at this time period, and many disagreed vehemently. The Essenes set up camp at the Dead Sea and would only let people in who agreed to abide by their Community Rule and renounced all their possessions. Look at Josephus’ description of the fall of Jerusalem in the A.D. 70 revolt. There was much internecine fighting before the various Jewish factions decided to unite against Rome in an attempt to save the city and temple, which was to no avail. So, 1.) this was a fight between Jews. I don’t see any way around this.

    You mention their souls as if that should be Jesus’ main concern here or the attempt not to offend should be his main concern. What if his main concern is to lift the burden off of the people by defying the very leadership who put that burden there in the first place? That’s what the quote from the first part of Matthew 23 says. They put burdens on people with which they are not even willing to help.

    This is part of a larger passage that starts with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in Matthew 21 and the various challenges to his authority by the religious leaders. Calling Jesus “Son of David” is equivalent to calling him “king”. Look at what happens when Jesus drives out the money changers, he then has people come to him in the very temple and he heals them (Matthew 21:12-14). The chief priests and scribes are angry with him, not because he drove such people out, but because he healed people and the people are praising him as the “Son of David.”

    Next, they challenge Jesus’ authority and ask him by what authority he is doing the things he does. He responds with a question and then tells a parable about two sons, one of whom said he would go work in the vineyard but didn’t and the other who said he would not but did. Jesus asks them who did the will of his father, which, of course, they answer correctly, and the summation Jesus gives is in the last part of 21:31, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (NRSV) He goes on to tell the parable of the vineyard where the tenants kill the son of the owner and the owner takes away their authority and gives it to others. 21:45 shows that the chief priests and Pharisees understand this to be told about them and that Jesus is taking away their authority. There are then several other challenges by various religious leaders in Matthew 22 before Jesus issues his own challenge in Matthew 23. This is the context. The key verses I believe are the ones I’ve quoted–the religious leaders did not believe John, do not believe Jesus, have hardened their hearts and are unwilling to listen. Because they challenge Jesus, Jesus challenges them, out of concern for his own followers and the burdens the religious leaders are placing upon them. This is the context; these are the circumstances.

    That was a long way to go, but a necessary one. We cannot ignore the context of a certain Scripture and still expect to understand it properly. It is not out of a concern for the religious leaders that Jesus issues this challenge; they have already shown where they stand–they reject Jesus. Out of concern for his followers, Jesus issues the necessary challenge to those leaders, fulfilling thereby part of the parable of the vineyard that he tells against these very religious leaders.

    If the point is to justify anger-filled, hateful language to others, one would be hard pressed to find an analogous situation today. We are not the Messiah trying to take authority away from those who abused it; we are not the ones with followers whose concerns are at stake here; and it does not appear to me that we have similar religious leaders that need to be fought on such grounds as Jesus fought the Jewish leaders of his day.

    This is why I said earlier that it would be difficult even in a fight among Christians to find a situation in which such an encounter would be appropriate. I can’t think of one where this is justified.

    When it comes to treating those outside of Christianity this way, I don’t see any analogous situation in all of Scripture where we are called to act this way toward those outside the church. Perhaps I’m mistaken. If so, please show me where Jesus or one of his followers has treated an outsider this way. All I know are situations where something extremely important is at stake and all involved are Christians (See Galatians 2 as well as Acts 15).

    Thanks for reading through all of this.

  18. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I’ll jump back in here for a second to see if my clarification is correct.

    Duane, I think the main thing Joe hasn’t bought is my proposal that practicing the Golden Rule comes not from the perspective: “If I were a non-Christian I’d want someone to metaphorically slap me upside the head and show me the error of my ways.” Instead, I’ve offered it comes more along the lines of “if I were a non-Christian I would NOT want someone to metaphorically slap me upside and show me the error of my ways – instead, I’d want a little respect for who I am.” (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe my position goes along with your idea that conversion is God’s job while we sow seeds of grace and love.)

    I believe Joe is saying that the first idea fits better with Jesus’ dealing with the Pharisees, and that this particular example debunks the idea I’ve offered.

    Am I right about this attempt at clarification, Joe?

    If so, my attempt at summing up my response was that Jesus “did” respect the wishes of the Pharisees by letting them kill him while his harsh diatribe not only granted them the opportunity to “do their thing,” it served to clarify emphatically their blasphemy for those that were oppressed. In other words, I think his actions here represented his willingness to get “in the shoes” of both groups. I think he still practiced the Golden Rule as I see it.

  19. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Al –

    That’s pretty close to the point I was trying to make. I’m not all for the slap upside the head methodology so much as the logical persuasion method.

    By the way, that was some pretty good lawyering to explain that Jesus really did let the Pharisees have their way and in so doing treated them as they wanted to be treated.

    Duane –

    I understand and agree that this was an intra-Jew discussion.

    What I don’t buy is that because this incident was “between Jews” it is somehow subject to a different set of rules. That Jesus could treat them however he wanted because they were the Jewish elite and worthy of his contempt. Where was Jesus’ grace for these men?

    I think it was in the fact that he tried to open their eyes to the truth with some harsh language.

    The Golden Rule is not “treat others how they want to be treated.”

    It is “love your neighbor as yourself.”

    If I put myself in someone else’s shoes in every situation and treat them how they want to be treated and react how they want me to react, we’re both going to get into a lot of trouble. If someone uses bad language around me, should I use bad language too in order to make them feel more comfortable? Should I agree with every false word that comes out of a fool’s mouth so I don’t embarrass them by pointing out the truth? If a woman that is not my wife shows a romantic interest in me, should I accept her advances so I don’t embarrass her with rejection?

    I answer these questions with a verse from 1 Cor. 13: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.”

    And sometimes, the truth hurts a little.

  20. Duane McCrory Says:

    I guess what I’m not tracking with is how the Golden Rule relates to what Jesus did both in the temple and Matthew 23. Jesus was a prophet (in addition to being Messiah; see Matthew 21:46, but especially Acts 3:22-23 for the “prophet like Moses” as fulfillment of Deut. 18:15), and prophets do not typically use gentle language when castigating people. The point of prophecy is repentance, but people are not necessarily going to listen. The grace was in Jesus giving them lots of time during his earthly ministry to allow them to hear the truth and repent. By the time of Matthew 23, they have fully rejected him and there’s nothing left to do to turn them to God. Their next chance for repentance comes after Jesus’ death and resurrection in Acts 2. It is not that Jesus was being unloving or even needed to try to follow the Golden Rule in this situation. For people who totally reject you, what is left but condemnation? He could see their hearts and knew far more than we can know. I would reiterate that I think his concern was that his disciples (not just the 12) not be misled by such religious teachers who seemed to have everything right and who claimed authority to mediate between God and the people. He had to make a decisive break with them and show the people that these were not the leaders God chose. This is larger than just an individual thing. There are crowds around who can be swayed one way or another. To see how Jesus handled religious rulers individually, it is best probably to turn to John 3 and Nicodemus.

    I might still misunderstand the point being made by Al or Joe (or both), but I would say, 1. the Golden Rule might not apply when one is being prophetic, 2. there are different situations that call for different actions, but there is still not an example of Jesus condemning non-Jews or even Jewish outsiders in the way he does insiders (i.e. Jewish religious leaders who claim to be insiders), 3. there is no situation analogous to today in which I can claim a prophetic role and speak condemning words to others and castigate them like Jesus did the Pharisees in Matthew 23.

    I still wonder why we try to rationalize or justify such behavior. When it came to those who were treated as less than human, Jesus did not condemn them, but he showed them love at the risk of being called a drunkard and friend of “sinners.” Somehow truth did not come up as the ultimate thing in need of defending–what was defended was the dignity of these fellow human beings. It seems like that comes closer to the idea of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, which is not the Golden Rule, but what Jesus calls the 2nd greatest commandment. The Golden Rule is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is more of a way to practice loving one’s neighbor.

  21. Al Sturgeon Says:

    I’ll save all a little extra reading by saying that I agree with Duane’s last comment.

    And to Joe, thanks for the lawyerin’ compliment. Annie, Sandi, and Coolhand will all be insulted, but I’m proud.
    🙂

    I don’t think we’re that far apart on all this, just a few conceptual clarifications away maybe. Joe brings up some excellent examples for us to work with…

    My proposal is not that Golden Rule practice requires us to “act” the way someone else wants us to act, but instead to choose how we act based on a full appreciation of the desires of this other person because we truly love them.

    Example #1: Another person uses language that I find offensive and would wish I would use that language, too. I don’t go against my personal beliefs of course, but understanding that the other person sees that sort of language this way, instead of lambasting her/him for it, I don’t make a big deal of it. (See the difference from, “well if that was me, I’d hope somebody’d persuade me not to use that language”?)

    Example #2: A foolish person says something that isn’t true and would expect I’d agree with her/him. I believe something else to be true, so I couldn’t just agree with the opposite – but I can react in many different ways. Some of those ways could be insulting, while others could be received knowing that I love/accept that person in spite of our disagreement. I choose the latter in Golden Rule practice. (See the difference from “well if it was me, I’d want someone to tell me how stupid I was being – maybe this person isn’t like me.)

    Example #3: A woman makes romantic advances toward me other than my wife (now we’re in big-time hypothetical land, but I have an active imagination), and by very nature of this example, wants me to do certain things that I’ve promised my wife I’d never do. I can’t agree to this of course, but I do have more than one way to handle rejecting the advance. If the person is demented and simply trying to break up my marriage, I could run away (like Joseph in the OT). If the person is fragile and needy and desperate attention, I could be kind and tender in turning the person away. (See the difference in a blanket “well I’d wish someone would yell at me and tell me to quit sinning”?)

    Give me some more examples. I like the challenge!

  22. Al Sturgeon Says:

    A final caveat: This has already been discussed, but since I’m a big fan of closure, I think it ought to be added to my last comment.

    All these decisions in regard to how to treat someone based on their (not my) perspective are made w/o the primary motivation being to change the other person (cite DeJon’s original comment to my post here); instead, the primary motivation is love. A good Christian counselor sees red flags every time a spouse’s main motivation is changing her/his spouse (read: manipulate); instead, the primary motivation is to serve/love the other spouse. Whether she/he changes is up to them. You just keep serving/loving. That’s important to this whole deal.

    Let’s play w/the marriage example. Let’s say my wife won’t do anything I want her to do, and do I want her to change? Boy, do I ever! (Sorry honey, I’m playing here.) So what do I do? Well I nag her, I criticize her, I tell her mom on her, I quit doing the things she wants me to do (key phrase right there), I cuss at her, threaten her, and then finally, after nothing has worked, I go to the preacher and tell him I’ve got to get a divorce because she just won’t change. He says, “Why don’t you try loving her, try taking the time to get to know why she acts the way she does and appreciate her perspective, and not try changing her?”

    That’s the Golden Rule I’m talking about in a nutshell.

    I’m surprised none of us has pointed out (yet) that the whole “see from the other person’s perspective” idea and not projecting your perspective on to the other person was, of course, all over the story of the incarnation of Jesus. The dude who wrote Hebrews makes that point.

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