This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message:
“‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. - Jeremiah 7:1-7 NRSV
I wonder how many times the audience of the biblical narrative was left wondering, "Are you serious?" In the above Jeremiah text, the prophet speaks to Israel about their future destruction by the hands of the Babylonians. Privilege, power, and comfort is most disturbed by exile. The Israelites were familiar with the Abrahamic covenant of rich blessing of a peculiar space and vocation. They understood that they were God's chosen people in a special land. It was as much a part of their communal DNA as anything else. Yet, the prophet's words speak about a striking discord between a once blessed people whose knowledge of the right beliefs met a cursed future. But why? The Israelites seem to know the right things to say, "This is the temple of the Lord!" There's more to it than their cultic expression of location, though. Jeremiah is standing at the gate of the temple [YHWH's space] proclaiming the message that Israel's beliefs had once again not translated into a particular action. It is the dance of faith that all must learn; how does our orthodoxy [right beliefs] affect our orthopraxy [right practices] and orthopathos [right feelings]?
There is so much to love about the prophet's message, especially if you find yourself being oppressed, poor, or disenfranchised. For those in power, there will surely be consternation. The prophets make it clear that YHWH will be found with those sorts of people [the fatherless, the foreigner, the widow, etc], not just those that just speak the right language or visit the right places or know the right people. It was, after all, YHWH's covenant with Abraham that set the social standard with Israel; you will be a nation that is blessed by God so that you may bless the entire world! Israel's God makes it clear that though He has not abandoned Israel, He will not compromise the tragectory of justice, righteousness, and holiness especially in light of a selfish, bloated, and unfeeling people.
We tend to love the prophet's message because it helps to create a world in which we want to live. It's redemptive and holy. God is taking the cause of the oppressed serious enough to see to it that those who are oppressing will get their due diligence. YES! The patterns of brokenness and exploitation will be confronted. That which is broken is being restored. All will be made right in the unjust and uncivil world. I like that message.
Then there's Jesus and the part where my patterns of brokenness are confronted as well.
Matthew 25:31-46 KNT
“When the son of man comes in his glory,” Jesus went on, “and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be assembled in front of him, and he will separate them from one another, like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will stand the sheep at his right hand, and the goats at his left.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come here, you people who my father has blessed. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world! Why? Because I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome. I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Master, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and come to see you?’“Then the king will answer them, ‘I’m telling you the truth: when you did it to one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters here, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left hand, ‘Get away from me! You’re accursed! Go to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels! Why? Because I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat! I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink! I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me; I was naked and you didn’t clothe me; I was sick and in prison and you didn’t look after me!’ “Then they too will answer, ‘Master, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t do anything for you?’
“Then he will answer them, ‘I’m telling you the truth: when you didn’t do it for one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters here, you didn’t do it for me.’“And they will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous will go into everlasting life.”
Once again we have God dealing with a people who refuse to understand the social implications of His sacred movement in this world. And, again there are consequences to a disobedient and obstinate people who refused to locate God correctly. I've been meditating lately on this question, "Are you serious, Jesus?" If so, there are huge implications for those of us who claim to be a part of this redemptive, Jesus-following movement.
Growing up fairly poor with a single mother and three siblings, this section of Scripture gives me an incredible amount of hope. It’s almost vindicating. Our struggles weren't ignored by God. Christ is on the side of the struggling mothers who are working to put food on the table. Christ is on the side of those who can't afford a coat in the midst of an unforgiving Northwest Indiana winter. Christ is with the lonely, the poor, the destitute.
There's another part of me (most of my 225-pound, 6'4" self) that is firmly located in my own selfishness. I don’t live in a trailer any longer. I have more than one coat in my closet. We get groceries every week and fill our cupboards, often with so much food that it expires before we can eat it. My life is accustomed to not going without much.
If Christ is serious, then should I not be the person that seeks to meet him in the faces of those oppressed and hungry and destitute? I'm often looking for a great sign in the sky to awaken my spiritual apathy, but what if He's located squarely in the people that will cost something to do life with? Stanley Hauerwas puts the charge rather plainly, "All people, whether they are Christians or not, know all they need to know to care for "the least of these." The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid "the least of these.””
[Sorry, Dr. Hauerwas, I have an earned Ph.D. in excuse making. I lettered in it my senior year.]
It's a good question, though. Have I found excuses to ignore this teaching of Jesus? Was that Israel's problem as well?
I'm busy. (who isn't!)
I'm tired. (always!)
I already know a ton of people. (I do!)
This person smells (yes, I've said it!)
This person doesn't have much in common with me. (they don't even know Arcade Fire! Neanderthals!)
This person makes poor decisions. (unlike me, I'm perfect!)
This person requires something out of me. (sacrifice is great, when someone is doing it for me!)
It reminds me of what John Wesley wrote in one of his fine sermons [On Visiting the Sick, Sermon 98], "One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart." John Dubya's not playing around, folks! We can avoid those people and situations that make us feel uncomfortable if we so choose.
Being skilled at avoidance, I can estabilish many reasons to not do life with the poor, widow, and orphan, finding ways to make these reasons seem like they don't come from a selfish place. Yet, deep down, I'm left wrestling with the seriousness of Christ's warning in Matthew and feeling that my avoidance does not come from a just or holy place. Avoidance rarely does.
[side note: it seems like so much time is spent in books and blogs arguing whether Paul truly wanted women to be silent in the assembly or the right interpretation of John's apocalyptic vision or the complexities of God's foreknowledge, yet I find such a small demographic concerned with whether Jesus was serious about His sermon on the mount or taking care of the poor, widow, and orphan. Why is that?]
Allow me to confess that part of my fascination and obsession with being a community with social initatives to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and love the lonely is that I fear what we will become if we don't. There's some eschatological uneasiness for me. Like Israel, my brokenness and selfishness is confronted in this teaching. Unlike the turnabouts that plague South Bend, there's no way for me to get around this. The orthopraxis seems evident. What if, after all, Jesus IS serious? What if James the Just is serious about proclaiming that the foundation to the religious life is found in caring for orphans and widows in their distress, and keeping oneself unstained by the world? What if?
What if I've been looking for Him in all the wrong places? Or, better yet, what if I've been looking for Him in the faces of all the wrong people? I'm serious.