Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Devotional for the Fifteenth Day of Lent

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. (John 5:15-18)

I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. (Jeremiah 3:15)

The Bible has a number of accounts of religious leaders reacting angrily, and sometimes violently, against the generosity of God. For example: God wants to redeem the gentile people of Nineveh, and Jonah the prophet gets upset when it actually happens; God sends the prophet Jeremiah to his own people, calling them to a place of forgiveness and faithfulness, and they put a contract out on his life; Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath, and the leaders plot to kill him; the Holy Spirit falls on a bunch of gentile God-fearers, and the early Christian leaders in Jerusalem have to call a committee meeting.

When the generosity of God challenges the dominant power structures, all hell breaks loose. In Jonah’s case, it wasn’t the pagan power structures that railed against God—in fact, they led their own people to repentance. It was Jonah’s place of power as a Jewish prophet that was in jeopardy. If the Ninevites are beloved by God, then what would it do to Jonah’s sense of religious privilege? Jeremiah’s call for the people to turn away from worshipping idols and to return to faithfulness to God would be upsetting to the way the nation had ordered its corporate life. Jesus’ claim that the rules of the Sabbath could not bind God’s generosity threatened to unravel the control that the religious leaders had over their own people. If gentiles can receive the Holy Spirit, then the uniqueness of the Jewish Christians is at stake. This is dangerous business.

There is a natural push-back when we are told something we didn’t already believe. Tension is created when we believe one thing and then are told another. If you believe that God despises any work done on the Sabbath, and then some itinerate prophet heals somebody and claims that God himself is at work on your holy days, then your entire belief system is at risk. You can consider the new information and cast aside your old views in favor of this good news, or you can resolve the tension by destroying the one who is rattling your cage. Too often, in the Bible, the religious elite chose the latter.

God tells Jeremiah that he will give new shepherds to Israel. They will not only nourish the people with “knowledge and understanding,” but they will be ones who know God’s heart. It isn’t enough that these shepherds will be doctrinally sound; such claims to certainty often lead to elitism. They will also be tuned into the heart of God—the God who often scandalizes his own people by his generosity. Their nourishment will come from God’s heart rather than from a newly revised textbook.

The generosity of God pushes against our religious sensibilities, because those sensibilities are often framed by ways of thinking that are our own invention. We systematize God in an attempt to understand his ways, then set the systems in concrete and persecute anyone who challenges our thinking. We religious people have a long history of this kind of behavior. We should read the Bible more often so that we fear our own legacy.

God is generous, but he isn’t reckless. His generosity aligns with his desire to redeem the entire creation, and for some reason that makes us mad.

God, forgive us.

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