Second Wednesday of Advent
December 7, 2011
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 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 23:1-4)
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (Revelation 2:4)
We often think of the scribes and Pharisees as a bunch of villains. They wear fancy religious clothing, they act pious, they are oily and scheming and generally up to no good. Jesus, however, had some things in common with these folks. Like them, he taught about the resurrection of the dead; like them, he valued the Law and the Prophets. He apparently even approved of them as teachers and encouraged his own followers to pay attention to them and to live out what they taught. The scribes and Pharisees sought to keep the people of Israel from forgetting about God and losing their identity as God’s people, so they continued to teach from their scriptures. Jesus approved of that.
What Jesus didn’t endorse was the disconnect between their roles as teachers of the faith and the way they actually practiced what they taught. More than once Jesus would call them “hypocrites” and condemn their duplicity. It wasn’t enough for Jesus that the teachers had their doctrines down pat; without those things being expressed in real life, the teachers lost credibility.
This might create a problem for some of us, because there is a way of thinking that equates authentic Christian faith with having your information in order. If someone pops up with a new way of looking at our cherished doctrinal convictions, then accusations of heresy and blasphemy (or, most chillingly, of being liberal!) abound. Correct information that translates into belief is big for us. Yet, there is a danger to equating faith with accurate doctrine. As James would say: You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder (James 2:19).
It appears that Jesus would agree that information is a good thing. After all, he taught quite a bit and brought new ways of thinking to people who had been immersed in traditional Jewish faith. But the connection to life was crucial for Jesus. He pronounced salvation to the house of Zaccheaus as soon as the tax collector promised to make things right with people he had cheated; he celebrated the faith of the Centurion who trusted in Jesus’ authority; he healed a paralyzed man, lowered through a roof and sustained by the faith of his friends, confessing no understanding of his own. Jesus did not isolate faith into a simple creed or systematic theology; faith impacted the whole of life for him.
Theologians have long debated about the relationship between faith (often translated as right belief) and works (doing good things). While there can be distortions on either side, both have to be grounded in one thing: Our first love. Faith grounded in anything other than God’s love for us, including right thinking or right doing, is bound to go awry. When Jesus, in John’s vision in Revelation, speaks to the church in Ephesus, he celebrates their good works. But he stops them in their tracks when he reveals what they have lost: Their first love.
In Advent we celebrate both the birth of Jesus and also his anticipated return. At the end of it all, will he find us concretized in our right beliefs, or worn out by our doing of good deeds, and in either case claiming authentic faith? Or will he find us lost in the love of God, where belief is translated as trust, and good works flow out of love?