“Woe to you, religious leaders. You shut the door on people. You make new converts twice the children of hell as you are. You blind guides. You snakes and brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (verses from Matthew 23)
What a great, uplifting set of verses we heard this morning!
As someone who might be considered a religious leader, these words are especially uplifting. But, once again, I am reminded that the only people Jesus specifically “sends” to hell are rich people and religious leaders, and I probably fit both of those categories. Comforting, isn’t it?
Why does Jesus have such harsh words here for religious leaders? What’s going on?
Let’s go on a summer road trip first – Let’s start in Canada, then the USA, then Italy, and then Brazil, and then back to the USA and Canada.
First Canada: I’ve said these words before here, but they’re worth repeating – The top 3 reasons why young people across Canada are staying away from church are because they see the church as:
Number 1 – Judgemental
Number 2 – Hypocritical
Number 3 – Exclusive
It’s quite similar in the USA.
A recent poll asked young non-Christian Americans to describe Christians. Their answers?
Number 1 – Anti-Gay
Number 2 – Judgemental
Number 3 – Hypocritical
That’s not very flattering, is it?
To quote Shane Claiborne, we have a bit of an image problem, don’t we?
People who don’t go to church don’t have that many nice things to say about us. It might appear that the world doesn’t like our religion. It can sometimes even be perceived as hostility towards Christianity.
And then let’s cross the pond to Italy, and take a look at Pope Francis. Now, you may not be following this guy, but hokey smokes, the guy makes a good pope. He was elected pope last year, and almost immediately he has taken the world by storm.
For example, let’s go from Italy to Brazil. Last summer, some 3 million people were gathering in Rio je Janeiro for World Youth Day with the Pope. As 300 Mennonite youth from across Canada gathered for the Fat Calf Festival, we watched news clips of the party on Copa Cabana beach that we were missing.
Everywhere he goes, he gets treated like a rock star.
He gets praise from both religious and secular commentators. He always seems to be hugging a disabled child, washing the feet of prisoners, embracing a disfigured person, or making compassionate comments about a marginalized people group (Merritt). He lives in the guest house of the Vatican, he’s begged for forgiveness from clergy sexual abuse survivors, and he secretly sneaks out at night to spend time with people who have found themselves homeless. And then he says that he finds the hype around him offensive, and that’s just a normal guy. Whoa. No wonder everywhere the guy goes, people swarm him.
I love the guy.
And you know what? If we go back to the USA, we find something remarkable: So do Americans!
A full 75% of Americans, regardless of their faith background, look favourably on the Pope. Protestants love the guy. Catholics really love the guy. Mennonites think he’s a Mennonite. Atheists love the guy. Pope Francis was the most talked about person on the Internet last year. The Advocate, a leading GLBT magazine, even named Pope Francis “person of the year” after he said “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?” 75% of Americans look favourably on Pope Francis. And I think you can include me in those 75%.
So, on one hand, we have this attitude of “Christians are anti-gay, judgemental, and hypocritical.” And on the other hand, we have this attitude of “We love the Pope!” How can this be? What’s going on?
Well, I think Matthew 23:23 is what’s going on.
In the midst of the woes and warnings and condemnations that Jesus gives religious leaders, one verse helps explain what’s going on.
Matthew 23:23 – Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.
As Jonathon Merritt from CNN puts it,
People are not intrinsically allergic to Christians, but rather certain expressions of Christianity. The pope’s popularity helps us understand exactly which types of Christianity people resist.
People accept Christians who want to serve society.
People resist Christians who want to be served by society.
People accept Christians who are as clear-eyed about the failures of their community as well as others’.
People resist Christians who are partisan and tribal.
People accept Christians who are compassionate and speak with humility.
People resist Christians who are cantankerous and speak with hubris.
People accept Christians who advocate for the marginalized.
People resist Christians who seek power to marginalize others.
Or, he puts it another way. Most people dislike Christian jerks not because they are Christian, but because they are jerks.
Let’s go back to the top descriptors of Christians in North America by non-Christians: Anti-gay, judgemental, hypocritical, and exclusive.
I’m actually quite grateful for the criticism. I might even call it constructive criticism, because it’s a criticism of some of our worst parts. It’s a wake-up call, a reminder of what not to be, of who not be, or how not to act. Jesus had harsh words for the religious leaders for a reason.
And I’m grateful for the public’s love of Pope Francis. It’s a celebration of our best parts. It’s a wake-up call, a reminder of who to be and how to act – Care deeply about mercy, justice and walking humbly with our God. It’s a call for us to be known by what we are for, not what we are against. Jesus said that these are the more important matters of the law for a reason.
Because as we live in this world as followers of Jesus, “It makes little difference to most people whether we proclaim that God agrees with our personal decisions. But it makes a difference to everyone in our communities whether we stand for justice, love mercy, and keep faith with God and neighbour.” – Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove