Jesus’ message is often rejected—not just by non-Christians, many of whom aren’t actually familiar with His true message, but by many Christians—the self-proclaimed religious elite of our day. Jesus brought a message of freedom, forgiveness, kindness, reconciliation, and hope. It sounds good, and if we all followed His simple principles of loving God to the best of our ability and loving others as we love ourselves, imagine the world we could build! Yet, His message is frequently unpopular—sometimes with unbelievers, but all too frequently, with the religious as well.
Jesus’ message is often unpopular, among other reasons, because it is open to all. This means that it is not only open to me, it is also equally open to those whom I despise for being worse sinners. It is open both to you and also to those who are cruel to you. Many Christians extol God’s right to impose eternal punishment, but they chafe at God’s right to offer eternal forgiveness. So they artificially establish doctrinal assent and adherence to behavioral standards as criteria for salvation.
Most of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day rejected him. They overlooked the beneficial acts of kindness he did and the evidence he presented that showed he was God’s Son. Why? Because He was a threat to them. They had built a little empire based on religious rules that exemplified the adage “the law kills.” These rules were detrimental to the people subjugated by them, yet they gave the clergy prestige and elevated them to the top of the social structure. For centuries, since the Babylonian captivity, through the Persian empire and the succeeding Macedonian conquest, to the domination of Rome, the Jewish religious elite eagerly awaited a messiah who would lead tiny Israel to its supposed rightful place as the temporal world’s dominant power. They viewed this wedding of religion and politics as a utopia where they would still be the big fish, only now, in a gigantic pond.
And what kind of messiah did they get? They got a poor carpenter from a crappy, backwater town who had somehow managed to escape Herod’s infanticide campaign thirty years prior. One who elected to identify with that fringe lunatic, John, who was dunking people in the Jordan River to make a statement about the inadequacy of the pharisaic system. Despite all the disgusting people running around, this “messiah” criticized them, them, for their hypocrisy and their arrogance. He spent most of his time with the masses, and more specifically, with the lowest classes of society. He made the adults wait while he talked to children. He hung out with crass fishermen, tax collectors (traitors!), and prostitutes. And he spoke of a kingdom that transcended religion and politics. One of his final acts during his life was to wash the feet of his followers—a job fit for only the lowest of slaves, and he was sentenced to death in disgrace for being a counter-cultural subversive.
His kingdom was not to be built on commerce, guided by clergy, advanced by warriors, and composed of the social elite. It was to be built on servitude, guided by common people, advanced by the weak, and composed of children, the infirm, the mentally handicapped, the outcasts, and the downtrodden. This kingdom that welcomed all was not fit for the likes of the religious folks in Jesus’ day. No, Sir!
Hence the theme of humility that we see throughout the new testament. At various times, I imagine, each of us struggles with the concept that Jesus’ message is open to all.
Christianity™, the religion, while it bears the name of Christ, is not one bit different in its approach to Jesus’ message than the religious system the Pharisees had built. I realize that this is a critical statement that will likely anger those who have sworn allegiance to an institution, but consider the parallels.
Western Christians, complacent in the relative freedom they have enjoyed for centuries, have built massive, exclusive alliances called denominations. They have taken every opportunity to use politics to further their agendas. They spend an inordinate amount of time and resources endeavoring to enact laws that enforce their preferred moral code rather than serving their neighbors and allowing the Spirit of God to work in people’s hearts. Our churches have, almost without exception, adopted a marketing-based approach to recruiting new members and attracting the unchurched, believers or not. They set criteria for church membership and even salvation based on arbitrary doctrinal understanding and sometimes on compliance with their preferred moral standards, such as refraining from smoking, drinking alcohol, and attending movie theaters, or even adherence to a strict dress code. They doggedly clench this power and state that it is their right, nay, it is their duty to “defend the faith.”
What we are left with is a loose conglomeration of nominal brethren, but practical enemies who are still looking for a messiah who will either make America God’s new Israel or usher in a worldwide utopia of social justice, depending on your political leaning. And of course, each one’s chosen denomination (the true church!) will certainly be seated at the right hand of the Father. No wonder non-Christians want little to do with this corrupt, self-serving religious system. While most religious people don’t see their churches this way, the systems they support are in effect, proclaiming a message that is contrary to the one Jesus proclaimed. When we take the gospel and add to it anything beyond God’s love and forgiveness made available through His Son, we make it about ourselves and not Him.
The whitewashed religious institutions of this world are arrayed in diametric opposition to Jesus and his army of beggars, thieves, cripples, and misfits who have been forgiven—declared righteous by God, reborn as His children, and chosen to be His Son’s bride. Jesus welcomes us to join Him, but it takes a bit of humility to set aside our pride and admit that we are no better than any other of His followers, and that our relationship with God is due to His mercy, not our innate awesomeness.