GETTING BACK TO THE BASICS
Last Thursday the New York authorities announced a New York pastor had been arrested and accused of fraudulently cashing pension checks worth nearly a quarter-million dollars sent to a school teacher who died more than a decade ago.
Rev. Victor Rosa was accused of deceiving New York City’s Teacher Retirement System into thinking that teacher Maria Sicardo was still alive and had her checks sent to a building he owns in the Bronx, investigators said.
He would cash the checks, which amounted to about $241,000, often at a local bank, investigators said. Investigators said they interviewed bank staff, who recalled the Rev Rosa often preached about God to other customers while waiting in line.
The Rev Rosa’s case is easy to condemn. Church leaders are expected to be ministers who lead by example. But even thinking this, shows that we too can have distorted thinking since Christianity in effect teaches that we are all to be ministers.
It is remarkably easy to lose the main point of Christianity and history is full of cases where sincere Church going believers have seriously lost their way. Just think for a moment about some of the more dramatic.
We have the Crusades where whole armies of those under the banner of the cross rode off with the intention of massacring those Muslims who controlled the Holy lands. On the way they sacked cities (including the odd Christian city that had easy pickings) and boasted on their return of blood up to the bridles. We also have the persecution of Jews with the excuse that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, the forcible conversion of thousands to Christianity under some of the Roman Emperors, the burning of those suspected of being witches, the burning of those who translated Bibles into non Latin languages like English, Catholics massacring Protestants and Protestants massacring Catholics. We have the Inquisition, the defence of slavery and God enlisted as a rallying point (often on both sides) of just about every major war in every century since the time of Christ. I think for example of Hitler having his storm-troopers marching into battle with “God is with us” imprinted in German on their belt buckles and a US chaplain blessing the mission to drop an atomic bomb on a city in Japan.
We find Christians on both sides wading in to argue moral issues like the acceptance of homosexuality, like the right to life, like abortion, like pacifism, like euthanasia and like genetic engineering, with each side claiming their beliefs in line with Christianity.
We have a variety of theological points of view with disagreements about the nature of what happens after death – different sets of often mutually exclusive assertions about heaven and hell. There have also been a host of failed predictions about the end of the world – and numerous failed attempts to predict judgement day, including I must reluctantly add, failed predictions by both Charles and John Wesley .
If all these failures were in fact what Christianity brings to our world then there would indeed be little point in following Christ, yet fortunately this is only seeing one side.
At the same time as some have used Christianity as an excuse for self-advancement, we have self-sacrificing sincere Christians who set up schools and hospitals, who worked for justice for all, who freed the slaves, who worked for more humane conditions for widows, for orphans, for prisoners and for the handicapped. We have peacemakers, aid workers, hospital volunteers and many more besides. Yet here is something else – this large group many of whom seem largely motivated by Jesus’ teaching of love also, encompasses a wide range of religious affiliation and beliefs. These too, are people with radically different theology – different ideas about heaven and hell and creation – yet all can still apparently catch on to this teaching about love.
So we return to Jesus teaching for a moment. I wonder if you ever noticed that Jesus when he teaches he seems remarkably light in the theology department. Unlike the rule-bound Pharisees and Sadducees of his day who spent hours focussing on discussing slavish obedience to the law, in other words the 613 commandments found in what we now call the Old Testament, Jesus frankly doesn’t seem to care about the detail of the law.
Don’t forget that there were heretics in Jesus day, yet Jesus seems soft on heresy.
Those who didn’t treat women according to the patriarchal laws were technically heretics according to the law – but let’s face it, Jesus was one of them. At times Jesus could even deliberately flout the laws. He healed on the Sabbath, spoke to Samaritans (including Samaritan women),and he cared for the despised in society including prostitutes and tax collectors. He even touched the lepers.
When it came to heresy Jesus did most of his teaching by example. Those who followed different rules of sacrifice and even had an alternative temple – in other words the Samaritans – were also heretics – yet Jesus, as a Jew, could set aside those rules which identified the heretics and focus on basic responses of compassion – even making Samaritans sometimes the good guys in his stories. Those who have discovered statements about condemning homosexuality in the Bible are disappointed that Jesus does not even seem to mention the topic. Although Jesus did have respect for religious tradition – and true he identified the important laws – he produced his perspective by focussing on the spirit not so much the wording of the laws. Where he did focus, was on hypocrisy and chiefly hypocrisy of the sort where the form of religious behaviour was on show – and his concern was more where the compassion was missing – that seemed to draw Jesus fire.
However, it would not be true to assume Jesus was breaking new ground in giving as the basics his two Commandments. When he points to loving God he was of course quoting from what we would call the Old Testament. The verse about loving God is the famous quote from Deuteronomy Ch 6 verse 5. This would be well known to his audience since it is part of the Shema, the sentence with which every Jewish service of worship still commences. These days it should remind us of that definition of “God is Love”. This love should come to dominate our thinking and provide the motivating dynamic for our actions.
The second commandment Jesus chooses is again another quote – this time from Leviticus 19 verse 18. It is almost as if Jesus is reminding us that the Love mentioned in the first commandment will find its meaning as we apply it to those around us.
Perhaps it is also as well to remind ourselves that, as some have put it, Love is not a noun – nor is it a feeling of gooey well-meaning. It is best thought of as a verb – if you like a set of compassionate actions and responses to what we encounter in our meetings with others.
I would like to remind you too that the world itself is not a fixed environment. The rapidly changing circumstances of our fellows and our knowledge about how best to respond are also rapidly changing. Love cannot be thoughtless reaction if it is to produce positive outcomes. Assuming that it must be sufficient to do whatever we have been in the habit of doing to help our neighbours, and that all that we are required to do is simply continue to do it like an energiser bunny might repeat an action until the batteries run out, is no longer sufficient.
For example almost every community in the Western world has undergone a real change as far as who now lives in the local community. At one stage virtually all newcomers came from a similar background. For New Zealand the immigrants usually arrived as a part of organised settlement with a strong preference given to those from the same area and preferably from Britain. These days when a newcomer arrives it is often not knowing how to get employment, how to make new friends and in some cases even how to understand the customs and language. 40% of those now living in Auckland were born overseas. In the UK I have heard people complain there are so many foreigners they dont feel it is there own country anymore. This is a new situation for communities and requires deliberate plans for positive action initiated by those who care.
Another change is perhaps more worrying. Rapid advances in technology have blurred the lines between what was considered the traditional lines of demarcation as to what humans could do and what they used to think God would have to do on their behalf. A few centuries ago if you got really sick, doctors could not help you. All you could do was pray.
A few centuries ago what was grown locally was what you ate. Food sent a long distance would spoil so if the local food ran out you starved and all you could do was to pray.
These days if you get really sick, in many cases doctors not only can help – they can even keep you artificially alive in the hospital. But sometimes the drugs to keep people alive are very expensive and those like the rest of us have to decide if the drugs should be available. We often no longer need to pray to God to keep Grandma alive. Now more often, the family has to make what was previously thought to be a God type decision about whether or not Grandma should be resuscitated. Since surplus food can now be grown in places like this country and shipped long distance, if a community is starving in some distant country – it is not God who we must appeal to get them fed. It is we who now have to make the sometimes literally costly decision about whether or not to save them. Loving your neighbour takes on new meaning in a changing world.
Should ninety year old Granddad get a kidney transplant? Should 12 year-old pregnant Jane have an abortion? Should genetically engineered crops be used to feed the hungry? Should the overstaying illegal immigrant be sent home to a grim future? If we find that a group of Muslims are being discriminated against in a workplace, whose responsibility is it to get action? Those decisions cannot be taken lightly – but if loving your neighbour has any meaning at all, genuine decisions to meet the reality of changing situations must be faced.
When Jesus says there are just two Commandments to follow, he certainly homes in on the essentials, but in so doing he has not filled in the detail. Until the detail is filled out it may just be an empty ideal. That we may need to work out for ourselves, and sometimes in practice with fear and trembling.
For aspiring Christians, knowing that Jesus once said something wise about love is hardly the point. It is not to what William Barclay used to call “some nebulous sentimentality” but rather to a practical expression of the love, to which we are called. Without some actual response it would be hard to justify claiming that Jesus’ statements about love applied to our walk in faith.