Ours is not the first generation in history where people have displayed feelings of superiority when they involve themselves in conversations describing the shortcomings of those who have chosen different paths of enlightenment. It is an age old game where the followers of one faith or version of faith pour scorn on the followers of another. I suspect it is a phenomenon which crosses land and sea and goes way back into prehistory.
Early in my teaching career together with my wife who served as a school secretary I spent a year volunteer teaching in the territory of Papua and New Guinea. There such was the suspicion of neighbouring tribes at that time that for less than three million people there were more than 700 different languages and within these many dialects. Inter tribal fights were common and historical grudges were nursed over many years so that pay-back could be exacted. While, to outsiders like Shirley and I, the tribes had very obvious similarities of belief and custom, minor differences were magnified to the point where discrimination was the rule rather than the exception.
It is an embarrassing realisation that this is only different in scale to the tensions between modern nations, and which at times have spilled over into extremely nasty warfare. This should cause us to step back and wonder to ourselves how much of the principles of Jesus and other religious leaders are internalized by those who claim to be followers.
I guess we all play some social, economic and even religious games appropriate to our setting and to our generation. Given that we have made a set of choices about what constitutes appropriate customs and values for our lives, the unspoken expectations of others is that their choices should preferably fit ours and at the very least not place restrictions on our decisions.
Using rivalry between John the Baptist’s followers and his own as an example, Jesus portrays the silly consequences for adults as being the equivalent to children playing their version of adult customs for weddings and funerals, with the boys dancing like men at a Jewish wedding and sneering at the girls who are not dancing while the girls are wailing as they copy Jewish women mourning at a funeral. The girls in their turn sneer at the boys for not joining in their game. The needless quarrels about such matters Jesus identifies as similar to the irrelevant diversions from what really matters.
We don’t have to look too far before we can find modern equivalents. Think of the upset Muslim women cause with their traditional clothing for those who consider Western dress is the only appropriate custom, the distrust of orthodox Jews for their appearance, and for the difficulties the Sikhs’ experienced for wearing turbans in much of the West in the post 9-11 period.
Our assumption that our religious games are only be played by those as good as us moves far beyond church when it starts to affect socioeconomic outcomes. Most Christian nations don’t want to be burdened by the poverty stricken and despite the pretence of following Jesus teaching, actively block the arrival of refugees. At a more refined level, even in cities with few refugees, it is common that some high class neighbourhoods set up local arrangements to prevent poorer houses being built in their district. When the incoming group is recognizably different in terms of culture and religion, if we are honest with ourselves it is not helpful to shut our eyes to the antagonism that is often experienced.
Matthew was recording his gospel at a time when the disciples were arguing amongst themselves about the contrasting styles of John the Baptist whose diet was Spartan in the extreme and on the other hand Jesus who was criticised for his feasting and drinking with inappropriate company. Jesus is discovered here acknowledging the criticism but saying “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”. In other words the style of ministry is not the ministry – the deeds done as a consequence of the ministry are their own justification.
In that sense both John and Jesus offered their own useful cautions. John refused to see himself as required to join in the equivalent of the wedding dance because, as he saw it, with unwise leadership, enough had become more than enough. His followers raised serious questions for the rulers of Jewish society. On the other hand Jesus was reluctant to force the grim reality of the equivalent of funeral on those who were currently excluded from the dance and festivities. Jesus’ followers became open to new concepts of what it is to be a neighbour. That both John the Baptist and Jesus had something different to offer did not mean that one or the other needed to be rejected.
Here perhaps we should step back to reflect, not so much asking the common questions about whether those from a different religious or cultural setting should be required to adopt our customs, but rather the more pointed question. Do our deeds vindicate our religious and cultural choices, and the corollary, do our actions justify condemning those who are not acting as we act?
In one sense part of the answer to this question is surprising. Jesus performed his deeds in a variety of settings because he was meeting needs – not because he was necessarily being appreciated. In a modern context we too are just as likely to be rejected for doing what we know to be right. Peacemakers can be and are often rejected. Those who challenge rampant capitalism are still distrusted. Those who challenge corruption are certainly following the lead of Jesus who cleared the Temple of those trying to profit from religion, but are unlikely to find favour with some of the rich and powerful.
In Jesus’ day followers of the Samaritan faith were the heretics of the day. His finding them to be worth bothering with was in keeping with his teaching, but no doubt deeply unpopular with self appointed keepers of the faith.
Notice that Jesus made these observations about those who did not learn from his deeds. As Matthew recorded it in the bit censored out of the lectionary: “20Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
As Jesus indicated on a number of occasions, it is not for us to judge, nor for that matter, to withhold doing what we know to be right because we believe it to be unappreciated. But this does not mean that in the end wilful inappropriate actions and bad attitudes will not reap their own reward. We only have to look at the destruction and desolation wrought by nations on their own cities when their greed and belligerence leads to all out war.
For those of us who choose to follow Jesus, it seems that there are two requirements. First we have an obligation to adjust our attitudes so that our own actions and deeds reflect the teachings we claim to follow. Secondly we need to be looking, not so much at the play acting customs which have become an inevitable part of our culture and religion, as we need to focus on our relationships. Are there aspects to our game playing which act as a barrier?
In my bookcase there is a small book entitled “Stirrings” where a number of modern theologians and thinkers questioned the mismatch between traditional Church thinking and the sort of theology needed for modern society.
One of the essayists Donald Tytler looked at some obstacles built into typical Church liturgy. For example he reminded the reader of the cultic setting, only home to the initiated, whereby specialised buildings are consecrated – deliberately set aside from secular use. These buildings he said contain abnormal furniture and in some settings, stylised antique clothing is worn. Again following Tytler, the liturgy in such places typically expresses ideas through images and concepts which are alienated from modern discoveries. A childish dependence on a great fixer of natural and historical events neither matches historical records nor scientific understanding let alone makes room for new cultural, economic or political developments.
Finally Tytler questions liturgy which encourages a pattern of submission rather than acting as a call to relevant action.
Religious games which draw attention to exclusion eg only offering communion to those who play the identical game, may help the initiated with their sense of belonging but surely that same game does little for those whose sense of alienation can only be heightened in knowing that they do not belong.
Perhaps in the last analysis we might ask ourselves how closely our practice of religion offers something resembling Jesus’ promise when he said:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This is a key passage in the gospels. Perhaps more than any other verse it reminds us that Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship. Certainly there is mystery. Turning to Christ with heavy problems is often seen as more than just applied psychology because some who have been driven to despair by tragedy and overwhelming grief later attest to their feeling that in the midst of their despair they found their load to be lifted.
Modern burdens are diverse indeed. Some are burdened by poverty, and depression is a condition which is surprisingly common across all socioeconomic groups. The burden of alienation takes many forms and how we arrange to help may reflect the nature of our community.
I acknowledge that for some who follow Christ, their feeling of identification is such that they feel they can in effect approach Jesus – perhaps by heartfelt prayer, without an intermediary. My personal observation is however that for many, indeed I would even say for most, the approach is made in the first instance to those people whose manner suggests they will be open and sympathetic. Again the games we play show very clearly whether or not we are seen by others to be open to their approach.
If the Christ we follow could claim that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, then presumably it follows that as his representatives in his church we should be offering the same deal to those who come with their problems and burdens to ourselves.
If we have found relationship in faith, we can only hope that others will encounter this same relationship in us.