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July 2012

YOU WOULD HAVE LIKED HIM

A young American woman told me plainly: “I will never join the church. Just look at the religious people. They’re the ones who justify torture, tell lies, support killing people, and try to impose their ways upon others.” She paused as if building up steam: “They’re so mean!”

I told her I heard her loud and clear. I knew what she was talking about. I too had found some religious people pretty obnoxious. I didn’t like their hate-filled speeches any more than she did. I too cringed when I heard their voices raised in sanctimonious condemnation of others, especially people with AIDS.

I also gently told her it wasn’t about the religious right or left. It wasn’t about bigots carrying signs that read, “Burn, fagot, burn!” It wasn’t about Christians who were obsessively involved in politics. It wasn’t about the frozen chosen and people who looked down their noses on those who didn’t belong to their religious club. Quite simply her focus was in the wrong place; it was all about Jesus.

I told her she would have liked Him. She would have liked Him because He wasn’t a bit like the religious people of His day. The religious ones were proud and power hungry. They hated Him because everything He said and did convicted them of their inner corruption. To the Pharisees, the ultra conservatives, He was a rank outsider, a non-conformist, a defender of miserable outcasts, a threat to the establishment. He was a dangerous man, a rabble-rouser, a despiser of tradition, a heretic, someone the Jewish nation would be better off without. Did not one of their religious leaders say of Him, “It is better that one man die than the whole nation perish?”

I told her she would have liked Him, even followed Him, because He was a defender of the powerless. On one occasion, a pious group of religious humbugs caught a woman in the act of adultery. How they managed to do this we are not told. It was probably a set-up with one of their number intimately involved. It was a bit like the recent case of a woman who was buried up to her neck because she had committed adultery, while the man was buried up to his ankles. John tells the story:

“At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.”  John 8:2-6a NIV

This woman had no political clout. She was only a woman, and that is one very good reason Jesus defended her. He was also enraged at the hypocrisy of the men with long beards, long robes, and long agendas. “But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.”  John 8:6b - 8 NIV

He wrote in the dust the dirty secrets of their petty little lives. Maybe the places, the names, and the dates. It was Judgment Day. “At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’”  John 8:9-11 NIV

Like mangy mongrel dogs with tails between their legs, they slunk away. Like religious charlatans everywhere, they were just a pathetic bunch of cowards who could only function as a pack. The Lord was more than a match for them. The woman they despised He accepted and redeemed. While the critics were picking up stones, He was picking up people.

You, young lady, who are disillusioned with organized religion, please take a fresh long look at Jesus. Don’t confuse Him with the pretenders who use His name to make themselves look good.

Had you met Him one day back there, maybe teaching a crowd on the side of a hill, you would have warmed to Him because He was a preacher unlike any you have met. He told stories about farmers, fishermen, hidden treasure, a lost sheep, a lost boy, and an anxious woman who had lost her money. He told the hungry multitudes that God was their loving heavenly Father who fed the birds, and every one of them too.  “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”  Matthew 6:26 NIV

His words comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable. When He confronted the religious leaders whom He described as whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside but full of rottenness on the inside, His words cut to the quick:  “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.” Matthew 23: 33-35 NIV

Yes, you would have liked Him because He was never intimidated by pompous, proud, powerful “prelates” who loved to be seen but didn’t want to be clean. Jesus was no pushover. He was the bravest man who ever lived.

You would have liked this sun-tanned Galilean carpenter because He enjoyed parties. The four Gospels are full of parties, and Jesus said His Kingdom was like a party. No wonder He scandalized the religious establishment; He still does. He was indeed the very opposite of the Pharisee, who was as sunny as a sob. He was warm, outgoing, loving, accepting, and forgiving. How could you not like Him? It was heaven to be in His presence. He made you feel good about yourself.

On one occasion when the “sinners” were crowding around to hear Him, the Pharisees muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:1,2 NIV. For once in their lives, Jesus told them they had got it right. “Yes,” He said, “I do receive sinners.” He then told three stories to show that God loves people who are bruised and battered. The parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost boy all shout the good news: God loves people even when they have messed up.  (See Luke 15)  If He were here today He would be eating, not just at fancy Church socials, but also with prostitutes and homosexuals dying with AIDS. “Impossible,” someone may gasp. No, Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost. He was in the people-saving business, and that’s why it took a very hard, self-righteous heart not to like Him. He was the most likeable person who ever lived. Please don’t confuse Him with the people today who pretend to be His disciples.

You would have liked Him, especially if you were a woman. In an age when women were second-class citizens, He emancipated them from the bondage of subservience. If you doubt this, try visiting those countries where Jesus and His Word are not respected. Where false religions dominate, so do men. Not long ago I was in a far away place, eating at the home of a minister who had been brought up in a culture that was anti-Christian. Like so many, he had been squeezed by the world around him into a chauvinistic mould. (See Romans 12:2, Phillips Translation)   Seated around the table sat a group of ministers, and in the next room sat the wives. Now and then they would stick their necks around the door to catch a few morsels of the conversation. I thought to myself, “I may embarrass my guests, even offend them, but this is wrong.” So I boldly said, “Why are the ladies separate from us? I want them to join us. We are followers of Jesus Christ, not slaves to custom.” With much laughter the ladies joined us, and in that household at least, the ladies will never be exiled to the kitchen again.

There is no record in the New Testament of a woman doing an evil deed to Jesus; that can’t be said of the men. Women provided for His needs out of their own purses, and stood by Him to the end. They loved Him because He loved them, and treated them with respect.

Mary Magdalene, as her name implies, came from a little town called Magdala. She had sunken to a life of evil. The Bible says that seven demons had possessed her (See Luke 8:2). When the Word says “seven” demons it means she was totally controlled by evil spirits. Previous to her abandonment to devils, she probably had lived a life of shameless immorality. While some today doubt the reality of demon possession, the Lord recognized and acknowledged this sinister occult phenomenon. He did not turn her away when she came as a raving lunatic despised by the very ones who had caused her ruin. He saw beneath the crazed exterior, and perceived the glimmer of hope in her tormented heart. He cast out the demons and redeemed her. She never forgot His word of command, or His look of love. When the disciples, bar one, fled and abandoned their Lord to the terrors of the cross, Mary was there. When He rose from the dead, she was there. It was her name he called when her eyes were so blinded by tears that she failed to recognized Him. (See John 20: 10-16)

Then there was Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Out of a heart brimming full of gratitude, she came to the celebration dinner with seventy thousand dollars worth of perfume. (John 12:3-8). Just think of her extravagance! Then she poured it all on Jesus and wiped His feet with her long hair. How she loved Him! How could she not love Him? He had redeemed her and saved her brother’s life from the grave. He loved her, defended her (See John 12:7), respected her, and drew her into His inner circle of fellowship. He’s been doing that to women ever since. It must be hard especially for a woman not to like Jesus when you know how he went against customs and conventions to restore women to their rightful place in society.

There’s another reason I believe you would have liked Jesus, if you had only given yourself half a chance to like Him. He forgave people when they did dreadful things. It is not too hard to forgive someone when he or she does some little thing of small consequences. But when a person, a friend, rips your heart out and tramples it underfoot — that is another matter.  We all have gone through bitter experiences when we have struggled with the Lord’s command to love our enemies and to forgive those who sin against us. It goes against the grain of fallen human nature. But Jesus was better than we. He was so utterly full of love that He freely forgave those who had caused Him emotional pain and physical suffering. For instance, take Peter: bold, impulsive, self confident, outspoken Peter. The big fisherman declared with characteristic assurance that, even if all the disciples disowned the Lord, he never would. “I will lay down my life for you,” he had vowed. Yet when Jesus needed a friend, in His hour of need, Peter denied that he had ever known Him. “Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, ‘I don’t know the man.’” (Matthew 27:14 NIV) There comes a time in every man or woman’s life when he or she stands alone, and needs a friend who is utterly trustworthy. Peter could have been Jesus’ friend, and forever after would have been known as the man who stood by the Lord in His hour of trouble. As the woman who anointed Christ with the alabaster jar of perfume was immortalized, “wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world what she has done will also be told,” (Mark 14:9 NIV) so Peter could have been remembered as the rock man who couldn’t be moved. But Peter crumbled, and denied the Lord with cursing and swearing. Poor Peter.

One look from Christ was enough, like Moses’ rod, to break Peter hard stony heart and bring forth the tears of repentance. Before Peter had time to cry, “Lord, I’m sorry” Jesus had seen the tears and forgiven him. The next few days were the worst in Peter’s life. Ravaged by remorse, and cut to shreds by a cat and nine tails* called guilt, Peter was ground into the dust from whence he came.  The message from the resurrected Christ, “Tell my disciples and Peter, (Mark 16:7 NIV) was a lifeline thrown to a drowning man. Peter grasped it with both hands and knew he was still part of the family.

History is full of vicious leaders who never forgave and never forgot. Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam are but a few. Jesus was not like any of them. He loved the unlovable and showed grace to the graceless. He did not censure human weakness. I would find it hard not to like a person who is so loving that He once said, “He who comes to me I will never cast out.” The arms of His cross are His invitation to come to Him and find the rest and peace of forgiveness.

I can understand, dear young lady, why you are so angry with modern day Pharisees who do such mean and dreadful things and are so cocksure of themselves. Remember, people like these 2,000 years ago put Jesus on a cross. They were not His friends then and they are not His friends now.

I invite you, hopefully without sounding too churchy, to believe in Jesus. He really is your very best friend. One thing is sure: He likes you, and as you get to know Him, you will like Him too.

- JOHN CARTER

 

* A whip once used on sailors by British officers.

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