JESUS IS NOT A JERK
Today we have a really silly sermon title. Everybody here knows that Jesus is not a jerk. Lots of people who are not here may still think that Jesus is sort of a jerk – a Galilean peasant who got in over his head, or a truly gifted healer and teacher who started taking himself too seriously, or a Cynic Sage, or whatever. But most of you know Jesus is far more than that. He is beyond clear definitions and wooden creeds, and He is never contained by them. If we remain unafraid to revisit the doubts from time to time – if we play fair – they lead us ever further along the Path. So why this unpleasant sermon title? Am I really going to try to preach to the people who are not here? If so, guess who’s the jerk?
On the other hand, from time to time we all catch ourselves not consciously believing but acting like we believe that God is the Cosmic Imbecile: God is so clueless that if we really paid attention to him – really tried to obey him – it would ruin our lives. That if we really became faithful, it would destroy us – and I mean for no good reason, for no redemptive or loving purpose. Yet if God asked us to do something noble, sacrificial, or daring and we were pretty certain it was God asking and we didn’t have our signals crossed, or our egos, most of us would do it. It is the imago dei : the signature of the Creator. We are sinners and we make our mistakes, and often we are not as faithful as we want to be. But most of the humans I know, in their best moments, are also incredibly noble and courageous.
So, strangely enough, we tend to be most faithful in the big challenges and least faithful in the common, ordinary moments, when we are off our guard. It is hardest in the seemingly unimportant and ongoing details of the daily round. When is the church strong? It is not and cannot be strong in the rare great moments – like Luther nailing theses on Wittenberg doors, or Pilgrims heading for an unknown land. Those are inspiring moments, but you do not get strong on one meal, no matter how juicy the steak. It is how you eat all the time, day in and day out, that makes you strong or weak. The church in most places is weak today because people will not pay attention to the details of normal church life. They want the juicy steak of Easter, or Christmas. But they do not pay serious attention to the impact of attendance, tithing, daily prayer, or Bible study. One person in one church in one town – in this vast sea of humanity – decides that attendance at worship services or at class or on a committee is of minor importance. They know, perhaps vaguely, that the church represents Christ’s Kingdom on earth, but be reasonable: The church has so many flaws. And if you take a photograph at any one moment, nothing very startling is going on. So they settle for a very sloppy code of attendance; somewhere between the right mood and their convenience, they show up. But life is busy and full of interruptions, and all kinds of visitors and secular activities interfere. We get careless and forget that Satan is very interested in weakening the witness of the Kingdom. We forget that he is Lord of the Flies – Lord of all the little details that buzz around breaking concentration, taking our eyes off the Kingdom and its purposes.
But you don’t have to go there. Just take one individual church member in any church on earth who is careless about attendance – who comes when they feel like it but does not make it a high-priority commitment. Then multiply that one individual by ten million other Christians who have the same careless attitude. Presto! The church is weak, ineffective, and no match for the competition from the culture all around it. In many places, the churches are dying. There are many reasons and excuses given, but the truth is, it could not happen to a more deserving organization. And the proof is that many churches are not dying, but thriving. There used to be a Congregational church in Port Townsend, Washington. It folded up before my time. How I wish it had stayed faithful, now that I need it. But of course that was not possible. The circumstances and the demographics could not support a church there. But I notice that many other churches are still there. Many new ones have started and thrived there over the years. How can I keep from concluding that “our people” simply stopped caring very much about Jesus and His Kingdom?
Many of us think that this church is a cut above most churches. I certainly do! We try to keep commitment a matter of free choice, but at least we mention it from time to time. We take it to heart – walk the walk. It is a beautiful and incredible Life and WAY, if we get beyond talking about it and actually get into it. Lots and lots of people around here know that this is true. So what is this thing about Jesus not being a jerk? Well, old thinking patterns cling to us with more tenacity than we at first imagine. We start out not trusting God – not really. To trust God you have to actually believe God loves you. You also have to believe that God knows what he is doing. And nobody starts out there. When we get there, we are what is called “converted.” That is the beginning, not the end, of the relationship – and of the New WAY of Life.
But all of us start out – though we might not put it this way – thinking that God is the Cosmic Imbecile whom we do not really trust, not deep on the inside. We thought God was either mean or stupid, and we did not dare trust our lives to him. This was seldom true of the words we spoke, but it showed up in the way we conducted our lives – still running them our own way and by our own wisdom. As one person put it: “If you read more than you pray, you don’t trust him yet.” Well, there is a way to read prayerfully, but that is very nearly a lost art in our time.
So now what do we do with the SON of the Cosmic Imbecile? Is it not logical that He is a bit clueless too? That is: If we trust Jesus, will that not also bring our lives to ruin? Are we not afraid that if we truly follow Him, we might end up like He did? And it doesn’t help that He says all these ridiculous things about “blessed are the meek,” or “sell all you have and give it to the poor,” or “love your enemies,” or “if your right hand offends you, cut it off,” or “not my will but thine be done.” On top of that, many people take such comments completely out of context, and literally to boot, and never try to comprehend what Jesus is really trying to get through to us.
I am simply saying that vestiges of the old patterns of thinking stick with us. We are mixtures of vibrant new faith that sings within and blesses and inspires our choices and our behavior, yet that is mixed up with the leftovers of old ways of just taking what is handed to us without any attempt to comprehend or make it our own. And a lot of these leftovers (in my world we call them hangovers) still assume that Jesus is a jerk. He is not too bright, He doesn’t understand real life, and we should pretend we believe what He tells us and shows us – but God help us if we ever truly try to follow His WAY of prayerful obedience.
A lot of understanding depends on assumptions. Bad assumptions lead to wrong conclusions. It transforms our Bible study – and our prayers too – if we assume that Jesus is intelligent, even brilliant, wide awake and aware, and incredibly wise and deeply caring. So I want to remind us this morning that Jesus is not a jerk. Not ever! That means we have to keep working at everything He said, showed, and taught us until we see how it fits with who He really is and with the WAY of Life He is inviting us into. Most of it does not just sit up on the surface of the record. We have to dig for it: care enough to probe and pray and find the dynamic beneath the surface. This should not sound strange or unusual. We do this sort of thing with everybody we have ever loved.
I read to you just one passage from Luke as an illustration. Nearly the whole New Testament is an illustration, but we only get one worship service at a time. If you don’t take it from there into many other passages as well, then this will be a wasted sermon. That’s okay – I have wasted quite a few sermons in my time. But here we go.
Whatever you may think of my Christology, and whatever errors I make (of omission or commission), I have a fierce loyalty for Jesus. From my perspective, lots of people who say they worship Jesus – who claim Him as Son of God, or God himself; who consider Him virgin-born, and sinless; who even call Him Savior – they nevertheless have small respect for Him. They do not honor Him. They do not trust Him more than they trust themselves. They do not obey Him, and they rarely if ever search the biblical records to discover what He was like, or what He would ask of them if they knew Him. And by the way, taking it from me or any other human being is not the same as searching it out for yourself. If we love Jesus, then eventually we go to Him, to the best of our ability – to the records we have about Him. They are not perfect and neither are we. But He lurks behind the records if we really want to know Him.
Once a person said to me, “You don’t seem to get the same thing others get when you read the Bible.” Well, I am not as unique as that comment might seem to imply. But if you want the secret: I have a fierce loyalty for Jesus. I do not think that Jesus is a jerk. If you tell me a story or a theory that gives Jesus a lower IQ than I have, I will consider that slander. You are talking about a friend of mine, and far more than a friend. I am not going to believe it. Even if the Bible tells me a story that portrays Jesus as a jerk, I am not going to believe it. I assume that I heard it wrong. I am going to go on pondering it, or I will set it aside for another time, when I have had a chance to grow up a little more. But if you tell me that Jesus is stupid or irrelevant, or that He will turn into an ogre on the last day and kill off all the bad guys instead of converting them, then I am going to tell you that you are full of ... baloney.
In my case, of course, I have been tracking Jesus for a lot of years now, both in the records and in the way His Holy Spirit guides and strengthens both me and my friends in the here and now. That is where the fierce loyalty comes from. It is not just hearsay. It is personal. All fierce loyalty is personal. If you try to understand Peter, Paul, Augustine, Luther, or any of the others apart from the personal, you simply cannot comprehend what is going on. A lot of modern scholars are trying to do that – trying to study and teach about Christianity with all the heart gone out of it. It is, of course, much safer that way. But it is also gibberish. (Martin Luther, by Richard Marius, is a good illustration. He tries to understand Luther minus faith and comes up empty.)
So here is this passage telling us about a time when a man listening to Jesus’ teachings calls out to Him: “Teacher (didaskalos), command (epo) my brother to share the family property with me.” We can play with definitions a bit, but it will not help. “Teacher, bid my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” This translation puts it as softly as possible. Anyway, you all know that Jesus sidestepped the request. “Who set me over you to judge or arbitrate?” Then to the whole gathering: “Be on your guard against greed of every kind, for even when someone has more than enough, his possessions do not give him life.” And it is obvious to all of us that Jesus had Corona del Mar and surrounding cities in mind, since the poorest among us has a hundred times more than the vast majority of the citizens of the world. Yet even so, most of us are too frightened or too stingy to bring our tithes to His church, that it might prosper and bear true witness to Him in this strange land. Wait, I think I might have gotten sidetracked ...
But what do most people get from this passage? Nearly everyone I know wants to etherealize it. Let’s instantly take it out of any relevance in the real world, lest it scald us. So we agree that Jesus is above it all. Jesus has no interest in inheritances or justice or fair play between brothers. Jesus says, in effect: “I refuse to be involved or embroiled in real life.” “Judge not” – meaning, never evaluate, never have an opinion, never risk offending anybody. Let’s all be spiritually irrelevant to real life in the real world. Isn’t that what it means to be really, truly Christian? And that, my friends – so help me – is what I have been told over and over is the message and essence of this incident recorded in the twelfth chapter of Luke: a brother has a real complaint, one or both of the brothers are not playing fair, and Jesus will have nothing to do with it.
There is not a single person in this room who would be spiritual, philosophical, and “above it all” if this kind of thing happened to them. And it has happened to quite a few of you, and you were not at all happy about it. Some of you swallowed it and went on because there was nothing else you could do about it. Even if you didn’t need the money to survive, it did not feel just or right to be cheated out of the inheritance. At the very least, you did not like the symbolism of your parents caring nothing for you while they appeared to care about your siblings. But Jesus has no interest in mundane affairs? Jesus is above it all? Well, I do not think Jesus is a jerk, so you will never sell me such a preposterous, asinine understanding of this passage. I missed it for years too, but I refuse to leave it there. It does not match the Jesus I know and love. And I have a fierce loyalty for Jesus.
Is greed a problem? If greed is not really a problem, then perhaps Jesus could rise above it and do no harm. There is no issue here; it doesn’t matter; nobody is really getting hurt. Oh my friends, greed IS a problem! Greed is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Greed is to physical possessions what lust is to sexual pleasure. If we get caught in the traps – the quicksand of lust or greed – our lives will literally go bad. They will turn to the dark side. But Jesus doesn’t care?! Jesus is perfectly happy to have one of the brothers go to Hell? And not just the symbolic burning fires; the real one – isolation, aloneness, separation from God and from man. That is what the Seven Deadly do to us, you know. Do you think any person can have real love or good relationships with others if their life is in bondage to greed or lust? We have to wake up! This is for real. This is not about vague theories.
In any case, the usual conclusion is that Jesus is spiritual and does not want to be embroiled in this quarrel between brothers. Usually I am even told that Jesus wants the brother not to care about the money. If we lose our greed, we will no longer care about money, resources, justice, or fair play? We will no longer care if even those closest to us cheat us? How do we jump to such amazing and ridiculous conclusions without even batting an eye? Yet that is the usual conclusion. Jesus does not want to deal with real life. Jesus is content to let one of these brothers drown in greed. Is that really the Savior we know? Yet the situation is inescapable. Either the first brother is a liar or the second brother is being unjust and greedy. Somebody is in trouble here. And you will never convince me that Jesus does not care. Jesus is not a jerk! I frequently am, but Jesus never is.
However, vast hordes of Christians have jumped to such conclusions. They will try to tell you that sex is evil and that physical possessions are evil too. Real Christians, they say, will have nothing to do with either. Real Christians will stop making love, and they will sell all their possessions, give to the poor, and go on welfare for the rest of their lives. God created the world – sex and possessions included – but we should shun all creation and get spiritual enough to do without them; we should rise above it. Where is “above it,” by the way? When I was in high school, we had a phrase for those who could “rise above it”: “Lily-white, and clothed in light – and [intentionally] deaf, and dumb, and blind!”
Lots of things are part of Jesus’ story. Not all of them are spelled out in so many words. Who were the people attracted to Jesus when He walked this earth? Were they ethereal types? Actually, they were all types – male and female from every walk of life. But as near as we can tell from the records, the heart and core of those attracted to Jesus were strong young men – heads of households and working-class, like fishermen, tax collectors, and farmers. Duh. “And the common people heard him gladly.” (Mark 12:37) Practical, down-to-earth, real-life people were drawn to Jesus. If only the anemic and the ethereal are drawn to Him now, maybe it’s because of the way we portray Him.
What is my point? In the beginning it was real people in the real world who were most attracted to Jesus. And Jesus sent none of them into monasteries. Jesus was not even as esoteric, and certainly not as ascetic, as His great teacher, John the Baptist. The Essenes withdrew from the world but Jesus never did. You cannot get into as much trouble as Jesus did if you withdraw from the world. Vows of poverty and vows of chastity are not for the saints of God – certainly not for the followers of Jesus. They are for the frightened who want to withdraw from life.
If we get together – pool all our resources, including our daily labor – and have no children or spouses to care for, then in all likelihood we can survive here. We can build walls to keep the world out, and we will not have to worry about competition, getting fired, busy schedules, our mates or children dying, and all the rest. Why do you call that brave and noble? To claim poverty in exchange for the guarantee that you will never have to worry about food, clothing, or shelter for the rest of your life – this is holy? To sacrifice both our individuality and life in the real world has the reputation of being extra spiritual and extra saintly. But clearly it was not Jesus’ WAY. He neither taught it nor modeled it.
To pool ten percent of our resources, to stay involved in real life, to have children and spouses to care for and neighbors, fellow workers, schools, and politics – the full challenge and catastrophe, as Zorba would say – and still go on worshipping God in all that we do, that is the church of Jesus Christ. Of course, most people have never tried it. That is, they go to church but they don’t realize that they are the church, and that there is a clear covenant between themselves and Jesus and all the other members who walk this WAY and live this LIFE with them.
But back to our passage. What is Jesus’ response to this man who cries out in the crowd, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me”? Where do you think the brother is? Louisiana? Jesus cannot tell the brother anything if the brother is not there. Does the man expect Jesus to drop everything and go find the brother and have a conversation with him somewhere else, at some later time? No, the brother is standing right there. And Jesus knows it. Jesus also knows that one of the brothers is not playing fair, and that if He publicly sides with one over the other, it will instantly lock‑in a pride thing, an anger thing, an ego-resistance thing that will obscure the real issue.
But greed really is a killer. Jesus diffuses the situation but at the same time reminds all the people of the real principles of life – the real issues and dangers of greed. And He knows that both brothers are standing right there hearing it, and that all their friends are hearing them hear it. And they both know that they are both hearing it. If there is any shred of hope of getting through to the brothers, this is it. “Beware. Be on your guard against greed of every kind, for even when someone has more than enough, his possessions do not give him life.” And then Jesus told them a parable, tailor-made just for them, and of course relevant to anybody else willing to hear it.
So what did Jesus really say to the brothers? GREED IS A KILLER. YOU DO NOT WANT TO DIE. YOU DO NOT WANT TO LOSE EACH OTHER. GO WORK THIS OUT TOGETHER!
Both brothers had come to hear Jesus. They both knew He was wise and different and full of light and truth. He put them back on an even playing field, and He gave them principles they both knew were right and true. How I wish we could hear the conversation they had when they were alone again. “I’m sorry, brother.” “No, you’re right. Let’s figure this out and do it right.” Maybe that is not what happened, but it is the most likely thing to have happened. Or do you imagine that Jesus’ movement never happened – never got off the ground – and that most people didn’t listen to Him back then any more than most do today?
Beware of greed! Have we ever lost a church member because of greed? Not for almost five months now. Is greed still a problem? If we fall into its trap we die – to love, to God, to each other. And Jesus did care. He was just wise enough to put both brothers back onto the real principles, where they could both learn and deal with it – where they could repent, be reconciled, and find LIFE.
Jesus has brought me many deep and wondrous friends over the years. He has cost me some friends along the way too. I always hate it when relationships break instead of growing stronger. I hate to lose a friend. But if it has to happen, loyalty to Jesus is the best reason for it in all the world. Yet wherever two or more of us listen to Him, it always builds stronger and truer relationships than we ever knew before.
Some of you have a fierce love for Jesus also. It blesses and lights your life – tends to put all things into a new perspective. We love it for ourselves, and we are drawn to others who have it. We long for this same blessing and light to draw still others. Such notions seem much too simple for many, but profound for those who find it: a fierce friendship, a fierce love, a fierce loyalty for Jesus. And why not?! After all, Jesus has a fierce love and loyalty for us. That is the bond – the link – that will never snap or part, because He will never let go of it ... come death, come life, come Hell or high water. That is why they call Him “Savior.” That is why we call Him “Savior” too.
Copyright 2014 by Bruce Van Blair. All rights reserved.