I often wonder what Jesus would say to his professing followers of the 21st Century. Would it be “Well done good and faithful servants?” Or would it be “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites?” Of course, there is no official position of scribe in Jesus’s Church, nor does any Christian faction call itself Pharisee. Yet some of his followers seem determined to resurrect these labels in spirit.
An astounding series of events recently occurred in my community, Morton Grove, Illinois.
Scene 1: A member of the Park District Board refused to stand and say the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of a meeting, stating his personal objection to declaring public allegiance and choosing to act on his conviction. Whether one agrees with that position, we live in a country where he possesses that freedom.
Scene 2: The local American Legion makes an annual donation to the Park District. The Legion decided to withhold that donation this year unless the Park Board required the man to give some form of respect to the flag by at least standing. The Board decided against censoring its member, but defended the freedom to act on his conviction. The Legion denied the donation, overlooking that its organization represents hundreds of thousands of men and women who have died to preserve this man’s freedom.
Scene 3: A Chicago blogger, Hemant Mehta, picked up the story and decided to intervene, asking his readers to donate to his web site to replace the forfeited Legion contribution. Over 160 people responded with more than $3,000. Mehta offered the money to the Park District Board.
Scene 4: The Board refused Mehta’s offer. Park District Executive Director, Tracey Anderson, said in an email to Mehta that the District board “has no intention of becoming embroiled in a First Amendment dispute.” Anderson continued in the email to state that the board did not want to appear to show favor to any political or religious viewpoint.
That was prompted by Mehta’s blogspot, which is titled “Friendly Atheist.” Mehta began his blog in 2006. He has also written several books, including I Sold My Soul on eBay, in which he recounts his experience when he auctioned an opportunity for the winning bidder to take him to church. A well-known evangelist, Jim Henderson (Evangelism Without Additives), won and found the encounter delightful. Mehta visited more churches and offers a winsome critique of churches and how they appear to the outsider in his book.
Scene 5: Mehta decided that since the money had been donated to benefit the Morton Grove residents, he would redirect the money to another entity: the Morton Grove Library. When the check arrived at the library, the library board’s Treasurer intercepted it and announced that the board would have to approve the donation first. The Library Board meeting became contentious when the Treasurer adamantly stated her opposition to accepting the check. She cited two reasons: 1) Because the money was given to the Park District, it would be unethical to accept it without the approval of the 168 donors and 2) Mehta’s site constitutes a “hate group” (her words).
With respect to the first argument, the library’s director made it clear that money donated to a web site becomes the property of the web site’s owner, who can disburse it as he or she sees fit. Mehta even states “When … I said I would be giving the money to the library instead, not a single donor complained about it because it would still have the effect of benefitting (sic) the community” (author’s italics).
The second argument became the emphasis of the Treasurer’s diatribe. She brought a copy of quotes she found on the site, quotes made not by Mehta, but by people who read the blog and commented. In one instance, she attributes to Mehta derogatory remarks about a religious painting of Christ on the cross, although Mehta was simply reporting a story in which Catholic parishioners had made the comments.
The woman clearly does not understand how blog sites work. Most bloggers allow people to disagree with their view in the Comments section. Even those who agree may not state the position with the same tact or grace that the blogger does. And when hundreds of comments pile up on a blog, the blogger will not likely sift through all of them.
Scene 6: The Library Board video records its meetings, so this meeting is in public domain. Mehta has posted the video (53:31 long) to allow everyone to observe the debate. The Board voted 5-2 not to accept the check. Most board members who voted against it stated they were uneasy accepting money originally intended for another organization.
Mehta gives a fair, reasoned, and conciliatory response to the accusations made by the Treasurer. His site highlights the shallowness of the woman’s “research” and the determined bias she displays in arguing her case. The video exposes something very disturbing. The Treasurer has declared herself a Christian, but her tone contradicts her faith. While trying to convince her peers of the hatefulness of Mehta, she appears angry and hostile. Who is the hater here?
My wife was especially distressed by the incident. In a letter she wrote to the Treasurer, which she never delivered, she presented a different Christian perspective.
What did Jesus do? The Son of God even accepted gifts and hospitality from those who had a reputation for not following the law. Matthew, the tax collector, cheated his own people. The food he set set before our Lord came at the expense of others. Mary Magdalene, a well-known harlot, anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. His critics could not believe he would allow such a woman to touch him. Instead of rejecting their generosity, Jesus treated them with dignity. He was kind and gracious.
When passing through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples were met with a cold shoulder. Two of those disciples went to Jesus and suggested that they “tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them.” After all, these Samaritans had disrespected the Son of God, King of heaven and earth. Many kings would assign the death penalty for much less. Jesus’s response? “But he turned and rebuked them.” (Luke 9:51-56)
The good news of the Christ’s message is the offer of forgiveness, acceptance, and love to the world. Jesus did not divide the world into those who deserve his love and forgiveness and those who do not. He did not show one ounce of hostility towards those who were outside his group of followers. On the cross he even prayed for his executioners. The only time he approaches a harsh tone is with those on the inside who act like those on the outside, the scribes and Pharisees.
The Jewish leaders claimed privileged knowledge of God and his law. With that knowledge they condemned those who did not measure up to their standards. They treated their enemies with hostility and contempt. Jesus called them hypocrites.
In a growing secular society, we face an increasing number of opponents to Jesus, enemies of the gospel. How we treat these adversaries will define the character of the kingdom where we serve.
We have acted poorly in our denunciation of homosexuals, abortion advocates, liberals, Hollywood, atheists and anyone else who does not conform to our moral standards or insider principles, calling down fire from heaven on these unworthy humans.
I wonder what Jesus would say to us.