March 15, 2010: Is faith all about me and my personal relationship with God?

Posted on : Mar 15th, 2010 | By | Category: Still Speaking

Speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all those abandoned by others.
[D]efend the rights of the poor and needy.
(Proverbs 31:8-9)

We continue our conversation this week on the question, “Why was Jesus crucified?” We discovered one clue to the puzzle, which lay with what Jesus was teaching. Jesus lived in an oppressive and violent time. It was the time of the Roman Empire. We who grew up in the West have an idealized view of the Roman Empire and civilization. I can still remember learning in high school about the Pax Romana – Rome bringing peace and prosperity to the world. Fabulous slogan, but in essence just propaganda. The only people who experienced peace and prosperity were the wealthy and powerful elite who had connections with Rome. To conquer and dominate other peoples is not a benign process – violence, massive displacement and enslavement of indigenous people characterized Rome’s imperial ambitions. The native people revolted in Judea, Africa, Gaul, Spain, northern Italy and Sardinia. The Romans responded with brutal force – showing no mercy. Israel had a long tradition of resistance and revolt against foreign rule. Some messianic movements responded with armed revolt, such as at the time around Jesus’ birth and also with the Jewish War in 66-70 C.E.  Other messianic movements were non violent but their teachings were dangerous. Jesus falls in the latter category. Jesus taught about God’s Kindom that was just and righteous. His very teachings exposed the injustice and evil of the Roman Empire. Jesus preached against the wealthy elite and ruling classes who oppressed and exploited the vast majority of poor and displaced peoples. Jesus identified with the oppressed, the poor, the exploited, the outcasts – it is to these masses that Jesus ministered. They streamed to him in the thousands as he preached to them about life in this alternative Kindom of God. Most of the Apostle Paul’s letters focus on life and how one should live and treat one another in the alternative communities, ekklesiai (churches) that were formed by the followers of Christ.  These communities strove to adhere to the values of the Kindom of God and not to the values of the Roman Empire (the world), where everyone looked out for him/herself and exploited others for their own gain.

Matthew 25: 31-46 gives probably one of the best examples of Jesus’ teachings on how we should treat others, especially the poor, the outcast, the most vulnerable in our society. Jesus states in no uncertain terms that all of us will be held accountable for how we showed concern and responded to those in need at the final Judgment with Jesus’ return.

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be placed at on the right hand and the goats at the left. Then the ruler will say to those on the right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Abba God!  Inherit the kindom prepared for you from the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.  I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then these just will ask, ‘When did we see you hungry and give you food, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and give you clothing?  When did we see you sick or in prison and come to visit you?’ And the ruler will answer them, ‘The truth is, every time you did this for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.’ Then the ruler will say to those on the left, ‘Out of my sight, you accursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!  I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, sick and in prison and you did not come to visit me.’ Then they in turn will ask, ‘When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ The answer will come, ‘The truth is, as often as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you have neglected to do it to me.’ They will go to eternal punishment, but the just will go to eternal life.”

Jesus identifies himself with poor and hungry people and those who suffer and are in need of help. Christ is among us in the outcasts, the hungry, and the oppressed of our age. Their cry for justice is Christ’s cry for justice.  Matthew 25 makes it clear that to serve others in their need is to serve Jesus himself. To ignore the poor is to turn away from Jesus. Although startling words, Jesus’ teaching resonates with a central theme of the prophetic teachings in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely that if we hear and respond to the cries of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited, the needy, the hungry and the outcasts, then God will listen to our prayers. Blessed are those who are concerned for the poor; God will help them when they are in trouble. (Psalm 41:1)

Our Westernized individualistic society loves to sell us on the idea that religion is supposed to be private and inwardly focused: “It’s all about me and my relationship with God.” We tend to think faith is all about our own spiritual growth – so we’d better go to church every Sunday, read our Bible every day, pray every day and do loads of Bible Study. All good things, but if the only thing they accomplish is to focus you more and more inwardly, you’re busy with a grand exercise in missing the point.  Scripture teaches us something totally different about spiritual growth: it pushes our faith to be focused outwards. You see, Scripture is very clear; we cannot separate our relationship with God from our relationship with our neighbor. Remember what Jesus said when an expert in the law asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” He answered: ‘Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:26-28). Love of God and love of our neighbors are two sides of the same coin.

Anthony Wilhelm once said we cannot prove our love of God except by loving our fellow humans. Jesus Christ loved God precisely by loving his fellow men and women.

You see, my relationship with God cannot be separated from my relationship with and treatment of others. And as we read in Matthew 25 our concern or lack of concern for others comes with a warning attached: If you refuse to listen to the cry of the poor, your own cry will not be heard. (Proverbs 21:13) Prophets such as Amos and Isaiah had no problem with saying bluntly that if you show no concern for the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the needy, the outcasts, the immigrant, the oppressed, and the exploited, then God will not listen to your prayers.

As Easter is approaching, it is time to once again reflect on our faith lives. What kind of faith are you practicing? Is it totally inwardly focused? Is it all about your personal relationship with God? Or is it also outwardly focused?

Jesus embodied the words of Isaiah 1:17, Seek justice, correct oppression, and made himself an enemy of the unjust ruling class.