Turning the Tables on Christian Respectability
I blame Mrs. Hill. She was my childhood Sunday School teacher and she started it. She taught me the stories of Jesus with her warm smile and worn-out flannel graph. She would place paper figures of Jesus and the disciples on the flannel-covered board and move them about to illustrate the particular lesson for the day. I learned about a wee little man and his sycamore tree, a boy who gave Jesus his sack lunch, and Lazarus who rose like an Egyptian mummy from the dead. But mostly I learned about Jesus. Jesus, mean and wild.
I blame Mrs. Hill and her flannel graph for my contrariness. It was that story about Jesus turning the tables on the religious power-brokers of his day that got my blood up. To me this was the most exciting story of them all. Some of the more pious saints later told me that Jesus acted “out of character” when he pitched a fit in the general direction of the merchants selling their wares in the temple, but somehow I knew better than that. Jesus turned over the tables because he was mad as an old wet hen. If the picture of Jesus as a “raging rabbi” unsettles you, then the point of it all is getting through.
He was angry. He sent pigeons and penny-filled purses flying hither and yon. He scattered the sheep with cords and threatened the goats who were selling them for exorbitant prices. The zeal of the Lord consumed him. And as I heard the story it started gnawing at me pretty good too.
She didn’t paint a portrait of the Jesus who could do wonderful shampoo commercials, with his silken hair and perfectly apportioned face. She taught us that Christ had fire in his eyes and lighting in his fists. He was no doormat deity. He was anything but respectable. That made him worthy of respect.
He saw Peter, James, John, Matthew, and the rest being drones and he told them to walk away from it all. “Follow me,” he said. And they did. They weren’t cut out to be cutouts.
Jesus Christ was paradox incarnate. He blessed the down and out and he cursed the high and mighty. He stooped down to prostitutes and stood up to pharisees. He wasn’t given to the trite dearlybelovedism of most modern ministers. He addressed his combative congregants as pit vipers, whitewashed tombs, bastard sons of Abraham, and other glowing appellations. And he did so without quenching one smoking flax.
Every now and then we need to remind ourselves that Jesus had a rotten testimony. That is, He often behaved and spoke in ways that some of our more pious brethren would consider “un-Christlike.” Although no one could convict him of any sin (John 8:46), this did not prevent His enemies from talking as though they could. He was, it turns out, a glutton (Luke 7:33), a drunk (Matt. 11:19), a blasphemer (Mk. 14:64), and a companion of the disreputable (Mk. 2:15). To say that he was a man of questionable reputation would be putting it quite mildly.
Sometimes I entertain myself with thoughts of great men from the past hopping into a time machine in order to pay a clandestine visit to the institutions that were named after them. Most of these thought experiments end with furniture scattered around waiting rooms, toppled desks, broken glass, and whirling sirens in the background. And if you doubt that our “venerable dead” might behave in such an untoward fashion, just reflect on what happened when Jesus, the very image of God (Hebrews 1:3), showed up at the place where the Almighty made his name to dwell (Deuteronomy 12:11). First he made a whip. Then he made a scene.
Because we think we are serving only that gentle Jesus, meek and mild, we tend to miss a peculiar aspect of reformations which can be seen over and over again throughout church history. Glorious reformations are only seen as such by us when we look at them through the gauzy lens of three-and-a-half centuries. The heirs of the reformation usually like the reformers primarily because they are all dead and not messing around with anything anymore. Everyone loves a good reformation until some rash soul takes a notion to actually reform something. The sons of the prophets much prefer it when their prophets are deceased. Perhaps when they have been dead for a generation or more will they cease to be objects of criticism and attack. Two generations and it is possible to buy a floor buffer for the marble rotunda. Thus it is that later generations build tombs and memorials for the prophets—prophets they would not tolerate for one skinny-minute walking around at ninety-eight point six.
How does this come about? There is a pattern to it. When God raises up men who effectively challenge the idols of their day, the first thing they meet is stiff opposition. That opposition is frequently characterized by overt hostility and persecution from those with open allegiance to the idols. But these men of God are faithful in the face of opposition, and soon many others are rallying to their cause.
Now the people who rally to them are usually divided into two broad groups—those who understand what is occurring and those who do not. But whether or not they understand what is happening in this movement, they nevertheless commit themselves as zealous disciples to it. The first group is attracted to what is happening as it actually is. The second group is attracted to aspects of it, or to the fact that something exciting is happening, but their understanding of the big picture is murky at best.
But their leaders continue to do what God has called them to do, which is to pull down idols. The stage is now set. When the time is right, the opposition begins its campaign of slander. Although the leaders get the brunt of the slander, the slander is not aimed at them. The target is the group of people standing behind them who immediately get concerned about the poor testimony. They know and love their leaders, and know the charges are false. But their instinctive and natural response is to try to get their leaders to modify their behavior so the enemy will stop misunderstanding them. With these people, concern over reputation is far too important. It is a heart idol‒the one they overlooked and forgot to topple.
Such people believe that it is always bad to be called names that wouldn’t look good in the church bulletin. Now it is important to make a distinction here, one that St. Peter makes. He says this: “If you be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are you; for the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters. Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Pet. 4:14-16). In plain language, if you suffer as a thief because you have stolen something, then you should be ashamed. But if you are accused of theft because of your faithfulness to Christ, then God is to be glorified. When this happens to us, Peter says, it is because the Spirit of glory is resting upon us. When gained in the quest for truth, a tarnished reputation is much more to be desired than a varnished one.
This is the reason why Jesus says that when all men speak well of us, we ought to get worried (Luke 6:26). He says that public lies about us are a garland to be worn on the head. “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Because it is an honor to be dishonored, a grace to be disgraced, we ought to thank God for the privilege whenever it is given to us by God. Liars and cowards may bring such trials to us, but it was our God who sent them.
But this next point is the key, and is the one which separates those in the Church who “get it” from those who do not “get it.” Those who “get it” answer the slanders by various psalms of imprecation, defenses, polemical counterattack, arguments, appeals, and so forth (Ps. 56:5-7; 2 Cor. 11:1-33; Matt. 23; Acts 20: 26-35; 25:11). But those who do not get it want to answer the slanders by promising not to poke the bear anymore. It is the difference between extinguishing the darts of the evil one with a shield of faith and unfaithfully trying to arrange for a cease fire. Such brethren think it more virtuous to keep their white flags unsullied for the inevitable surrender.
If the prophets of the Bible were to appear on the scene in our day they would be lectured on winsomeness and shipped off for a Dale Carnegie re-education course. The court prophets of Evangelicalism would write long-winded think pieces against such “troublers of Israel,” in which they opine, “If only these Tishbites would stop destroying their evangelistic potential by cracking wise when Baal won’t come out of his bathroom.”
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