“God prefers kind atheists to hateful Christians”- Internet meme
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew 21 contains another one of Jesus’s parables which is puzzling if taken out of context, but becomes more obvious when read in the context in which Matthew chose to place it. Matthew 21 begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree. The religious powers-that-be are disturbed by these events, which makes me think they knew exactly what Jesus meant by his actions, and didn’t like it. They try posing a “gotcha” question to Jesus, only to find themselves successfully deflected. If that weren’t annoying enough, he then proceeds to tell two stories which make the same point as his actions, only one of which is included in today’s reading. You really should read the whole chapter, which I’ve hyperlinked above, but here’s today’s portion:
Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” Matthew 21:23-32
The Pharisees have a pretty bad reputation among most Christians today, but when I try to place myself in their shoes, I can not only understand where they were coming from, but see their counterpoints today. Most of the narrative parts of their sacred scriptures repeatedly conveyed the same message: God chose the nation of Israel to be his special people, and Moses gave them the laws God wanted them to follow. When they obeyed, good things happened and when they didn’t, bad things happened. Eventually God became fed up with their disobedience, and allowed their nation to be conquered by foreign powers, who exiled many of their people and occupied the rest. Through the crucible of the Exile, a faithful remnant decided that this must never happen again. They would be very careful to observe all the laws of Moses exactly, and make sure others did the same. Just to make sure no one got anywhere near stepping over the red lines they understood God had drawn, they would “build a fence around the Torah“. (An interesting article on the Men of the Great Assembly can be found here)
Thus it comes as no surprise that most, although not all, of the Pharisees of Jesus’s time saw him as a dangerous and heretical figure. While the Pharisees taught rules, Jesus taught the principles underlying the rules. “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it”. The word “fulfill” might better be translated “complete”. There were two great principles underlying all of the law: love of God and love of neighbor. “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” And pushing the envelope a bit further, he doesn’t even mention God when he equates living by the Golden Rule as God’s overriding principle for living a righteous life: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Where the rules conflicted with the principle of love behind the rule, Jesus taught that the principle rather than the rule should be followed. He got into trouble several times for healing people on the Sabbath, for one example see the incident described here. Then there’s the incident John described, where Jesus intervened in the execution of a clearly guilty woman in direct contravention of the death penalty prescribed by Moses. Jesus seemed to have spent a great deal of his time hanging around with the marginalized, the outcasts, and the forgotten, who flocked to his side. His harshest words were not directed to “sinners”, but to those religious zealots who drove people away from God by their words and actions. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
As I understand the parable of the two sons, one son represents the Pharisees, and the other son represents the motley crew of misfits Jesus seemed to attract. It is a conflict between the “old time religion” of the Pharisees and the “new wine” religion of Jesus. Tradition has it that Mosaic law, and the oral traditions that elaborated on it, proscribed 613 rules to follow. Although the Pharisees were careful to follow the letter of these laws, they often managed to violate their spirit in self-serving ways. That’s why Jesus cast them in the role of the son who says “I obey” but whose actions don’t match his words. I have to think Jesus had people like Zaccheus and this “sinful woman”(who is often identified with Mary Magdalene but probably wasn’t) in mind in the role of the son who says “no” with his words but “yes” with his actions. Today, I can still see those who say “No” to the demanding, punitive God portrayed by the Pharisees, but will joyfully say “Yes” to the loving, forgiving God personified by Jesus. Which one does the will of the Father? The one who says “yes, Lord” and then does as he pleases, or the one who says “no” to ossified religion and then works to bring to fruition what God wants to happen in the world?
Does God prefer kind atheists to hateful Christians? I have a number of atheist friends who are very kind, and I know some self-identified Christians who are quite mean. Or to put it another way, there are some atheists who live as though God is, and some self-identified Christians who live as though God is not. And quite a few of my atheist friends have come to the conclusion that there is no God because of the behavior of self-identified Christians who act more like Pharisees than Jesus, and I don’t that makes God very happy. The parable implies that what you do is more important than what you say, which Jesus says clearly here: Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ In the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, it seems that there will be some surprises in the end about who’s on God’s good side and who’s on God’s bad side, and again the criteria isn’t what you say, but what you do. Going further out on a limb that some may see as heretical, I find it interesting that Jesus says, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of heaven before you“. It’s interesting not only if you substitute today’s preferred scapegoat sinner groups for the tax collectors and prostitutes, but also because of the bit about those people entering “ahead of you“, implying that both groups eventually get in, although not in the expected order. Perhaps the doors to the kingdom of heaven are never slammed in anyone’s face.
The core message of both John the Baptist and Jesus was “Repent, and believe the good news“. “Repent” isn’t a feeling; it’s a change of mind and direction. “Believe” isn’t intellectual assent to a creed, but a commitment to a different way of life. As I understand the teachings of Jesus, the change of direction that is required is away from mindless dedication to rules and toward conscious application of the principle of love of God and neighbor. The commitment is not to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but to act on the belief that Jesus knew what he was talking about when it comes to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and in response to follow him. And the good news is that by the grace of God personified in Jesus, the kingdom is near and here and available to all.