March 18, 2007

Detractors Came to Jesus
Matthew 15:1-9

Those of us who teach at the college are required to have at least one of our courses evaluated each semester. When the results are returned in large envelopes, some professors open them eagerly, often finding in these evaluations helpful feedback and much-needed encouragement. Others quickly toss the completed forms aside when they receive them, hoping to avoid the caustic comments that students sometimes make. For most of us, the reaction is somewhere in between. Over the years, my own evaluations have been quite positive, and I open them each semester with little anxiety. Students have written wonderful comments at times about my classes, including:
Makes the Bible come alive
Requires a lot of work, but it is well worth it
Cares deeply about his students
Integrates faith and learning in profound ways
One overly gracious student, no doubt after receiving a high grade, even wrote, “T.B. is the greatest.”

But these comments fail to tell the entire story. Students also regularly complain about the work load and grading in my classes, insinuating that I should not expect so much of them. Others occasionally thrust the dagger directly into my heart. I was, on one occasion, still celebrating a particularly gratifying comment when I stumbled on another: “He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” I sat there, baffled. I wasn’t sure what I had done to make this particular, unnamed student so upset, and I was equally uncertain what I might learn from such a comment. Whatever I had said or done, one thing is for certain: one particular student really didn’t appreciate me.

Detractors are, as I have come to realize, a part of life, particularly for those who are often in the public’s eye. A simple glance at letters to the editor in the Patriot News, opinion polls for the president and other elected officials, or evaluations from your own places of employment suggest as much. But even beyond such formal devices, recall for just a moment when you failed to earn a spot on a sports team, lost a school election, received harsh criticism from a friend, felt thoroughly unappreciated by a family member, or were rejected after a job or school interview. Remember when you were laughed at for the clothing you wear or ridiculed for what you believe in. Detractors are, once again, an inescapable part of life—we all have them. A retired minister told me a few years ago that every pastor has someone in his or her congregation who seems to thrive on being a pain! Jesus, as our passage today indicates, had detractors, too.

Jesus, in fact, had multiple detractors. The citizens of Gadara in northern Transjordan, for example, begged him to leave their neighborhood after he cast the demons out of two demoniacs (Matt. 8:34). The people he grew up with in Nazareth trivialized his accomplishments, continuing to see him as the “kid on the block” that he once was (Matt. 13:54-56). The Roman guards and other taunters sneered at him as he hung on the cross, daring him to exercise his authority and come down. Why, even his own brothers failed to believe in him. None of Jesus’ many detractors, however, quite compare in consistency and intensity to the religious leaders—the Pharisees—as Matthew depicts them.

From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, one senses a developing power struggle between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees, whose name means “detached ones,” were religious leaders who taught that people should separate themselves from the contaminated world and live lives of purity. Convinced that the Israelites in the Old Testament lost their homeland and went into exile because they violated God’s laws, the Pharisees were determined not to let that happen again. Out of their extreme devotion to the laws in the Old Testament, they and others erected an infrastructure around these same laws to ensure that they were strictly enforced. “Don’t eat this. You may not touch this. You are not allowed to wear this. Don’t associate with them.” So rigid was their application of these regulations that they were totally unable to understand, much less appreciate, Jesus when he came preaching a Gospel of grace and forgiveness. For the Pharisees, Jesus represented a total disregard of all that they held dear. In their minds, he threatened everything that they believed in. For Jesus, the Pharisees had erected a harmful set of by-laws that prevented people from ever experiencing the love and mercy of God. The Pharisees, in Jesus’ mind, majored in minors. Jesus and the Pharisees maintained two drastically different world views, and they clashed at every turn.

The Pharisees, first of all, criticized much of what Jesus did. They ridiculed him for eating with tax collectors and sinners (9:11), allowing his disciples to pick up grain on the Sabbath (12:2), and refusing to require his followers to wash their hands in accordance with Jewish ritual (15:1). When Jesus at one point healed a blind and mute demoniac, the Pharisees, unlike the overjoyed crowds, sarcastically responded that he cast out the demons through the power of Beelzebul, the prince of the demons (12:24). “Can I ever do anything right in your eyes, guys?” one might imagine Jesus asking. They seemed to criticize virtually everything that he did.

The Pharisees likewise criticized much of what Jesus said. They were agitated when Jesus said “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven” to a bed-ridden man. “He is blaspheming,” they concluded. Later, they grew irritated by Jesus’ parables, assuming that he was at every turn talking about them (ch. 21). So concerned were the Pharisees about the words—the teachings—of Jesus that on one occasion they deliberately walked all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee just to ask him a question. Over 100 miles—to ask a question! But what began with one question soon segued into more and more questions and eventually into tests and plots. With increasing animosity, the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel seek to corner, capture and conquer this undistinguished and undignified man from Nazareth.

Detractors of different sorts came to Jesus, just like they sometimes come to us. And it is insightful to look for a moment or two at just how Jesus responded to these people who criticized and tested him. Jesus, particularly as the story unfolds, sometimes simply walked away from his detractors. When the people of Gadara pressured him to leave, he did. He got in a boat, Matthew informs us, and went home to his own town (9:1). Jesus did much the same thing at times in his dealings with the Pharisees. When the Pharisees grew particularly upset after Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, he left rather than stir up more trouble (12:15). Jesus, it seems, discerned between those times when it was worth responding and those when it was not. He felt no particular need to respond or throw fuel on the fire, no need to get in the last word, no need to win an argument just for the sake of winning it. Jesus, in other words, knew when to be quiet and walk away.

But there were also plenty of situations from which Jesus did not walk away. On many of those occasions, he chose instead to discuss the issue with his detractors in a potentially helpful way. It’s easy, I suppose, to read Matthew’s account and readily assume that Jesus and the Pharisees never engaged in what might be described as a civil conversation. In truth, he often listened to them and offered reasoned responses in keeping with the gracious teacher that he was. When the Pharisees asked how it was that he sat with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus provided both a simple explanation as well as an honest suggestion. “Those who are well have no need of a physician,” he said, “but those who are sick.” Then, he encouraged the confused Pharisees to think again about one of their own core values. “What does the statement, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ mean?” Jesus asked (9:11). And I suppose they went and thought about it some more.

And later, when the Pharisees complained that Jesus’ disciples were plucking grain on the Sabbath—they were working—Jesus took the time to offer them a thoughtful reply and a fresh way of interpreting the Scriptures. Rather than simply lambasting them for their perceived ignorance, Jesus turned their attention to a story in the Bible in which David acted in much the same way that the disciples just did (12:3-6). David, like the disciples, was hungry, so he entered the temple and ate some of the sacred bread that belonged only to the priests. The principle, Jesus informs them, is once again the same—“God desires mercy and not sacrifice.” Frustrated though he may be, Jesus tries on many occasions to help his detractors understand his point of view.

There are, however, still other occasions when Jesus senses the need to get right into the face of his detractors—up close and personal. On such occasions, Jesus seems to be as much concerned about the welfare of those who fall under the Pharisees’ influence as he is about either his own reputation or correcting the Pharisees themselves. That is, he does not argue vigorously with his detractors simply to defend himself or embarrass the Pharisees, but instead to open their eyes and protect the lay people in the community who might be negatively influenced by their teachings. After answering their question concerning the ritualistic washing of hands, for example, Jesus abruptly calls the Pharisees hypocrites, people who say one thing but do another. Moments later, he admits that he did so because he did not want the blind Pharisees leading others into what he calls a “pit” (15:14). On many other occasions, Jesus warns the people around him that their level of godliness must exceed that of the Pharisees. The Pharisees have the degrees, teach the classes and write the books, but their hearts are far from God. Jesus, it is clear, grows increasingly annoyed over religious people who put on sacred garb and act out the part, but fail to honor God with their hearts. Such people are not only troubling in and of themselves, but they pose a risk for less informed people who fall under their influence. When such detractors come to our Lord and pose a threat to others, Jesus gets right into their face. When necessary, Jesus stood up to those who criticized and jeopardized his ministry.

Jesus, like most of us, had his fair share of detractors. Some people ignored him because of where he was from. Others pushed him away because of the fear that he seemed to arouse. Then the Pharisees hounded him because of what he did, said and believed. As one who stands in front of people a great deal of the time, I can only begin to imagine how tiring and frustrating such detractors soon became. “Why don’t they just grow up?” Jesus must have wondered from time to time. I’ve often wondered the same. “Don’t they have anything better to do?” he surely asked. Yet we see in his response to such people a great deal of wisdom. Jesus often simply bit his lip and walked away. On other occasions he listened patiently and offered new explanations—new ways of looking at old ideas—in his attempts to help his detractors understand who he was and what he was really trying to accomplish. And in still other situations, Jesus demonstrated the courage to take his detractors to task—head on—in order to open their own eyes and to protect vulnerable listeners. Jesus was discerning. He chose his responses prayerfully. He thought a great deal about which hills he was willing to die on.

But one thing Jesus never did when confronted by his various detractors. He never lost sight of his calling from God. He never gave up his mission or lost his courage because others criticized him. He never failed to deliver the truth, whatever others might think or say. Jesus understood that he had what Os Guiness refers to as an “audience of one.” While caring for people and modeling a life of compassion, honoring God was by far more important to Jesus than was drawing the praise of the people around him. In reality, God was his primary audience and everyone else sideline spectators.

Like Jesus, you and I inevitably face people from time to time who criticize and ridicule us. We have detractors, and we can undoubtedly name any number of them even today. They call our integrity and abilities into question. They frown on our values and ridicule our convictions. Sometimes they get the best of us. They wear on our nerves. Yet, as we walk with Jesus to the cross, we might very well learn from him when to be quiet, when to converse, and when to rebuke. We might learn to discern what lessons are to be learned from those who frown at us. We might learn how to deal in more God-honoring ways with those who are thorns in our side.