Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Jesus, Hosea, and Justice as Healing

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Thanks to my good friend, Nick Melton, for inviting me to share a message on justice with the college ministry at Auburn UMC. 

Matthew 9:9-13

9 As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. 10 While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

I’d like to start with a story. A slightly embarrassing story that comes from my illustrious elementary school playground football career. I think I was in 3rd grade, maybe 4th. We were outside playing football during PE. It was 2 hand touch of course. It was all boys – except for one girl – Sally. Sally was the tom-boy in our class. A sweet girl, but kind of rough around the edges, sometimes a tad mean. Definitely tougher and bigger than me. So, there we were on the fields of glory, the boys and Sally, and my team is receiving a kickoff. It comes to me. I field it perfectly and take off down the field behind our expertly planned blocking scheme. It was basically like the KICK-SIX play. Epic. I sprint past the other team and there’s nothing but wide open field in front of me. Touchdown… almost. Sally. Somehow Sally had caught up to me. Not enough to tackle me but close enough to trip me. I go flying, and break my arm on the landing. My first broken bone; broken by a girl. Of course I sobbed and the everyone was mad at Sally, game over. I share that story to ask this question: what does justice look like in this story? Is justice having a flag thrown by the ref? Sally being ejected? Maybe I should’ve gotten to break her arm? Or maybe my family should have sued the school or my PE teacher? Maybe it could have been a class action lawsuit against people who take cheap shots on the playground? Or even better, maybe we should have pushed for a law to put playground bone breakers and dream crushers behind bars?!?! Are any of those things justice? What is justice really about? Keep those questions in mind as we explore this story from Matthew’s gospel.

This is a story you’ve probably heard before: the calling of Matthew, the tax collector. It seems simple enough, but there is so much to unpack in this brief encounter. What makes it so interesting and complex is in verse 13, towards the end of the passage, when Jesus tells the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, no sacrifice.’” Jesus is actually quoting the Old Testament prophet Hosea. So not only do we need to explore the dynamics between Jesus, Pharisees, and tax collectors, but we also need to know something about Hosea, his life, and his prophetic message. So, we’ll start the New Testament part and then do a crash course on Hosea. Here we go:

Tax collectors. Everyday Jewish folk despised these guys. They were also Jewish but they cooperated with the oppressive, “gentile” regime of Rome. For as long as they did that, they were considered impure according to Jewish law and socially excluded from Jewish life. Some or most were also corrupt (remember Zacchaeus?). Taking their own slice of the outrageously high taxes they collected. These were not the kind of people any self-respecting Jewish rabbi would want as his disciples. They had sold their souls. No one wanted them. They were sinners under God’s judgment.

Not only does Jesus say, “Hey, you, condemned impure tax collector, come be my disciple!!”, but then he goes to eat with a whole crowd of them. Along with other “sinners,” which probably meant prostitutes. More impure, unclean, condemned folks under God’s judgment who were “justly” excluded from Jewish life according to THE LAW. Not only is Jesus hanging out with them, making himself unclean, but he’s eating with them! Having a meal with someone meant so much more back then. It was perceived by some, the Pharisees, as passive acceptance of these people’s sinful, unclean lifestyles. It showed a profound disregard for “the law” in order to welcome and show compassion and mercy towards those who were excluded. Jesus would not only eat with “these kind” of people; he called them to be his closest followers and take up his mission. This is outrageous.

Which brings us to the folks who were outraged: the Pharisees. These guys – and they were only men – were the strictest sect of Jewish folk in their day. They studied the law of Moses like no one else and made it their life goal to make themselves “righteous” before the law. They were very very serious about not breaking the law. They created more and more laws to keep themselves from breaking the laws. This is a very small group of highly educated, highly respected, probably wealthy men who held positions of power over most everyday Jewish folk. When they see Jesus go to eat with Matthew and his sinner buddies, they are incensed by Jesus’ disregard for the law they love so dearly.

But before we go into Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and dive into Hosea, let’s step back just a little and explore the context of this passage in Matthew’s gospel. We’re in chapter 9. Back a few chapters, in Matthew 5-7, we find Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount; the Beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer, several instances where Jesus re-interprets Moses’ law. At the end of the sermon, people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority – not like the other teachers of the law, ie the Pharisees. In a key verse, Matthew 5:17, Jesus teaches that he and God’s kingdom are the fulfillment of the law. He will show them what the law of Moses was all about in the first place. Then, a few verses later in Matthew 5:20, Jesus makes a somewhat confusing claim about the law of Moses and our “righteousness”, our justice, according to the law. He says, “Unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Interesting, because Jesus seems to be disregarding the law in our passage by eating with sinners and calling them to be disciples. If Jesus has come to fulfill the law, to fulfill justice, and if Jesus’ disciples are called to be even more righteous, more just, than Pharisees, then how do we make sense of what Jesus is doing in our passage?

To answer that question, we need to dive into the Old Testament, to the prophet Hosea. When Jesus responds in Matthew 9:12-13 to the Pharisees’ indignation against his seemingly unlawful behavior, Jesus commands them to study Hosea. He quotes Hosea 6:6, arguably THE key passage in Hosea’s message. Here’s the full verse: “I [God] desire mercy, not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, instead of burnt offerings.” By quoting this one verse from Hosea, Jesus is telling the Pharisees to remember the whole message of Hosea. So, who is this guy?

Hosea. A prophet. Sent to proclaim God’s truth to the northern kingdom of Israel before it was attacked, defeated, and scattered by the Assyrian empire. After this defeat and Hosea’ death, his message became popular in the southern kingdom of Judah when that kingdom found itself in a similar position with the Babylonian empire. Babylon would eventually attack and defeat Judah, destroying Jerusalem and the temple, and sending what was left of God’s people people into exile. So, the socio-political context of Hosea’s message is one of impending doom. Foreign armies are threatening. The kings of Israel are increasingly corrupt, foolish, and trying to make deals with other foreign powers as last ditch efforts to save themselves. They have turned from God, worshiped idols, forgotten God’s law, and are generally relying on their own strength. Of course, during this time, they have continued to “follow” their religious rituals. Sacrifices and offerings are still being given at the temple where God is “worshiped.” But the people have forgotten God and are exploiting the poor, there is rampant inequality, injustice, farmers are losing their land, the king/temple is centralizing wealth and power. They are ignoring God, but still going through the motions of religious piety, as if they cared, as if God would have to intervene and save them as long as they “followed the rules” of sacrifices and offerings which they assume will “justify” their actions.

God calls Hosea into this unjust, idolatrous society on the brink of collapse to proclaim a message of God’s judgment, of anger, but also of profound, unending, steadfast love, and – one day – of restoration, redemption, reconciliation. You may remember that Hosea is the prophet God calls to marry a woman, Gomer, a woman who he knows will be unfaithful to him. Some say she was a prostitute. In any case, they had 3 kids together, but then she is unfaithful to Hosea with other lovers. When this infidelity is uncovered, she leaves him or is sent away by Hosea. This was in accordance with the law of Moses. But then God calls Hosea to go take her back, to renew his love for her. Why does God put Hosea through all of this? Because God wants Hosea to feel, to KNOW, in the pit of his stomach, the immense pain that God feels for his people Israel. Hosea proclaims God’s unfathomable love like no other prophet because he felt the betrayal, the rejection, the broken promises, the fleeting commitments, the disappointments of the one who had promised to love him and him alone. God wanted Hosea to KNOW this – not abstractly, not as a nice concept – but to know it in his bones because this is how God loves God’s people. This is how God feels about our idolatry and injustice.

So, what does this verse, Hosea 6:6 mean? Through Hosea, God is pleading with Israel to see the empty hypocrisy of their ways. God wants THEM, not their sacrifices. God wants their hearts, their minds, their bodies – all of them. God wants to bless them, to see them flourish, to see them enjoy and steward God’s creation, to love each other, to love God, to seek the good of their neighbors, of widows, of orphans, of strangers, of the poor.

Hosea 6:6 is setup as a parallelism. Two statements which mirror each other. Mercy – not sacrifice; knowledge of God – not burnt offerings. Mercy is in parallel with “knowledge of God.” Sacrifice is in parallel with burnt offerings. The two things in these pairs are inseparable and we can’t understand one without the other. The people of Israel say they know God, but they have abandoned love of God and neighbor, they show no mercy, they live unjustly – and this shows they do not KNOW God. The Hebrew verb translated here as “knowledge” has a very rich meaning. It means so much more than head knowledge. Its not an abstract, conceptual knowledge ABOUT God; it’s a full bodied, emotional, passionate, deep kind of knowing that permeates thoughts and actions. The same Hebrew verb is used in the scripture, “Adam KNEW his wife Eve and she bore a son” and we all know what that means! SEX! Let me tell you: sex is not about an abstract, conceptual knowledge. Its mutual love and affection; it’s a shared commitment. When I say I know my wife, I don’t just mean that I know her birthdate, social security number, and address; my knowing of her and my love for her and with her are inseparable. THIS is what God wants from God’s people. The kind of deep knowing, in partnership, in friendship, that is lived out in the way we care for each other and structure our society. When Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, he is bringing this whole drama, this love story between God and Israel, back into the light for the Pharisees to see with fresh eyes.

So, when we left Matthew a few minutes ago, we were left with the question of how to understand what Jesus was doing eating with sinners and tax collectors and welcoming them into God’s kingdom – disregarding the law. Especially in light of his teaching that God’s kingdom FULFILLS the law and that our righteousness, our justice, in relation to the law must EXCEED that of the Pharisees. It’s seems contradictory.

But the contradiction fades when we understand justice the way Jesus did, the way Hosea did. The Pharisees were confused and outraged because they studied the law to justify themselves, to insulate themselves from “sinners”, to exclude, to protect themselves and their power over others, to set themselves up as the ones to be imitated and respected, as the ones to enforce the laws on others and punish them for their disobedience. But Jesus takes them back to the deep, prophetic well of Hosea, to reveal God’s heart, the heart of justice: mercy, compassion, steadfast love and faithfulness, solidarity, co-suffering, sacrificial service, healing, restoration, wholeness, hospitality, peace, reconciliation, LOVE. When Jesus teaches that our justice and righteousness must exceed the Pharisees, he means that we can’t be content with mere obedience to law, as good as that may be. Rather, we are called and empowered to seek the restorative, redemptive intent of the law through concrete acts of mercy which lead to restoration, healing, and wholeness on personal, communal, and societal levels.

The immediate context of Matthew 8 and 9 bears out this re-orientation of justice towards restoration and healing through acts of mercy. There are 9 stories of Jesus healing folks or exorcising demons in these chapters. All these acts of mercy are demonstrations of God’s kingdom. Jesus has come to welcome the sinners, the excluded, the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, into a pursuit of justice and righteousness, of healing and wholeness, in God’s kingdom. Jesus comes as a physician, a healer. The end of Matthew 9 describes Jesus as a shepherd who has compassion, ie mercy, on the crowds, the sheep who are harassed and helpless, as he heals, restores, and brings wholeness.

Now, do you think the Pharisees listened to this teaching? No, of course not! What’s crazy is that Jesus REPEATS this exact verse from Hosea to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:7 after they get all upset about his disciples picking grain to eat on the Sabbath day, which was “breaking the law” of not working on the Sabbath. They still didn’t get it. Then, this same idea comes up in Matthew 23 where Jesus is EXCORIATING the Pharisees about their hypocrisy. Matthew 23:23 says, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” In other words, I’m glad you’re so concerned about following every iota of the law that you make the effort to measure a tenth of your kitchen spices to obey the laws about tithing, but you don’t love people, you don’t care about the real needs of real people. You miss the forest for the trees. I like your commitment to obeying the law, but not if you’re going to miss the whole point of the law in the first place.

But the biblical evidence in Matthew for this deeper understanding of justice and righteousness founded in mercy doesn’t stop there. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats to describe the final judgement before God, the ultimate act of justice. What will be God’s criteria for justice and righteousness? Strict obedience to the law? Ceremonial purity? No. It’s mercy. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoner. Acts of mercy alongside “the least of these my brothers and sisters” will be the evidence of our entrance into God’s kingdom. Justice as mere obedience to law apart from mercy leads to separation from God. It leads to death.

Is this simply works-based salvation? No, its not. Are we not saved by grace through faith? Yes, we are. God’s love for us has not, does not, and will never depend on our actions. We are saved by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and nothing else. Our works of mercy, of pursuing justice, wholeness, peace, and the common good for all do not EARN our salvation. They are our joyful response to the love of God we experience deep in our hearts. How can we do nothing when we look at our world, our communities, our neighbors, our own lives and see the profound suffering, brokenness, pain, discrimination, hate, and apathy that surround us and invade our lives? God’s creation is moaning, all of us, earth, wind, sky, plants, animals, the entire universe is groaning for the promised restoration of God. And God longs to restore us as well. Hosea captured this longing in probably one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture:

Therefore I [the Lord] am now going to allure her [my people Israel]; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of [trouble] a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’ I will remove the names of the [idols] from her lips; no longer will their names be invoked. In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will [KNOW] the Lord. “In that day I will respond,” declares the Lord— “I will respond to the skies, and they will respond to the earth, and the earth will respond to the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, and they will respond to Jezreel. I will plant her [my people Israel] for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’

Behold the heart of our God, merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, longing for our redemption, for our love, for the wholeness, healing, flourishing of not just “God’s people” but for all people, all creation.

The problem is that we don’t want this. Not really, not actually. If we do, our lives don’t show it. The way of the Pharisees is too easy, too enticing, too safe, too comfortable, and we settle for it far too often.

So, back to my playground football broken arm story. What does justice look like? Is it throwing a flag, a lawsuit, a national ban on playground football? No, justice looks like a healed arm, back on the football field, with my friend Sally, playing and enjoying God’s good gifts, full of life. That’s a process. My bones had to be re-set, put in a cast for protection so they could heal. Then my muscles had to regain their strength. It involves forgiveness. Repairing relationships. And trusting each other again.

Now, I get this is a kind of a trivial analogy. It was a simple fracture that healed easily. But I share it to call our attention to the many fractures in our lives and our world today. These are not “simple”. They are what doctors call “compound fractures”. The ones where bones have torn through muscles and skin and are sticking out, exposed to infection, rot, and decay. We are probably aware of these compound fractures – human trafficking, racial injustice and white supremacy, grinding, dehumanizing poverty, war, genocide, sexism and misogyny, hunger, global migration, wealth inequality, discriminatory laws and law enforcement, environmental destruction, the desecration of life in so many myriad of ways.

What do we do? Jesus calls to be even more righteous, more just, than the Pharisees. God longs for our restoration. Do we care? Are our own hearts broken by these compound fractures that break God’s heart? Are we, like the Pharisees, busying ourselves studying the Bible, being “good” people, reading theology, winning arguments against atheists or other “heretics”, just so we can protect ourselves, insulate ourselves, justify ourselves, and stay out of the “messiness” of things like politics and economics? Have we bought into the Pharisaical notion of justice that excuses us from any responsibility to seek the common good so we can sit around in the pews and wait for God to snatch us up into heaven?

Mercy calls us to respond in concrete ways to seek the healing and wholeness of our hurting neighbors. Who are they? What are their stories? Too often, “doing justice” is limited to changing laws and policies, to understanding “issues”. Please hear me out: this is not bad. We need to work for more just laws and policies and for people to understand the issues deeply and thoroughly. But its not enough, justice doesn’t end there and its not where I think I should begin my pursuit of justice. As a person who doesn’t experience much injustice, my first step of mercy is to listen, to serve, to lament, and feel the weight of suffering caused by the brokenness of our world. One of my favorite authors, Henri Nouwen, says it this way: “We cannot love issues, but we can love people, and the love of people reveals to us the way to deal with issues.” And deal with them we must.

As we love people who are hurting, God graciously opens our eyes to our own brokenness, and how our brokenness and the brokenness of those we love are interconnected, one and the same. Ultimately, seeking justice will cost us – those who like me enjoy the privileges that others do not. Our hearts will be broken, our lives will change, repentance will not be easy. But this is what God desires: mercy, not sacrifice. We must come to see that Jesus, and he alone, is Lord and Healer – not us. Doing justice cannot be our attempt to fix or save others as if we had no need of a healer. Another favorite author of mine, Claudio Oliver, captures this conviction:

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer… when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda. God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed.

It may not sound like it, but this is very, very good news. We are not called to save the world by seeking justice and righteousness. As the prophet Micah said, we are called to walk humbly with God – all of us broken folks together – as we do justice and love mercy.

God desires mercy, not sacrifice. A Christian pursuit of justice must be oriented towards the healing, restoration, and wholeness of all people – ourselves included. It begins with concrete acts of mercy. The question is: Do we care? Have our hearts been broken by the pain and suffering of our world? Or do we hide behind our privilege refusing to care, refusing to listen? May we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Break our hearts for what breaks yours, O God, our Healer.

Newbigin on the Open Secret of Gospel Stewardship

One of the most common metaphors used in the New Testament to describe the relation of the church to the gospel is that of stewardship. The church, and especially those called to any kind of leadership in the church, are servants entrusted with that which is not their property but is the property of their Lord. That which is entrusted is something of infinite worth as compared with the low estate of the servants in whose hands it is placed. They are but mud pots; but that which is entrusted to them is the supreme treasure (II Cor. 4:7). The treasure is nothing less than “the mysteries of God” (I Cor. 4:1), “the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19), “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and… made known to all nations… to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:25-26). It is “the mystery of his will… to unite all things in him” (Eph. 1:9-10). It is the open secret of God’s purpose, through Christ, to bring all things to their true end in the glory of the triune God. It is open in that it is announced in the gospel that is preached to all the nations; it is a secret in that it is manifest only to the eyes of faith. It is entrusted to those whom God has given the gift of faith by which the weakness and foolishness of the cross is known as the power and wisdom of God. It is entrusted to them not for themselves but for all the nations. It is Christ in them, the hope of glory.

Lesslie Newbigin. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Kindle Locations 2551-2560). Kindle Edition.

The Gospel According to Hauerwas

From Al Mohler’s recent interview with Stanley Hauerwas (click for transcript):

Mohler:            Well, again, looking at your writings, and even preparing for this conversation, and feeling the weight of your critique at many points and just very catalytic thoughts, I came back to another question, and that is, for Stanley Hauerwas, what is the gospel? What is the good news that is at the center of the Christian faith? Because I think I could hypothesize several answers, but I would just love to hear you to respond to that. What is the gospel?

Hauerwas:       That through Jesus Christ, very God and very man, we Gentiles have been made part of the promise to Israel that we will be witnesses to God’s good care of God’s creation through the creation of a people who once were no people that the world can see there is an alternative to our violence. There is an alternative to our deceptions. There is an alternative to our unfaithfulness to one another though the creation of something called church. That’s salvation.

 

The E-Word and the Cross

The apostle Paul, arguably one of the first great evangelists, begins his first letter to the church at Corinth by affirming his calling: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel.”1 The gospel Paul preaches to the Jews and Gentile Greeks in Corinth is “the message about the cross… the power of God.”2 However, this was a message neither group wanted to hear. Even though Paul knew how the “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” he remained faithful to his evangelistic calling: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”3 Evangelism according to Paul is a distinctly cruciform practice. The cross of Christ is its sole content and no one – neither Jews nor Gentiles, neither Americans nor Iranians, neither black nor white, neither male nor female, neither rich nor poor – wants to hear about the cross because the cross confronts; it is a matter of life and death.

At the church in which I was raised, the cross held a central place in the practice of evangelism. One could hardly imagine explaining the Christian faith without mentioning the cross. It was used as the prime evidence to demonstrate both humanity’s utter depravity and God’s unconditional love. While the cross was essential to the logic of evangelism, it was hardly a characteristic of the lives – both individual and social – of the evangelists. The message of the cross was preached from positions of cultural, political, religious and economic privilege. Church members were the upright citizens, the hardest workers, the trendsetters, and the decision makers. The cross no longer confronted their lives; it had completed its work the moment they “accepted Jesus” as their “personal Lord and Savior.” It was now an abstract, verbal tool they could use to wield divine power over others. Evangelism was a campaign speech, a T.V. commercial thinly veiled in the language of “cross”, “sin,” “God’s love,” and “salvation.” Its goal was an individual decision, sealed by a quick recitation of words, which made Jesus the new “King of your life” but led to very few real changes beyond the rejection of individual vices like drinking, smoking, and casual sex. Evangelism preached the cross but refused to live under its power.

As Bryan Stone notes in Evangelism after Christendom, this kind of evangelism is “neither welcomed nor warranted” in the new post-Christian reality of mainstream American culture.4 The “e-word” has become a “barrier to mutual respect, careful listening, open sharing, and cooperation” arising from “an attitude of intolerance and superiority toward others” which leads to “a belligerent and one-sided attempt to convert others to our way of seeing things.”5 It is the “blessing” of Christendom which has allowed the church in America to preach the cross without becoming a people of the cross. As this reality fades away, some in the church turn to more creative, more relevant techniques to communicate the gospel more effectively; others look to philosophy to shore up the gospel’s intellectual bona fides; still others commend the benefits of a gospel lifestyle – anything but the cross. Stone diagnoses the situation clearly: “what the gospel needs most is not intellectual brokers or cultural diplomats but rather saints who have taken up the way of the cross and in whose lives the gospel is visible, palpable, and true.”6 Evangelism in post-Christendom America which preaches the cross without the social witness of a people who live together under the cross is vacuous and vain.

The apostle Paul rejected any other foundation for his evangelism and relied completely on “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”7 The power of the cross is seen not in its violence but in the resurrecting power of the Spirit it unleashes which creates the possibility of a new creation kind of people. This is a people who are being “formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ.”8 In order to preach Christ crucified today, the verbal proclamation of evangelism must be accompanied – if not replaced by – a “visible and embodied offer made by a Christ-shaped social body” which invites “participation in a community rather than a mere assent to a set of ideas.”9 Because the cross confronts all cultures, this kind of evangelism is seen as a practice of foolishness, weakness, and shame: “but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”10

Evangelism is an invitation into the story of God’s reign coming to the world and turning it upside down. In the midst of a pluralist, violent, individualist, wealth-seeking culture, it is the work of a people whose individual and social lives have been and are continually being shaped by the story of the God who brings home the outcast, restores the marginalized, and resurrects the crucified.

1 1 Cor. 1:17.

2 1 Cor. 1:18.

3 1 Cor. 1:22-23.

4 Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 10.

5 Stone, 10.

6 Stone, 12.

7 1 Cor. 2:4,5.

8 Stone, 15.

9 Stone, 249.

10 1 Cor. 1:27-29.

Alison on Re-Imagining Substitutionary Atonement

if you have a theory of atonement – something grasped – you have something that people can “get right”, and then be on the inside of the good guys. “We’re the people who are covered by the blood; we’re the ones who are okay, the ones who are good; and then there are those others who aren’t.” In other words, rather than undergoing atonement, we’re people who grasp onto the idea of the atonement. But the whole purpose of the Christian understanding is that we shouldn’t identify too soon with the good guys. On the contrary, we are people who are constantly undergoing “I AM” – that is to say, God – coming towards us [as] one who is offering forgiveness from the victim [Jesus Christ crucified]. And we are learning how to look at each other as people who are saying, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.” Which means that we are the “other” in this package; that we are the “other” who are being turned into a “we”, in the degree to which we find our similarity with our brother and sister on either side of us; rather than: we are the people who, because we’ve grasped the theory have become part of “I AM”, and therefore the “other” is some “them”. If you are undergoing atonement it means that you are constantly in the process of being approached by someone who is forgiving you. That, it seems to me, is the challenge for us in terms of imagination when it comes to imagining and re-imagining atonement.

…it’s because we are undergoing being forgiven that we can forgive; and we need to forgive in order to continue undergoing being forgiven. But remember: it’s because we are approached by our victim, that we start to be undone. Or in Paul’s language: “even though you were dead in your sins he has made you alive together in Christ.” Someone was approaching you even when you didn’t realize there was a problem, so that you begin to discover, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.”

…What Jesus was doing was opening up the Creator’s vision, which knows not death, so that we can live as though death were not. In other words, we’re being given a bigger heart. That is what being forgiven is all about. It’s not, “I need to sort out this moral problem you have.” It’s, “Unless I come towards you, and enable you [to] undergo a breaking of heart, you’re going to live in too small a universe, you’re not going to enjoy yourselves and be free. How the hell do I get through to you! Well, the only way is by coming amongst you as your victim. That’s the only place in which you can be undone. That’s the place you’re so frightened of being that you’ll do anything to get away from it. So if I can occupy that space, and return to you and say, “Yes, you did this thing to me. But don’t worry! I’m not here to accuse you. I’m here to play with you! To make a bigger space for you. And for you to do it with me.” And of course the way he acted this out before his death was setting up the last supper, in which he would give himself to us so that we would become him.

…We can imagine retaliation, we can imagine protection; but we find it awfully difficult to imagine someone we despised, and were awfully glad not to be like – whom we would rather cast out so as to keep ourselves going – we find it awfully difficult to imagine that person generously irrupting into our midst so as to set us free to enable something quite new to open for us. But that’s what atonement is about; and that is what we are asked to live liturgically as Christians.

excerpts from “Some Thoughts on the Atonement” by James Alison.

Donovan on the Nature of True Missionary Work

To approach each culture with the respect due to it as the very place wherein resides the possibility of salvation and holiness and grace. To approach the people of any culture or nation, not as individuals, but as community. To plan to stay not one day longer than is necessary in any one place. To give the people nothing, literally nothing, but the unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel before baptism. To help them expand that gospel into a creed and a way of life after baptism. To enable them to pray as Christians. To leave them the bible towards the day when they can read it and use it as a living letter in their lives. To insist that they themselves be their own future missionaries. To link them with the outside church in unity, and the outside world in charity and justice. To agree with them that baptism is indeed everything; that the reception of baptism is the acceptance of the total responsibility and the full, active sacramental power of the church, the eucharistic community with a mission. To encourage them to trust in the Spirit given at baptism, and to use the powers and gifts and charisms given to the community by the Spirit. And then the final step. The final missionary step as regards the people of any nation or culture, and the most important lesson we will ever teach them – is to leave them.

Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered

Jesus Doesn’t Need Used Car Salesmen: Luke 7:1-10

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Worth – true worth – its hard to find these days, isn’t it? It’s election season and in just 5 weeks we’ll be watching the news as the results come in. Elections are all about worth – who is worthy of my vote? Who is worthy to hold the presidential office, to be our leader? And, oh, do we hear all about it: we hear a 1000 reasons why one candidate is more worthy than the other; it gets tiring. As I was reading through some history books about the presidential election way, way back in 1960, I found this picture of a poster attacking Richard Nixon. It had a picture of Nixon with a cunning smile on his face and it read: “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Well, as you may remember, Nixon lost that election to JFK. I guess America wasn’t quite ready to buy any used cars from Nixon.

That image of the used car salesmen stuck in mind. What is it about these people that causes us to dislike them so much? Some say they’re all liars, always trying to make a buck, willing to do anything to move cars off the lot. All that may or may not be true, but I think the main reason we dislike used car salesmen so much is their arrogant, assuming insistence that some car is definitely worth our hard-earned money: “GUARANTEED SATISFACTION! Just sign on the dotted line…” How do you respond when someone is constantly trying to convince you that something has worth? Doesn’t it make you wonder about what’s beneath all their show?

In our text from Luke, Jesus runs into a bunch of used car salesmen also known as the Jewish Elders! They approached Jesus and “appealed to him earnestly” so that he would go and heal the beloved, dying slave of a Roman centurion. A more descriptive translation would read that they were desperately pleading with Jesus and just wouldn’t let up. They tried to convince Jesus that this centurion was worthy. He was worthy of Jesus’ time, his attention and his blessing. What were their reasons? This man was a lover of the Jews and had even built them a synagogue, which would have been a significant financial sacrifice for a centurion. He had done so much, he was such a good man, he was a man of authority and power – he deserved Jesus. Like experienced salesmen, these Jewish elders had played up their product and now they were just waiting for Jesus to take the bait. You can tell they were determined to move this car off the lot.

But what was beneath all of their desperate appeals? Were they really that concerned about the centurion’s dying slave? Isn’t it interesting to note that the centurion never asked the Jewish elders to sell him to Jesus like a used car? He just wanted Jesus to come and heal his slave. And Jesus also never asked to be convinced of the centurion’s worth. The elders took this simple request for healing, got themselves dressed up in their gaudy, cheap suits, slicked back their hair, threw on their best pair of shades, and started dangling the keys in Jesus’ face: “You don’t wanna miss this deal Jesus!” What was driving all of this? Remember: the elders were known as the teachers of the Law. They were the scribes, the lawyers, the Scripture experts. Their primary arena of influence was the synagogue, the place of teaching. The synagogue was the seat of their authority. And now, who had built their synagogue? Essentially, these elders had entered into a patron-client relationship with this centurion. He was the authority behind their authority; without him, they had no place to teach, no place to exert their power. You see, the elders were obsessed with the worth of this centurion because they were dependent on his power. And then these poor elders start talking to Jesus and they just have no clue who they are talking to. They thought they could convince Jesus to join in their patron-client relations, because, in their eyes, Jesus was just another teacher, or maybe a prophet at best. They thought his authority was dependent on the Roman centurion just like theirs. In their attempts to convince Jesus of the centurion’s worth, the elders revealed their refusal to accept Jesus’ authority as their Lord and Messiah. They wanted Jesus – the King of Kings and Lord of Lords – to play their little power games.

But when the centurion gets a chance to speak for himself, we hear a completely different perspective. Does the centurion echo the arguments of the Jewish elders? Does he remind Jesus of all his accomplishments and generosity towards the Jews? Not at all. In fact he does the exact opposite. His words completely contradict the elders’: they said he was deserving of Jesus’ healing, but he says he isn’t even deserving of talking to Jesus face to face. Instead of trumpeting his authority as a Roman military commander, the centurion exalts his unworthiness, his incapability, his need for a different kind of power. He may hold military might, but he knows he doesn’t have the power to heal. He expresses a dependence on Jesus’ power – he calls him Lord! The centurion knew he couldn’t prove himself worthy of Jesus; he was not interested in being a salesman.

The crazy part about this story is that Jesus actually affirms the centurion’s worth, but not at all in the way the elders were expecting. It was not because of his power, his accomplishments, or anything he had done – it was his FAITH. And specifically, it was the faith he displayed by accepting Jesus’ authority. The elders refused to believe that Jesus was their Messiah so they assumed they could obligate him to help them out. The centurion may not have known all about the Messiah of the Jews, but he was convinced of one thing: Jesus had the power and he didn’t. He wasn’t convinced of his own authority, but he sure was sold on Jesus.

You know, politicians like Richard Nixon aren’t the only ones who are sometimes accused of acting like used car salesmen. You wanna guess who the others might be? Preachers, pastors, ministers, and church leaders of all kinds. How often do we come to Jesus like we’ve got something to sell him? Maybe its our latest project – a new synagogue perhaps – or maybe we’re just trying to sell ourselves. “Jesus don’t you see how much I’m doing? Don’t you see how worthy I am of your blessing, your time, your attention? Have you forgotten me?” Maybe you find yourself desperately trying to convince Jesus that your plans, your ministry, or your church are good enough for his blessing. Listen: Jesus is not in the market; he’s not buying anything; AND he never asked you to sell him anything. He never asked you to prove your worth. All he wants is your FAITH. He just asks that you believe in his authority, that you believe that your worth is not found in your accomplishments but in your active faith in his immeasurable, incomparable, incontestable, and infinite might. Jesus is Lord! He is Messiah! By faith, you are already made worthy. You don’t have to measure up because Jesus is worthy! Quit trying to sell Jesus your old used cars and sell yourself to his Kingdom, to his authority, and you’ll find the healing, the wholeness, the peace you need to continue faithfully as servant leaders of the Church. Amen.