Love Like Jesus

or I think I know when grace came of age

April 27, 2008

First off, I’m going to warn you that some of you are not going to like what I’m about to say.

News item: Christians are supposed to represent Christ to the world. But recent groundbreaking research from the Barna Group reveals that 16-29 year olds are perceiving Christians not as representatives of Christ but as “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” “judgemental” and … unChristian.

cross and stone

I have to admit to you that I have a hard time with the cross as a symbol for Jesus Christ. He died for my sins? What does that mean? A symbol of torture is the symbol of my faith? Or what about the cross with the dying Christ hanging on it, isn’t that a little morbid? At least an empty cross is easier to look at.

I understand the tomb and the resurrection. It takes away the fear of death, creates a belief in the afterlife. Now that’s a joyful symbol. Maybe I should wear a rock around my neck.

But, recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about the cross and I may have found something there to believe in after all, something maybe even more amazing than the resurrection. It’s not his last words, “It is finished”, it's not the conversation with the two thieves about paradise. It’s right there on the cross, in the middle of the pain and agony of being crucified, when he says:

[“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”]
(Luke 23:34, net.bible.org)

What did He mean, “forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”? Is He asking forgiveness for the Roman soldiers who are just following orders, for the crowd who believe He is just another false prophet, even for the religious leaders who turned Him over to Pilate?

To understand how Jesus could come to say this, let’s go back and take another look at Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. In some ways it is really more about the Father and the elder brother than the prodigal son.

Luke 15 (net.bible.org)
11 Then Jesus said, “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that will belong to me.’ So he divided his assets between them. After a few days, the younger son gathered together all he had and left on a journey to a distant country, and there he squandered his wealth with a wild lifestyle. Then after he had spent everything, a severe famine took place in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and worked for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He was longing to eat the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have food enough to spare, but here I am dying from hunger! I will get up and go to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way from home his father saw him, and his heart went out to him; he ran and hugged his son and kissed him. Then his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Hurry! Bring the best robe, and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let us eat and celebrate, because this son of mine was dead, and is alive again — he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

The Prodigal Son coming to meet his father

James W. Moore, in Jesus’ Parables of Grace, says Jesus does not say the father is standing and waiting looking sternly at his son down the road with folded arms. He is not waiting to hear his son’s confession.

“A thousand times the father has looked down that road longing for this moment, praying for this moment, and now here it is. He can’t wait to get to his son and forgive him and hug him and welcome him home. …this parable was told by Jesus to show us what God is like, to show us dramatically God’s gracious and unconditional love; to show us that God is always anxious to love, quick to forgive, eager to reconcile.”

But there is another character in this story.

25 “Now his older son was in the field. As he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the slaves and asked what was happening. The slave replied, ‘Your brother has returned, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he got his son back safe and sound.’ But the older son became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and appealed to him, but he answered his father, ‘Look! These many years I have worked like a slave for you, and I never disobeyed your commands. Yet you never gave me even a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends! But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything that belongs to me is yours. It was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.’”

(James W. Moore again says):

“…while the father is gracious and forgiving throughout, we see a different story with the elder brother. He is angry, resentful, critical, and frustrated. The father rushes out to encourage the elder brother to forgive and come to the homecoming dinner. But there is no forgiveness in the elder brother—no compassion here, no celebration here… Bitterly he turns away and misses the party.”

He feels hurt, jealous, confused, but most of all he feels rejected, that all of his “work” and obeying the father’s every word, meant nothing. Are we the elder brother? Do we know that the father has not rejected him at all, but that the father’s love includes everyone? Maybe…

“Instead of the parable of the prodigal son, it should be called the parable of the gracious father! Because, you see, the theme of the parable is not the revelry of the prodigal son: nor the bitterness of the elder brother. No, the theme here is the goodness of the father—the faithfulness of God. The message is that God cares and that He wants all of his children to be a part of the celebration.”

In the television mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus invites Himself to the house of Matthew, the tax collector, to eat and visit with Matthew’s friends, who are thieves, whores, and vagabonds of all kinds. But Peter and the other Jewish disciples, won’t enter Matthew’s house. They plead with Jesus not to defile Himself by entering Matthew’s house. But Jesus enters, by Himself, and tells the story of the Prodigal Son, I’m sorry, the story of the Gracious Father, to Matthew and his friends, while Peter and the others are listening from outside. Jesus finishes the story and there is silence. Then Peter and the others, seeing themselves as the elder brother, enter Matthew’s house and Peter says, “I am not worthy to follow you, Lord, I am a sinner.” And Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid, Peter. Come and join us at the feast.”

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

But that is just a story, a parable. Let’s look at an actual incident in the life of Jesus, let’s look at the incident of the woman caught in adultery.

John 8 (net.bible.org)
2 Early in the morning he came to the temple courts again. All the people came to him, and he sat down and began to teach them. The experts in the law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught committing adultery. They made her stand in front of them and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone to death such women. What then do you say?” (Now they were asking this in an attempt to trap him, so that they could bring charges against him.) Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger.

Now, my question is, why is he writing in the dirt? Why is He basically ignoring the teachers of the laws, given by Moses? I think He’s writing because He’s tired. I think He’s telling Himself, they still don’t get it. All of the talking, the parables, all of the healings, and the miracles, they still don’t get it. I think He’s praying and talking to His Father. He’s asking Him what is it going to take to get through to these people. What is it going to take to show them what unconditional love means? ...And then He gets an idea. If you’ll help me, Father, maybe this will show them.

7 When they persisted in asking him, he stood up straight and replied, “Whoever among you is guiltless may be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground.

Now when they heard this, they began to drift away one at a time, starting with the older ones, until Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

(A good friend of mine says he believes that Jesus was writing on the ground the sins of the crowd. As each one saw their sin they dropped their stone and walked away.)

So, my question is what do you think the accusers saw in their minds that would make them walk away. Did they see all the sins they had ever committed? I think not. They would end up in a catatonic state of shame, laying on the ground, unable to look at each other. No, I think they probably only saw one sin from their past. Which begs the question, which sin would it take to make you walk away? Would it have to be a big sin: physical or sexual abuse, torture, genocide? Or maybe, just an everyday sin like greed, selfishness, or lust. Or would all it take is just one little lie, just one little imperfection in your soul to invoke an empathy that would not allow you to throw a stone at another sinner?

adulterous woman and Jesus
10 Jesus stood up straight and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She replied, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Now, here’s another question maybe we should ask ourselves about the cross: why did the people kill Jesus? I know why He died, but why did they kill Him? Was it because He wasn’t who they thought He was? He really wasn’t the Messiah after all. Or maybe it was just that He wasn’t really one of them, He was a rabbi, but He didn’t like all the things they liked? Or did they think He really wasn’t one of them because He didn’t hate all the things they hated? He didn’t hate the Romans, He didn’t hate the Samaritans, He didn’t even hate the prostitutes and tax collectors.

Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, writes:

“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Some people say AIDS is the biblical “leprosy” of our modern era, but I’m thinking maybe it’s just our lack of desire to associate with “sinners”. Our inability to see behind the sinful act and see the person. Our inability to hate the sin but not the sinner.

Jesus tells two other parables about being lost. The parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.

Barry Robinson in a piece titled, And God Wore Red Gym Shoes, writes:

The startlingly comforting and challenging thing about the two parables Jesus tells to open the 15th chapter of Luke is that God seems completely intent on finding those of us who are lost - whether or not those who are lost ever appreciate that fact. Yes, I know. Luke adds, “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” although I doubt if Jesus ever said that. Why? Because they don’t fit the stories, that’s why. Lost sheep don’t come to their senses anymore than a lost coin does. Lost sheep keep running away, hiding in caves and acting frightened even when it’s the good shepherd looking for them because that’s what it means to be lost. If that and the analogy of a misplaced coin with about as much sense as a sheep don’t convince you, then just think about the real “live” sinners you have ever met or been yourselves. We’re just as “sense-less”, just as set in our ways, and just as inclined to keep running the other way whenever love comes searching for us, too.

It isn’t anything about lost sinners that made Jesus want to eat and drink with them. It was something about Jesus. He associated with the uncultivated, the vulgar, the irreligious, the notorious - in other words - with anybody he knew who had ever done anything wrong. If anything is plainly true from all four gospel records, that surely is. He spent most of his time with people so unlike the crowd you would normally expect to find in pews on Sunday morning that it is enough to wonder how comfortable he would be hanging around with people like us.

So much so that one of the charges that began to stick was “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The amazing thing is that he didn’t seem to mind one bit. He kept on breaking bread with them and lifting a pint or two whether they went on being the mixed up, self-destructive, irresponsible people they were or not. Not that he didn’t want them to be better; because, of course, he did. But that was not the point. The point was that he wanted them to know that God had never turned [H/His] back on them and never would, that [S/He] would be never satisfied until [S/He] had them back safe and sound, that [S/He] would never rest until what was lost was found. That was the point.

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

So, how did He do it? How was He able to spend all His time with the poor, the sick and the outcasts of His era?

La Clairvoyance

One of my favorite images is a self-portrait by the surrealist artist, Rene Magritte. It’s called La Clairvoyance. It shows the artist looking at an egg but painting a picture of a bird in flight. I believe this is how Jesus saw people. He didn’t see them in the egg surrounded by the sin of their decisions, He saw them as birds, free and in flight, in the love of His Father!

But Jesus didn’t necessarily have to look at people’s future to see them differently, He could also look into their past.

In a scene from the movie Ironweed, the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, and some of their friends, stumble across an old Eskimo woman lying in the snow, probably drunk. Inebriated themselves, they debate what they should do about her.

“Is she drunk?” (asks Nicholson)

“Just a bum. Been one all her life.”

“And before that?”

“She was a whore in Alaska.”

“She hasn't been a whore all her life. Before that?”

“I dunno. Just a little kid, I guess”

“Well a little kid’s something. It’s not a bum and it’s not a whore. It’s something. Let’s take her in.”

Philip Yancy, in What’s So Amazing About Grace, writes:

The vagrants were seeing the Eskimo woman through the lens of grace. Where society saw only a bum and a whore, grace saw “a little kid,” a person made in the image of God no matter how defaced that image had become.

But most of all Jesus loved all people because His Father loved all people. Jesus lived in His Father’s love and shared that love with all He met. It didn’t matter if someone didn’t like Him, His Father loved Him. It didn’t matter if someone ridiculed or took advantage of Him, His Father loved Him. It didn’t matter if someone wanted to kill Him, His Father loved Him.

And God’s love comes from believing, from patience, and from understanding. And understanding begets empathy, and empathy leaves no room for hate.

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

I think there on the cross, that is the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. That is where maybe Jesus even taught God something new. What He taught His Father is there are no rules for forgiveness. Jesus did not ask His Father to forgive only those who repented. He did not ask His Father to forgive just the Jewish people. He did not even ask His Father to forgive just His followers. He asked His Father to forgive even those who don’t know what they are doing.

Jesus showed there are no rules for forgiveness. There are plenty of rules for hate—why should there be any rules for love. And that’s why love changes people.

I’d like to end with a scripture from:

Luke 6 (net.bible.org)
(Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain)

27 “But I say to you who are listening: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other as well, and from the person who takes away your coat, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks you, and do not ask for your possessions back from the person who takes them away. Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to be repaid, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, so that they may be repaid in full. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because He is kind to ungrateful and evil people. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

I started this by saying some of you are not going to like this. But if you really think about it, and give it a try, you just might find you’ll love it... just like Jesus loved.

—Priest Robert Thomas
rough notes from a sermon given on April 27, 2008