Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lord, Let Me Never Stop Searching

In writing the last few posts here, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the scribes and pharisees and why it is that they were the only ones whom Jesus publicly rebuked during His earthly life. For point of clarity, it has been pointed out to me that Our Lord also rebuked the money changers in the temple. However, Jesus' rebuke of the money changers was a rebuke for one specific action - desecrating the temple - rather than who they were as people. This is found in Matthew 21:12-13:
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “ ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The words of Jesus Christ to to the Pharisees and scribes was directed precisely to who they were as human beings.  And Our Lord's words were nothing short of scathing.

Mark 12:38-40:
“Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places,  and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets,  who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.”
To the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:4-7):
They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger. “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. “They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.
And Matthew 23:27-28:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.  “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
And Mark 7:6-8:
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

There are more, but I think you can get the idea from the above scriptures.

We have no record of Jesus publicly rebuking anyone else. He never even rebuked those who were possessed with demons. He rebuked the demons, but never the people. The first man he called to be an apostle - Matthew - was a tax collector, which meant he was a professional thief, collecting large amounts of money from the people and pocketing a good portion of it. Jesus, as far as we know, did not say a word to Matthew about his corrupt practices. The only thing Jesus said to him was, "Follow me." And the amazing thing is, Matthew did so without hesitation.

Jesus met public sinners throughout his ministry and had no problem whatsoever in socializing with them, for which He received constant criticism from the Pharisees.  The Pharisees would never think of sullying themselves by getting anywhere near a public sinner, and they accused Christ of making himself a sinner by associating with them.  Jesus characterized their rebukes in Matthew 11:19 when He said, "The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners."

God does not tolerate any form of sin, so we know that Jesus' association with sinners did not mean he was endorsing sin in any way, but like the woman taken in adultery, he was extending mercy to people so that they would be able to repent and turn from their sinful lives.  But why didn't Our Lord extend this same mercy to the Pharisees and Scribes?  Why, unlike his actions towards others, did Christ feel the need to publicly rebuke the Pharisees and Scribes, and to do so in such harsh, unrelenting words?

In Matthew 7:7, Jesus told us that in order to find him all we had to do was ask:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.
What has this got to do with anything? The sinners our Lord met - adulterers, prostitutes, publicans, thieves, etc. - were all seeking something. They knew something was missing in their lives. They didn't know what it was, but they thought if they could just fill it with that "one" thing - be it sex, money, power, etc. - then they would be happy.  They were searching, but like the old song says, they were "looking in all the wrong places." Our Lord, seeing this, would go to them and gently say, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." Our Lord showed them kindness and compassion, never the harsh and unbending criticism He displayed towards the Pharisees.  

This is beautifully illustrated in the story of the woman Jesus met at the well, which is depicted in John 4. The woman was a Samaritan, and as we are told in verse 9 of John 4, Jews do not associate with Samaritans. So when Jesus was sitting at the well and asked her for a drink of water, he was violating serious social protocol. And the woman knew it. At first she was very defensive, and said "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" Her contemptuous tone did not deter Jesus in the least, and He very compassionately answered, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." (Verse 10)

Not only was this Jew speaking to her, a Samaritan, but he was speaking kindly to her.  She had never experienced anything close to this in her life.  But she did not understand Jesus' answer, and she was also still somewhat skeptical about what He really wanted, so she asked Him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?"  (Verse 11)

An interesting side point.  Venerable Fulton Sheen pointed out how this woman becomes progressively more respectful towards Jesus as the conversation ensues.  She starts out calling him "You Jew."  In the next statement, she calls him "Sir."

Jesus answers the Samaritan woman by telling her He has what she has been searching for (verses 13-14):  "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

The woman is deeply intrigued, but she still doesn't understand Jesus (verse 15):  "Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water."

At this point, Jesus very kindly points out that she has a problem in her life that needs to be corrected. He asks her to call her husband. She says she has no husband. In verses 17-18, He responds, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true."

The woman realizes that Jesus is not trying to condemn her in any way. He is merely stating a fact. But the issue of her failed marriages is not something she wants to talk about, so she tries to change the subject: "Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."

Jesus does not go back to the problem with her marital status, but instead answers her statement about worship (verses 21-24):
“Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Here, Jesus is saying to a Samaritan woman that her people have no idea what true worship is and that salvation is from the Jews, their avowed enemies.  Yet she takes no offense at this, because in this same statement our Lord is describing true worship to her, and now she is beginning to understand.  She knows that Jesus is speaking of that for which they all seek (verse 25):
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus tells her outright:
“I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Our Lord brought salvation to the Samaritan woman not by scolding her and telling her she needed to turn from her sinful lifestyle.  She came to salvation, or at least the knowledge of who Jesus was, because Jesus told her that He was what she was searching for.  He told her to stop looking in the wrong places, and instead look at Him.  And when she did, she was thoroughly convinced.

So why couldn't Jesus do this with the Pharisees and Scribes? Because the most important element in the equation was missing - the Pharisees and Scribes were not looking. They were convinced they had all the answers. They looked at themselves and saw only goodness personified. They had supreme self confidence. They were completely and totally infected with the most serious of spiritual sicknesses: self righteousness and self confidence.

Despite His harsh criticism of them, Our Lord loved the Pharisees and Scribes as much as anyone else, and longed for them to accept Him. But he was up against a stone wall with them.

The Pharisees knew they were the "chosen people." As they told Jesus, Abraham was their father. God had worked directly through the Jews throughout the centuries. They had a couple thousand years of tradition. Their religious practices had been tried and proven throughout the centuries. They didn't need a poor uneducated Nazarene carpenter, who was rumored to be a bastard child, telling them about God. And this Jesus was constantly flouting their traditions and practices. Why, he and his followers didn't wash their hands before eating, as the Law said. They picked corn on the Sabbath! They socialized with non Jews. And Jesus even healed on the Sabbath - a deed worthy of stoning!

They knew the people were listening to Jesus and following Him, but the people were all so stupid, anyway. These common people did not have the education and training that the Pharisees and Scribes did. The people didn't know the law, so why pay attention to anything they say.

The Gospels teach us that often those who appear to be the most hardened sinners are sometimes much closer to Christ than those who appear to be "righteous." Why was Jesus able to reach the Samaritan woman at the well but not the Pharisees? Because the woman at the well was searching. She knew that she didn't have all the answers, she knew something was missing in her life. And all it took was Our Lord to compassionately show her the right way to go and her life was changed. The Pharisees would have treated her contemptuously, if at all, and scolded her for her sins, and that would have left her right where she was.

As Christians, we must never become self complacent. We must never think we have it made, that we have learned all we need to know, and there is no further room for spiritual growth in our lives. Once we do that, we have taken ourselves out of the Lord's Hands. Once we think we have it all together and therefore have the right to judge others and most especially those put in charge of our souls, we are in big trouble spiritually because we are putting a huge wall between us and the mercy of God. We have, in effect, become Pharisees.

Terry Anderson of Abbey Roads posted a beautiful prayer on my blog from Saint Claude de la Colombiere. There is one line in it that especially touched me:  "As for myself, Lord, all my confidence is my confidence itself. Because You Lord, only You have secured my hope."

Lord, let me never depend on myself. Let me never stop searching for you.

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