Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Intolerant Jesus

Leading Morning Prayer today, I was struck by the Gospel reading. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week, the Daily Office lectionary plows through the 23rd chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. And in that chapter, Jesus lays into the scribes and Pharisees hard. The repeated refrain is "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" with Jesus spelling out the many forms of their hypocrisy. Jesus' confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees includes a litany of blistering criticisms and withering judgments.

Here's the verse that really got my attention this morning:

"For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves" (v. 15, NRSV).

How utterly and completely intolerant of Jesus to call anyone - even the scribes and the Pharisees - children of hell! But there it is. (There are other examples of Jesus' intolerance, but this one is perhaps one of the most striking.)

Perhaps part of the dissonance in all of this is that Jesus' verbal assault doesn't sit well with the Gospel of Tolerance/Inclusiveness preached by so many today. From my perspective, the motive driving the Gospel of Tolerance/Inclusiveness is the laudable desire to fulfill the second part of the Great Commandment by loving our neighbor as ourselves as well as an attempt to fulfill our Baptismal Covenant promises to "seek and serve Christ in all persons" and to "respect the dignity of every human being" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 306). But perhaps, in light of today's Daily Office reading from Matthew, something is missing.

In her book Entering the Household of God: Taking Baptism Seriously in a Post-Christian Age (Church Publishing, 2002), Claudia Dickson writes: "In our time, tolerance is the ultimate virtue. And being perceived as intolerant is an unforgivable sin. Yet we have confused tolerance with love. When we love someone we take them seriously enough to speak the truth to them" (p. 43).

No doubt about it, Jesus speaks the truth to the scribes and the Pharisees by confronting their behavior, naming their hypocrisy, and taking them to task for its consequences. Jesus loves them enough to tell them the truth. And just three chapters later, one of the consequences of acting on this love is Jesus' arrest, torture, and crucifixion.

I think that passages like today's Daily Office reading from Matthew challenge a one-sided Gospel of Tolerance/Inclusion. There's more to love than mere "tolerance" or "inclusion." As Jesus shows, sometimes love takes the form of confrontation and judgment. Writing in The Road Less Traveled (Simon & Schuster, 1978), M. Scott Peck puts it well: "Whenever we confront someone we are in essence saying to that person, 'You are wrong; I am right.' ... To fail to confront when confrontation is required for the nurture of spiritual growth represents a failure to love equally as much as does thoughtless criticism or condemnation and other forms of active deprivation of caring" (pp. 150 & 153). So perhaps the Gospel in its fullness entails a paradox: both tolerance and intolerance, both inclusion and exclusion.


Anonymous said...

The Scribes and Pharisees were not, though tolerant/inclusive groups. They were intolerant/exclusive groups. Or at least that is my take on them from what I have read. Perhaps Jesus was criticzing them for holding up impossible standards of the Law for people to try and maintain, thus creating a seeminly barrier between the normal people and God.


Bryan Owen said...

John, you may be right about the scribes and the Pharisees. But my point is that - contrary to some of what we hear these days - Jesus is not always tolerant and inclusive, either.

Perpetua said...

Interesting that you point that out. Did you read Anglican Pewster's comments on the Sunday readings?
I am thinking that remove these passages from the Sunday readings but still leave them in for the daily office.

Bryan Owen said...

Hey Perpetua. And thanks for that link.

I've been aware for many years now of holes and gaps in both the Sunday and the Daily Office lectionaries. There are good reasons for some omissions, and perhaps not so good reasons for other omissions.

I think it's important for us to hear as much scripture as we can, and I can see how, for practical reasons, that works better for the Daily Office than for the Sunday lectionary.

But I also think there are not only theological but at times also ideological reasons for choosing certain verses and leaving out others.

I'm a pretty fierce advocate for the use of a lectionary. But I also realize that one of the weaknesses or downsides is that putting a lectionary together can, if we're not careful, become an exercise in censoring the scriptures.

DavidB said...

I think you have it right- the challenge for the Episcopal Church in our time is to be tolerant (perhaps even permissive sometimes) but not to allow this to obscure the truths of our tradition and turn us into bland, relativistic unitarians :) In my continuing quest to synthesize my growing love for Eastern Orthodoxy with my being an Episcopalian, I found a great resource in "Anglicanism and Orthodoxy", by an Anglican professor H.A. Hodges, written I believe in 1955. It is all available online, starting with the first section at www.westernorthodox.com/hodges1.htm.

One of the highlights for me was this passage: "The Church of England, we might say, prizes charity so highly that she is prepared to sacrifice even the fullness and clarity of dogmatic definition for its sake. A plausible case can be made out for taking up such an attitude as this. History shows that in times of doctrinal unsettlement, if you insist on the unqualified acceptance of a clear-cut definition of the truth, you will drive many souls into schism, and while it is easy to create a schism it is almost impossible, humanly speaking, to heal it."

This is one of things that I love about my church. When I began in the Episcopal Church, I was a very theologically liberal, non-Creedal Christian. If the Episcopal Church had the rigidity of doctrine that Eastern Orthodoxy has, I would never have joined it. But having joined it, I've come to accept more and more the truth of orthodox faith. Given my experience, I feel it's important to stay in the Episcopal Church and make sure that it stays receptive to the truths of the tradition of the ancient undivided church.

Sorry for another long post :)

Anonymous said...

Christ wasn't being intolerant, he was speaking out against the hypocrisies of religious leaders who hold themselves up high, and above the people, but who are guilty of sin, especially pride and greed. Such priests are an offense against God, and humanity. He sought to encourage us to think about what is in our hearts and minds, so as to consider our thoughts and actions, and strive not to sin.

Christ is saying to follow the teachings because they are based on scripture but not to emulate the actions of those priests.

Bryan Owen said...

Dear Anonymous,

I think you're making my point, which leads me to ask: How is it possible for Christ to speak out against the hypocrisy of the scribes & Pharisees using this kind of hostile language and simultaneously tolerate their hypocrisy?

Of course Christ was being intolerant and exclusionary! That's why he said what he said the way he said it against them, and why he utterly repudiated and rejected their behavior.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi David (I received the comments from Perpetua and Anonymous before yours, hence my delay in responding to you).

You've written a very nuanced and perceptive comment to my posting, and I thank you for it (by no means any need for apologies!).

I think that you touch very well on Anglicanism's tightrope walk between upholding doctrinal clarity on the one hand, and affirming charity on the other hand. What to do when those two come into apparent conflict is a genuine conundrum (certainly speaking from a pastoral perspective).

The worthy challenge, it seems to me, is finding a way to uphold both without negating one or the other.

And I do hear what you're saying about entering the Episcopal Church as a very theologically liberal, non-Creedal Christian. Our faith journeys intersect on that point, because that's exactly where I was when I first returned to the Church (in an Episcopal parish) back in the mid-1990s. I probably would not have stayed if, on the front end, I had been told, "This is the faith of the Church, and if you're not willing to submit to it by signing on the dotted line, then you're not really one of us."

What converted me was regular participation in the Sunday Eucharistic liturgy (lex orandi et lex credendi).

For me, this raises the question: How do we maintain our openness to people who come in the door like the two of us so that they, too, can be transformed into Christians who affirm the 4 points of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral?

BTW, I tried the link you gave for Hodges' piece and it didn't work. I'd love to read it, so if you find it elsewhere on-line, or if it's available in print for purchase, please let me know.

Anonymous said...

I think your point is correct and I think I realized it right after I made my comment, but was too tired to make a follow-up. Jesus was highly critical of the Scribes/Pharisees for their intolerant/exclusive positions, but on the other hand he was intolerant and did not include their positions. Also I am reminded of the scriptures in which a man wanted to go and bury his father and another wanted to say goodbye to his family. Jesus, wasn't very tolerant of their placing those duties or responsibilites before following him. Without looking it up, I think Jesus said in effect that people who responded like that were not worthy to follow him. So you are correct, Jesus was not as tolerant or inclusive as we many times like to make him out.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for following up, John+.

I appreciate your reference to Jesus' response to the man who wanted to first bury his father before following Jesus. I do, indeed, think that this goes to the point of Jesus' intolerance when it comes to placing anyone or anything in the place of following him as Lord and Savior.

Let me hasten to add, however, that I don't think it's true that we are not worthy to follow Jesus. On the contrary, the problem is that we place other things and/or persons that are unworthy to be our Lord in Jesus' place.

And so I think it's important to add that we need to read Jesus' intolerance in the light of the full witness of the New Testament. For me, one of the most powerful passages in that regard is the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel according to Luke.

DavidB said...

I re-checked the link and it works for me: www.westernorthodox.com/hodges1.htm
(without a period on the end of it like I had in my last post).

Speaking of all of this, I noticed there is a Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius active in the UK and other European countries. Is there anything like this in the US that provides opportunities for mutual interaction and fellowship between Anglicans/Episcopalians and Orthodox? If not, what do you think it would take to start one?

Bryan Owen said...

This time the link works, so thanks David. This looks like very interesting reading.

You've probably seen the website for the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius. There's information there about membership, but nothing that indicates how to start a new branch. I suppose one could e-mail them to inquire what would be involved to start a branch in the United States. I'm not aware of any similiar organization that already exists here.

BillyD said...

Bottom line: beware of making Jesus into someone you're always comfortable with.

BillyD said...

Slightly off topic: what the heck did Sunday's OT reading have to do with either the other two readings or the collect? The preacher at my parish didn't touch on it, and I'm frankly mystified.

Bryan Owen said...

I think your bottom-line comment is dead-on, BillyD!

As to what happened with this past Sunday's lectionary, I'm assuming that your parish is using the Revised Common Lectionary and that the OT reading was Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67. Am I right?

Here's the deal: during the season after Pentecost in the RCL, there are two tracks for the OT readings. For the sake of continuity, you're supposed to choose one or the other. Track One is a semi-continuous reading of major OT books. So starting in June through mid-August in Track One, Year A, quite a bit of the book of Genesis is read.

By contrast, Track Two is a Gospel-related track. IOW, the OT reading is selected because it has some sort of thematic connection to the Gospel reading appointed for the day. So during the same June through mid-August period, this track features numerous OT books, including Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Exodus, Zechariah, and Isaiah. This is a very similiar approach to what we have in the now defunct Prayer Book lectionary.

The idea behind Track One is a laudable one, i.e., that we tend to short-change the OT in our Sunday Eucharistic lectionary, that we need to hear more of the OT and be more familiar with it. And also that if we're hearing the development of some of the great OT stories over the course of successive Sundays, there are unique opportunities for preaching that otherwise might be missing.

Of course, the Achilles heel of the Track One approach is the assumption that you have a sufficient critical mass of persons who actually come to church Sunday after Sunday to hear the unfolding of the OT readings in this way. I don't know about you guys, but our attendance since Memorial Day has been nothing if not sporadic. Which means that if we're using Track One, many of our people are going to miss huge chunks of the story.

An additional issue is that the Track One approach quite often has OT readings that do not appear to have any thematic connection whatsoever to the Epistle or Gospel readings for the day. Hence the sense of dissonance you apparently experienced last Sunday.

We used Track One last year, but are using Track Two this year. In light of many factors, I'm more pleased with the Track Two approach.

You can take a look at the different options in the lectionary by going to the Vanderbilt Divinity School Lectionary Project website.

BillyD said...

Thanks for the explanation, Father. We do indeed use the RCL, and the OT reading was the story of Rebekah being fetched from the old country to be Isaac's wife.

I understand the desire to focus more on the OT stories for their own sake, but perhaps the best place to do that would be in a Bible study, and not in the Sunday liturgy. Last Sunday's OT reading seemed like such a lengthy distraction that I found myself wishing that we still stuck to an Epistle and a Gospel for each Sunday.