In the first century, some religious leaders taught: “You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”In the same way, today, some have been taught to hate in the guise of Christianity. How?
They have been taught they ‘must hate the person with whom the badness is inseparably linked’ as the religious leaders would define badness (which is quite an extensive list). And they are to ‘”feel a loathing” toward those who have made themselves God’s enemies’, as they would define former members of their group. As for those who have been expelled it is said: ‘it does not seem fitting and proper for a faithful Christian to pray for a disfellowshiped person’.
This is at complete odds with the basic teachings of Jesus Christ, who commanded: “love your enemies”. If we truly apply Christianity 101, there would be no “us versus them” exclusivism. If we love our enemies, if we pray for them, if we treat them well, as challenging as it might be, we would prove ourselves true Christians. Imagine what a world this would be if every professed Christian took such a teaching seriously.
It is true that from time to time, we might need help to understand a Biblical passage and seek additional aid. At Acts 8:30, Phillip asked the Ethopian who was reading Isaiah if he understood what he was reading. In verse 31, the Ethopian gave his famous reply, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?” But was this a lifelong arrangement? Did Phillip direct him to seek continual guidance from a ‘world headquarters’? Note that the Ethiopian, after baptism, went his own way.
Jesus promised at John 16:13, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Notice, Jesus said that Holy Spirit would be our lifelong guide to divine truths, not human teachers, not an organization. If you are inclined otherwise, let me ask you: Is Holy Spirit insufficient?
What about the Bible? 2 Timothy 3:16,17 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”
Scripture alone, the product of Holy Spirit, is able to make a person ‘perfect’ or complete in their walk with God, a perfect guide in living the best way of life. With Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture, do we need human teachers as a permanent guide? Should we not be wary of any human individual or organization who says, “You cannot understand the Bible without my guidance”?
Years ago, I happened upon a historical work, the History of England From The Accession of James II. Therein the author talked about the Purtians and I found his description eerily familiar. He was describing a religion, obsessed with purity and separateness from the world, that behaved exactly like the organization I was in.
The Purtians banned many holidays and anything they deemed pagan or immoral, which was pretty much everything. The list of shalt-nots, many which had no scriptural backing, seemed endless. By all accounts, the Purtians were judgmental, even in regard the most trivial of matters. Their attitude seemed more akin to the self-righteous Pharisees than the Good News found in the Gospels.
At Ecclesiastes 7:16, we find this sage advice: “Be not righteous overmuch, and do not make yourself overwise; why should you destroy yourself?”
In contrast, at Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus said, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The message of Christianity, the essence of the Good News, is about Grace (aka undeserved kindness), not rigid adherence to law and works. Ask yourself, “Am I feeling the promised rest and refreshment? Is my load easy and light?” If you honestly find that in contrast you feel weary and loaded down in measuring up to the standards of your religious environment, is that truly the Good News that Christ came to offer us?
Nearly 500 years ago, Martin Luther awoke to the truth about the ‘truth’, that is, the corrupt religious establishment he was raised in that claimed to be the only true religion, the only authority to interpret Scripture, the only channel through which people could approach God for salvation: Mother Church.
He sought to return to the essence of Christianity, which was about Grace and Faith–not law, works, or human authorities. In one of the most iconic moments in the history of post-apostolic Christianity, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses calling for reform to the church door.
This led to a head-on confrontation with the most powerful organization on earth. In time, he received a Bull of Excommunication, which he threw into the fire. Another iconic moment came at his trial at the Diet of Worms where he took a stand for his beliefs, his conscience and Christian Freedom.
He concluded by saying, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”
Some accounts have his concluding words as, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
Today, many of us have been tried for our beliefs before tribunals of men, and for others of us, it may be only matter of time. We may be declared heretics (i.e. apostates) and receive Bulls of excommunication. To those who would try us, we say: “Our conscience is bound by the Word of God. Unless we are persuaded by Scripture alone, we cannot and will not retract anything, for to do so would go against our conscience. Here we stand! We can do no other.”
The Good News can be summed up in one word: Grace!
In the first century, the congregations in Galatia who had once accepted the Good News were being subverted into accepting a counterfeit form of ‘Good News’ that involved conditional grace based on adherence to law and works. The counterfeit came from human-appointed authorities who framed their arguments in a very convincing manner. In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul helped alert them to the danger they were in. They were losing their Christian Freedom. By adhering to law, by striving to be righteous by means of works, they were falling away from Grace!
Centuries later, Martin Luther followed a form of ‘Good News’ that he was taught from birth. But no matter how much he adhered to Bible law, as he understood it, no matter how many works he performed, it brought him no relief. He was filled with guilt and fear at not being able to measure up.
Then one day he was mediating on Romans 1:17 which says, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” It was then that he understood the Good News, as well as the relief and comfort the real Good News brings.
Later, Martin Luther wrote a verse by verse commentary on the book of Galatians, through which he detailed the Good News according to Scripture, that is one of Grace and faith, not law and works, about a direct relationship with God through Christ rather than human mediators and hierarchy and organizations. The truths in this commentary are timeless, for they are not original to this commentary, but come directly from Scripture itself. By considering it, we too can come to know the scope of God’s Grace that he extends through Jesus Christ.
Judgmental environments can have undue influence on us. Slowly, we can become judgmental. Such an environment and attitude is diametrically opposed to Christianity. In a sad irony, it should be noted that such judgmental attitudes often come from those who claim to be Christian. Of course, this is not unique to religious fanatics. By nature or nurture, humans across every spectrum of belief, creed, and philosophy have shown judgmental tendencies. If we truly take Christ’s teachings to heart, we will strive to remove this tendency. It might take removing ourselves from the environment that is having undue influence upon us.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, found at Luke 10:25-37, Jesus gives two great lessons in one. The most obvious lesson is to be like the Good Samaritan, showing love to our neighbor, fulfilling what is called the ‘Royal Law’ at James 2:8. The last words of this lesson is, “Go and do likewise.”
The question that prompted the parable was, “Who is my neighbor?” How was a person to interpret, “love your neighbor as yourself”? Some with a narrow view wanted to restrict this to only people who believed and practiced the “right” way, that is, toward people just like them.
Yet, Jesus turned this view upside down, not only showing that the word neighbor applies to all people, but that any person, regardless of who they are, can be a good neighbor and fulfill this Royal Law of love. Jesus showed this by his choice of protagonist.
For the Pharisees, only those who adhered to their interpretation of the Law, as well as to their Oral Law, were viewed as righteous. The common people, who failed to measure up, were viewed as accursed, what some today might call ‘spiritually weak’. Those outside of Judaism, the Gentiles, were thought of as ‘unclean’, what some today might call ‘worldly’, and not associated with. However, the most contempt was reserved for the Samaritans, whose religion was related to Judaism, who believed in one God, Moses and the Law, only they viewed things a bit differently. Today, these might be called ‘heretics’, ‘apostates’. The first century Jews had NO dealings with such people.
In the parable, those with great privileges in Judaism, the Priest and the Levite, not only did not help the injured man, they crossed to the other side of the road to avoid him. They failed to show love of neighbor. The Samaritan, on the other hand, proved himself a good neighbor.
Of course, the scribe whom Jesus is telling this parable to, when asked “which one of these three” was a good neighbor–he could not even bring himself to say the word ‘Samaritan’. Perhaps, even the word made him uncomfortable, afraid. Perhaps, he could not imagine being neighborly toward a Samaritan, must less, that such a person could be good neighbor, and fulfill the law of love.
Through this parable, Jesus is telling us that any individual, no matter what group they belong to, is not only our neighbor, but can themselves be a good neighbor. We have to look past a person’s label, the stereotypes we might have of that group, and observe a person’s actions. Of course, to do this, we must get to know a person. We must learn to look at a person with an eye toward the positive.
If we truly understand what Jesus is saying this may challenge us, perhaps make us uncomfortable. But only then can we get the mind of Christ.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is two major lessons in one, so much so, it can be regarded as having two parts. The first part teaches us of the unbounded love and mercy of our Heavenly Father.
The Prodigal Son didn’t simply drift off like the lost sheep, nor was he neglectfully misplaced like the lost coin. The prodigal (wasteful) son intentionally left and chose a course of outright rebellion. And yet, when he returned, the father immediately accepted him back and restored his place among the family. Not only that, he went all out in throwing a party, celebrating his son’s return.
Through this parable, Jesus painted a lovely picture of our Heavenly Father. It also gives us hope and encouragement if we’ve fallen into a wayward course. God is always there with open arms, ready to instantly accept us back.
As imitators of God and his Son, this also shows us what type of people we need to be toward those who have become like the Prodigal Son. At Luke 17:4, Jesus says, “Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” According to Jesus, the matter of repentance was pretty straightforward. This excludes a list of procedures or hoops to make a person jump through first before accepting them back.
In contrast, the second part of the parable involves the older brother, who was resentful over the return and celebration of his younger brother. We must keep in mind what led to Jesus giving this parable in the first place. At Luke 15:2, the Pharisees were grumbling that Jesus associated, even ate, with sinners. There is no record of him shunning anyone, but rather just the opposite. The Pharisees, on the other hand, threw such people out of the synagogue and had no dealings with them.
This is very reminiscent of how Watchtower policy treats wayward ones. This returning son would be shuffled into a backroom and subjected to a judicial committee. His motives for returning would be scrutinized and questioned. Any perceived hint of being unrepentant would outweigh the many other factors that plainly showed fruits befitting repentance.
For instance, while the Prodigal Son acknowledged he had sinned, what was the main factor in him returning? It seems mainly because he had become destitute and being a hired man in his father’s house would save him from starving. Was he clearly repentant from the viewpoint of Watchtower policy?
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter whether a person has ceased his wayward course. When in doubt, elders are taught to err on the side of disfellowshipping. This calls for being shunned by one’s entire support system for sometimes upward a year, maybe more. Imagine if the Prodigal Son returned and had been told to sit outside for a year…then maybe he would be let back in the household.
When a person is reinstated, the Watchtower has in the past instructed congregations not to clap at the announcement. So much for celebrating the return! Since this person is viewed still as ‘spiritually weak’, people might hold him at arm’s length. Thus, former friends may be cool toward him, viewing them as tainted, needing to prove their repentance. It may be that these relationships are never recovered.
Sadly, that is just not Christianity. That is diametrically opposed to what Christ Jesus taught. At Luke 5:31-32, Jesus said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Imagine if a person went to a doctor for treatment and told to return when he got better. No matter who we think we are, none of us are inherently righteous by our own merits, we are all sinners in need of mutual support. And those who we perceive to have sinned more egregiously, like the Prodigal Son, need more support, not less.
In Luke 15:8-10, Jesus shows just how much God values us: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins,if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
In the parable, the woman is not just searching for lost money, that is a drachma, a day’s wages for a skilled worker. Some commentators suggest these ten coins are part of the woman’s dowry and worn as part of a headdress that represents her marriage. As such, the lost coin would be invaluable, irreplaceable. Notice the effort that the woman goes through: she lights a lamp, she sweeps the entire house, she seeks diligently until she finds it. It is not a matter of IF, but WHEN. She will find it!
What condition do you think the coin is in? Likely, quite dirty. Does that dampen her regard for the coin? By no means! She calls together all her friends and family to celebrate. Looking past the dirt and grime, all she sees is the immeasurable value of the coin.
In some high demand environments, people are made to feel that they aren’t good enough because of certain failings, or that they aren’t doing enough, and what they are doing isn’t quality enough. It is easy for such people to feel doom and gloom. That certainly isn’t the Good News that Jesus taught.
If the Parable of the Lost Coin teaches us anything, it is that we are individually very valuable to our Heavenly Father! Never let anyone make you feel otherwise.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep is the first of three parables Jesus gave in Luke 15. Not only does the parable help us understand who our Heavenly Father is, but it shows us who we need to be as imitators of God and His Son.
To best understand this parable, we must take into account the circumstances that led Jesus to give it. In the opening verses of Luke 15, the Pharisees grumbled that Jesus was eating with “sinners and tax collectors”. And this is not the only occasion where this criticism arose.
In Luke 19, who can forget the story of Zacchaeus up in the Sycomore tree? As with many of the sinners that Jesus was friends with, Zacchaeus was not an unbeliever, not a “worldly person”, but a person part of God’s dedicated nation who had fallen into a course of serious sin.
Notice the difference between the approach of the Pharisees and the approach of Jesus. The Pharisees were obsessed with being separate from the sinners around them, with being a “clean” people. How did they treat people like Zacchaeus? They shunned them completely. However, all the shunning in the world did not help folks like Zacchaeus. In fact, such treatment could, in fact, dishearten such people, and make them give up entirely.
What did Jesus do? He told Zacchaeus to get down from that tree, went to his home, and ate with him. Jesus knew that people like Zacchaeus needed more love and support, not less. How did Zacchaeus react? Not only did he repent, but he went above and beyond in making restoration to those he defrauded.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep exemplifies this. Here, the shepherd leaves the many to care for the one individual who is lost. He does not give up looking until he reaches them. Our Heavenly Father is not only infinite in power, but with love. His hand is not too short, nor his heart.
To bring this to a modern day application, contrast this parable of the Lost Sheep, and the circumstances that led to this parable, to the Watchtower’s disfellowshipping and shunning policy based on an extreme interpretation of certain Bible passages. Tens of thousands are disfellowshipped every year. After being robbed of their entire support network, their family and friends, some have taken their own lives.
The violence this does to such ones emotionally and psychologically cannot be underestimated. If you’ve never experienced this, then you really cannot begin to imagine the torture, the living death, this can be. To be sure, this creates such an intense pressure, some will do whatever it takes to regain their loved ones. However, the question is, in an effort to help reform wayward ones, is there a better way?
After meditating on the Parable of the Lost Sheep, we must say resoundingly: Yes!