You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.
Exodus 22:21-24 (NRSVCE)
I find it fascinating, as I read the laws of Moses in today’s chapter, that the Hebrews were commanded by God to take care of foreigners living among them, and to take care of socially and economically disadvantaged groups within their society. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 1500 years later, the Temple in Jerusalem had become a religious racket (which is why Jesus drove the currency exchange vendors out of the Temple). The religious system prescribed through Moses had become an institution that made money for the the chief priests and religious leaders who then leveraged their power and authority to line their own pockets at the expense of their own people, while they prejudicially looked down on anyone who wasn’t one of them. They religiously kept the rules that made them look pious while finding excuses for ignoring those that might require real compassion and generosity.
One of the reasons the early Jesus Movement grew so rapidly was the fact that Jesus’ followers were radically challenging the social structures of the day. There were no church buildings. They met in homes around the supper table and, at that table, everyone was welcome to sit together. Both women and men, Jews and non-Jews, and even slaves were welcomed to sit at the table with their master. Beyond that, the followers of Jesus took care of those who were socially and economically disadvantaged in the society of that day including widows, orphans, and lepers.
When Christianity became the state religion of Rome a few hundred years later, the Jesus Movement became a powerful religious and political institution almost overnight. The good news is that Christians would no longer be persecuted and fed to the lions in the Roman Circus. The way was paved for sincere teachers and theologians to meet together, debate, and establish core doctrines. With the authority of the Roman Empire, there was an opportunity for real change.
Interestingly enough, what followed was ironically similar to the very things Jesus criticized in the religious leaders of His own people. The movement moved from the supper tables in peoples homes to churches and cathedrals, which required a lot of money. Generosity to disadvantaged groups was curtailed as funds were shifted to lining the pockets of the church leaders and their churches and residences. Women were once again diminished as male dominance was established within the institution. Those who threatened the emerging orthodoxy, like the desert fathers and mothers, were branded heretics and either killed or forced to flee. Leadership positions in the church suddenly became positions of socio-economic and political power that were bought, sold, and traded by rich, powerful, and connected families. That’s how we eventually ended up with an eleven-year-old pope (Pope Benedict IX).
In the quiet this morning, I find myself asking a lot of questions. Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the last year grappling with the mega-trends we’re seeing in our culture and our world. There are fewer and fewer individuals claiming to be Christians. Churches, especially here in rural and small-town America, are closing for lack of members. Christianity is no longer accepted as the prevailing cultural worldview in our culture, and there is open and growing antagonism as the historic sins and failings of church institutions spark anger and resentment in many circles. Meanwhile, around the world, Christians are being persecuted and killed without earning much attention.
As a follower of Jesus, I find myself wondering if all of this is simply going to lead Jesus’ followers back to our roots. The history of the Hebrews and the history of Christianity both reveal to me that when the heart of God’s message to care for strangers, aliens, and disadvantaged groups is lost amidst the desire for social, economic, and political power, then there is a loss of spiritual potency and legitimacy. I can’t help but believe that the loss of cultural prominence is actually the road back to spiritual progress. The way of Jesus has always been about letting go, giving up, and leaving behind. The diminishment of self for the gain of others is not an optional path for those followers of Jesus who want an advanced spiritual placement. It’s foundational to being a follower at all:
“and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”-Jesus
I think that this has been lost. I confess that as I reflect on my own journey it’s clear that I am as guilty as anyone.
My heart and mind return to yesterday’s post. I want to stop being an ally to Jesus’ teachings and become an accomplice in putting them to work in tangible ways.