Friday, August 14, 2009

How should we live? (part 2 of 3 reflections on Luke 15)

In my last post, I explained how two common approaches to life, what the philosopher Kierkegaard called the "aesthetic" and "ethical", were dismissed by Jesus as inadequate. In fact, his approach to life was so different that Roman citizens referred to the first Christians as "atheists." This is difficult for us to grasp in the 21st century but consider the following: If you were living in the Roman empire in the first century and met a Christian and you asked, "Where is your temple?", the response would be, "We don't have a temple?" If you asked, "Well, what about your priests, where do they labor and where do they perform your sacrifices?", the answer would be, "We don't have priests and there are no sacrifices." The Christians' understanding of spiritual reality was so radical, so different from the norm that there was no "box" for it. Religion, as it was practiced then and as it is still practiced today, focused on doing something to merit God's favor and obeying to get in right standing with God. Obedience led to blessing and favor. Disobedience led to condemnation. The right sacrifice and the right behavior led to divine favor. Jesus, however, introduced something different. Something that could not be labeled as religion.

We see this in the New Testament accounts of Jesus, where it is the religiously observant people who are offended by Jesus and the irreligious people who are attracted to him. Whenever Jesus encounters a religious person and a racial outcast (John 3-4), a political outcast(Luke 19), or a sexual outcast (Luke 7), the outcast connects with Jesus while the religiously upright person does not.

The scene in Luke 15 is typical of Jesus' encounters with religious people. They are grumbling to themselves "this man welcomes sinners, and eats with them" (Luke 15:1-2). In response to their grumbling, he tells three parables to introduce a very different understanding of spiritual reality. In the final parable, the dutiful older brother, representing the religious establishment is left outside of his Father's embrace. Ironically, it is not his sin, but his goodness that keeps him from joining the party.

Shockingly, Jesus considers religious moralism to be a particularly deadly spiritual condition. He goes so far as to say to the religious people of his day that, "the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you" (Matthew 21:31).

What Jesus offers is life in the kingdom of God, not through religion, but through a relationship with Him. He offers himself as the temple to end all temples, the priest to end all priests, and the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He sacrifices for us, offers his life for ours, paying the death penalty we owe for our sin and satisfying both the justice and mercy of God. His obedience and willingness to die in our place leads to our blessing and favor. His offer to us of a flourishing life in his kingdom as his lifelong apprentices leads to transformation that is not a result of our trying to earn anything but is the result of His Spirit at work in us, changing us from the inside out.

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