“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in you, you stop them.” (Matthew 23:13-14)
There’s a grim approach to Christianity that’s been around for a while, perhaps especially in the South, and may be gaining favor in our increasingly angry political climate. You know it pretty well, that way of expressing things that masks narrowmindedness with a lot of God-talk. On the surface the talk is fairly tantalizing. We hear about putting the Christ back in Christmas, or how we need to put prayer back in public schools, or how the country needs to become more Christian, and we might think it all sounds like a good idea. But most of that talk centers more on intolerance than it does God. Mostly it lacks humility because it is generally directed at how others need to behave and implies there’s really only one way to center one’s life on God. It’s rule-based and formula-driven: “We’ve got the answer and if people would do things the way we do, the world would be a better place.” Any time we use God to justify our stereotypes and prejudices we are on shaky ground.
Jesus was born at a time similar to ours in that a grim and intolerant outlook was equated with faithfulness. Any sort of lighter approach emphasizing forgiveness and mercy over rule-following was seen as unacceptable. The religious leaders – the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees – took the position that the kingdom of heaven was intended to be so small as to include only them. Jesus points out, and shows through his life and death and resurrection, that pointing fingers does harm to others and even ourselves. The religious leaders of Jesus’s day locked others out of the kingdom and, with their harsh attitudes, couldn’t even enjoy the kingdom themselves.
The way that Jesus illustrates is not an easier path though it is lighter and less burdensome. Jesus doesn’t come to show that anything goes behavior-wise. But do a little gospel reading and look for yourselves. You’ll find that Jesus talked a lot more about attitudes than he did rules, he talked a lot more about inclusion than exclusion, he talked more about having faith and humbly trusting in God than he talked about big personal accomplishments. Jesus’s message was, and is, about the transformation that is offered to us. Grim Christianity turns that invitation to become more Christ-like into a self-righteous demand that others need to be more like us.
The world can be a pretty dark and grim place. Everyone I meet with carries stress and anxiety about the various pressures they face. We all have loved ones who are dealing with serious illnesses. Growing families struggle to meet financial obligations. There’s a gnawing sense of dis-ease with world affairs, fears of unstable leadership in other countries and what they might do, mistrust of our own leaders’ abilities to make good decisions. Our American world is based on gain, gain, gain, but we all deal daily with loss. It’s easy to succumb to those losses in total resignation.
It may be true that the world is worse now than it used to be. Or it may be true that things are better now than ever before for the human race. All in all, the world we face is probably pretty much the same as the time in history when God chose to send his son Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. Into a grim and dark world, God became incarnate and took on flesh out of love for humanity and all creation. God entered the darkness in the birth of Jesus to embody an eternal way of being. What we see in Jesus is how God always has been and always will be. Jesus is also who we are intended to become.
In some ways, the birth of the Christ child is the assurance that God is working in all things to bring about goodness. We can look at Jesus and let go of our need to do things more perfectly as we come to trust that God is doing all the work that needs to be done for the good of all of us. In other ways, the birth of the Christ child is an open invitation to each and every one of us, a dramatic intervention into history which demands a choice on our part. Will we allow this light of God to shine in us? Will we trust that the light outshines darkness? Will we participate in goodness rather than evil or self-centeredness? Will we show mercy to all we come in contact with? Will we accept the peace of Christ or adopt some warrior mentality?
The light of Christ has come into the world. What difference is it making in your own life? Are you participating in that light or still living with a dark and grim approach to your tasks and the behavior of others? Imagine a child born to you this day. Put down your cares and woes. Embrace the joy that this child brings.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.