Sunday, September 04, 2005

Love seeks the truth and truth loves deeply: Jesus and tax collectors

As I prepared the homily for today's Sunday worship, a question from the weekly homily service "This Sunday's Scripture" by Twenty-Third Publications really turned me on my head. Considering Matthew's Gospel verse: "Treat him as you would a Gentile or tax collector." the author asked, "How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?" Wow. Until now, I had considered this an instruction or advice to reduce one's dealings with that person who refused to admit their wrongdoing, apologize, or change.

This plucky little question changes everything. It boldly faces eyeball to eyeball the common impression that people who go on and on about love are soft on the truth, and that those who are sticklers about truth and morality have little use for the love discourses. At best, they might concede the need for "tough love", meaning discipline without compromise. They interpret Jesus' treatment of the Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites as an approach to be applied to the faults of everybody else.

Jesus' words to these spiritual leaders were hard not because they were sinners. We are all sinners. No, it was because they refused to accept Jesus' invitation to get closer to God, and even worse, hindered those who wanted to respond to Jesus' call. They were abusing their positions of authority. Jesus' approach to sinners was much like that of John the Baptist, who called everyone to wake up and repent, because the time is short. He attended first of all to the lost sheep of Israel, and did not go out of his way to attend to Gentiles or tax collectors. However, He was open to them and quick to welcome them at the first sign of faith or repentance.

Consider the faith of the Roman centurion whom Jesus warmly receives, and commends for his faith. Jesus engages the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, looking for her faith to refresh Him. He pushes the Syro-Phoenician woman's buttons in order to get her to express her faith and immediately responds to her. He spots Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree and invites Himself to dinner at this tax collector's house, sensing the man is ripe for repentance. He gives Levi the nod right there in his tax booth and calls him to join his fledgling band of apostles. Levi unexplainably accepts, and takes the name Matthew. He becomes a new man. In his joy, he invites Jesus to a party at his house in His honor, and Jesus not only comes, but He coolly sits amid other sinners and undesirables, making Himself at home.

What would it look like if we were to imitate Jesus in his treatment of those who either don't know or don't care about our beliefs, values, and morals, or of those whose life or career choices put them in opposition to what we hold to be right, good and true? We thought that we should oppose such people tooth and nail, take every opportunity to defend what we consider right by condemning those we consider wrong, and certainly avoid their company, doing nothing favorable towards them that might in any way "reward" their evil behavior.

Perhaps the ultimate question here is: "Are love and truth compatible? Can they co-exist?" They certainly did in Jesus, who made the bold claim: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Me." Jesus taught the truth without compromise, yet received sinners warmly. He loved his disciples; yet He rebuked Peter when the apostle set himself in opposition to the Father's will. So it's not a choice of either truth or love, but rather a complementary union of both of them. We are to love God with all we have and are, and love others as we love ourselves; while at the same time clinging to and proclaiming the truth. Jesus made no compromise about the truth when He spoke, preached, and taught; yet He left people free to draw their own conclusions, receive the truth in freedom, and abide by it out of goodness. If we are to follow Him, then we must leave them free as well.

It is inevitable that at times it falls to us to try to correct others, but if we do so from this perspective Jesus gives us as an example; then we will go about this fraternal correction in a way that is respectful and kind. We can still love others while we adhere to the truth, goodness, and righteousness. Doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong does not hinder us from loving others. On the contrary. At the very least, we can love others apart from their behavior. God raised the bar to the highest possible level by loving us despite our sins. He is Father to us, and the good parent still loves his children, even when they misbehave. He can punish, without interruption in his love. This is the new standard God sent his Son Jesus into the world to reveal. It's not impossible; in fact, we can't become fully human or fully alive without it. How's that for a shocker?

God loves us better because He knows we are sinners. The quality of his love is far superior to that of the one who only loves us when we are without sin. The gauntlet is down. God expects and invites us to love others in the very same way He loves us. Love and truth are not only compatible, they are joined at the hip. One cannot be fully what it is without the other.

As I realized this today and shared the insight with those who had come to worship the Lord, There was a quality of freedom and joy in the air and in our hearts. It is true what Jesus said, "The truth shall set you free." True freedom causes joy to erupt, because we find ourselves in the very air breathed by God, with his very life coursing through us. This is exactly the lift we need to embrace the love and truth combo and practice it, extending it to others. We need to resist our miserly human inclination to exchange the gift of love for an equal weight of the coins of truth. This is the bill of goods, the hybrid of belief and attitude that drives much of our human society, business, and culture. It doesn't have to be that way. There's a new paradigm, and its value is incalculable. We cannot buy it, but we can receive if for free if we are willing to give everything we have and our very life itself in order to make room for it. It is simply too big to take in if we try to keep all the old furniture. Which will you prefer?

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