It’s rare to hear a church testimony of how someone fell away from Jesus. But this morning in service, one attendee was giving a testimony of how he had lost interest in and fell away from (though temporarily) Christianity. He mentioned two experiences – two experiences which were all-too-familiar to me because they are practices that were awfully close to those I’ve seen, witnessed, and participated in myself.
Having missed two bible studies in a row previously in college due to studying, he receives a phone call inquiring why he missed these gatherings. He is then informed that following Jesus means following him into perfect church and bible study attendance.
The other incident revolved around a man in an African town who was warning others to not go to the Christian church. When the man became the victim of a fatal car crash, the local missionaries wrote a letter thanking God. This letter was read in his church. And then the sentiments repeated at a bible study the testifier was in.
He then said that he left this church, and regular churches altogether, partially because he recognized that Christians’ standards for everybody else were so high while they themselves couldn’t meet them. I want to answer that our standards are the wrong standards, and that they are applied wrongly. Let’s call these the Imperialist Christian Standards, and we’ll get to that imperialist part hopefully later this week. But first, on what the basis of Jesus’ standards look like and the rubric for our own standards as Christians.
Both examples from the testimony are a bit out-there. They are not typical of my experience in Christian churches – conservative Evangelical or otherwise – and may or may not be of yours. But the sentiments in both are very familiar to me. Even though Jesus told us to love and pray for our enemies and those who persecute us, we Christians recognize how hard it is. Whether rightly or wrongly, we feel persecuted, that we are being specifically targeted by enemies. And we often justify the very natural hatred we have of our enemies through some horrid memes:
Love the sinner; hate the sin.
God doesn’t love sinners until they come to saving knowledge of himself.
Or we redefine “love” in an Orwellian fashion.
We love them so much that we cannot let them live a life apart from God.
We must love them into sorrowful (read: shameful) repentance.
I was recently told that Jesus slut-shamed the Samaritan woman at the well to bring her to himself. In fact, often Christians boldly declare that Jesus was not “soft on sin.” Ask for an example of this, and they will usually point to one of two instances. One is Jesus’ public shaming of the Pharisees – and that’s important and yet contrary to what they claim it is, and we’ll get to that later – and the other is this instance, recorded in John 4.
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never be thirsty. The water I give will become a spring of water gushing up inside that person, giving eternal life.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so I will never be thirsty again and will not have to come back here to get more water.”
Jesus told her, “Go get your husband and come back here.”
The woman answered, “I have no husband.”
Jesus said to her, “You are right to say you have no husband. Really you have had five husbands, and the man you live with now is not your husband. You told the truth.”
The woman said, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that Jerusalem is the place where people must worship.” (New Century Version)
The idea that Jesus was pointing out the woman’s sins is actually a horrible understanding of how marriage and a woman’s role in marriage worked in ancient cultures. But it also shows a remarkable lack of understanding of Jesus’ character – or rather, an understanding of Jesus that would coincide neatly with an intimidating, judgmental and misogynist understanding of faith.
The woman in ancient (and indeed in many traditional) cultures had little rights in the course of their marriage. She was not the one who could divorce or not divorce – and being female with few available financial options open to her, she relied on the male protecting her through the institution of marriage.* Often, the woman’s security was left up to the whims and temperament of the groom – who could divorce her and send her on the street with little provocation (this is the reason Jesus was so rough on divorce). The Samaritan woman in this scenario is not being judged for sleeping around. No. Rather, Jesus feels her sadness and rejection.
This is a woman who was not accepted and kicked out of the protection of several men for the simple reason that they could. For whatever reason they had – because she didn’t please them, because she talked out of turn, because they found someone younger, because they died – Jesus doesn’t spend time moralizing about how she is supposed to get and stay married. He doesn’t tell her she’s a bad person. In fact, unless we think that Jesus is being passive-aggressive, he doesn’t even confront her alleged sin.
Instead, he gives her the honor of being one of his apostles, one of his first missionaries.
But where Jesus accepted her in a way not very common for the time and area (he was, after all, a Jewish religious man speaking to the oft-maligned and hated Samaritan. He was a man in the Ancient Near East speaking to a strange woman out in public. He was thirsty but offered her water – the water of spiritual newness and acceptance), we read it not in its original context but as a timeless text with the same meaning now as then. This messes up our reading of the text because, in essence, we imperialize our understandings of the text onto the piece itself. Jesus shames the woman because that’s what we expect him to do. And we expect him to do that because that’s what we’ve been taught is the right thing to do – therefore it’s what we’d do. And since Jesus – the ultimate picture of what is right in Christians’ minds – would slut-shame her, we are assured it’s the right and even holy thing to do.
And we’d be wrong, because we fundamentally misunderstand Jesus’ character.
Jesus didn’t reject people. He didn’t shame them. He told them of a better way, a new way of being human – an everlasting drink, a new road, a kingdom with completely different priorities, different values, different methods. We shan’t exchange an eye for an eye; we find creative ways to dismantle the empire’s tactics; we put away the sword and heal lobbed off ears; we unblock the temple by tossing out the greedy merchants; we cleanse the “unclean” by healing and proclaiming all clean.
The harsh words Jesus had were for those blocking the entrance to the temple in order to sell their wares of sacrifice – after the prophets told them that God desires mercy and compassion and obedience rather than sacrifice. The poor and the physically disabled could not enter through the blockade they set up. Jesus, recognizing this, reminded the people that though the temple has become a den of thieves, it is supposed to be a house of prayer. And prayer is an equality project.
The merchants were not the only ones blocking the house of prayer from the ordinary, common people. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was dismantling the Roman ways, the predominant occupied Jewish ways of resisting the Roman Empire, and the predominate religious Jewish understandings of who is “in” and who is “out.”
“You have heard it said… But I say to you…”
Christians understand Jesus to be the completion of the Law, but we don’t always have a grasp on what that means. What if Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law isn’t to show how sinful human beings are, but to demonstrate that we need to funnel our understanding of the Law and the Prophets through the gaze of love – and that love is seen through the uncompromised, unflinching gaze of acceptance of Jesus.
The Jesus who loved the woman at the well.
The Jesus who loved the commoners, the peasants, the tax collectors, the fishermen and the rich young ruler and the prostitute and the nice people and the Roman Centurion. To some, he said, “Come, be whole. Be well.” To others, he still offered that choice, but he also said, “Stop blocking justice. Stop blocking my people.”
So, yes, Jesus rejected certain parts of the Law.
This brings us back to the Samaritans. One of Jesus’ most famous parables concerns a Samaritan hero. Whether or not Jesus was trying to shame the religious leaders who asked him, “Whom is my neighbor? Whom am I to love?”, their incapacity to accept the Samaritan as a full human being with a name and with kindness and generosity and the willingness to help his own enemy came into direct conflict with his story and that shamed them.
Jesus here wasn’t just trying to make a point. He wasn’t being passive-aggressive. He wasn’t confronting a hidden sin or whatever. He was confronting the injustice of hatred and apathy, the injustice of inequality and of directly trying to block people from wholeness represented in the temple.
That wholeness by the way, was what Jesus was referring to in his talks with the Samaritan woman at the well and the audience she gathered for him. The temple is in Jerusalem, he agrees. And the temple, he adds, does not grant access for Samaritans. But all of that will change and true believers will worship
and in truth.
*This is traditional marriage, next time someone asks.