When I speak in “secular” contexts on the topic of Christianity, I will often ask people: “Who would make your ‘top 5’ list of the most loving persons in history?” Jesus, of course, always makes that list. And then I ask: “Why do you think that Jesus was such a loving guy when he was so incredibly confrontational? so uncompromising? so demanding?”
How could such a confrontational guy come to be regarded as such a loving guy?
This is the third of a three-part series that asks the question: how should we respond to wrongdoing?
We’ve looked for an answer in the way that Jesus himself responded to his wrongdoers in the final week of his life:
When he was about to enter Jerusalem, where he would be murdered, Jesus wept over those who would commit such incredible wrongs against him. So in response to wrongdoing, Jesus first grieved (to find out why, go here).
Then, after he entered the city, he came as one who claimed to offer what only the city’s temple could offer–or was supposed to offer (but, in Jesus’ opinion, wasn’t): the Creator’s forgiveness, cleansing, wisdom, justice against oppressors–all mediated through priests, who could (or, who should, at least) empathize with a worshipper’s weaknesses and temptations. In response to wrongdoing, Jesus, having grieved, was then full of mercy and understanding (to understand more, go here).
In sum, Jesus’ response to his wrongdoers began with grieving; it continued with compassion. But it did not end there.
As with Israel’s God, whom Jesus claimed as his father, Jesus himself would not leave sin unaddressed. That is, in a way that makes many of us squirm, Jesus confronted his wrongdoers.
Which begs the above question: how could such a confrontational guy also be considered such a loving guy?
Answer #1: Jesus confronts after he has first grieved and shown compassion.
That is, his confrontation come from a posture of grief and understanding.
Answer #2: Jesus always confronted but never condemned.
What’s the difference? We can capture the difference between confrontation and condemnation in a single word: hope.
When I was a kid (probably 6-7 yrs old), I went with my dad to visit a man who had lung cancer, due to smoking. I expected to go to a hospital. Instead, we went to the man’s house. And, when I walked into the man’s living room, I could immediately smell cigarette smoke, and to my surprise, the man was sitting there smoking!
Why wasn’t he in a hospital? Why was he at home still doing the very thing that would kill him? Why was no one confronting this man about his smoking habit? Because it was already too late: nothing could be done for him. There was no hope.
The final days of Jesus’ life are marked by significant confrontation: longstanding backburner tensions with religious and political leaders would come to a head in Jerusalem, leading to his death.
After narrating the “incident” at the temple, Luke says that “chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying [or, possibly, began to try] to kill him.”
What follows in Luke’s gospel is a series of intense interactions between Jesus and (for lack of a better phrase) these religious leaders. In several of these interactions Jesus strongly confronts in a way that reveals two things: (1) what is most important to his wrongdoers; and (2) the cost of true repentance and the far greater cost of impenitence. To give one example for each:
(1) in several of the interactions Jesus exposes that most important to his wrongdoers is others’ opinions (20.6, 19), so that Luke can summarize in 22.6 that the religious leaders “were afraid of the people”;
(2) Jesus speaks of the cost of true repentance and the far greater cost of impenitence when he speaks of himself as a cornerstone (of a new temple!), and he says, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” That is, repentance will involve being broken, while impenitence will be disastrous.
Later, when Jesus is arrested, he once again addresses his wrongdoers. When Judas leads the temple authorities to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him, Jesus says:
– to Judas: “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”
– to the temple authorities: “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me.”
Both of these powerfully engage his wrongdoers, exposing sinful motives and naming sin for what it is: dark and perverse.
Brought before the chief priests and teachers of the law, Jesus exposes their refusal to listen–they have already made up their minds: “If I tell you, you will not believe me.”
Finally, Jesus warns them of his vindication and their doom: “But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.” Jesus warns in no uncertain terms that judgment is coming.
So having wept over his wrongdoers, having embodied compassion and understanding to them, Jesus confronts them: he reveals what is most important to them; he reveals both the cost of repentance and the far greater cost of impenitence; he exposes their refusal to listen and warns them of coming judgment.
Specifically, when we have grieved those who have wronged us, when we have come to show great compassion and understanding, we are called to confront as follows:
(1) with humility: first, we are to make sure we have all the facts; we are to be proactive listeners; second, we are to “get the log out of own eye”; we are to confess our own wrongdoings first; possibly, we should ask the wrongdoer for ways that we have sinned against them (!);
(2) with truth: we are to use no other standard for evaluation than Scripture; if the wrongdoer has failed our own (or our culture’s) standards, that is legalism; further, we are to identify the specific ways that the person has wronged us–sinful words, actions, motives, etc. But we are also to identify the good things that this person has done, as well as any gifts and abilities. We must see the whole person and the light of their whole story;
(3) with prayer: Jesus would have us “pray for those who persecute” us; if we are not praying for them, we have no business speaking to them;
(4) with help: Jesus calls us first to go and speak 1-on-1 with a wrongdoer–in most situations, unless (1) the wrongdoing itself was in the presence of others (or somehow involved them) or (2) the wrongdoing is so egregious and/or the relationship between us and the wrongdoer is deeply strained or dangerous. But if the wrongdoer has not listened to us, we are to bring another brother or sister–someone with wisdom but without bias, who (if possible) would be well received by the wrongdoer. This third party isn’t simply there to affirm/agree with us; they are there to advocate for both sides. Finally, if within a church context, if the wrongdoer hasn’t listened, we are to take our concern “to the church”–which usually means to a church’s leaders for their wisdom and support. Getting help may well involve not only involving local church leaders but local legal authorities as well;
(5) with boldness: the Proverbs say, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love”; we are to speak humbly, gently but firmly, pulling no punches. Further, we are to warn clearly and candidly, connecting the dots between the wrongdoing and future consequences; the wrongdoer may continue to go his way, but we are to “spit in their soup,” portraying their wrongdoing as foolish and perilous as possible;
(6) with hope: there is coming a day of unspeakable wrath and judgment; but today is not that day. To confront with hope means that we are utterly persuaded that (i) this person can change; s/he can repent; God is able to change this person; but we are also to be utterly persuaded that (ii) God is the final judge: He will have the last word, which means that we don’t need to have the last word. And that is a very freeing idea.
If our wrongdoers ignore our confrontation, we should recall: Jesus’ wrongdoers ignored his as well. When our words go unheeded, when our wrongdoer continues in his/her path, we are sharing in Christ’s sufferings; we are being wrongly rejected with him.
From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And then, as 1 Peter says, Jesus “entrusted himself to the One who judges justly.” Quoting Psalm 31, he cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
As Christians we are given the wondrous calling to go down loving our enemies in imitation of Christ:
Jesus, trusting in the Father’s future justice, was willing to suffer undeservedly to serve the undeserving–to the very end.
And that is why I worship Jesus, and why his followers “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”