The truth about God

Luke 5:1-6:11.
A long passage. Read the whole thing here on bible.com. It concludes with this story:

On another Sabbath day, a man with a deformed right hand was in the synagogue while Jesus was teaching. The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees watched Jesus closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath.

But Jesus knew their thoughts. He said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.” So the man came forward. Then Jesus said to his critics, “I have a question for you. Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?”

He looked around at them one by one and then said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored! At this, the enemies of Jesus were wild with rage and began to discuss what to do with him.

A wrong picture of God
Jesus came preaching a message about the Kingdom of God. This chapter and a half in Luke’s gospel records that sermon in action. It shows a radical departure from the “accepted wisdom” about God and how we should relate to him. The “accepted wisdom” of the time was the model of interaction with God that the Pharisees preached. It involved a complex set of rules that needed to be followed to the last letter. Any breach risked punishment, often severe. For, in their minds, the error of one might lead to the anger of God towards the whole community.

That was the picture of God that people had in those days: an angry, spiteful God watching our every move just waiting to find fault in order to punish us. As if that was what he wanted to do. The Pharisees had taken on themselves the task of enforcing the law, to keep God’s wrath at bay. It all came from their picture of God.

However, when Jesus came along he said and did things that showed that the Pharisees understanding of God – which was the generally accepted view of the time – was completely wrong. They had somehow got the wrong message and painted the wrong picture. Jesus came to show them – the Pharisees, the people of Israel, and everyone, both then and now, the truth about God.

And the essence of that truth is simply this: God reaches out to people because he loves them. The religion of the Pharisees, which was the religion that the Jews knew and loved, was a religion of people reaching out to God, to try to get his love and acceptance. They were a people desperate for affirmation, a people desperate to be treasured and nurtured by their heavenly Father, a people just like us.

But the God that had been presented to them was one that seemed often distant, disdainful and disinterested. The process of getting to him was complicated and difficult and easy to mess up. The Pharisees loved their religion, with its complex rules and regulations. They studied it and interpreted it and did everything they could to apply it to people’s lives. I don’t believe that Pharisees were intrinsically bad people, any more than you or I. They were victims of their own misunderstanding of the nature and character of God. The sad thing is that they were so unwilling to even consider the possibility that what they believed so strongly could be wrong. But aren’t we all a bit like that?

One thing is clear, when Jesus came along and began to challenge a lot of the Pharisees’ teaching, they were not happy. They felt threatened. They questioned his teaching and his motives. And they couldn’t but help be jealous of his popularity and growing influence.

New wine
This passage in Luke’s gospel reveals why Jesus was becoming so popular, and why the Pharisees felt so put out. He was introducing a whole new way of thinking about God, and he introduced it not by just teaching a new philosophy but by showing a new way. He called it “new wine,” and spoke of the old religion as “old wineskins.” Not very flattering really. And he was quite open about saying that when new wine is put in old wineskins that the old containers don’t cope well with it.

The difference between the two ways of interacting with God is staggering really. There is a fundamental change: the old religion was about trying to reach God. The new wine was about God breaking into our lives and surprising us with all kinds of unexpected blessings. Just take a look at the passage and see:

There was the fishing episode. Jesus pushed into Simon’s life and transformed it, then invited him to an ongoing friendship, where Simon could become an integral part in God’s agenda for the world. Jesus wanted Simon to be part of his band.

Then there was the leper. A man everyone avoided, yet Jesus responded to his simple cry for help and restored him to be the man God had always wanted him to be. He gave him a fresh start.

Then there was the paralysed man, struggling with guilt. Jesus forgave him, released him from the burden of anxiety about whatever it was that was weighing him down. Gave him freedom from guilt. And healed him to boot.

Then there was Levi, a man who was in so deep in sin and corruption that he thought there was no way out. He was rich but he was not happy. He had a lot of so called friends, but he was lonely and sad. He knew how to celebrate, but his parties were empty and superficial. Jesus gave him a new start too, and then celebrated his change of direction with all Levi’s old friends.

Celebrating God’s closeness
Jesus taught that partying was as much a part of the new order as fasting. That God was as happy to be celebrated in a banquet as he was to be the subject of religious devotion. That the hallmark of the new way was the presence of God with his people, rather than endless exercises to span the huge chasm between them. That celebrating that presence, that closeness, was what life should be all about.

People before principles
The Sabbath was traditionally a day set apart for God. No work was to be done. Doing any work would risk incurring the wrath of God. At least that’s the way the Pharisees understood it. They spent long hours debating what should be regarded as work, and what was permissible on a day of rest. The keyword was fear – anxiety lest a rule be broken and God be angry.

Jesus stepped right over this understanding of the Sabbath and showed by his actions that the Pharisees had misunderstood the point. That they had misunderstood God. Jesus was more concerned for his friends than the rules. They were hungry. He gave them something to eat, regardless of the fact that his actions in doing so could be interpreted as breaking the law. He showed us that God is more concerned for us and our needs than he is for the law. He is a God, first and foremost, of compassion. He sees our needs and wants to meet them. He may do that in unconventional ways.

Even healing was regarded by the Pharisees as being inappropriate on a day of rest. It was better, in their system of belief, to pass by a suffering or disabled person than to risk God’s anger by helping that person. They didn’t realise that God was more angry about passing by the needy person than by breaking these man made rules. Jesus once again showed them the true heart of God, a heart of concern, of compassion, of mercy and of grace.

A strange reaction
When I read about the ideas that Jesus was presenting and demonstrating, I get excited. This is the kind of God that I can be proud of, that I can talk about, share with others. This is a God that I want to celebrate, to praise, to worship. This is the kind of God that I can trust to take control of my life. What’s more, the vision of the kingdom that Jesus presents is the kind of world I long to see, a world of involvement with people, compassion and mercy, of never giving up on people, of reconciliation between people and God, of people and people.

The extraordinary thing to me is that there were people – the enemies of Jesus – who did not like this picture at all, they could not embrace such a vision of God or his kingdom. Not only did they not like it, they were “wild with rage” at Jesus, as Luke’s account records.

There are still people like that, people who get angry with Jesus, who do not like the picture he paints of God and his kingdom. But as for me, I know which way I want to follow – the way of Jesus.

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