JOPLIN, Mo. —
What are your impressions of the person of Christ? How do you envision him as he went about the day, teaching and interacting with people?
Attempts have been made to portray images of him on canvas. I personally have not been attracted to any of these, except one. A copy rests upon a bookshelf in my office.
There is nothing fancy about it. It is a simple sketch of Jesus from the shoulders up. His hair is a little long, but the outstanding feature to me is that his head is tilted upward a little as he is in the middle of a hearty laugh.
In this image exists a balance between a gayety, which I see, and a solemnity, which I assume. I like this portrayal of Jesus.
Of course, these renderings are speculation. We simply do not know the physical features of Jesus.
But we do know how people responded to him. We know that he was liked. He attracted people. Crowds were drawn to him.
He was popular with people of various stations in life. The poor and those who were usually snubbed by society were no strangers to him. It was not uncommon to find him in the homes of “the publicans and sinners.” Everyone liked Jesus.
Everyone, that is, except for the religious establishment. Its members stalked and harassed him. They were confident in their religion, and they were relentless in their challenges of the teachings of Jesus and his behavior.
You can’t do that! You can’t say this! You can’t think that! You shouldn’t go there! You shouldn’t be with them! These feverish criticisms increased in intensity. Then one day, Jesus turned the tables on them with a challenge of his own. (Matthew 23)
We find in these words the description of a religion that has “taken ill.” The symptoms are clearly delineated.
Majoring on the minors had become common practice. The weightier matters of justice and righteousness were neglected, while the matter of the tithe was scrutinized to the very penny.
The will to serve had been replaced by the will to survive. Priority was given to protecting dogma and customs rather than hearing a fresh word from God.
Substance had been replaced by form. The practice of religion became an end in itself. Hence, one could appear to worship without worshipping, and one could seem to care without caring.
Jesus wrapped these symptoms into a neat metaphor he called “whited sepulchers.” Such sepulchers looked good, but inside there was death and decay. When religion gets sick, it can still look healthy on the surface.
The plight of the Pharisees is that they loved the seats of honor, positions of power, security of their doctrine and familiarity of their customs, even though their religion was sick. This contentment concealed the illness.
It an earlier scene (Matthew 9: 36), we find people crowding around Jesus. They wanted to hear and be near him. The observation is made that, as Jesus looked out over this crowd, “he felt compassion,” because he saw them “downcast and distressed,” as “sheep without a shepherd.” This example is our best indicator about the health of our religion.
Does our religion lead us to see people as “sheep without a shepherd” or as wicked and evil? Do we respond with compassion or with contempt? Do we care for people or simply tolerate them? Do we hope to help people for their own well-being or for the benefit of our churches?
These questions demand hard honesty, but they are required if we are to know the health of our religion.
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.