Tag Archives: Popularity

Attacking “The Jesus Problem”

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians…
That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question…
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him…
Matthew 22:15, 23, 34-35 (NIV)

Jesus made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the praises of the fickle crowd. He challenged the powerful bosses of institutional religion by creating a public disturbance amidst their religious racketeering. Jesus is on a mission. Matthew’s eye-witness account of these events does not reveal Jesus as a helpless victim of circumstance, but rather the One driving the action.

With each word and every action, Jesus is putting the powerful religious cartel into an increasingly difficult position. His popularity among the poor and marginalized has stirred public sentiment against the religious leaders. The small riot Jesus made among the money changers was not only an embarrassment and PR nightmare within the community of the Jewish commoners, but if Pilate gets wind that there’s unrest among the Jews he and the Roman occupational force might crack down hard on them, and that would be bad for business.

The Temple leadership have a good racket going. They are wealthy, and they have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves in their Temple business. Their powerful religious authority gives them an iron political grip over the Jewish people in Jerusalem and abroad. They may be living under Roman occupation, but under the Roman umbrella they are supreme rulers of their own small kingdom. From the perspective of the Temple’s religious leadership, this pesky would-be Messiah from Nazareth is bad for business. He’s listed as a “threat” in their SWOT analysis. “It’s not personal, Jesus,” you can imagine the High Priest muttering, “It’s strictly business.”

The end of yesterday’s chapter and the continuing events in today’s chapter reveal the initial strategy of the religious leaders to deal with “the Jesus problem.” These men were all well-educated lawyers and legal scholars who made an art form out of legal debate over the Law of Moses. They would leverage their expertise in legal minutiae to engage Jesus in very public debate in the Temple courts. Surely this uneducated yokel from the North country would give them a sound-byte they could tweet, print, and repeat endlessly to stem the tide of His popularity.

In today’s chapter, Matthew records wave after wave of envoys from the religious council testing Jesus with the hot political and religious topics of the day: Paying Roman taxes (politically heated issue), whether there is a resurrection (heated religious issue among factions within the temple), and which is the greatest commandment (hot religious debate among temple lawyers). Because these topics were as controversial in temple circles as abortion and gun control are in ours, whatever Jesus says can be used politically to ruin His approval ratings with one group or another.

But Jesus deftly responds to each question with answers His enemies did not expect. Then, after playing defense for several rounds of debate, Jesus turns the tables and goes on the offense. He tests the prestigious lawyers with a question of His own, and stumps them at their own game.

“No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

This morning I am thinking about the contrast between Jesus and the religious cartel who were threatened by Him. Jesus was a simple man of simple means born in a backwater town to poor, blue-collar parents. He was raised in a backwater region of the country. Jesus was not well connected, had no impressive education, and owned little more than the seamless tunic on His back (which was worth just enough that a couple of Roman guards would shoot craps over it). His political enemies, on the other hand, were upstanding religious people of elite pedigree, top-notch education, and shrewd business acumen. They would be hailed as hallmarks of success according to our contemporary culture’s criteria.

The uncomfortable question I ask myself in the quiet this morning is: Between Jesus and the religious leaders, who do I, and my life, most resemble? If I were standing in the temple courts listening to the debate between this poor teacher with His provocative views and the conservative, successful leaders of the traditional status quo, who would I be inclined to side with?

I confess that my honest answer is as uncomfortable as the question.

Caucuses, Circuses, and the Crowd

But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to [the crowd], because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.
John 2:24-25 (NRSV)

I must admit that Wendy and I are enjoying the blissful serenity of our evenings now that the Iowa Caucuses are over. For the past few months we have been accosted nightly by political ads, surveys and invitations to town hall meetings.  The media circus combined with the daily candidate rallies get a little old after a while.

It is, I admit, fascinating to watch the side-show which is our presidential election process. Candidates mug for the press and try to create media buzz. Depending on the poll of the hour, the candidates might flip on this issue and flop on that latest trending topic. Every one of them is looking for an edge to swing the crowds to their camp on caucus night.

Perhaps the fresh memory of such things are what caused the verses above to leap of the page at me this morning. John relates two distinct stories from the vast reservoir of stories he could have drawn upon. In the first story, Jesus is reluctant to perform a miracle doing so only at the passive aggressive insistence of His mother. In the second story, Jesus creates a scene at the temple which was sure to make headlines and create buzz. John is careful to note two things about this noteworthy event. First, he makes clear that Jesus’ motivation was sincere zealousness, born out of the corruption and racketeering Jesus witnessed in what was supposed to be a place of holiness. Second, Jesus was not trying to start a political movement or swing the crowd to caucus for Him. He didn’t trust the crowd.

This morning I am reminded of a few specific moments along my life journey. I have felt surges of popularity (albeit relatively small) and I have felt the sting of others turning their backs on me. The experiences are enough to teach me that trying to consistently win the approval of the crowd is a maddening, and largely vain, pursuit. Though, one simply needs to follow the travails of our presidential candidates for a few weeks to see the truth of it. I’m glad that Jesus was more interested in doing what was right than in doing what was popular with the crowd. That’s the example I continuously endeavor to follow.

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Angry-Crowd

But with loud shouts [the crowd] insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. Luke 23:23 (NIV)

When I read this verse this morning, two other verses instantly popped into my head. The first was from just a few chapters ago, and from just a few days earlier in Jesus’ own life journey:

As [Jesus] went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

What a difference a week makes. At the beginning of the week crowds were hailing Jesus as the new king coming to Jerusalem. By the end of the week crowds were shouting for his death so insistently that Pilate was forced to go against his better judgement and have Jesus crucified.

Crowds are fickle. Ask any celebrity or politician (is there a difference?) who surfs the waves of popularity. One day the public adores you, but in a moment they will turn. And, it doesn’t even take being guilty of something. It only takes gossip, rumor, and innuendo to quickly turn the tide of public sentiment against you.

Which brings me to another observation John makes in his biography of Jesus:

During the time [Jesus] was in Jerusalem, those days of the Passover Feast, many people noticed the signs he was displaying and, seeing they pointed straight to God, entrusted their lives to him. But Jesus didn’t entrust his life to them. He knew them inside and out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn’t need any help in seeing right through them.

Jesus knew not to trust in His trending popularity. He knew that He was ultimately be rejected. He knew the prophecies. He realized from the beginning that the crowds would ultimately turn against Him. More often than not He was trying to escape the crowds get away by Himself or with His inner circle.

I find it fascinating that in all of His teaching Jesus never made any public plea for followers. There were no membership drives. No information cards in the back of the synagogue to fill out, and no mailing lists. The truth is that there is as much, in not more, evidence of Jesus discouraging those who asked to follow Him than the opposite.

What I’ve come to realize in my own experience is that being a follower of Jesus is not about fame, it’s about faith. It’s not about celebrity, it’s about service. It’s never about recognition, but about repentance. It’s never about being lauded, but about loving sacrificially as we’ve been sacrificially loved.

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crucifixionLarge crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “…Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27 (NIV)

Because Jesus’ death on the cross was the most famous crucifixion of all time, many people today do not realize that crucifixion was actually a very common form of execution in that day. The area was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. Even in those days it was a political hotbed and the Roman Legion was intent on using force and intimidation to control the masses.

Crucifixion catered to the Roman’s desire to create fear and humiliation among their unruly subjects. Those sentenced to be crucified were forced to publicly struggle carry their own cross outside of the town as a form of spectacle. Once there, the victim would die a slow, painful death in view of everyone. Romans Legions would often line the roads leading in and out of an occupied town with multiple crucifixion victims. It was a visible calling card telling everyone that the Romans were in charge. It was a way of reminding visitors what they could look forward to if they created trouble for the occupying Roman force.

When Jesus turned to the large crowd following Him and said “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” the message was layered with meaning. The crowd was used to seeing the victims of Rome carrying their crosses through the streets. They had all heard the screams of crucifixion victims dying in excruciating pain. They had seen the dead, twisted bodies hanging limp on the crosses that lined the highway out of town.

Jesus was riding a wave of huge popularity. His name and his message were trending like nobody’s business. He healed the sick and crippled. He fed entire throngs of hungry people. He publicly humiliated the rich and powerful religious hypocrites and took up the cause of the poor and downtrodden.

And then, He tells people they’ll have to be crucified if they wanted to follow. They’ll have to become victims of the evil Romans.

I can imagine what the crowd thought:

Be crucified? Did I hear that right? Crucified?! No more free fish sandwiches? No more free healthcare? No more entertaining stories and flash mob rallies? What are you talking about, Jesus? Are you on the side of the hated Romans now? Do you like what they are doing to our own people? Dude, I’m all for socialism and a little political anarchy, especially when there’s something in it for me. But being crucified?! Count me out!!

I can imagine what his disciples thought:

Master, what are you saying? Are you crazyYou’ve got these people literally eating out of your hand. You’re the biggest thing since Elijah. You can make history. You can rally the people against Rome! You can be king (and we’ve already drawn lots for the choicest spots on your new administration)! Why are you telling people to choose to be crucified? Are you nuts? You’re making a huge mistake!! You’ll drop in the polls. The Pharisees are going to crush you on the talk shows. This is political suicide! 

What Jesus followers did not understand about His mission is that it was never about popularity, opinion polls, earthly power, or politics. His mission was all about personal, spiritual, and eternal salvation. He knew His mission led away from the crowds and popularity to a lonely death on a cross. Even in the order of creation it is understood that the new life and hope of spring must be preceded by the long, slow death of winter.

Shameless Audacity

source: Vincent van der Pas via Flickr
source: Vincent van der Pas via Flickr

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.  Luke 11:5-8 (NIV)

Last night Wendy and I were in bed watching one of the late night talk shows. A music act performed and we both thought it awful. The song wasn’t catchy at all but seemed strange and dated. The singer didn’t have a terrific voice but was dressed in some kind of strange outfit and made all kinds of weird movements around the stage. The band was also dressed in silly costumes. What the act lacked in musical talent they more than made up for with spectacle. This is something I have learned along life’s journey about artists in every medium. You will find some who achieve fame because of their talent, and you will find some who achieve fame because of their audacity (and, a few who have both).

I thought of that music act as I read Jesus’ parable this morning of the neighbor with shameless audacity who won’t go away until you loan him some bread. There is something to be said for having the courage to be shamelessly audacious. Dream big dreams, think big thoughts, go big, ask for much, and keep asking.

Good sometimes comes, not to the one who seemingly deserves it, but to the one who seeks after it constantly, asks for it tirelessly, and knocks without ceasing.

 

Chapter-a-Day Matthew 27

Antonio Ciseri's depiction of Pontius Pilate p...
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But when the accusations rained down hot and heavy from the high priests and religious leaders, he said nothing. Pilate asked him, “Do you hear that long list of accusations? Aren’t you going to say something?” Jesus kept silence—not a word from his mouth. The governor was impressed, really impressed. Matthew 27:14 (MSG)

Along stretches of the journey, I’ve been accused of different things. From silly to mildly slanderous, I’ve been charged in the court of public opinion with things of which I was innocent. To be honest, some times the charges were fabrications made because of things I actually had done. I’ve made my share of mistakes. Still, it’s never easy to sense whispers behind your back when you know that what is being said is completely untrue.

There is a small toy turtle that sits on a shelf in our house. It was acquired during one particular rough stretch and it became an enduring word picture for pressing on in such times. The quiet turtle never makes a fuss. He guards his heart inside a tough shell and keeps making his way in small incremental movements forward. Like the turtle in the old fable, I am reminded by the little turtle on the shelf that  “slow and steady wins the race.”

I was reminded by Jesus’ response to His accusers in today’s chapter. Of anyone ever accused in all of history, Jesus had more reason to cry “foul” than anyone else. Despite the mocking, jeering, and insults he quietly endured. Turning the other cheek is not an act of passivity, but a conscious act of the will which requires strength of character.

Jesus trials and death sentence is the ultimate example of how fickle the court of public opinion can be. It blows hither and thither with any number of prevailing winds which have little to do with truth or fairness. Sometimes, the best way to respond is by silently moving forward step-by-step and day-by-day and allowing time to reveal what is ultimately true.

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Chapter-a-Day Luke 4

shoe_laces
Image by Pcora via Flickr

That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger. They threw [Jesus] out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom, but he gave them the slip and was on his way. Luke 4:28-30 (MSG)

Truth does not win popularity contests. Doing what’s right can as easily get me banished as earn me any sort of reward. In fact, I’m reminded that doing anything at all can place a target on my back. Some days, no matter what I do, someone is mad at me and (rightfully) mocking my failings and shortcomings.

Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

I can stop and keep my head down, or I can keep moving forward. Time to lace up my walking shoes.

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