Mtt. 23:1-15, 25-28, 37-39
Rev. Kit Billings
May 23, 2004
I once heard a story about a preacher in Texas who instead of referring the Lord as “The Good Shepherd” preached about calling Him our “Good Cowboy!” The reaction in the parishioners that morning was simply that they were taken aback.
“How dare that man call the Son of God a cowboy?!” was the basic response. Well, the preacher's reasoning was pretty sound I think. He explained that many people in Christianity have tended to make Jesus fit into our “meek and mild box” only. There can be that mistaken viewpoint that a shepherd would necessarily connote a man in a clean, white robe, whose primary image is of a man who is always tender and mild. In actuality, Jesus must have chosen this image because it was the typical rancher image common in his day. Sheep were the commonest animal used in husbandry, and it was typically a rather dirty job. It required great toughness, and a willingness to fight off mountain lions and wolves. And, of course, it was a 24/7 job…not one for a weakling to manage.
In short, sheepherders would have been called “cowboys” if cattle were the main livestock of Christ's day. Therefore, the 23rd Psalm would have been easily changed to: “The Lord is my cowherd, I do not lack.” Which translated into our language today would be, “The Lord is my cowboy, I have all that I truly need.”
Most of us, though, are not cow ranchers or sheepherders. We may be a factory worker or an office employee, something to do in “white collar” America. And so therefore, if the Lord were here among us today, He might have translated the 23rd Psalm as: “The Lord is my foreman” or “The Lord is my boss, His leadership is trustworthy every day.”
Such comparisons are not callous nor do they strike at blasphemy. They are useful to the extent that they help a person's religion become more REAL…down to earth…ALIVE . It is crucial that we learn to take Jesus out of the sentimental only frame of mind and let Him live and involve Himself right here with us where the action is! This you see is not blasphemy. What is blasphemous is to sentimentalize God out of life and out of the hard reality of His Being, for the Lord walks and lives within the toughest circumstances people encounter.
I heard a radio program this week about a 75 yr. old man who specializes in death—he's a forensic expert and scientist. He's the Dr. Quincy par excel lance! He teaches his students about the details of what human corpses go through on their way to becoming “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Interestingly, he literally doesn't detest maggots and worms, since he deeply understands that these insects help to quickly disintegrate putrefying, rotting flesh. I guess you could refer to this humorous man as Dr. Death. At any rate, I was taken with this interview, especially when this Dr. divulged that he used to be a very religious man, until his second wife died of cancer. That was the straw that broke this man's back. What went through my heart and mind when I heard this is: “Gee, I wonder if it would make any difference to look back on the extent of suffering and agony Christ endured? Or, to recall how Jesus preferred to be with the sinners of His day—the tax collectors, shepherds, the outcasts, the blind and the lame.” He ministered to and healed those who had suffered terribly. And He made it clear that only His Kingdom shall not pass away; life on the physical plane is very transitory.
Christ showed through His own example that we can seemingly lose everything! He lost his closest friends right up to the end, He lost His health, His physical being, His prestige…even His clothing. And yet, through His suffering and death, and His commitment not to retaliate evil with evil gave Him everything. The reality is that Christ can and does suffer with us through the worst pain we endure, and He can turn every painful and difficult experience into both learning and growth. He is more than willing to slog it out with you wherever life gets really dirty and hard—this is the real Shepherd aspect of Him working hard for you!
The natural part of Him had to lose out on the enormous dream of becoming King of the Jews on the earthly plane of life. Yet Jesus knew something much deeper and more important than external wealth and success; He knew that it is only when the natural will and thinking inside of us falls down and dies, can a new and more spiritual way of thinking and living begin to grow. But to do this, we must be willing to come to the Lord “just as we are,” and allow God's love to infect us through our great honesty and vulnerability.
Yet the Pharisee can live well within us all. We human beings can fall into making religion into a game, one that entertains us and can even make us feel very comfortable inside, without having real depth and meaning. We can begin to think and feel that religion lives primarily in its externals, and we may easily find ourselves wanting to judge who will be going to heaven for sure and who won't be. But Jesus counters such ways, such shallowness, and He said: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
Christ spent much time waking people up out of their sleep. He knew that genuine Christian spirituality is one that keeps you on your toes, and so He said, “Watch! And stay awake! For you do not know the day when your master is coming.” For you see, the Lord's focus is within the very real. He knows that in order for any one of us to truly have a chance to discover lasting comfort in His Kingdom after death, then we will need to be suited toward the deeper truth of things here in this lifetime. As we learn from our vital New Church teachings, when you leave this world everything you have thought or said or done will be left behind and laid to rest within the periphery of your mind, EXCEPT what you have allowed to be sown into the fabric of your being, into your living spiritual character.
Religious ideologies that remain “up there” somewhere, up in that high and lofty place in your mind yet do not reach down and affect things in your daily life and relationships…such things will be taken away from you, just as the Lord revealed. In Luke's Gospel we hear Christ's timeless words: “I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.” (Lk 19:26) And so, anything in your religiosity that does not actually touch your real life condition within you will be stripped away after death.
This, in fact, has been the major complaint of religion, that it can teach someone many fancy words and phrases, and memorize a few key passages or prayers, but then may not affect much more. For Christianity to be what Jesus intended, it must be influencing everything a person says, thinks and does. And part of how the Lord accomplishes this is to manage and guide life on earth in such a way that it will demolish our concentration on what is external and more shallow. This is partly why disasters and traumatic experiences of various kinds are allowed by God—they do tend drive us into the depths of our humanity and tear down the walls of what is non-essential.
In other words, God is at times most expert at the use of “shock tactics.”
God, you see, wants to rattle your cage at times, helping you to let go of your outward pretentiousness and get beyond a more external way of looking at life---of looking at God, others and most of all yourself in an external way. And this is why we read in Isaiah's 42nd chapter that the Lord does not break a crushed reed, nor snuff out a faltering candle wick. However, He will support life in its ability to make our once brightly burning wick (or spirit) to feel like its close to burning out at times. Or, as a once tall reed standing in a pond somewhere, the Lord will let life bruise and injure us so that we are faltering a bit, but not to the point of breaking us in half and losing us completely. The tough reality we learn is that part of our inherited baggage from our ancestors is a tendency to re-make religion into something clean, neat and easy. BUT THE LORD WILL WAKE YOU OUT OF SUCH SLUMBER and tear down the walls of your false ego.
This is why the spirituality of Jesus contained so many “hard sayings”, many things that would not come out of a preacher and teacher who is only meek and mild. Indeed, the Lord was extremely gentle and sweet with those who were not playing games with their faith—the people who were willing to be real about who they really are, who are willing to come to God “just as they are.” The bottom line: we must be willing to reveal what's really going on underneath the surface of things in our minds, and deal with the inner evils and dynamics within us that create a dirty inside of the cup, as Christ said in essence. For as the Lord was saying to the Pharisees, their outward behavior might appear to be clean, yet their attitudes, affections and thoughts toward others were as corrupt as they could be—and so He compared the Pharisees to whitewashed sepulchers full of dead men's bones and all corruption.
For real, there are some nasty and upsetting things that Jesus said. He made a number of frightening references to hellfire, handing people over to torturers, the evil yeast of the Pharisees, and gnawing worms. He shook up the self-righteous lives of those who thought they deserved to lead others because He wanted them to wake up to the inevitable situation facing them after death, if they did not look vulnerably at their own evil and falsities. And this you see was a very merciful thing for Christ to have done. The Lord loved the God-fearing, humble-hearted followers. He loved real people—folks willing to be open and honest about themselves, people who could admit their faults, failings and impurities…as opposed to some image we think others might enjoy seeing, or something that we'd like to pretend we are.
And this is why He was so willing to crash through the self-respecting attitudes of the Pharisees who always felt they were righteous before God, when in reality they were not at all loving God. They asked Him when they were mistreating the Lord, and He responded by saying that whenever they did not help out someone who was poor and hungry, who was lying naked in the street, who was sick, or who was in prison, then they were mistreating Christ as well. And this infuriated the self-righteous Pharisees.
But once the self-righteous soul is laid bare, once our ego-centeredness has been called onto the carpet, THEN God's love can get in and take a hold of that person. No matter how lost and corrupt we may get, if we but only be REAL with the Lord about ourselves, there is much hope for us. Jesus could be very harsh with people when they had a thick layer of pompousness about them, those with barriers surrounding them in God's presence.
But!, those whose pride is broken, who are on the edge of despair at times, either in this world or the next, are ripe for the kingdom of heaven. We must be genuine and no longer pretending. We must be totally honest about ourselves before God's all-seeing eye, and open and inviting to God's regenerative power to transform and change us. And if you are willing to engage such depth and openness, or as St. Paul put it, “if you can be open to whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” keep yourself focused in it and striving to live in it.
And then, all will be well with you when your time in this world is up. Amen.