Several times a day every single day someone will walk into our church office seeking financial assistance. Most of the time, those people have a genuine need—circumstances beyond their control that have left them under severe financial pressure. Sometimes, however, someone comes through the door who just seems to have their entire life backwards.
Coach handbag, shiny Cadillac, designer clothes, fancy smartphone—everything on the outside tells me that this person has their life completely backwards. I don’t doubt the person’s moment of need. I genuinely believe that he or she owes that ridiculous amount on a utility bill and that he or she has no way of paying it before it comes due (past due, really). Instead, I hold that person in contempt because he or she has life’s priorities out of whack. “Why did you spend your money on that fancy purse? How can you afford that wireless bill? Why don’t sit down and do some careful, hard thinking about the steps you need to take to make sure you never have to come back here and ask me for money! What you really need to do is…”
It’s easy for me to sit in my comfy office in a position of power and authority and relative wealth and know for sure what is wrong about someone else’s life and to know just what needs to happen to fix it. But, in actuality, I am a complete idiot. (Just ask those who know me.) How can I possibly know enough about someone else and their situation to presume to know how to solve all their problems and solve them more effectively than he or she can?
In today’s gospel lesson (John 7:37-52), the Pharisees and chief priests send some temple officials to arrest Jesus. The return without their supposed prisoner, and say to their disappointed bosses, “No man ever spoke like this man!” Enraged at their affection for the rebellious though popular preacher, the authorities reply, “Are you led astray, you also? Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed.” In other words, the Pharisees and other temple higher-ups see no reason to honor who Jesus is until one of them—those in power—have decided Jesus is the messiah. It’s a “Let them eat cake!” moment.
I am in a position of power. Most of us—probably all of us—are in positions of power. It’s tempting to be right about something. To assess a situation and declare with certitude whether someone or something is right or wrong or good or bad is an exercise of real power. But that’s not how the Jesus-movement works. Jesus refuses to let those who with the formal authority to delineate true messiah from false prophet have that power. In other words, we don’t get to decide who Jesus is or what Jesus would do (WWJD in the trash!). Jesus is who he is. Even though I’m as empowered as almost anyone else to tell others who Jesus really is, I can’t do it. Because if I were to do it—if I were to dispense Jesus according to my limited and self-centered principles—I’d be no better than the Pharisees. An attempt to define Jesus is as much an exercise in exclusion as it is an attempt to evangelize.