This appears to be Pope Francis’ time. In only eight months, he has captured the attention of much of the world.
Recently, the Pope said, “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules.” Statements like this one may indicate that there is a great shift coming in the Catholic Church, the effect of which will impact far beyond its own walls.
Pope Francis’ comment leads me back to the words of Jesus. Matthew 23:13 records a lengthy condemnation by Jesus of the practices and attitudes of the religious leaders.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
Jesus never criticized ordinary people, struggling with life; but He had very little tolerance for those who set up religious standards by which to measure the performance of others. Stressing external standards of behavior and performance always creates an exclusive environment, where “us” and “them” are clearly delineated.
But Jesus turns such religion on its head:
“How terrible for you, teachers of the law and Pharisees! You are hypocrites! You give to God one-tenth of everything you earn—even your mint, dill, and cumin. But you don’t obey the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, and being loyal. (Matthew 23:23)
Justice, mercy and loyalty: these come from hearts of compassion. More than anything else, Jesus came to reveal the love and compassion of God.
The Pope recently said to reporters, “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” Predictably, his words created an uproar; especially among many Evangelicals. For more than 30 years, the issue of homosexuality has been a primary focus of division and, sadly, hostility. The longer and more vehemently the conservative church has concentrated on this issue, the more marginalized the church has become.
Homosexuality is simply not a major issue in the scriptures. Jesus never once addresses it, and Paul only refers to it, at most, three times. His most explicit reference to homosexuals is in 1 Cor. 6:9-10, where Paul states that homosexuals will not inherit the Kingdom of God––along with all the sexually immoral (and Jesus already broadened that category to those who just look lustfully on another), those who steal, are greedy, have a drinking problem, and gossip.
So why has the issue of homosexuality grown over the past 30 years to become such a point of contention? I think there are two main reasons. First, external standards are easy. We can measure how others are doing according to what we say is acceptable. All over the world I encounter Christians who define holiness according to external standards. We find our security in knowing the rules, then checking our performance against that of others.
It is interesting that the measurements that are fought the hardest over are rarely found in the scriptures. In some nations, dancing is forbidden; in others it is smoking. Drinking alcohol is an obvious sin in Africa, but is part of being a good host in much of the British church. The issues may vary, but we will doggedly hold onto our measuring lines.
Secondly, homosexuality is an easy target. Statistically, practicing homosexuals are in a minority; therefore, most Christians feel secure to point a finger at gay men and women since this is something with which they themselves don’t struggle––so if homosexuality is the field of battle, they are safe.
But Jesus, who never changes, confronts our external religion as passionately in our day as He did twenty centuries earlier. His standard demands a re-alignment on our part: justice, mercy and loyal faithfulness are what really matter. These are the “weightier matters.”
The Bible speaks of justice over 2,000 times, enjoining us to care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, the hungry, the alien and the sick. Over 610 times we are called to live lives of mercy, loyalty, faithfulness, love and compassion.
There are 2 billion people living on less than $2 a day; one billion live on less than $1. Nearly a billion still do not have access to clean water. Today, 28 million people are living in slavery. Over a billion people have never heard the gospel.
Isn’t it time for all of us who are following Jesus to move from the margins (where we may feel safe to point our fingers at others’ sin) to the center of what He says really matters (where certainly we will be confronted with our own weakness, sin and failure)?
Steve Stewart is the founder of Impact Nations, a Christian organization that brings hope and restoration to the poor and vulnerable in the developing world through both supernatural and practical expressions of the Kingdom of God. Follow Steve on Twitter at @impactnations or learn more at impactnations.com.