Meeting Rose and watching her interact with the people in Sho Klo Refugee camp bugged me. It made me feel shallow and like I said earlier, her love made me question the quality of my own. Hers was practical while mine was mostly words.
With a gnawing lack of confidence, I re-read my bible. It shocked me. I had read this thing 7 times cover to cover and now, on another read through the New Testament, it was almost like a completely different book.
The first time Jesus stood up to announce his ministry among humankind, he read this from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.” (Luke 4:18-19)
In other words, Jesus identifies first and foremost with the poor and oppressed, not the priests and the socially in crowd. This theme is so persistent in the gospel accounts that you simply can’t miss it. But I did for eight years.
Later in the same account, Luke records a showdown where Jesus goes toe to toe with a debater, a lawyer.
“Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28)
So Jesus answers the most important question in all of the cosmos with one sentence. Love God, love your neighbor, and live.
It is a quote from the Law of Moses. Moses summarizes the ten commandments with:
And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. (Deut 6:5)
And then later in Leviticus he summarizes the judicial code of the Israelites by saying to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18)
According to Jesus, the in people were the ones who did this simple thing. Everyone else was out. His definition left the religions leaders on stage with their shorts down. Everyone could see how shallow their spirituality was when it was viewed through the lenses of their actual works.
In Matthew Chapter 20, Jesus didn’t just separate the sheep from the goats; he separated them because of what they did or didn’t do for the poor and needy. In other words, the parable of the sheep and the goats puts you in hell if you don’t share with the poor and have compassion on the needy among us. Holy cow.
Or maybe he was saying that if you aren’t involved in helping the poor and needy, you are already in hell. Hmm.
Then his brother James not only accepts that Jesus is the messiah (man, imagine recognizing your brother as the savior!) but he distills the message of Christ into a few tight and surprising axioms. He says:
Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:27)
So asking the simple question, what is true religion? The straight answer comes from James. James is not getting at the prerequisites; he is talking about the acid test – the proof. And the proof is what you do, not what you say. You can talk until the cows come home, but your actions speak for themselves.
He goes on to say this:
Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? (James 2:15-16)
And then finally, he makes it even more universal by saying:
Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. (James 4:17)
So reading these verses and the hundreds that fall between them, I found a whole new perspective on what faith is supposed to produce. The grand slam verse is recorded in the book of 1 John. John’s project is to define what love looks like, to kill the gnostic heresy by linking acts of love with words of love, linking the physical to the spiritual experience.
If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. (1 John 3:17-18 NLT)
My ideas of theological purity and personal holiness being the primary concern of faith were upended by the bible itself. The very book I thought affirmed my wordy version of the gospel became the book chastising me for completely missing the point of it.
The words were there all along. I even memorized them. I ask myself how I managed to miss their meaning, to redefine them and make them into a complicated system of rules and regulations. I don’t know the answer to that.
But I know this: A lady named Rose opened my eyes to a whole new faith paradigm. Her sort of spirituality was really changing lives while mine was just fluffy stuff I called evangelism.