I assume most Christians know something about Jesus’ frequent encounters with the religious leaders of his day. They know he often encountered the scribes and Pharisees who challenged him on his teaching.
We should understand that Jesus recognized that their religious devotion was sincere, but he knew it did not go far enough. Essentially, Jesus found fault with the emphases of lawyers and temple leaders. Jesus knew God wanted faithful people to move beyond the rituals, the rules, the condemnations of those kinds of leaders.
Jesus believed that their religious life was not enough. To use a modern image, I think Jesus saw them as religious spectators. How often, for instance, did the Pharisee spend much of their time looking at others and finding fault with them? How often did the lawyers condemn Jesus in his care for those in need – while they sat back and did nothing for the person? Indeed, the religious leaders of the day were only religious spectators.
If that was true for leaders and people 20 centuries ago, it can be true of us today! It’s tempting for us to be religious spectators.
Let me suggest several images that can enrich that understanding.
• In to talking to a man who was a member of the church to which I’d just been appointed, he confessed his lack of involvement, saying, “Most of my religion was in his wife’s name.”
• Years ago, Chad Walsh essentially warned us about simply becoming religious spectators. He warned about our being vaccinated with a little bit of Christianity – and becoming immune the more demanding part of the faith.
It’s easy and tempting to assume that some limited involvement with Christ and the church is sufficient. But in the book of Philippians, Paul urges us to a full commitment to the faith. Listen to what he says.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though, he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Years ago, I heard Bishop Roy Nichols preach on this passage and suggest it called foe us to have a mind transplant. After all, St. Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. We’re not just to be those who claim to be followers of Christ, but we’re to think and act like Jesus. In other words, we cannot be religious spectators.
Here’s an abbreviated list of things Jesus did or taught that are beyond the spectator level of religious devotion:
• Be as responsive with the needs of others as was the Good Samaritan who inconvenienced himself to care for the man who was robbed and beaten.
• Take Christ seriously when he tells us to love our enemies.
• Stand firm in your views as did Jesus when he was attacked by the Pharisees.
• Think seriously about what Jesus meant when he invited people to “Take up their cross” to follow him.
To be a follower of Christ means to be more than a spectator of what others may be doing for God’s realm. It intends, it expects, it requires some level of involvement that carries with it some measure of sacrifice. We’re not talking about the total immersion, but at least some involvement that moves beyond the casual – to something that transforms you and transforms others.
Do know that God loves all of us, no matter our level of involvement. Nevertheless, God’s realm needs more than religious spectators. God needs those who are ready to respond, whatever the call.
Rev. William McCartney is a retired United Methodist minister and a professor emeritus of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.