Howard Thurman was a Christian minister, philosopher, public theologian and author. He was a prominent religious figure who lived in the 20th century and influenced the church and its leaders in so many ways. He was one of the people folks like Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up reading.
In one of Thurman’s books, Jesus and the Disinherited, he argued that going the way of Christianity is not always the same as going the way of Jesus. Because we live in a complex world and because of our sinful nature, we have taken many of Jesus’ teachings and adapted them in some unhelpful ways he argues. He writes:
“The basic principles of [Jesus’] way of life cut straight through to the despair of his fellows and found it groundless. By inference he says, ‘You must abandon your fear of each other and fear only God. You must not indulge in any deception and dishonesty, even to save your lives. Your words must be Yea–Nay; anything else is evil. Hatred is destructive to hated and hater alike. Love your enemy, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”
Thurman argued that many of the religious leaders of his day had many formal (and informal) teachings about fear, dishonestly and hatred that were counter to how Jesus was calling us to live. Thurman believed that Jesus’ way told us that we should fear only God, so it would be silly for us to fear another person because of their skin color. We should never be dishonest even to save ourselves because in our dishonesty we lose ourselves. And we should reserve hate for only what is evil because any other hatred is poison to the one who holds it.
Thurman pushed the church into a more authentic faithfulness in our walk with Christ. He challenged many mainstream misconceptions, asked us to take an honest look at our biases, and created a space for future generations to question from where the teachings passed down to them had come.
The apostle Paul was a Jewish leader, philosopher, public theologian and author. He was a prominent religious figure who lived in the 1st century and influenced the church and its leaders in so many ways. He was one of the people folks like Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up reading.
In one of Paul’s letters, his letter to the Romans, he argued that following all the religious rules as they had been passed down to them was no longer the most important aspect of faith. Following Jesus was. He thought that some of the more complicated teachings like “an eye for an eye” (Leviticus 24:20) and “revenge” (Judges 16:28) and “curses” (Numbers 22:6) had been misunderstood and were even getting in the way of our walk with Jesus. He writes:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves …” (Romans 12:14-19a).
Paul was very clear in this letter (and in his others) about this point: following Jesus is very different than simply following our inherited religious laws and traditions with blind adherence. Paul helped the early church find ways to test their religious beliefs, challenge them to dive deeper into the “why” of their faith, and even encouraged them to follow Jesus above all else.
As you reflect on this lectionary passage, I would encourage you to think about how you too can help people challenge the common assumptions held today. Are there any religious teachings from their childhood that are no longer relevant (perhaps even opposed) to what Jesus taught? Are there any rules or laws that seem to prevent you from living into and out of the kind of love Jesus calls us to love with? Are there any misconceptions or confusion that you struggle with that perhaps you can ask Jesus about as you walk further down the path with him?
Whether you are a preacher, a teacher, an author, or simply a faithful follower of Jesus. My hope and prayer are that this passage challenges you in the way it was meant to.
Questions for reflection:
- How did this passage intrigue, disturb, challenge, comfort, encourage or inspire you?
- What are a few of the teachings from some people in your religion that seem opposed to the teachings of Jesus?
- How can you help others follow the way of Jesus over everything else?
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