It IS ironic that the people who persecuted Jesus most were the religious people. You would think that they, more than any, would have been ready to welcome and understand him.
However, Jesus found his best welcome amongst the crowds of ordinary folk, and the outsiders who were looked down on by the religious establishment.
Why was this?
There are many benefits that come from being religious. We have learned about God; we have the scriptures; many of us have heard about Jesus from childhood, and have been taught the difference between right and wrong. We hold to high standards and aim to be the best that we can. The trouble with religion is that it can breed a subtle kind of pride. There is a temptation to think of ourselves as better than other people, and believe that God ought to be particularly pleased with us because of the way that we live.
Jesus’ way undercuts all this. He shows us that even our best efforts fall far short of what we ought to be. We don’t practice what we preach. There can be a gap between what we stand for and how we actually live. We may settle for the outward side of religion (going to church, giving money, saying prayers, doing good things) without actually having a heart that loves God, and other people.
Yet, in spite of our failings, God still loves us and wants us to be his. And he does this freely! We don’t have to do anything. Simply believe.
This is a great leveller because it puts us all in the same boat. No one is better than anyone else. We all come to God in the same way – humbly and unworthily – and receive his mercy. This cuts away all human pride. When we come to God in this way, there is nothing left to be proud about. We can’t go on thinking that we are more deserving than anyone else. Outsider or insider, religious or irreligious – we all come to God in the same way and receive from him freely, because of his mercy.
This is why religious people persecuted Jesus - and sometimes still do. He takes away the ground for our boasting. Ordinary, ‘unchurched’ people can accept this. They probably already know that they need God’s help. But church-going people may find it more difficult, because it strikes at our pride.
Jesus told a number of parables that illustrate this point, such as the workers in the vineyard, the obedient and the disobedient sons and the wicked tenants.
As we move nearer to the crisis of the cross, we need to ask ourselves – whose side are we on? Are we with Jesus, and those who had been helped by him and felt deeply grateful; or are we more with those who persecuted him? It may come down to a matter of pride. And the more religious we are, the more we may be at risk.
Inchbrayock Parish Church & Melville South Parish Church