And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.
[This is the last installment of a four-part discussion on this scripture.]
Jesus, the chief priests, and the elders have been doing some verbal sparring on Days 182-185. And now, Jesus ends the exchange with a very direct statement – “And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.”
On Day 186 I concluded that the fruit Jesus was looking for was a restoration of love for God and for one another. His ministry reached out to the social outcasts of his day. On Day 187 I questioned whether or not Jesus would find this fruit in today’s churches. I concluded that love is indeed manifested in many of today’s churches. I proposed that churches are generally both able and willing to provide long-term love and support for those in need. But, if that’s the case, then why aren’t the “outcasts” that Jesus loved so much flocking to the churches? On Day 188 I looked at some of the reasons why the people Jesus would have ministered to seem to avoid churches like the plague. Today, I am going to do a little brainstorming and come up with a few suggestions that might help the churches produce more fruit. This is all a reference to Day 181 when he curses a fig tree because it didn’t bear fruit.
It seems logical that if today’s churches want to bear the same kind of fruit as Jesus’ ministry did, then we should model our ministries after his. Makes sense to me.
What did Jesus’ ministry to look like?
When Jesus came to a town the first thing he generally did was an act of love. He healed people, either by laying hands on them or encouraging them with his words. He didn’t try to change them or get them to change their religious practices. Next, he befriended them. He talked to them, ate with them, invited them to travel with him. He brought them into community with him. Then, and only then, when they were integrated into his community he began to teach about theology, the religious establishment, and other serious subjects. Healing, community, then teaching.
What do the ministries of today’s churches look like?
In today’s churches the ministry progression is usually turned upside down from that of Jesus. The first thing people are usually exposed to is a church a worship service where the main event is the pastor who delivers a teaching sermon. At some point along the way the church may offer a special event or fundraiser to which people are eventually invited, and they may or may not choose to make this first step toward community. Finally, after it seems like someone has been attending church for a long time but they still have problems, then prayer and healing and personal care are administered as a sort of last resort. Teaching, community, and then (sometimes) healing. Compare this to Jesus’ ministry. Not the same order.
One major attraction of charismatic churches is that healing is often a gateway into the church, but it is followed up closely by a lot of serious teaching. Unfortunately true integration into the community requires a high degree of conformity to the rules and traditions of the particular church. As for the evangelical churches, it’s all about teaching. There is usually very little emphasis on healing or community – the sole emphasis is recruitment and conformity. Even if small groups or other community formation tactics are implemented it’s still based on teaching rather than true friendship.
Jesus would appreciate the Dog Whisperer.
I have dogs and I love to watch “The Dog Whisperer.” He works with dysfunctional, dangerous dogs and he approaches them like Jesus did. First, he greets the dog using what he calls “calm, assertive energy” which sets the dog at ease. He usually waits for the dog to approach him. He may put a leash on the dog, or he may reward the dog with a touch. He connects with the dog and gains its trust. The owners are usually amazed and often say it’s a miracle. Some might call it a miracle of healing.
He says that dogs usually go bad because they have forgotten how to be dogs. It is therefore useful to introduce the dog he is trying to help with other “balanced” dogs. Sometimes he introduces the problem dog to Daddy, the Dog Whisperer’s favorite dog. Daddy is a calm, balanced, pit bull that gets along very well with other dogs. If, for example, a dog refuses to walk on a leash with its owner, it will usually trot along happily alongside Daddy. When the Dog Whisperer runs into a truly dangerous dog, the only solution is to take him back to the ranch to interact with the Dog Whisperer’s dozens of “balanced” dogs who naturally rehabilitate the dog by teaching him how to behave. The dogs on the ranch gently correct the offending dog and help him figure out his place in the pack. It’s a natural process and it works. It’s the power of the dog community.
Finally, once the dog has been “rehabilitated,” the Dog Whisperer teaches the humans how to treat the dog like a dog. He trains them to be good pack leaders. He teaches them how to develop that “strong, assertive energy” that puts dogs at ease. And then the people have the tools they need to train their dogs and get them to behave. The teaching is the last thing.
There are a lot of people out there who are like dysfunctional, unmanageable, un-socialized, unhappy dogs. Like these dangerous dogs, they are withdrawn or aggressive. Also, like the problem dogs who have forgotten that they are dogs, these people have forgotten who they are. They have forgotten that they are children of God. They have forgotten that they are loved. They have forgotten that life is good. They need to be healed. They need to be treated with respect.
Like the dogs who have forgotten what it’s like to be part of a functioning pack, they have forgotten what it’s like to be part of a group that cares for them. They need to be integrated into a loving community where they can get some social skills. They need to find their place in the world and discover their value. They need to discover the joy that’s found in loving God and loving one another.
What changes do churches need to make?
I think the church needs to switch things up if it wants to help the outcasts. Because the Sunday worship service will probably remain the gateway to the church for the immediate future, it should be an escape from the cares of life. It should be an uplifting, a celebration of God and life. It should be a healing experience, not a teaching experience.
I would suggest that there should be a new lectionary composed of only those scriptures that are uplifting and universally encouraging. No penitential talk. No weird stuff. There should be a time of prayer. There should be healing ministry. The teaching sermon would be replaced by something more like what we call a devotional. Something that affirms the goodness of life and the love of God. The sole emphasis should be the love of God, the glory of creation, the kindness of Jesus. And love. Lots of talk about the importance and the wonder of love. Healing talk.
And every church community must have eating and fellowship. Churches should provide opportunities for people to eat together and talk at least once a week, preferably every day. If a community of love is the goal, then natural fellowship opportunities must be available. Congregations need to be released to do what they do best – talk and eat and reach out to each other and laugh and tell their stories and support each other and share their things and on and on and on. There should be no pressure for people to conform to any particular theological or behavioral expectations, as long as they are peaceful and non-confrontational.
Finally, there should be no forced exposure to intellectualized Biblical teaching. Lecturing, theological discussions, and Bible study should be completely separated from the worship service. It should be available for those who are interested in this kind of learning, but it shouldn’t be imposed on anyone who isn’t. When Jesus talked to the masses, he was always encouraging. He told them to be kind to one another. He told them they were the light for the world. When he talked to his twelve disciples, he taught them things that he didn’t discuss with the masses. But only when he was talking to the Pharisees did he engage in arguments about the technical aspects of scripture or high flung theological premises. His discourse was appropriate to the audience. He told them what they needed to hear, and no more.
People arguing about theology or using scripture out of context can do far more harm than good. Pastors telling people what to believe or how to act is decidedly unhelpful. It doesn’t bring people closer to God and it doesn’t bind people together in love unless it’s handled very carefully. If it isn’t handled very carefully it can produce Pharisees. Very quickly. And nobody likes a Pharisee.
Is there any fruit? Is there any hope?
One more time, here’s the incident on Day 181 with the fig tree and the fruit:
On his way back to the city early next morning, Jesus was hungry. He saw a fig tree by the side of the road and went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. So he said to the tree, “You will never again bear fruit!” At once the fig tree dried up. (Matthew 21:18-19).
The fig tree was the religious institution of Jesus’ day, the leaves were the visible activities like religious practices, and the fruit Jesus was looking for was love. If the fruit we want to see is love, then then emphasis has to be on relationship and community, not theology or church prosperity or self-improvement. The latter were the things that the Pharisees were concerned with.
In my opinion, going back the fig tree analogy, today’s church might best be described as a fig tree that looks a little unhealthy. Many of the leaves have fallen off and it’s looking a little sparse. But there is still fruit in there. The church may not be perfect, but it’s still the place where you are most likely to consistently see glimpses of the Kingdom of God. I think that with a few relatively minor changes it could turn into a very fine, healthy tree indeed that is full of fruit. We just need to get it firmly in mind that knowledge is not the fruit we are seeking. Teaching shouldn’t be the main agenda. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Knowledge got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden. No, the fruit Jesus is looking for is love – and that’s not something you teach. It’s something you give and receive. It’s something that just happens when people are left alone to do what comes naturally. Just like the dog ranch. Love breaks out pretty easily if you just relax and let nature take its course.
What does this scripture say to you?