When religion is bad

Religion can be bad, very bad, so bad it keeps you from seeing Jesus.

You might be offended at that, so please read on.

Like many of you I’ve been steeped in religion all my life. I was religious before I even knew what it was. I was half-grown before I realized there were actually real people who didn’t go to church every Sunday and Wednesday, and some of these people even lived in my neighborhood. Hard to believe there were non-church-goers on my own street.

I was the kid at school who taught people not to use euphemisms, and not even to use euphemisms of euphemisms. (And yes, I knew what a “euphemism” was before I knew how to read)

What I’m saying is that I was pretty good at religion, because it was something you could see, something you could measure or quantify. You either had it or you didn’t, you either were or you weren’t, and I knew how to measure it.

Church on Sundays and Wednesdays?

Leather-bound Bible with name etched on the front?

Ask the Lord to guide, guard, and direct us, give the preacher a ready recollection, and bring us back at the next appointed time?

Check, check, and check.

Religious through and through, born and bred.

So it ought to shock you to hear me say something bad about religion, because these are my people.

The issue is this: people can do religion without ever having a relationship with Jesus. They can follow the external rites but never know God.

In fact, religion can even get in the way of a relationship with Jesus.

It gets dangerous when it starts to make us feel better about ourselves without addressing the real problem. When we think that going to church, reading our Bibles, and avoiding euphemisms clears our path to heaven, we’re wrong.

We’ve missed Jesus.

We’ve lost sight of why he came, who he was, and what he did.

As I’ve reread the gospels over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that most of the people who couldn’t stand Jesus were religious. They hated him, attacked him, killed him.

And the irreligious couldn’t get enough of him.

Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? The more imbedded someone was in the religious traditions of his day, the greater the chances he wanted nothing to do with Jesus. On the other hand, the more someone lived life on the fringes of polite, respectable society, the more he wanted to be within hugging distance of the young Rabbi from some backwater village.

Think about it. Who tried every trick they had to get Jesus to fall into their trap?

Who struck the deal with Judas, giving him a bag of money for a discreet location to arrest God’s Son?

Who slapped him, spit on him, and made fun of him throughout that long Thursday night?

Who was at the front of the mob yelling “Crucify him! Crucify him!”?

Hint: it wasn’t the streetwalkers, vagabonds, and lowlifes who had seen compassion in the Lord’s eyes and felt welcomed by his touch.

No, it was the tie-wearing, Bible-toting, Scripture-quoting preachers whose faces were green with envy and whose hands were red with blood. They had to put down their Bibles so they could slap him. They had to stop quoting Scripture long enough to spit in his face.

Yes, the religious people hated him so much they couldn’t see straight, while the ones whose lives were crooked followed and worshiped him.

I think the key is in this pithy statement from Jesus: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

The reason the religious folks couldn’t stand Jesus is that they didn’t think they needed him. They had religion, and it gave them what they wanted. Who needs a doctor when you’re not sick?

The ne’er-do-wells, on the other hand, saw in Jesus the embodiment of forgiveness and acceptance, scarce commodities in the religious tradition of the day.

And so they loved him, followed him, worshiped him. And he forgave them.

Religion isn’t all bad, of course, and I’m thankful for a home environment that taught me that there was more to Jesus than keeping some rules and not breaking other ones.

But the question’s begging to be asked: in your life, do you have a relationship with Jesus that transcends the rites?

He—not they—saves, and sometimes they can keep you from seeing him.

2 thoughts on “When religion is bad”

  1. Thank you. Well written and I agree.
    I would just like to mention that this argument too often is used to give permission to ‘throw out the baby with the bath water’: to skip attending church, to swear and cuss, etc. But while Jesus (Mt. 23) condemned neglecting the “more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness”, He went on to say, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” There is the husband who is miserly toward his wife, refusing to buy things his wife needs, declaring that money ‘corban’ because he wants to be super generous to everyone else. There are those who don’t care that they are breaking their parents’ hearts (not to mention God’s heart) by refusing to attend church, where they are greatly needed by others, as well, who would be blessed by their encouragement. There are those who say they have the right to use any coarse and crude words they please, without regard to how rude and frightening it is to those around them. And it is just as wrong/rude to pronounce at evening service that we here are ‘the faithful few’. Legalism can consist of trying to keep the whole law without redeeming grace, but legalism can also consist of obeying only the letter of the law (looking for loop-holes, doing the bare minimum) without the transformational power of grace.

    For the convenience of readers not familiar with it, here is the last part of Matthew 23:
    “22 And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
    23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
    25 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
    27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
    29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
    33 “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34 Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35 And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
    37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

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