When God Goes to Church
Dr. Jim Denison
Pride and humility have been much in the news lately.
We’re all aware of Enron’s fall from 7th largest corporation in America to bankruptcy. You may remember Olga Korbut, the three-time gold medalist in the 1972 Olympics, recently arrested for shoplifting $19. Actress Winona Ryder’s arrest for shoplifting is still in legal process. And basketball giant Shaquille O’Neal has been sidelined for much of the NBA season by an arthritic toe.
But our hubris goes on. This week’s Fortune magazine tells us that for $200,000 you can buy your own biographical documentary. You’ll get two cameramen, three producers, and two-time Emmy winner Bill McGowan. He’ll write the script for your biography, conduct interviews over ten to 15 days, select sound bites, and edit the finished product.
But when you receive your documentary, don’t be too impressed. You’ll have spent one-fifth of what each cast member in the TV show Friends now makes. Per week.
Pride and humility have been issues long before Kenneth Lay took the fifth. On Tuesday of Holy Week, God went to church. On this day, in the Temple, Jesus confronted religious pride and commended spiritual humility. He taught us that God accepts and loves us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. You’re worthy to know God personally and intimately—unless you think you are. Let’s explore that fact and its relevance for your life.
Refuse religious pride
It’s now Tuesday morning of Holy Week, and Jesus and his disciples return to the Temple he cleansed the day before. This is politically and even physically unsafe. His enemies have had the night to get ready for him. They fear that the crowds will crown him their king, a rival to Caesar, and that Rome will have their heads. They must stop him. Jesus is walking into a trap, and he knows it.
His enemies confront our Lord in four orchestrated groups. Here are their attacks, as briefly as I can describe them.
First comes the legal challenge of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. They question Jesus’ legal authority to drive out the moneychangers and do his ministry. He asks them by what authority John the Baptist did his ministry. They’re afraid of John’s continuing popularity and won’t answer. So Jesus doesn’t have to answer, and they are defeated.
Next comes a political challenge: should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? If Jesus says yes, the crowds will desert him; if he says no, Rome will arrest him. He holds up a coin and makes the famous declaration, “Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s.” Luke 20:26 says, “Astonished by his answer, they became silent.”
The third attack is theological. It comes from the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection. They ask Jesus about a wife with seven husbands—whose wife will she be in the afterlife? Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 to prove the reality of the resurrection, and they are defeated.
Last comes a scholar with a biblical challenge: “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” His fellow Pharisees recognized 613 such laws; any Jesus omits he can be accused of rejecting. Our Lord responds with the two great commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor. Even the scholar is impressed: “Well said, teacher” (Mark 12:32). With this result: “From then on no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34).
Here’s the point Tuesday morning proves: religious pride rejects Jesus, and is rejected by him. If we want to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we must refuse such spiritual, religious pride. We are worthy to give God our worship and lives, unless we think we are.
How do we refuse religious pride? We admit our need for God.
Religion tempts us to believe that we merit God’s love and help. After all, we believe in Jesus and go to church. We try to live good lives and obey the Bible. Of course God will hear our prayers and receive our worship.
But God’s word says that all of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and the just payment for our sin is death (Romans 6:23). Jesus promised us, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
We have no status before God except his Son’s death for our sins. The Bible is clear: “By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). So we come to God in humility, in gratitude for his grace and love for us, loving him because he first loved us. And when we do that every day, we find his arms open to us all.
One of the most moving experiences of Holy Land travels for me is always visiting the Church of the Nativity. Built over the cave where Jesus was born, it is probably the oldest church building in Christendom. In the twelfth century, riders on horseback often broke into the church and pillaged its possessions. So the members made the door into the church so small that those who enter must do so on their knees. It is called the Door of Humiliation.
Anyone can come to the birthplace of Christ to worship him. Anyone. But only on our knees.
Give your best gifts
Now the scene shifts to two more dramatic events. One at the Temple, the other at a home in Bethany.
Our Lord, exhausted by his confrontation with the religious authorities, sits down in the Temple by the treasury where worshipers bring their offerings. Here he watches the rich giving their large gifts. What comes next is one of the most famous scenes in Scripture.
Mark 12:42 says, “a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.” These were the “lepta,” the smallest coins then in circulation. Two pennies to us. But not to our Lord.