Irony is when something happens that is the opposite of what we expect.
The Titanic was promoted as being 100% unsinkable; but, in 1912 the ship sank on its maiden voyage, that’s irony.
At a ceremony celebrating the rehabilitation of seals after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, at an average cost of $80,000 per seal, two seals were released back into the wild only to be eaten within a minute by a killer whale, that’s ironic,
So the ironic Jesus is when Jesus is a surprise—a shock to the first century and an even bigger shock to us.
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinner?’’ (Matthew 9:9-11).
‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Mark 12:13-17).
That’s a surprise.
The expected answer is “sure there is no need to give Caesar our hard earned money.” Yet Jesus says, “go ahead and give Caesar his money but give God what belongs to God.” Even the song we just heard “A Tramp on the Street” is the irony of Jesus. From all appearances, Jesus was nothing more than a criminal, a tramp from the streets, but looks can be deceiving. He was God’s gift to the world. He looked like a tramp but he was a King, that’s irony. Organized religion has struggled with the irony of Jesus from the beginning.
John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them (Luke 7:18-22).
John the Baptist had expectations of what the Messiah would be and do. His expectations were based on his interpretation of the scripture and certainly his own influences. He expected a Messiah who was a bit more violent and nationalistic. After all the Romans did persecute the Jews so certainly a Jewish messiah would want to liberate the Jews. Yet Jesus confronted the Jewish leadership more than the Romans. Further, he was not very interested in building an army to confront the Roman overlords. While Jesus did live righteously himself, he was more likely to direct others to repentance through welcoming words than harsh words.
Due to these unmet expectations, John the Baptist sends a question to Jesus—-
Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” ’
Disappointed John wonders if Jesus is really the one. Maybe he was wrong when he announced to everyone Jesus was the lamb of God and baptized Jesus. Does Jesus cease to be God’s messenger when he does not meet our standards? That’s a modern question, yet many a person who did not get their prayer answer has stopped following because God was not who they thought he was? Many have stopped following when Jesus said—“love your enemies.” It happened in the first century and it happens now.
People much prefer Christianity to following Jesus. To most Christianity is an organized system of belief—-there is the trinity, the resurrection, the return of the Christ, but following Jesus—well that’s forgiving, loving, and showing compassion—-the hard stuff.
John was unconvinced that Jesus was the one because Jesus was not what he expected. But Jesus is patient; he does not even chastise John for his doubt. Jesus just says –here’s the report, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
Which is really not an answer? (Quietly)
An answer would be “yes” or “no.” It’s as if Jesus is saying what Popeye the cartoon was prone to say—“I yam what I am.” This is what a Messiah looks like if you want to wait for another go ahead. If you want to raise up a substitute who is not a messiah but fulfills your fantasies—go ahead. Here’s my resume
the blind now see
the broken can walk
the lepers are made clean
the deaf can hear
the dead live again
God speaks to the poor
And if we wanted to update it we might write
Those who education have forgotten—I remember
Those who the new economy has left behind—-I remember
those who can’t afford a doctor—I remember
those who no one will listen to I hear
And those who are dead—from guilt, sin, bad religion, and any other obstacle you have built are made alive
and still, God speaks to the poor.
It’s a shock, isn’t it. That’s why we call it irony. We thought Jesus would be more religious than he was. We thought he would be more of a law and order messiah. We thought he would be upset by sinners. Turns out, He’s forgiving of sin and eats with sinners. More of a grace and start over messiah.
Jesus’ irony also turned the Old Religion on its head.
Jesus method was entirely different from what Jews or anyone had previous been exposed to. This may also explain John the Baptist question. This is one of many Old Testament selections I could offer.
If you hear it said about one of the towns that the LORD your God is giving you to live in, that scoundrels from among you have gone out and led the inhabitants of the town astray, saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods’, whom you have not known, then you shall inquire and make a thorough investigation. If the charge is established that such an abhorrent thing has been done among you, you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword. All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square; then burn the town and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt-offering to the LORD your God (Deut. 13:12-16).
A disciple was required to judge if someone was leading others astray, then your discipleship required you to then kill the others, then you burn their possessions. The point, of course, is that you could not coexist with these people, even their possessions were tainted.
Now this mindset went way beyond the Jews. Another writer calls these instructions as coming from the old religion. You can find them in other ancient texts. Purity seemed to be highly valued.
In Leviticus, it is written
Thus you are to be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy; and I have set you apart from the peoples to be Mine (Leviticus 20:26).
Can’t be much clearer than this. God is holy and he wants his people to be holy. Of course holy would be closely akin to being pure. To be holy people we would indeed need to clean the land of temptations and remove foreigners who might try to corrupt the rest of us. So the old religion calls for holiness, and the reason is God is holy.
This may have been what John the Baptist was looking for. A savior who stayed away from the sinners, lepers, prostitutes, and publicans, maybe that is why John is wondering.
Jesus appears and while I think he was holy, he did not spend his time separating himself from those who were sinners and failures. Instead he was ridiculed for spending time with sinners, which I suppose are the people previously in the old religion, you would stab or at least avoid, but Jesus would speak to women who had multiple marriages and lived with another man and touch people who had withered hands, and let people touch him who were total strangers. There is the irony, the holiest of all people having no problem with the unholy.
Even further, the irony is seen when Jesus echoes what was written in Leviticus.
“You must be merciful as your father in Heaven is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Jesus replaces holy with compassion. Was it a coincidence that Jesus picks the same syntax? Or did he choose it deliberately to remind his listeners of what they had previously heard? Surely the disciples who followed him and the other Jews who listened to him knew their history well enough to hear the echo of “holy” when Jesus said “merciful.”
Not only was God’s role updated, but now the people would be judged not by their ability to separate themselves from the pain of people, now they would be judged by how well they extended the same mercy as the father. Jesus was sent from a God who was not angry at the people, but a God who felt for the people.
But the old religion does not die easily. While Jesus, was calling people to practice mercy and grace, the other voices did not fall silent. The call for holiness/separation continued to speak up.
Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ (1 Peter 1:15).
The believers this author is writing to are facing a very difficult time, even persecution. The call from this writer is BACK to the Old Religion. Be holy as God is holy. Holiness, however, is not one dimensional. It does imply purity from corrupting influences but at its heart, it means to belong to God. So maybe the author is only calling us to remember who we belong to, to act like God’s people.
Yet it remains a curiosity to me that the author actually quotes the Leviticus passage. Of course, there would not have been a bound volume of Luke circulating around to quote from, but surely this writer would have been familiar with one of Jesus MAJOR themes. The authors point is to remember who you belong to. However, the faith which has followed have often used this call to return to the OLD religion, the religion of separation and holiness at the price of compassion.
Jesus makes the church uncomfortable. All this talk of compassion makes us squirm. Are showing and living compassion more difficult than being pure or holy? I don’t know.
I do recognize that to be pure or holy as the Old Religion called for, I must avoid certain people, draw a circle and make sure I am inside the circle. I think this would get tiring after a while, not to mention we are really not changing the world only protecting ourselves.
Which returns us the irony of Jesus—-he actually describes his followers as salt and light. It would appear Jesus did not anticipate a way forward which involved division, he wanted his followers embedded in the world.
Salt in the salt shaker is useless. It must be generously applied to do its work. Light invades the darkness, not living elsewhere but facing the darkness. To bring light is a compassion act, especially when we all live in the dark.
While living compassionate may not be more difficult than living holy, I think I know why people today want to return to the Old Religion. Living compassionately is dangerous, it is risky, and that’s why it scares us.
In a final twist of irony, it would appear that living holy is harder than living compassionately. Until we try to do it. Then we realize Jesus was not lowering the bar when he said, “Be merciful as your father is merciful” he was raising it.
By John Roy, Pelham Road Church, July 2016