Once again, like it was a theme, Jesus confronts those who would create their own religion on the basis of outward behavior, on the basis of sin management, and he rejects their focus out of hand.
Notice that this conversation happens in the context of Jesus' amazing success. People are coming by the thousands, even trampling each other, to see Jesus. He has attained rock star status. Whenever spiritual leaders of any stripe become successful, there is a tremendous pressure -- internal and external -- to measure up, to cut corners, to (in the words of Jonas Nightingale in the excellent movie "Leap of Faith") "always look better than they do." As soon as we focus on appearances, we begin to hide the less-than-comfortable details from ourselves and from others. We lie to ourselves and others in a thousand little ways. This is a tragically common story in the world of religious leadership -- not only for high profile leaders, but for everyone who participates in the oxymoron of organized religion.
This is why shame is such a powerful tool. Nearly everyone is hiding something. The story is told of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, sending an anonymous telegram to ten top-level officials in the British government. The telegram simply read, "All is discovered. Flee at once." Within twenty-four hours, every one of the officials had left the country. Doyle didn't know any damning details about these officials, but he understood human nature. We live in fear that the abysmal truth about us will be discovered, that people will see us naked and ashamed.
This fear gives religion its power. Shame is a powerful motivational tool, but deep down we recognize that it is wrong and unhealthy to be motivated in this way.
Jesus speaks to our fear, and verses 4-7 deserve a much closer reading than they usually receive. Jesus says multiple times that we should fear God rather than humans. He says this so explicitly (verse 5) that it seems obvious. But then (verse 6) Jesus says a couple of really odd things: sparrows are cheap. The hairs on your head are numbered. In other words, the God whom you fear (implied, because you are still buying into a system of shame by which God is going to Get You for Being Bad) doesn't want to Get You at all. God cares for the throwaway birds. God is attentive to each hair that washes down the drain of your shower. So what?
So don't be afraid.
Wait a minute! Jesus just said we should fear God. Now he says don't be afraid. What? That's exactly the point. All our shame-based systems assume that God -- or some other larger morality -- is judging us and finding us lacking. We assume that people are watching us, evaluating us, judging us. And perhaps they are, but their opinions, believe it or not, don't matter. God is both attentive and loving, though we find it hard to believe. Fear not.
Jesus moves on to his trump card, consistent with what he has been preaching all along: He is the authorized representative of God, the agent of God's grand design, the anointed Messiah, the one and only Son of God with authority over all creation. He is the one who has been eating with tax collectors, drinking with sinners, anointed by a prostitute. He has come not to condemn but to love. He has come to break down the hypocritical systems of shame. And even if we mistake him, if we badmouth him, he forgives, just as he will do from the cross. But the Spirit of God that helps us to know God as loving, the movement of God away from moralistic judge toward loving Father -- that Spirit-driven reality of God, God help us if we close ourselves off to this revelation.
Lots to ponder.
So take a break from the ponderous and chuckle with me for a moment at a memory: Bible college, a million years ago, and a big exam in one of our classes. I asked a friend how much he had studied, and he said, "Not a bit. I'm going to Luke 12:12 this one."
Not sure that is what Jesus was talking about -- my friend failed the exam -- but it still makes me laugh.