A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Of Gnats & Camels
August 20, 2015
Jesus has an apt metaphor for the way some of the religious leaders of his day operate – he says they “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” They get highly exercised over minor things, while caring little for weightier things, which he identifies as “justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23-24) To use a contemporary metaphor, they can’t see the forest for the trees. It is as though they are trying to drive a car while wearing reading glasses. They have lost the ability to see the big picture because their attention is fixated on minutiae.
Over the course of this summer’s sabbatical, I found myself challenged to do an inventory in my own life and ministry. What of my work and commitments is truly foundational and abiding, and what is temporary and situational? For what do I need to go to the mat relentlessly, and on what ought I to be willing to give easily?
I have been struck at Jesus’ “holy nonchalance” over things that get his disciples all tied up in knots. Consider just a few:
Why does Jesus consort with a Samaritan woman of ill repute? (John 4)
Why is Jesus asleep on the stern’s cushion while a storm threatens to capsize their boat? (Mark 4)
Why does Jesus permit unauthorized people to speak and act in his name? (Mark 9)
Why does Jesus offer himself without resistance to those intent to arrest, accuse, judge, and crucify him? (John 18)
Why, after his resurrection, is Jesus undisturbed by Thomas’s stubborn doubts (John 20), or by his disciples' continuing misguided expectation that he is about to lead a revolt against Rome? (Acts 1)
The list could go on. But already it is long enough to challenge me: Where have I gotten agitated over things that don’t matter much to Jesus? And where have I missed seeing the big picture because I’ve been so consumed with things that matter little in the long run?
I noted above that Jesus identifies three things as truly “big”: justice, mercy, and faith. Are these the things I too am most concerned about, or am I wrought up over lesser things?
Jesus’ terse triad of things that truly matter recalls Micah’s summary of God’s Law in terms of three essentials: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) It also anticipates Paul’s classic formulation of things that matter most: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
Alas, we have far too often conditioned our fellowship on minor things, while ignoring big things over which we ought to be far more concerned. Like Micah, Jesus, and Paul, John Calvin also claims a three-fold set of essentials: that God is one, that God is merciful, and that Christ is divine. Separation over anything less he calls “capricious.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.1.12)
Let us confess our sin as Protestants in general, and as Presbyterians in particular – we have divided over minor things, while forgetting these bigger things. We have been more intent on being right than on being merciful like the God who has shown us unconditional mercy. We have concerned ourselves more with protecting our own turf and rights than with seeking justice for others. We have been quick to demonize each other as we spar endlessly over finer points of church order and doctrine, setting aside the kind of love that hopes and believes the best of one another. We have sought vindication and praised success rather than practicing forbearance and humility.
Mercy. Justice. Humility. Faith. Hope. Love. This is biblical behavioral bedrock. So we must ask ourselves: Have we built our house more on mercy or on judgmentalism? On justice or on partiality? On humility or on certainty? On faith or on mistrust? On hope or on fear? On love or on self-serving?
Seeking the better way,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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