Thursday, December 17, 2009

Affliction and Comfort

I don't like cliches. I like the religious variety even less. However, like alcohol, they're only sinful if used irresponsibly or in large quantities. (Relax, it's a joke.) And to be fair, faced with responsibility for 52+ messages a year, ministers are often hard pressed to avoid them completely. No harm. No foul. All is forgiven.

Forgiveness notwithstanding, however, if we're going to play with cliches, we need to serve them wisely. Otherwise, we may inadvertently find our serve returned with a side of humble pie. In a recent message by someone I greatly respect, my attention was captured by one of these potentially dangerous cliches. In this particular instance, the phrase was used in an encouraging and positive way. However, it has - at other times and places - been used for mischief. Though slightly modified for each particular situation, the root of the saying is as follows:

" comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable..."

Perhaps originally penned by Peter Dunne with reference to the newspaper and thereafter sometimes adopted as a justification for many journalistic endeavors - both positive and negative - the phrase has been borrowed not infrequently by pulpit pounders across the world as a raison d'etre for preaching caustic messages. It is an obvious but unfortunate observation that some who adopt this phrase seem far more interested in "afflicting" than "comforting". It is further lamentable that the tendency is to rationalize the afflicting of the afflicted instead of the comfortable.

Maybe an example is in order. In my experience, many preachers follow this phrase with a detailed exposition of sinful practices and people who should enter politely and silently into their affliction as lambs before their shearers are silent. This list typically consists in all the notorious big hairy sins: fornication, homosexuality, substance abuse, rowdy music, lack of patriotism and disagreeing with the doctrinal statements of a particular church organization. In other words, the pet peeves of a church organization and its leaders.

There are a number of problems here, not least of which is the arbitrary ranking of sin. Worse still, such an approach is really just preaching to the choir. The comfortable aren't being afflicted, they're being coddled into an attitude of superiority.

"I may be a misogynistic, judgmental tightwad," says respectable, well-dressed Wilson, "but at least I'm in the right camp and I'm not coveting Harold's... well... anyway. God Bless the USA!"

Forgive the offensiveness, but I'm trying to make a point here. There is no value in inflating people's sense of self-righteousness. That's just comforting the comfortable. And if we're not careful, we may find that we're simply handing out stones for afflicting.

More significantly, when we take a look at the Gospels, we find the majority of conflict occurring not between Jesus and sinners but between Jesus and the "religious folk" of the day. The Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes seem to receive the uncomfortable side of Jesus far more than anyone else, apparently due to their own self-righteous egotism (their own "comfort", if I might be allowed to suggest it). And the sinners seemed to feel right at home with Jesus, as though he came just to meet them in their "afflictions" (Matthew 9:13, 11:19). Jesus generally had little quarrel with "sinners".

"Ahhh," you say, "but what about the Sermon on the Mount? That was clearly directed at more than just the religious folk. And Jesus has some rather strong words for sinners there."

Perhaps. But I'm still not entirely sure that the Sermon on the Mount wasn't given at the expense and to the frustration of the Pharisees and scribes (see Matthew 5:20). Regardless, until we're ready to commence with the nasty business of lopping off hands and gouging out eyes, I'm going to assume that neither of us is taking that passage too seriously. However, if on the off chance you feel like you are taking it seriously, I'll be holding you to Matthew 5:42. Thank you very much. Because my wallet's looking a little thin these days. Perhaps I should get back to my point.

No matter how you cut it, it can be fairly easily established that Jesus directed most of his "affliction" to those who were comfortable in their religious arrogance and self-righteousness. And many of the "afflicted" who received his comfort were sinners. And what is that marvelous smell? I think it just may be fresh pie baking in the kitchen.

No comments: