Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Jesus asks, “But to what will I compare this generation?” Jesus, our Jesus, was a cultural critic long before cultural theory was invented. He offers radical critique of his culture and if we pay attention, of ours as well.
Today, everybody’s a critic. The message of Jesus has been drowned in the noise of those insisting that they speak for him on every issue under the sun including issues Jesus never mentioned, discussed, or knew anything about at all. Jimmy, sitting in a dark room at the American Family Association headquarters in Tupelo, Mississippi, is watching television shows and making notes of all the nasty words and sex acts. That doesn’t sound Christian; it sounds creepy. Aunt Sally, sitting on a porch in North Mississippi, dipping snuff and spitting in the yard, while doing needlepoint, is holding forth with her sisters about the evils of socialist America. Uncle George, sitting on the back porch rolling up the garden hose, is telling his son that evolution is a false doctrine invented by the devil to destroy America. George doesn’t know anything about biology, but that doesn’t stop him from swallowing whole the mythological teachings he encountered at the Creation Museum. Sam Cooke nailed it, as far I am concerned, with his song “Wonderful World”: “Don’t know much about history, don’t much about biology, don’t know much about a science book.” That is a social critique of our times isn’t it?
I’m not convinced that we understand the damage criticism does to our national psyche. Criticism is the dark storm cloud that obscures light and warmth. Criticism is the avocation of those who have enough of this world’s goods that they have all the time in the world to mind the business of other people and criticize everyone they don’t like, the huge gulf fixed between opposing sides. Criticism chokes off reason and cooperation and partnership and good will. It destroys decent thought and questions every decent person’s intentions. Our national leaders, who are supposed to be the best of the best, men and women with Ivy League educations, with wealthy portfolios, and all the right connections have become the low life cheerleaders of criticism. They are the bashers and mashers of all that suggests dignity, decorum, good manners. Criticism, especially harms good manners and good manners is the foundation of civilized people. We have lost our manners and we need to be sent back to etiquette school. Remember when every household had a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette? It’s in its 18th edition, but like the Bible nobody’s reading it.
Our road rage, political rage, work rage, racist rage, tribal rage, white people rage, illegal alien rage, food stamp rage, my-team-is-losing rage, religious rage is all coming together in one perfect maelstrom that confirms we have morphed into ugly Americans. Our national leader, the man who speaks for the United States of America, the way the Pope speaks for Roman Catholics, has become the Critic-in-Chief. He simply can’t hide his disdain for President Obama, a disdain he picked up from like-minded Americans who spent the last eight years criticizing Obama’s every move, and before that the Americans who spent eight years criticizing President Bush’s every move and every malaprop that he uttered. Sadly, for the last forty years the preachers have been leading the fight with sermons that defame, belittle, and demean entire groups of people and nations of people. They have used their pulpit power to attack other faiths, elected officials, minorities, aliens, women, and gays. The pulpit has been used to authorize the oppression of the poor all while whining that the preachers are being persecuted.
One of the rhetorical disasters of our time is the elevation of opinion – the least credible of all persuasive kinds of statements – to a status of power and prestige. Opinion has graduated from the barber shop to cable television. It’s one thing for a guy named Dewey, sitting in the back of a barber shop in a small town, saying, “FDR’s mother should have drowned him in his bath,” (only 6 men heard him say it and five of them were heard to disagree with him) but it’s a whole different thing for a Baptist preacher to say on national cable news that he was praying for God to kill President Obama.
The critics can be wrong! The crowd facing Jesus said that John the Baptist was crazy and Jesus was immoral! The critics said Jesus was a drunkard, a glutton, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. This is the man who healed the sick, made the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear. This is the man who gave life to the dead, forgiveness to sinners, friendships to lepers and outcasts, and dignity to women. This is the wisest, most compassionate person to ever live and here’s what they said about him: “He has gone out of his mind.” “He has Beelzebul!” He’s a blasphemer! Please tell me you actually know how absurd that sounds? Jesus? Immoral? The second person of the Trinity; the Son of God, born of the virgin Mary, crucified, buried, dead, and raised from the dead? Immoral? Jesus – the one who was like us in every way but without sin? Immoral?
Jesus’ critics were the high and mighty, the big shots of Jerusalem politics and religion. They were the wealthy priests and preachers of the day, the chief priest, the lawyers, and the “I’m more religious than you” Pharisees. Now, notice that the people who praised Jesus were the low and weak, the poor, the sick, the blind, the lame, the sinful, the outcasts, the women who had been shunned, the lepers who had been thrown out of the community. There are people today using Jesus to criticize, but we should be in that crowd praising Jesus.
Jesus turns the table on his critics. He offers criticism designed to lead to repentance instead of revenge. And this is the crucial difference. Jesus offered criticism with a broken heart meant to lead to repentance. The high and mighty offer criticism with hard hearts for they desire to hurt and maim and maintain power no matter how many people they destroy. There’s a difference in the spirit of criticism.
Jesus says, we are like children, but he doesn’t mean it in the same way as when he said we must become like children to enter his kingdom. He means that we are childish. Standing in line at Einstein Brothers in the Atlanta Airport for a plain toasted bagel with honey butter, I listened to a mom patiently explain to her 8-year-old daughter that she was getting her a bagel for breakfast. The little girl insisted she didn’t like bagels even though she had never tasted one before. This went on for about five minutes. We expect this from children but now we are getting it from adults. By the way, mom got her daughter a bagel – toasted with honey butter. What’s not to like? It’s the way God meant bagels to be served.
Criticism is not the boom in building a great nation that we think. People hear enough bad all the time and they will start to believe only the bad. And believe me there’s a “boom in bad” in America. It’s being tweeted, emailed, filmed, repeated everywhere. The news is so bad many people have stopped watching the news! We all know that nothing good comes out of preoccupation with the bad! It’s childish to always be slamming others when they disagree with your assumptions and opinions. Excessive criticism undermines goodness.
There’s something called critical thinking and educators tell us that our children need to develop critical thinking skills. In America, we have given up the thinking part and expanded the criticizing part. Criticism is not the same as critical thinking. Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University says:
A common way to show that one has sharpened one’s critical thinking is to display an ability to undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others. Thus, our best students are really good at one aspect of critical thinking—being critical . . . . being smart means being critical. But this participation, being entirely negative, is not only seriously unsatisfying; it is ultimately counterproductive.
Being critical without thinking not only puts the foot in the mouth, it creates immense problems for communication, reason, understanding, working together. It threatens the fabric of our democracy. America needs to be singing that David Ball country song, “Yes I admit I have a thinking problem.” Excessive criticism is like being nibbled to death by a gaggle of geese.
CRITICISM WEARS OUT THE CRITIC. Like an emotional boomerang, criticism comes back to bite the critic with an exhaustion that is mind numbing. It is living a life against the grain of our baptism, being placed in a false position so that our day-to-day conversation requires us to contradict what we know best about ourselves. Exhaustion comes from always being upset.
I believe that we are weary of the criticism! We are as worn out as a steel mill worker pulling a double shift, a long-distance truck driver hauling freight for 14 hours, or a corporate lawyer logging eighty hour weeks to make partner. We think there’s nothing we can do. But there is something we can do. Christians don’t need to go back to Emily Post; we have the clear teachings of Jesus. If America is going to be saved from this plague of criticism that covers the land like locusts descending on Pharaoh’s Egypt, the Christians will have to set the example.
I think I have the perfect set of instructions for us to use to save our nation from the critics:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.* 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;* do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 1821Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
There’s just one more thing I want you to do. Jesus has a promise for worn out and worn down people like us: “Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.” I want you to “do” this promise, claim it as your own. Start with this promise and then tackle the tough assignment of overcoming evil with good. Some of us need a “come to Jesus” moment” and we need it now. So let’s take a break from criticizing. That’s right I’m asking you to make no criticism for a week. Take a respite. Get some rest. Put a zipper on the criticism. Put a lock on your phone and stay off Twitter and Facebook. America needs a Sabbath, a Jubilee of rest for the land, the people, and the good of the Republic. Amen!