As I read through today’s passages, I was struck with the idea that sometimes people think that in being mean to other people or catty behind their backs, or expressing hate towards some people, somehow we end up more united with others. We can “bond” over our criticisms of others, bond over our hatred of others, connect with some people by making someone else a common enemy. I look at this passage from Exodus in which the people have been led out of slavery by Moses, have come to him for food and water and God, through Moses, has provided. Moses has done an amazing work through this people and as we read the scriptures we recognize the great leadership of Moses. And yet, when Moses goes off for a time to pray, to recuperate, to reconnect with God, the people take the opportunity of his absence to bond with one another AGAINST him. They wanted him to be everything for them, they wanted him to be perfect, to have infinite energy for them, to not need time away. They wanted him to lead them into the promised land, into comfort, maybe even into a kind of luxury. He can’t do that first because he is a human being and second because it isn’t God’s time yet, there are other things that must happen before they are led into the promised land. But for all these reasons, for his failure to give them everything they want and because he has taken some time away, the people feel he has failed them and they quickly turn against him. “As for this man, Moses, we don’t have a CLUE what has happened to him. …so make for us gods who can lead us, instead.” And his brother, Aaron, did NOT defend him, but joined them, doing what they asked him to do, my guess is so that he could remain a part of them, too, bonded together AGAINST his own brother, Moses.
It was not only that they bonded with each other in their criticism and rejection of Moses, they also somehow believed that in that criticism and rejection of someone else, they would get MORE, that this would enable them to walk away with something BETTER than what they would have had had they stuck with Moses and had they continued to follow in God’s way. They thought that instead of this human person, Moses, they could get gods who would then lead them, made from the rings and gold objects that the people had. Gods had to be better than Moses, right? Moses had led them out of slavery. Moses had made sure they had food and water. But it wasn’t enough. They wanted more. They wanted MORE. And it was easy to vilify Moses, to critique him, thinking that this would then get them something MORE.
Then we come to the gospel passages. And in the first one we read of people invited to a wedding party who felt they had better things to do. But again, they didn’t simply say “No, we don’t want to come”. They joined together, grabbed the servants who had invited them to the party, abused them and killed them. And we have to ask, what were they thinking? Did they really believe there would be no consequence for this behavior? That the king who invited them wouldn’t get angry and seek retribution for their killing of his servants? But again, they seemed to believe that they would be closer to each other, more bonded with one another and maybe even somehow “get more” as they developed a common enemy.
In the second gospel passage I read for today it is even clearer that this is what is going on. When the servants come to collect what is owed to the landowner, they kill the servants. So the landowner sends more servants whom they also kill. When the son comes they say to each other, “This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.” What kind of thinking is that? That somehow if you kill all those the landowner cares about that he will then leave to YOU everything he has?! From a distance, from our perspective, we can see that this is absolutely crazy thinking. We can see clearly that those with that kind of thinking won’t survive long enough to inherit ANYTHING, but will be utterly destroyed by the landowner. We see this, from the safe distance of reading about it in a story. But what about in our own lives?
In our own personal lives, don’t we put down and criticize and condemn and sometimes even seek to destroy, at least emotionally, some people to other people? And as we join together in criticizing other people, don’t we somehow feel more connected to those we are talking to? Don’t we somehow believe that if we share a common critique against other people that we will be closer and more united with those with whom we share that criticism? Don’t we sometimes even create friendships, build relationships over common complaints against someone else? Sometimes I think we even believe that we will be more fully or thoroughly respected by those with whom we are bonding when we have a common critique of someone else, a common judgment, and especially a common enemy.
Years ago now I was over at a friend’s house when he received a call from a mutual friend. His response in seeing who the call was from, “Oh no. Not again! These people are always calling us. I’m just going to ignore it.” His wife joined in on the conversation and critique, “Yeah. We ignore their calls a lot but they don't seem to get the message!” They looked to me for me to support and to join in on this conversation, to support them in not responding to the call or to share a story of my own about receiving annoying calls from them. And again, perhaps the thinking was that we would then have this “bond” over being annoyed by these other friends. But I found myself instead very upset by their comments. I found myself wondering, and asking of them, when my friend doesn’t respond right away to my calls then is it because he is feeling the same way towards me? Annoyed? Bothered? Is this couple having this same conversation about me behind my back when I reach out? Of course they were quick to tell me, “Oh no! That’s different!” But that conversation rang in my head from then on when a an email or a phone call was not answered by this couple.
I have another friend who, when I am with her, is often criticizing her best friend, complaining about her best friend. I get that my friend may need to work out some of her annoyance or anxiety at times with her best friend. But again, whenever she does this, whenever she criticizes her best friend, I cannot help but wonder what she is saying about ME, who is not nearly as close to her, when I am not around.
How many of you receive forwarded emails that express hatred towards groups of people? Christians are called to be “known by our love” but sometimes even the most well-meaning people seem to get caught up in hating behavior and my sense is that this is easier to do when they feel bonded with others in a crusade, even when it is a crusade of judgment or hatred. Jesus is very clear that we are not supposed to judge and that instead we are called to love even our enemies. Jesus is very clear that we will be known by our love. And the hate behavior of people who say they are Christian, especially when their hating is done in the NAME of God, tends to do absolutely the opposite of what they intend. It does not win friends or convince people. It loses them respect. Unfortunately, it also encourages people to lose respect for Christianity on the whole. They are not spreading the Good News with this behavior. They are not demonstrating a belief in a loving God who embraces the outcast, heals the wounded, and calls us to do the same. They are turning people against Jesus, while missing Jesus’ message of love completely.
Not that any of us are completely beyond this behavior of trying to bond with one another by critiquing others. While on the women’s retreat this weekend, I kept receiving phone calls from my someone who knew I was on the retreat and yet continued to demand my attention and I was quick to criticize him to the women I was with. We do this. Critiquing others gives us something to talk about. Critiquing others gives us something to complain about. Being critical gives us a chance to “vent”. Critiquing others helps us to think through what we believe about certain issues or behaviors so that we can act differently, and behave according to our true principles and values.
But behaving that way is also, ultimately, against what God would have us do. When we are critiquing others, we are failing to remember that Jesus said it was the one without sin who is called to cast the stones and that is not one of us. We are failing to remember that it is God’s own children we are criticizing since we are all God’s children. When we are bonding in our animosity towards anyone else, we are failing to love our enemies. And I think we have to ask how God must feel about that.
The people I trust the most and the people I respect the most tend to be those who choose not to engage in this kind of behavior. They are those who when I am catty, gently remind me that I am not supposed to be judgmental and that it isn't helpful to be negative anyway. When they refuse to gossip negatively about others, I am less concerned about them doing the same to me. But also when they act in loving ways towards all people, it is much easier to respect them as people truly doing their best to follow in Jesus’ way.
The Good News in this remains that when we fail to be faithful, when we do choose to be critical, God still is with us, God still provides. In the Exodus story, while God was angry that the people had forsaken both Moses and God, God did not loose wrath on the people but still loved them, still provided for them, still cared for them. The Good News also is that this God who loves us is ultimately the judge as well as the one who offers us grace. It isn’t up to us to judge. It isn’t up to us to critique. But when we fail to remember that, even then, the choice of who deserves critique is up to God and not us. We are freed. Freed to love. Freed to live in God’s grace. Freed to be known as Christians, by the love that God calls us to exhibit. Thanks be to God.