“He also said in his teaching, ‘Beware of the scribes, who want to go around in long robes and who want greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and say long prayers just for show. These will receive harsher judgment.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Last night I finished watching the first (and likely only) season of the Netflix series, Cursed. It is a retelling of the legend of King Arthur focused in the first season on the character of the Lady of the Lake. It was fun seeing a new backstory of the characters I’ve read about and watched in more iterations than I can count, but one thing about the series bothered me. The writers had a pretty clear axe to grind against the church. Throughout the series, while there are several villains, the church is the chief, led by the Red Paladins whose singular mission is to ruthlessly stamp the fey people out of existence. One scene from early on in the series featured a close up of the leader of the Red Paladins talking to small child about the love of God, and then zoomed out to a scene of chaos and destruction and mutilated bodies all brought by his shock troops to an innocent fey village. The clear charge of rank hypocrisy was glaring. The attack throughout was unfair, inaccurate, and unfortunately too often entirely justified by purveyors of religion since the dawn of time. While Jesus wouldn’t have appreciated the depiction of His church in Cursed, He offers His own warning against similar excesses here that we do well not to miss.
In his first letter to his protégé, Timothy, Paul warns the young pastor to watch out for those who consider godliness to be a means of gain. The warning is justified. There are indeed those who would seek to use godliness – or at least the perception of it – as a means of advancing their own interests. Religion can be a fantastic means of a person living their best life now. Just look at the most famous person to throw that particular phrase around. Joel Osteen and other Prosperity Gospel preachers like him have used their embrace of godliness to amass fantastic amounts of wealth for themselves. Kenneth Copeland, for instance, is worth about three-quarters of a billion dollars. I think we can all agree that religion has been good to him.
The thing about that kind of religion, though, is that it really isn’t good for much of anything except personal advancement. And then, only a few ever manage to really unlock its full potential. The rest are merely pretenders surviving on the scraps that fall from the table of the successful. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try. The fact is, humans are incorrigibly religious. We can’t help but to create religions everywhere we go. We naturally seek out something bigger than ourselves to which we can give our devotion and then create all kinds of complex structures dictating how one is to offer that devotion in order to receive the benefits we believe are available from whatever is the particular object of our worship. It is these structures, then, that create opportunities for power.
You see, when someone other than the religion’s creator becomes convinced that this thing or person is worthy of their devotion, they will naturally seek out how it can be given in such a way as to guarantee the desired results. They want to know what they have to do to lay their hands on the religion’s rewards. This gives the founder or simply the currently recognized leader the opportunity to make any number of demands on the supplicant. How badly the supplicant desires the benefits (which itself depends on how well they have been sold) determines just how much she is willing to do to receive them. Someone who is desperate for the protection and security of a particular religion will do just about anything to get on the inside of the club. Once there, they are able to in turn make demands on other applicants and begin receiving the benefits of their insider status. Those benefits come in all kinds of forms, but they are generally in forms that are useful in worldly terms; things like power, prestige, and possessions. Depending on how appealing the benefits are and how well they are sold, the bigger the crowd clamoring to receive them will be. More people means more power, more prestige, and more possessions, giving the leaders of any particular religion a very great incentive to sell it really well. And while some form of piety may have been a primary driving force in the beginning of a religious movement, at some point along the way, when it gets large and powerful enough, most turn over to the worship of Mammon in some form or fashion.
This pattern is one that has been repeated again and again over the centuries of human history. And time and time again, when the worship of Mammon grows too prevalent, the religion either topples or falls into a season of retreat and reform before the cycle starts anew. This pattern is entrenched enough that it is entirely understandable why someone would be cynical of religion. Whenever a religion gets any amount of cultural power it always follows this same pattern. There is a reason the church has tended to be the most faithful when it is small and persecuted. We tend not to handle the levers of power any better than anyone else.
Jesus knew this. So, He warned the people against it. His warning in the temple that afternoon was focused on the leaders of the Jews. They were the ones in the current cultural driver’s seat, and so they were the ones who were driving the pattern at the moment. They were the ones putting on a show of godliness so that it might benefit them in the present. They put in place and rigorously maintained all manner of rules and regulations – ones structured such that they could keep them while others could not quite so easily – that helped them maintain their power and position. When Jerusalem was conquered and the Judaism of Jesus’ day was destroyed in 70 AD, eventually the church grew up to fill that same role. It didn’t happen at first, of course. It never does. But over time, the transition eventually comes.
Are you feeling a bit depressed yet? Does all of this mean the church is a waste of time? Is it simply the villain Cursed depicts it to be and that’s that? Not on your life. Oh, we’re no less susceptible to the temptation than anyone else. We don’t need ancient history to prove that point either. It’s been proven and borne out in recent years. Whenever we get access to power we tend to make a mess of things. But people falling prey to the temptations that have stalked humanity since the beginning of time do not make our claims about reality and God and the hope we have in Christ any less true. A particular religion’s truthfulness is not determined by the behavior of its followers, but by whether or not its foundational truth claims correspond to reality. Ours do. Others don’t.
We must be always on guard against the seductive song of power and position, and the temptation to pursue personal gain instead of the sacrificial love of Jesus, but the path of truth is still the path of truth. It is a narrow and often difficult one. It will require us to be willing to give up everything to which we might otherwise lay claim. And it will not be likely to bring us any of the gain religion so often promises. But it leads to life. Jesus opened the door to it with His death and resurrection. We need only walk through in faith and just keep walking.