43 Days: A Failing Grade in Community

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:37-40 (ESV)

I just came back from a very interesting Sunday school class discussing Pastor’s sermon on Acts 7:44:53 and in fact, I really think I embarrassed myself.

I didn’t mean to, of course.

We were talking about how Christians might limit God and put Him, and our faith, “in a box,” so to speak. It was an extension of what we had learned about the Tabernacle and the Temples from today’s sermon (Pastor does believe that Ezekiel’s Temple will literally be built, which was a relief to hear). One woman in the class was discussing how our true duty as Christians is to believe, quoting from parts of John 6 and Christ’s “bread of life sermon.” I jumped in (and it wasn’t the first time I shot off my big mouth in class today) and said something about feeding the hungry, giving the thirsty something to drink, and visiting the sick, as evidence of our faith.

Then Charlie, the class teacher said something that stopped me cold.

He basically told me that he thought the “final judgment”section of Matthew 25 (specifically Matthew 25:31-46) has been misunderstood. He reminded me of something I had mentioned just a few minutes before; that Jesus was a Jew talking to other Jewish people. He said he understood from the passage that we Christians have a special duty to love the Jewish people and that how we Christians treat the Jews is how we shall be judged.

Wow.

He didn’t put it exactly in those words but like I said, it stopped me cold. I was being very gently rebuked for applying to humanity something that should only be applied to the Jewish people.

Like I said, wow! Really?

I still don’t think that we’re supposed to ignore the needs of a desperate world around us, but I suddenly saw those verses in a new light. I’ve never heard that interpretation before and I don’t know if anyone shares it, but it makes a sort of sense, particularly in light of some of what the “strict: form of Messianic Judaism teaches about the church’s duty to Israel and the Jewish people.

I feel like I really missed something and frankly, I feel pretty humbled (and not a little humiliated) by the whole experience. I have to admit that after some of the conversations I’ve had lately about how certain corners of Messianic Judaism tend to treat Christians like red-headed, left-handed, ne’er-do-well, mentally deficient, step-children, that I also fell into the trap of thinking I had a “leg up” on a few things, given my background. I failed not only at community but especially at humility.

But it’s so confusing because there seems to be such a mix of ideas, opinions, and interpretations going on, and a lot of it seems very traditionally Christian. Then I hit a major speed bump in my assumptions about the church environment I’m in and came to a complete halt. I guess this is something about me God wanted me to learn…and He chose a pretty public spot in which to teach it to me.

Fortunately, it happened near the end of class and I could beat a hasty retreat back to my car and home.

I had intended to write about how the Pastor interpreted the role of the Temple in Judaism, and especially his rather unique understanding of what Stephen was accusing the Sanhedrin of, relative to “putting God in a box.” But then my own failure in putting Christianity “in a box” took precedence, not just in failing to consider the consequences of the Matthew 25 teaching, but in daring to think I actually had something to contribute that might be new and interesting to the class. I was arrogant and I was wrong.

Oops.

When I was anticipating going to church this morning, I got a feeling of boredom, like I’d have to put up with a bunch of “Christianese” for the sake of reconciliation and community. Now I wonder if I should even go back, having stubbed my toe that badly. Maybe I have nothing to contribute at all. Maybe my personal, internal template just can’t be adjusted sufficiently to integrate with these people.

It’s 43 days until my self-imposed time limit, which seems like a goodly amount of time, but it also translates into a maximum of six more Sundays until the end of the year. Let’s figure that I won’t be going to services on December 23rd for obvious reasons, and that takes me down to five Sundays, each a maximum of three hours of exposure to this community. Fifteen more hours total. So far, not including my interview with Pastor Randy, I only have nine hours under my belt.

I took a risk today. I spoke my mind again in class. I really tried to keep quiet and self-contained in services, even sitting in the very back for fear of taking up someone else’s seat, but in class it’s harder because it’s interactive. Things seemed to be going well or at least “neutral” until that last string of words that came out of my mouth.

Like I said…oops.

Anyway, I have a week before I have to face my embarrassment again. We’ll see how it goes. After nine hours, I don’t feel any closer to this community than I did when I first walked in the door, apart from recognizing a few faces. Fifteen more hours to go until I have to make a decision. I might not go back at all except I set a time limit and I am determined to see it through. Maybe it would have been better if I knew nothing at all. Maybe it would have been better if I had a personality that was so shy that I could never speak in a group.

But if I keep my commitment to those last fifteen hours, will it really do any good? I just don’t seem to “do” community very well. There’s a saying attributed to Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens):

“It is better to have people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Today, I removed all doubt.

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14 thoughts on “43 Days: A Failing Grade in Community”

  1. Well, it sounds like you learned something. For me one of the great things about my small group is that it gives me a well-moderated place to put ideas out there and get feedback. Whether it’s good or bad, either way I feel like I have an opportunity to grow through it.

    I do remember one time, though, along time ago when I was visiting a Reformed church and in Sunday school they were studying the Westminster Catechism. I wasn’t familiar with Reformed theology at the time so I was pretty put off by the emphasis on Calvinism and the decrees and what not. They shut down my objections pretty quickly. They weren’t trying to be mean or anything, but since I was new there, it felt pretty isolating to be a dissenting voice. I shut up after that and I never did go back.

    I’m sorry that you’re not making the kinds of personal connections you had hoped to make. That is difficult in a lot of churches. We are dealing with it in our church too–how to help new people make connections. The burden really lies on those who are members and regular attendees. A lot of them have been going for so long that they have forgotten how hard it is to be the new guy.

  2. ‘He said he understood from the passage that we Christians have a special duty to love the Jewish people and that how we Christians treat the Jews is how we shall be judged.’

    That’s my interpretation of that passage as well. Especially in the coming times of tribulation. I’m sure the Corrie ten Booms of the 1930-1940’s saw it the same way. It’s also biblical in the light of the Tanak. Nations were used of HaShem to discipline Israel and then judges by the way they treated the apple of His eye.

  3. Hmmm. I guess I don’t understand where the major embarrassment or deal-breaker was here. Because you were wrong about something and possibly misapplied those verses in Matthew 25? And that it was a public experience? Sheesh Mr. Pyles, lighten up on yourself…being “wrong in public” can serve the function of normalizing that kind of phenomenon when it happens (too often) to the rest of us! Relax, take a breath, and let those good folks get a chance to know and love you in all your wonderful imperfection. 🙂
    After all, your going to have to grant them that same grace.
    Peace~

  4. Yeah, well color me “chagrined.”

    Actually, my sense of embarrassment wasn’t at being corrected, since I’ve been wrong before, but in realizing that I had been pretty arrogant in my attitudes about the people around me. After publicly defending the church against those who think they’re a bunch of simpletons, I was still harboring an attitude that their understanding of the Bible was “incomplete.” Turns out it’s not them, it’s me.

  5. Gene and I were actually discussing just that theory about how you treat Jewish people on his series, “The Price of Being Jewish.” I had posited this fictitious scenario where I convert and attend with him and others, then the SS shows up and rounds us all up. Realizing I am who I am, they pull me out of the lineup and offer me to cry off Judaism and go home with my life. And thus I would be like Peter, saying “I do not know him.” The convert to Messiah or the convert to Judaism, then, both have an obligation to love Israel and it’s people.

    I must share this: I thought Matt. 24:45-51 was just about how we live our lives and how we can die any second. But after reading places like Malachi, it dawned on me that (while it may in fact be true secondarily that it is about our faith duties), the Master might be talking about the Levi in the Temple in terms of servants and vineyards and stewardship, etc. When you take the universality out of it, suddenly it makes sense why early Messianic Jews sacrificed if or if not the Shekhinah were there. And that absence of Shekhinah or Temple does not invalidate sacrifice; the Master is simply on a walkabout.

    I am happy that such a kind thought came out of the church! I support you! Not for me, but eh. Takes all kinds!

    I am The Drake

  6. I am happy that such a kind thought came out of the church!

    Never know where you might find little treasures, Drake.

    I support you! Not for me, but eh.

    Having second thoughts about whether or not it’s for me either, but not due to any deficiency in the church. Listened to the song “Lonesome Loser” by the Little River Band when going to pick my daughter up from work this afternoon and heard this:

    Have you heard about the lonesome loser
    He’s a loser, but he still keeps on tryin’

    The “loser” part is overly “emo,” but I get the message that I’m supposed to “keep on tryin'”

  7. ““It is better to have people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

    Today, I removed all doubt.”

    Hi James,
    I’m trying to figure out what was so embarrassing about what happened? A group study is for the purpose of differing opinions/insights etc. especially since no one (or very few) is actually a theologian.

    Here’s my confusion: You were apprehensive about going TO church because you doubted they’d know anything from the perspective of a Jewish reading of the scriptures, and that they’d offer up a supersessionistic view of the scriptures – no?

    So as I was reading your post I was thinking you’d be pleasantly surprised that there was such a “plain reading” of that passage and not a compleat ignoring of who he (Yeshua) was speaking to, as in the common reading that it was to all people EXCEPT for Jews.

    But then you say you may not want to go back because of it? Sorry, totally confused.

    BTW, regarding your remark about that passage including all humanity (feeding the hungry etc), the way I see it is that it’s specifically speaking about Jews, however, it reveals God’s character. And His Word transforms a person, softening the heart. Of course, I think this passage has at least a few layers of meaning and on a personal level, since the vast majority of Christians aren’t in direct contact with Jews, why wouldn’t they treat others kindly too? On the larger, national scale I think the dispersion itself was, in part, (I know Isreal’s sin was the stated and main reason) was for the Nations to be given a chance to bless Jews and thereby receive blessing too. They’ve largely failed. Anyway, this reading correlates with other passages about judging the nations.

  8. Ok, well I’ll just speak for myself and say I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by your experience. I’m sorry you felt embarrassed.

  9. Hi James,

    I thoroughly understand your embarrassment. The idea that the Church is essentially deficient in knowledge of the Scriptures (especially Yeshua’s words!) insinuates itself in Messianic thinking. Keep on learning, my friend.

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