“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets…” (Matthew 5:17). Have you ever noticed that Jesus sounds a bit defensive, here? Jesus launches one of his most powerful speeches, the Sermon on the Mount, by acknowledging the criticism of his opponents. For him to start this way means there must have been people saying, “Jesus is abolishing the Law and the Prophets!”
I think I can imagine what some religious people were saying about the new Jesus movement. “They’re just preaching Judaism-Lite,” they said. “These Jesus-followers set a low bar for discipleship: you don’t even have to cut off your foreskin! And you know what they forbid you to eat? Nothing! You can eat whatever the heck you like! What kind of religion is that?”
This new Jesus movement preached a message to Gentiles, of all people, and told them “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest, for my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Choose your yoke- heavy or light?
Of course, everyone knew that “yoke” and “burden” were metaphors for how you interpreted religious law. When the big debate over whether or not new Christians would have to be circumcised broke out, Peter turned on the Pharisees and said, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Then the church leaders composed a letter to the new Gentile converts: “…It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well’” (Acts 15:28-29). Anyone who read Jesus’ words about yoke and burden knew what he meant: “Hey, you Gentiles—you can follow God without cutting off your foreskin!”
With such a light set of requirements, critics of the new Jesus movement had a field day. The theology of this cult was designed to please humans, not God. They were watering down the Bible, teaching their followers dangerous things that would alienate them from God.
This is why Jesus starts off the Sermon on the Mount with a defensive statement, and why Paul constantly has to defend himself to churches. Make no mistake: A good portion of the New Testament was written not to potential pagan converts, but to religious traditionalists who were critical of the liberal theology of the new Jesus movement.
This is why Paul is so defensive in Galatians: “Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (1:10). He also sounds defensive in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The people who were trying to make Paul ashamed of his gospel were not secular pagans, but Christian Pharisees who insisted his Gentile followers should be circumcised, abstain from pork, and celebrate Jewish holidays.
So when I preach about full inclusion of LGBTQ persons or against religious exclusivism, I expect the same reaction from religious conservatives that Jesus and Paul faced from their critics: “You are watering down the Bible!” In fact, I might go so far as to argue that if you are *not* getting this kind of criticism from Christian traditionalists, you’re probably not actually preaching the gospel.
In response, both Jesus and Paul shifted the charge back onto their Pharisee critics: YOU are the ones who believe in human tradition more than the Bible (Matthew 15:1-20). YOU are the ones who are playing to the desires of the flesh: the desire to dominate, to divide, to conquer and possess (Romans 2:1-5, Galatians 5:14-24).
Jesus goes on to contrast his followers with the Pharisees throughout the Sermon on the Mount. He tells his liberal followers that they must outdo their traditionalist critics; out-pray, out-give, and out-live them in their spiritual lives: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
Jesus ups the ante. Though his followers have heard religious language about how to live their lives, his requirements are actually more stringent: “You have heard it said you shall not murder—I tell you don’t be angry. You have heard it said don’t commit adultery—I tell you don’t lust.” How would he preach this today? “You have heard it said love the sinner but hate the sin—I tell you don’t hate at all. You have heard it said give a tithe—I tell you give it all.” Yet he considers this discipleship an easier yoke than what his critics offer.
Jesus-followers claimed that their “watered-down” religion was actually more intense about things that matter. Even though their yoke was easy in one way, they were still obligated to conduct themselves with strict personal moral discipline, making it clear to others that this new community would be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. This new teaching was not for the traditionalists who already felt they knew and owned God—it was for all those alienated from God who needed Good News. Jesus compared his message to new wine, which you cannot put in inflexible, old wineskins. If his Good News offended you, maybe it wasn’t for you.
Viewed from this perspective, Jesus’ first miracle at Cana (turning water to wine) was a tongue-in-cheek jab at his critics: you may think this new teaching is “watered down.” But it may be too strong for you.
I am thankful that more and more Christians are waking up to a gospel that is fully inclusive of all people. And I am thankful that I have met more and more folks who hold traditionalist values who also understand that this new wine is not for their church, but needs a new church, a new wineskin, to hold it.