27 Sunday in Ordinary Time C – October 2, 2016 – Loyalty Costs
The other night the commentary at the beginning of a football game caught my attention. I heard the announcer of the Washington-Stanford game say “the faithful have been waiting” for their teams to take the field. The “faithful?” It is no news that sports fans are incredibly loyal to their favorite teams. Diehard fans are upset that the NY Yankees did not make the playoffs but it probably will not change their loyalty to the team.
Loyalty is a big topic today in the world of business. Most shoppers are loyal to certain products, stores, airlines. And, we expect to be rewarded for our loyalties. We also hear and read a lot about companies who are not loyal to their customers or to their hard working employees.
How about loyalty when it comes to religion? A recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute reports on why people leave their childhood churches. The number one explanation from all respondents was a lack of belief in the teachings of their religion (60%). Young adults (ages18-29) were more specific. They said they are unaffiliated because of negative teachings in their churches especially about gays, lesbians and transgendered people. Justice is obviously an issue for that age group.
Today’s biblical texts raise questions about faith. Commentators say the word faith can be understood as steadfast loyalty, trust, commitment to something or someone even though there are no dividends, no rewards, to be paid out. Jesus teaches this lesson with a story about a slave and the head of a household. The parable sounds kind of harsh and implies that servants should not expect any big reward for doing what was expected of them. The same goes for us. Just do it!
Most Christians believe Jesus was a mentor. He showed people how to live, how to behave toward others, especially those who are estranged from society in some way. Actually, Jesus was a “faction founder” according to John Pilch. He built up a following of men and women and expected loyalty from them. The disciples apparently had a very difficult time saying no to him even though they did not completely understand who he was or what his intentions were. Perhaps they were recalling Psalm 95, “if today you hear God’s voice harden not your hearts.”
Christians who do respond to God’s call are not-for-profit loyalists. We do what we are suppose to do without expecting anything in return. But as far as institutional religion is concerned loyalty has to work both ways. On one hand, the church, meaning all baptized members, is expected to be loyal to the mission and message of Jesus of Nazareth. This makes it hard in trying to understand, much less defend, the many rules exercised by Christian churches that exclude people from the very life of the church.
Loyalty to the teachings of Jesus is what membership in the church is all about. So why are people leaving organized religions? Is it like giving up on a team that is losing? Not necessarily so. Those who leave say they still have faith and believe in God. It’s just that their religion, that has become more and more institutionalized over centuries, does not seem to practice the mercy and justice toward all people like Jesus did.
According to Stephen Mattson Jesus was more complex than we give him credit for. He intentionally, purposefully, and passionately addressed the diverse and complicated conflicts of he time. He shattered the status quo. Jesus was helping those who were being abused, violated, and oppressed. Mattson wrote that these causes are actually an important part of the gospel message. It is not about being liberal or conservative. It is about what it takes to be a follower of Christ.
Although some church rules are harsh we can be loyal disciples of Christ in many ways. We can care for our families, partners, spouses, children no matter how they behave. We can be counted on to work hard to take care of ourselves and to help others get by. We can be loyal in the public square taking action to erase injustices. We can do many things to be very helpful in life. What we do know, however, is that loyalty and discipleship does not come without a cost.