Paul Prather

Paul Prather: The 'words in red' encourage humility and mercy

Arrogance seems to be the defining attitude in America these days.

In politics, in sports, in religion, in business, in entertainment, in almost every arena, the levels of egotism, intolerance and lack of self-awareness are stupefying.

This is not healthy. Runaway pride might be the worst sin of all.

Some months ago, in my church's Wednesday night adult Bible group, we began a study of the "words in red."

Those are the sayings of Jesus largely found in the four New Testament biographical books called the gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Bible editors sometimes print Jesus' words in red type to make them stand out from the rest of the text.

The words-in-red study has been slow going because the passages are so rich and our discussion of them has been so lively. As a group, we haven't finished Matthew yet.

But on my own time I've been contemplating all four gospels. I'm fascinated by the paradoxes in Jesus' statements. Among the more profound is this.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know Jesus started a movement that morphed into the largest religion in history.

The oddity here is that Jesus detested those who considered themselves good, right-thinking, law-abiding, religious people. He called them hypocrites, liars, white-washed tombs, murderers and sons of the devil. He warned that they were bound for eternal damnation and were dragging a lot of folks with them.

The other side of this paradox is that this Jesus loved sinners as fully as he loathed religious people. He had nothing condemning to say to prostitutes, adulterers and dishonest tax collectors who collaborated with the pagan government of Rome.

He loved the foreign soldiers who occupied his homeland. He loved the spiritually impure Samaritans and made one of them the hero of his best-known parable.

He loved poor people, blind people, cripples and lepers, all of whom the self-righteous thought were being justly punished by God for their wrongdoings.

So, in those words in red we find the founder of a world religion who hammers the smugly moral crowd yet embraces every manner of sinner, loser and outcast.

He upends all the accepted truths and drops them on their heads.

Think you're good? he says. Then you're destined to split hell wide open.

Know you're a hooker, a crook or the minion of a pagan dictator? Let's go have dinner together tonight!

Seriously. Think about that.

I don't imagine Jesus applied this principle only to religious leaders, but rather that at the particular time he was speaking, in the situations the New Testament records, religious leaders were the ones giving him the biggest headaches.

I get the sense he despised all varieties of pride.

And I wonder how he would have spoken to our present society.

Republicans, Democrats and Tea Partiers all stand so assured of their own goodness that they not only can't compromise with one another, they can't even be civil. Each group is convinced it holds an infallible oracle from above, and that anyone who disagrees is at best a fool and at worst a traitor.

Christian conservatives despise theological liberals. Liberals think the literalists are illiterate cretins.

The rich think they're entitled to an ever-larger share of the national treasure because they've earned it through their brilliance and pluck. They begrudge the poor, and for that matter the middle class, the smallest crumbs of relief. To them, the poor are worthless in money because they're worthless as humans. They deserve their fates.

Sound familiar, Bible scholars?

Professional athletes plow into the end zone, then expend more effort strutting, gesticulating and taunting their opponents than it took to score the touchdown.

Law-and-order proponents consider drug addicts subhuman and cart them off to prison for 20 years rather than help them overcome their addictions.

On and on it goes.

Well, as a hoary-headed grandfather, I'll share what I've learned over the decades:

■ Whoever you might think you are right now, ultimately you're no better than anybody.

■ Half the things you believe to be self-evidently true eventually will turn out to be false.

■ If put in a tight enough vise, you'll commit nearly any sin.

■ You're always one stupid mistake away from demolishing everything you've spent your life constructing.

To me, the bottom-line message of those words in red goes something like this:

None of us knows it all; that's why it's good to speak less and listen more.

We should choose humility now because sooner or later life will humble us, and it's easier to fall a short distance than a long one.

We should be merciful because we're all going to desire mercy. We should forgive because we have done, or will do, things for which we long to be forgiven. We should always act with God's grace because we all stand nakedly in need of it.

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