I just spent several days in New Orleans, a place where city natives, long-time residents, and visitors don’t seem to follow standard rules of behavior.
In my town, Wednesday night means potluck suppers at churches and half-priced wine at restaurants. In New Orleans, on Wednesday, there was a jazz band playing in the middle of Bourbon Street, accompanied by a frail black man dancing with a conservatively dressed white woman about my age. There were shows on side streets. And there were people walking both purposefully and aimlessly throughout the night.
I loved the scene.
What intrigues me is not the drunken revelry but the friendliness (both welcomed and misplaced) of the people, along with their genuine enjoyment of each other and the present moment. If Jesus returns in my lifetime and appears in the United States, I’m betting that He’ll make a stop in New Orleans. There, He’ll find people ready to have honest conversations about brokenness and redemption, and just as eager to spread the good news of food for the hungry and water for the thirsty.
The city has a different set of rules than most cities, just like Jesus has a different set of rules from the religious establishment.
Sometimes the rules that I follow reflect my cultural values rather than God’s values. Who’s to say, for example, that collecting money in a hat by performing your art on the street is less respectable than requesting donations via PayPal for a freely distributed iPhone app; or that being an online entrepreneur is not as prestigious as being a business executive for a Fortune 500 company? And who’s to say that promoting your business by welcoming passersby to your restaurant is less respectable than purchasing a television ad?
Discerning what rules are purely cultural ones and what rules are God-given is a major step in the process of transformation. What makes this process difficult at times is that Jesus instructs within the cultural context, telling us, for example, to honor political authority by giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s while we give to God what is God’s.
Still, while the craziness of New Orleans is still on my mind, I’d like to examine some of the rules that Jesus challenged.
Jesus holds us to a higher standard than the typical rules
Before I go further, I should mention that Jesus said He didn’t come to do away with God’s law but to fulfill the law. One of the ways He accomplishes this feat is by setting higher standards for His followers, compared to the general population and the local religious leaders. For example, Jesus tells us that we should do the following:
- Be reconciled with our brothers and sisters, rather than ignore rifts.
- Love our enemies and pray for them, not simply love our family and friends.
- Don’t look lustfully at a woman (or man) or think impure thoughts, in addition to avoiding adulterous relationships.
- Give, pray, and fast to honor God, not to win men’s praise.
Jesus routinely defies cultural expectations
Jesus has his pulse on the culture, both within and outside of various faith communities. He notices that the religious leaders of the day (specifically, the Pharisees and teachers of the law) are tied to traditions rather than commands of God:
These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
Here are some examples of following a different path:
- Make friends and interact with people who think and live in ways contrary to yours. Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman, alone. This interaction with the woman at the well goes against many norms. And as much as we proclaim diversity today, most of us rarely practice our beliefs. And who goes to get water in the middle of the day when it’s the hottest?
- Show compassion to strangers, rather than impress your friends. Jesus heals on the Sabbath, which annoys those who are more interested in looking good to their buddies than healing an outsider.
- Focus on true intentions and desires, instead of the spotlessness of demeanor. Jesus emphasizes the need for cleanliness on the inside not on the outside, making me wonder if He may value those living on the street with limited access to a bath just as much as those who shower daily.
- See the possibilities in people whom others have given up on. Jesus refuses to go along with the condemning crowd that is threatening to stone an adulterous woman to death. Instead, He models compassion, offers forgiveness, and shows that He believes she can become transformed through grace.
Listen to Jesus to know when and how He wants you to deviate from cultural traditions, man-made rules, and widely accepted behaviors.
Jesus redefined consequences of culturally frowned-upon behaviors and attitudes
Though I am not an expert in interpreting the Beatitudes, I believe that Jesus presented a way of thinking that differed from the cultural norms.
In the coming world that He describes, the downtrodden are valued and even rewarded. For example,
- The poor in spirit will receive the Kingdom of God
- Those who mourn will be comforted
- The meek will inherit the earth
- Those who hunger and thirst for truth will be filled
What I gather, then, is that I don’t always have to be always be “on,” fight to make my voice heard, or withhold kindness in order to be loved, listened to, and respected.
Jesus came to give us a new way of living, an abundant life. But that life may have me following a different set of rules and give me a new mindset. After New Orleans, I am going to start looking for those instances when I can stop listening to the culture and start following Jesus, even if it makes me appear scandalous or unbalanced.