What does faithfulness to God look like? A typical response from Christians and non-Christians alike might be summarised as “sin avoidance,” which for most people means not breaking the rules. Is that it?
As we dig into this question let us consider that in Old Testament times God sent prophets to remind people that he is always faithful and that they should be faithful too. It would not end well if they were not and indeed, as the prophets warned, the Northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian army in eighth century BC and the Southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian army in the sixth century BC. These calamities were spoken of by the prophets as being the judgement of God for a lack of faithfulness to God.
Fast forward to another prophet, John the Baptist:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”Luke 3:7-9 (NRSV)
What did the people hearing John think the judgement he spoke of would look like? Just as judgement previously referred to destructive invasions by the Assyrians and Babylonians, judgement here would be taken to mean the occupying Romans would go beyond a mere occupation to a complete overrun.
Fast forward to another prophet, Jesus:
At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”Luke 13:1-5 (NRSV)
Bible scholar NT Wright has pointed out that the words “just as they did” are key to understanding this passage. Just as the Galileans were murdered by the Romans, possibly for some anti-Roman activity, the whole nation was in danger of experiencing violence at the hand of the Romans. Just as people died when the tower of Siloam fell, many will die when other buildings are thrown down by the Romans in a full scale attack.
The idea here is that unless God’ people repent, the Romans will destroy the nation in the same way that the Assyrians and Babylonians did in the past. The Romans did so in 70AD. Yet again, though God was faithful to his covenant promises, his people were unfaithful.
What does faithfulness and unfaithfulness to God look like?
When God’s people faced judgement through the Assyrians and Babylonians, their lack of faithfulness was easy to spot. There was a lot of worshipping of other gods, which included doing detestable things like child sacrifice. There was a lack of attention to the old covenant law, the law of Moses. Yet in the days that Jesus and John the Baptist spoke of judgement, great attention was being paid to keeping the law. So how were God’s people failing in faithfulness this time?
Jesus spoke to the problem in what he said next:
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”Luke 13:6-9 (NRSV)
What does faithfulness to God look like according to Jesus? Fruitfulness! Under the direction of the religious leaders God’s people may have been trying hard to be faithful to the law, but that was part of the problem. They substituted faithfulness to the law, more particularly their interpretations of the law, for faithfulness to God. In doing so they were not bearing good fruit.
The scribes and Pharisees had become “experts” in the law, and came up with extra rules to keep people from breaking the rules. Therefore the people were expected to keep many customs and traditions pushed by the religious leaders. But in pushing people to be righteous and always do the right thing, they were not helping people become righteous in becoming a good kind of people. Jesus pushed for a better kind of righteousness, the kind that comes, not just from observance of the law, but from character, not just from doing the right things, but becoming the right kind of person:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 5:20 (NRSV)
Despite their “righteousness” the religious leaders instigated the execution of the Son of God! There is a better kind of righteousness.
Faithfulness to God in our day is often thought to simply be ”sin avoidance,” defined as keeping all the rules and breaking none. The problem is, we can keep all the rules and yet be lacking in good fruit. In fact sometimes we can keep a rule yet end up doing the wrong thing, the thing that bears bad fruit.
There is no set of rules found anywhere in the world, proposed by even the smartest people in the world, or defined by the “best” expression of faith ever known, that, by following them you would always be doing the right thing, the good thing, every time. What is good and right in one circumstance, that could be considered fruitful, can, in another situation be the wrong thing to do and end up being destructive.
Jesus himself gives an example:
And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took [a man with an illness] and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.Luke 14:3-6 (NRSV emphasis added)
The rule about not working on a Sabbath is a good one, a fruitful one. It is good for everyone to have a rhythm of rest. Jesus pointed to an example where keeping the rule would not be a good thing. One’s child might die if you keep the rule! To keep the rule would be destructive. To break the rule, on the other hand, would be fruitful.
You can imagine a scenario where a very religious type of person holding to a particularly rigid kind of theology might fail to do anything for the child out of concern for their own personal salvation. Indeed religion can motivate people to turn a blind eye to good consequences for others in deference to their own supposed standing before their vision of God. We saw this play out tragically on September 11th, 2001. Perhaps you can think of examples that involve Christians.
Here is another example from Jesus:
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”Matthew 12:1-8 (NRSV)
More broken rules! But also an emphasis on the heart of God: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Though the religious leaders were striving for righteousness, they were not considering the righteousness, the mercy, the goodness, the character, of God. In their view, one need not be a person of good character, but merely a person who always does the right things, according to their interpretation. Blind obedience to rules set by one tradition is no guarantee of faithfulness to God. We are more faithful to God, bearing better fruit, when our character reflects the compassionate character of God. To go back to an earlier example, out of a compassionate character you break the sabbath rule and rescue the child. With good character you bear better fruit.
We are more faithful to God, bearing better fruit, when we follow Jesus in the way of love, the way of the cross, not meaning love as mere emotion, but love as concern for consequence. Think of the amazing consequence of the death and resurrection of Jesus and our experience of God’s grace! Out of love for the child you break the sabbath rule and rescue the child. With love you bear better fruit.
We are more faithful to God, bearing better fruit, when we dig deep for wisdom. There is so much about wisdom in the Bible. The Book of Proverbs can never be turned into a Book of Rules for there would be too many contradictions. Wisdom is about knowing when and where is the right time and place to do this and not that. Wisdom takes into account consequences, it is concerned with fruitfulness. Wisdom requires thought and thoughtfulness. Blind obedience to rules, on the other hand, can be thoughtless in every sense of the word. Out of wisdom you break the sabbath rule and rescue the child. With wisdom you bear better fruit.
So what does faithfulness to God look like? Fruitfulness! Our lives will have a positive impact as we reflect the gracious character of God, follow Jesus in the way of love, and dig deep for wisdom.
God is faithful. Are you?
(I have written about Luke 13:1-5 before, here)