Of the many heart wrenching images emerging from Puerto Rico over the past week, the one which has bothered me most I saw the night before last. It wasn’t scenes of a flood devastated community, a hospital running out of medicine, or people in need of food and water.
Instead, it was the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, giving an interview to CBS News. Seven days after Hurricane Maria slammed in Puerto Rico, cutting off the island’s ability to communicate with the world, as she worked to save the lives of dying people, get food to the hungry, meet with officials flying in from Washington, and plead for help on the international media; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked her to write memos detailing what she and the citizens of Puerto Rico needed. Yes, you read that right: “write a memo”. She replied, as any person would, “She didn’t have freaking time to write memos in this situation”. FEMA, she insisted, should come to Puerto Rico do their assessments and get to work before more lives were lost. There was no time for memos.
Do you know who also loved memos? This crowd really loved memos and the overall intricate glory of the bureaucratic process. The Temple Emergency Management Administration (TEMA) in Jerusalem in the first few years of the third decade of the Common Era. No one was bigger on having the proper channels, authority, memos, and permissions granted than the Chief Priests, Scribes, Elders, and Teachers of the Law. It was their job to make sure everything was done by the book in every situation. It didn’t matter if there was a famine in Judea or a revolution in Galilee.
If we didn’t have the law, if we didn’t keep to the Law of Moses; who were we? The Law of Moses, the Torah, and those 613 commandments set down by our forefathers when they landed on Jerusalem Rock made us who we are today. Were prophets, teachers, and religious upstarts to come along and urge people to ignore the Law of Moses; who knows what God might do to us? God might punish us with a Roman occupation that taxes our people to death and kills innocent Jews. Oops, scratch that. Who knows what God might do to us? God might punish us by putting a corrupt Jewish king over his people who puts his sons in charge of every province, is a noted womanizer, and is more in love the Roman Gods than Yahweh. Oops, scratch that.
You get the Chief Priests, Scribes, Elders, and Teachers of the Law point: you can’t go messing with a perfect system. There are to be no amendments to God’s constitution. God talked to Moses. Moses, though he was long dead, was effectively speaking through them. If someone wanted to do anything different, they needed to put it in writing and come through them. And to be honest, that was not going to happen. It’s like one of those stupid “if the boss is wrong see rule 1 jokes”. They were never wrong.
It was their sacred job to be intermediaries between God and humanity. God was too big for people to approach one on one. That’s why the Torah, with laws upon laws about purity, sacrifices, and rituals were kept by a priesthood who knew and understood God’s intentions for humanity.
While God didn’t make this assumption, those working on God’s behalf (including the sacrifice subcontractors) believed most of God’s followers were morons. What did they know? The believers who poured into the temple were rubes, hicks, country hillbillies from the mountains of Galilee who couldn’t read or write a word of Hebrew or Aramaic. These people would do whatever they told them to do. Most of them hadn’t seen Leviticus or Deuteronomy. Make no doubt about it, their job was to ensure God was a color between the lines project. They drew the lines, handed out the crayons, and then told people where to color, how dark to shade, and where on the refrigerator their drawing might be displayed.
Nothing was left to chance. Following God meant ordering the right number of doves at the beginning of the week: another memo. Following God meant assigning tables and locations for the money changers: another memo. Following God meant setting up the rotation of priests for the sacrifices in the holy of holies: another memo. Following God meant assigning a priest to go through the offering to pick the choicest fruits and grains for their meals: another memo. The Pharisees were memo people. They loved their memos.
One day, a guy shows up at the temple and he colored outside of the lines. In fact, he brought his own crayons, drew funny pictures of God, and encouraged people to see God existing beyond the limits set by the Law of Moses. His name was Jesus. Jesus said that God was bigger than the rules Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The Pharisees, Chief Priests, Scribes, Elders, and Teachers of the Law didn’t know what to think. They looked at each other and asked, “Did you send me a memo on this?” “I didn’t get a memo about this change?” “Who sent the memo about Jesus?”
One of them asked Jesus, “We didn’t get a memo about you. Did you bring a memo with you? We can’t do anything without a memo giving us authority and permission to act. Where is your memo?”
Jesus doesn’t do memos. Jesus is not a United Methodist who needs approval of a charge conference or an annual conference. Jesus is not the Mayor of San Juan trying to save lives in her hurricane ravaged city. Jesus is not a priest working of the Pharisees in the temple. Jesus doesn’t do memos and chains of authority. If Jesus sees a need he meets it. Jesus gathers the resources, he equips and empowers his disciples, and he goes to where people are hurting. That’s the essence of the Good News. Jesus never waits to be asked. Jesus goes.
When Jesus goes to those in need, the memo requesters lose their ability to control access to God and God’s words. Everyone can come to God, even the hillbillies from Galilee and an educated redneck from Trinity, North Carolina like me. You can come close to God without paying a man to kill a pigeon on your behalf. Where’s the memo? There is no memo. No official request is required. Jesus says so. His word, our relationship, is good enough.
Memos are like hoops. The more we create or ask people to jump through them; we run people off. Those who stay, that is write the memos and decide to jump through our hoops, I’m not sure I want hang out with them. They remind me of the Pharisees, Scribes, Elders, and Teachers of the Law. After a while, they take the memo thing too far. You remember the memo they sent to Pilate about killing Jesus, don’t you?
Richard Lowell Bryant