Jesus, Jeannie C. Riley, and the Harper Valley PTA
by Daniel O'Daniels
I work as a welder. I have been doing production welding for over 30 years. One of the byproducts of working in weld shops is I have been forced to acquire an appreciation for country music. In the late 60's a
My brother and I were the only kids in our school raised by a single mom in the 60's and I always appreciated the way that song stood up powerfully for the single mom and socked it to the hypocrites. It was at the time a shocking indictment of mainstream America. What does this all have to do with Jesus? Well, 2000 years ago he appeared on the scene of 1st century Palestine and in the Sermon on the Mount shocked the religious world with his own indictment of their religious hypocrisy. What I would like to explore is: has the song "Harper Valley PTA" and its influence on culture colored our view of Jesus and what he is saying in the Sermon on the Mount?
Lately, I have been disturbed by messages on the Sermon on the Mount that seem to sound more like "Harper Valley PTA" than careful biblical exegesis. And yet they really resonate with the crowd. People clap at the end of those sermons and I find myself clapping along with them. Just like Jeannie, the preacher is socking it to the hypocrites and the people love it. The message can be summed up as something like this, “Don't judge, period. If you have lust in your heart you have already committed adultery. Come on guys, you all have done it so who are you to judge? If you are angry with your brother you are guilty of murder so who are you to judge?" The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John's gospel is usually thrown in for good measure. Let him who is without sin throw the first stone. A dig at churches that practice church discipline is usually thrown in at this point equating church discipline with the worst forms of abuse and legalism and of being inconsistent with the gospel of grace. Is this what Jesus is really saying? Is the lesson to be taken that we are all still sinners and we have no right to be concerned with sin in the church?
Dan Allender in his excellent book Bold Love has examined this subject with careful thought. ( pg.201-202.)
Our first warning is not to judge unless we are willing to be measured by the same criterion... A second warning is to take the log out of our eye before we take the speck out of our brother's eye. Jesus is not implying that we are to be so "judgment free" that we are not to notice our brother's inability to see. We are to reflect, assess, and develop a strategy on how to remove the speck in our brothers eye. The implication is that we have judged his sight to be blocked, assessed the nature of the block, and figured out how to get it out. There is nothing wrong with being burdened and furious about a spouse's sin, but only if the huge log is being plucked from our own eye. The priority is always to look first in yourself. You will not stand before God required to deal with any life but your own. Therefore let judgment begin first with the house of God... A second trap is to assume we cannot love another until our log is gone. This person says, "I can't really deal with your speck because my log is so big." Indeed, if this were the case, no one would ever be rightly involved with another' s sin. We are called to restore one another and to pluck the sinner from the fire through tenderness and strength ( Galatians 6:1, Jude 2:23.) We must live with the ongoing work of removing our log, first and foremost, without neglecting the work of removing specks in the eyes of those whom we are privileged to love.In other words, we are not to judge with hypocritical or self-righteous judgment. To be sure, there are insights to be gleaned by comparing and contrasting the Lord's teachings with such an important landmark in popular culture. The song is blasting those in established positions of power who pick on the weaker widow for not conforming to outward community standards, while not being at all concerned with her real welfare or with those standards in their own lives .They aren't humbly looking to themselves lest they be tempted and thus removing the log, or judging themselves first. They are not approaching her in tenderness and strength to address sin, and likewise, her response, though both wickedly clever and bold, lacks love. Tenderness and strength is exactly what Jesus communicates to the woman caught in adultery and to the hypocrites of his society. Like Jeannie, Jesus stands up to those in power with strength on behalf of the woman. Yet the difference is that Mrs. Johnson of the song justifies her sin on the basis that they are all sinners, while Jesus sends the hypocrites away and forgives the repentant woman with the warning to go and sin no more. She goes away saved, but the woman in Harper Valley, by justifying her sin, goes away empowered in a way, but not forgiven.
The Bible teaches clearly that the church's business is not to judge those outside the church but inside (1 Corinthians 5:12). To judge, not with self-righteousness or hypocrisy, but by speaking the truth in love. Let's pretend for a moment that the woman in the song was a Christian. According to Jesus's teaching in Matthew 18:15-19, she is to be approached at first by just one loving Christian who has looked at his or her life first. He is to have dealt with any logs in his own eye as best he could, prayed about the best way to approach her, and then in faith go to her with the goal of finding out what is really going on. Perhaps the accusations were false. Perhaps they are true and she is repentant. Then he gets the joy of restoring her as a priest of the
Some will say, "Where on earth is one to begin? We all sin. We all have issues. What sin is bad enough to demand intervention?" All I can say is that Paul knew. They knew in the first century. We have to look to the Lord and to his Word. We must seek God for discernment. Paul said in Galatians 6:1 if anyone is caught in a trespass you who are spiritual are to restore him. To me that means we don't need to be on the hunt for these situations. But if your brother is caught in sin you need to be willing to help him. If a person is destroying his life or their family, the church, or the testimony of the church in the community, then that is surely a sign that intervention is needed. Is it easy? No. It is a task for the spiritually mature. Will you always get to sleep at a decent hour or not make mistakes and doubt yourself? Probably not, but you will be truly loving and caring for your flock. In 1 Peter 5 the apostle writes about the privilege of being a shepherd of God's flock, of coshepherding with Christ and knowing Christ in that way. Elsewhere in scripture we read about elders having to give an account for their ministry among the flock, and of the crown of glory they will receive from the Chief Shepherd. These are reasons enough. Sadly and ironically, churches today seem to have noninvolvement as one of their primary goals. They don't seem willing to risk practicing what is clearly taught in the Bible for the sake of the spiritual health of their flock. I don't know what the reasons are, whether they be financial or what. But I know God's Word has not changed.