Tough Words

Luke 9:51-62

Tolerance is a catchword these days. Lord knows, we need tolerance. It is not all we need, but it is a good place to start.

Regarding the first part of today’s verses, Scottish theologian William Barclay asserts, “There is no passage in which Jesus so directly teaches the duty of tolerance as this.”

While passing through Samaria, the disciples wanted permission to deliver some tough words. The Samaritans in a particular village had refused to show Jesus and his followers any hospitality—not surprising when you consider how the two groups had been at odds for centuries. In short, the Jews considered the Samaritans half-breeds, the descendants of Jews who had mixed with invaders. Usually Jews avoided Samaria entirely. I suppose the Samaritans saw the Jews as a little uppity.

Feeling disrespected, James and John wanted Jesus to empower them to imitate Elijah, calling down fire from heaven, this time on a village of people rather than an altar. (They also likely had God’s ancient air strike on sinful Sodom and Gomorrah in mind.) We’re told Jesus rebuked the disciples, a “Let it go, already” coming directly from God’s Son.

His tolerant attitude was rooted in the somber task ahead of him. We are told Jesus had “set his face” toward Jerusalem. The point is so important it is repeated. This is Luke artfully saying Jesus was now certain his ministry was taking him toward torture and death on a cross. There was no other way out of sin and death for humanity.

Jesus was about to do a new thing. It would bring life, not death, for everyone, redemption free for the taking. And on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus would not have his redemptive ministry punctuated by a violent act.

The tolerance Jesus demonstrated marks the starting point for how we deal with others, particularly when others have opinions radically different from our own. Tolerance is the basis of civilization. We cannot have a truly modern society until people say, “We may disagree, but we’re not going to destroy each other.”

It is obvious people are struggling with this idea in many places now. Radical Islam is the most extreme example, built on the idea, “Disagree with me and die.” I’m reminded of ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s terrorist puppet: “Silence! I kill you!” The psychology of Dunham’s routine is pretty obvious: We’re nervously laughing at the very behavior that could destroy modern culture, hoping if we ridicule it, no one will want to behave that way.

Jesus was teaching the same lesson we learn in Luminary’s church-based karate class: If you can walk away, walk away. Words and ideas should not lead to violence. Jesus’ tolerance of the rude Samaritans and of sinners in general was a big shift in theology, an expanded understanding of God’s will.

Tolerance is something anyone in the world can learn. And for Christians, there’s an additional twist, some extra behaviors we must incorporate. In case you haven’t picked up on it in Scripture, we’re supposed to be helping grow the kingdom. Ephesians 1:22 tells us the church is now Christ’s body, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

To make the world a different place, we have to be a different people. This is where some tension arises in our lives as Christians. It’s easy to say, “Let’s all be tolerant,” sing “Kumbaya” and head for the house. Today’s text takes us further, though.

We’re told that as Jesus continued along the road, some would-be followers approached him. Finally, Jesus offered tough words, just not the kind the disciples had first sought permission to use.

His responses had a basic theme. Following Christ is going to be difficult. It may cost you home and family, assuming home and family prove to be in conflict with God’s kingdom. And there is truth to be told, the kind of truth people are not always ready to hear. Proclamations are calls to change! Again, people may kill you when they don’t like your ideas. The Jewish leaders killed Jesus because he was an ideological and political threat.

Regardless of the dangers, we are called to be holy examples in an unholy world, drawing people toward what is godly. Understanding God’s will requires much study and prayer. If you believe the Bible, then you from the earliest chapters have to believe our minds and bodies are too broken to fully grasp God’s will on our own. What feels right may be very wrong, simply because our minds and souls are a little fractured.We need guidance, from God’s written word and God’s Holy Spirit.

Intertwining tolerance and holiness can seem strange at first. Our instincts tell us they do not go together, but Christ made it clear they do. Using them together, we help the kingdom grow.

The featured image is the Monument of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Photo by Avishai Teicher, 2009, used with permission via Wikimedia Commons.


Two Days Among the Lost

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Guercino, c. 1640

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, Guercino, c. 1640

I know how people tend to read blogs—in a hurry, skimming and skipping past links. This will make more sense if you first take time to read John 4:5-42 in a meditative manner. When it comes to showing God’s grace to others, I think this story is one of the greatest lessons Jesus gave us.

There is powerful change happening in this story, the kind of change the world desperately needs to see today. And as followers of Christ, as people filled with the Holy Spirit, we can help make that change happen, using what Jesus shows us here.

Jesus and his disciples had decided to take the short route from Judea back to Galilee, but that meant they also had to pass through the territory of the Samaritans. A lot of you probably know this bit of background, perhaps from studying Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, but it’s important to remember: The Jews and Samaritans could not stand each other.

They had common ancestry going back to Abraham, but during the Assyrian invasion seven centuries earlier, the Jews living in Samaria had intermarried with people of other cultures. There is no nice way to put it—the Jews in Judea and Galilee considered the Samaritans impure, and the Samaritans were more than a little defensive about the way they were treated, to the point of worshiping separately in their own temple they had built on Mount Gerizim.

This story becomes even more complicated because of the circumstances of the woman at the well. We don’t know why she had gone through five husbands and was now living with a man not her husband, but no part of her back story indicates she had much of a reputation among her fellow Samaritans. She probably was gathering water a long walk from town in the heat of the day because the other women would have nothing to do with her, perhaps even blocking her from a water source closer to home.

She was among the badly broken people of the world, the people who had and still have little reason to expect much in the way of kindness from what we might call “respectable” people. The rules of the world seemed to work against her. When Jesus first spoke to her at the well, I expect her first thought was, “This charming Jew is after something other than water.”

I should pause here to point out something important to the people of Cassidy UMC. You for the most part are what the world would call “respectable people.” You live middle-class and upper middle-class lives. You dress well. You speak well. And you need to understand something—the Samaritans right around us, the ones living within walking distance, figure we’re against them.

In some cases, they may even be your children or grandchildren. They are so different from you that they expect nothing but judgment when they see you coming, nothing but blame and a set of rules to which they need to conform.

A Gracious Encounter

Let’s think about how Jesus reached out to the “disrespectable” woman at the well. First, he treated her like there was nothing unusual about her, asking her to do a very normal thing, give him a little water. Even if she was suspicious, Jesus’ disarming openness was enough to keep the conversation going.

Second, he drew her into a mystery with that whole “living water” metaphor. She didn’t understand what he was talking about at first, but she was intrigued. And by the way, we have the same kind of mysteries to offer. There are stories of Jesus’ love and sacrifice on the cross, and how that sacrifice gives us eternal life. There are attempts to explain the nature of God. These are mysteries so great we cannot explain them in full. But we can use them to express joy at who God is and what God continues to do in the world. And such joy is contagious, particularly among the wounded people of the world.

Third, after revealing himself as a prophet, Jesus was straight with her about the difference between religion and relationship. She wanted to go back to the sore subject, the question of where people should worship and with what trappings they should worship. Jesus told her about the God who longed for worship from the heart, a Spirit-driven worship.

Modern Christians have trappings. We have buildings, flowers, robes and stoles, instruments, crosses and all sorts of other beautiful stuff to help us worship. But when we talk to people about why we believe what we believe, we don’t talk about a place or a program. We talk about the God we worship, and how his Spirit works in us for good.

Our trappings can be quite useful. We make good use of them at Cassidy UMC. But at the same time, if I ever thought they were getting in the way of our relationship with God, I would argue they should be torn down brick by brick, just as the temple in Jerusalem eventually was destroyed. Don’t invite people to a place. Call them to a relationship with the loving God who has gone to enormous lengths to restore us to holiness.

I also love how Jesus showed us that such efforts to declare the presence of the Messiah can be sustaining. When he stopped at the well, he was “tired out,” but by the time the disciples returned with food he seemed energized, not even wanting to eat.

We sometimes fear these encounters with those not like us. We forget that such loving conversations are the core of who we are as Christians. We, too, are filled with God’s grace and energy when we bare our souls to those who need to see what a relationship with God means.

Two Days of Results

This cycle of love given and love received continued as the woman ran to the town, declared what she believed about the man she met, and returned with a crowd. Jesus went home with them, spending two days among these lost, rejected Samaritans, and by the time he departed, many others had declared their belief in Jesus as the Christ. I have no doubt he simply continued the pattern he had started with the woman at the well, a pattern of open, nonjudgmental engagement, joyous mystery, and the triumph of relationship over religion.

Two days. It was a small part of Jesus’ ministry, but it also was quite a commitment for a Jewish teacher among people who were technically unclean.

I wonder what we could do with two days, two days where we’re deliberate about being among the lost. It’s something I’ve pondered all week—where would I go? How would I imitate Jesus while I was there?

It’s a question I intend to answer. I pray some of you will want to answer it with me.