I often find myself wondering at terms of abuse – not that they get hurled at me very often, I have to admit – that more or less take something positive that a person is doing and use it as a taunt. This seems to be the stock in trade of letter-writers to my favourite rag, The Australian. For example, calling someone a ‘do-gooder’. I mean, what’s the alternative? Would it really be preferable in anybody’s book to be a ‘do-badder’, to get around carrying out random acts of spite? Then there’s ‘bleeding heart’ as a way of describing someone who feels more compassion than the letter-writer thinks is strictly warranted; or ‘politically correct’ to describe somebody who insists on treating women, or ethnic minorities, or people whose religion is different to one’s own, with respect. ‘Politically correct’, in fact, has become such a terminal put-down that it almost seems the only way to be correct any more is to be politically incorrect, which is kind of circular, isn’t it? Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that even though nobody these days is likely to call you a spawn of Beelzebub just for following Jesus, there is still a price tag for disciples who try to live in a way that brings the kingdom of God into the reality of the world we live in. Labels have power as a way of neutralising those inconvenient truths we don’t want to face up to and that we know, deep down, we don’t have an argument against. So we put a lid on it, instead. Write it off as a product of the loony left.
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew is part of a longer passage that is more or less a handbook for missionaries. Even though it takes the form of a long speech by Jesus just before he sends the twelve disciples off on their very first solo run, the context fits better with Christian missionaries in Matthew’s own community, around the end of the first century. Missionary-disciples who have been running into opposition, maybe starting to feel a bit bruised and battered, afraid to talk about this kingdom of God stuff in case they get called slave-lovers or something even worse.
I heard someone at a pastoral ministry workshop a while ago talk about what she called ‘practical skills for reconcilers’. It sounded like she was going to hand out some pearls of wisdom about how to get people who were at loggerheads to calm down long enough to listen to one another, so I pricked up my ears and got out a notebook and pen. But when she got started, all she said, more or less was, ‘it doesn’t matter so much what you say or do, there are two skills you have to have before you can even get to any of that. And the first one is this: just be there. Be fully present. Be in the moment.’
Be there. Don’t be just half-there. Don’t keep an eye on your watch, or your diary, don’t focus on your own embarrassment, or your boredom, or even your knowledge of your own inadequacy. Forget the agenda, just be attentive, fully present to the other person. Where you are is where you’re meant to be.
And the second skill? Just remember that God loves you. Simple as that. God loves me. Wastefully, extravagantly, over-the-top, way more than seems reasonable or even possible. Just remember, she told us, that you are the beloved daughter, the beloved son of God. Centre yourself on the love that is at the heart of who you are.
Pay attention. Rest in the knowledge of God’s love. I put my notebook away.
So the community of Christians that Matthew is writing for, in the last decade of the first century, are having a hard time. It’s going to be a while yet before they start getting thrown to the lions or anything exciting, but they’re getting into trouble already for the same reasons Jesus and Paul got themselves into trouble. They’re getting into trouble because they insist on living as though it’s not the Emperor who’s in charge, not the Roman governor or even the religious authorities, as though slave-owners don’t really own the slaves they purchase, as though men don’t really own their womenfolk, in short, they insist on living as though God is in charge, not the people who look like they’re running the show. They’re taking Jesus at his word that God sees no difference between male and female, slave and free, Jew and non-Jew, and like other Christian communities they’re trying to live in a way that puts that teaching into practice. In short, they’re doing their level best to live in a way that sets free people who had never before experienced freedom, they’re trying the novel experiment of living lives of reconciling love.
Of course, it’s asking for trouble. I imagine it must have looked like chaos to anyone on the outside looking in. At the very least it must have seemed, to the authorities, as though this sect was doing its level best to undermine the network of obligation and indebtedness and hierarchy that held the ancient world together. The Way of Jesus, whenever it’s seriously practiced, comes into immediate conflict with the status quo whenever that’s based on competition, social inequality or the arbitrary exercise of power. Even in our own century.
And so, Matthew is describing a situation where members of the Christian community find themselves denounced by friends and neighbours and even family, hauled before the authorities for a spot of deprogramming or therapeutic flogging. And in this situation, the writer of the gospel is imagining what sort of advice Jesus himself would give. Which is what? A compelling argument, the phone number of a top lawyer?
Actually, nothing like that. Just remember, he says in the words of Jesus, that God cares even about the fate of a worthless sparrow. And you’re worth much, much more to God than a sparrow. God loves you. That’s the very most important thing you need to know when you’re surrounded by defensive, angry people.
Since I went to that workshop I’ve discovered for myself the truth of what the presenter was trying to tell us. This, I think, is part of the cost of discipleship. The more you try to live Jesus’ way of reconciliation and love, the more often you find yourself coming into contact with the deep hurt of other people. Wounded people, like other wounded creatures, don’t react just to the circumstances they find themselves in, but out of the experience of remembered pain. That, in turn, sometimes pushes our own buttons and reminds us of our own past hurts and vulnerability. So there’s the temptation to react yourself in a way that’s defensive, which just ensures the vicious spiral of suppressed hurt is going to keep turning.
If you want to be a reconciler, stay grounded in the experience of God’s love. Remember the power of God's love to heal, and you won't have to run away from things that remind you of your own vulnerabilities and wounds. Remember what God's love looks like in the way Jesus lived, and you'll be able to respond with authenticity and with love in whatever situation you find yourself.
Don't worry about what to say or what to do when the time comes. There's a reason that Martin Luther King called the practice of nonviolent resistance "beloved community." Because it’s the community of people who practice the good news that love is the fundamental, irresistible Word through which the universe was created, and towards which it is growing. As Christians, we believe that Word is expressed most completely in Jesus, and that if we dare to live by it, we see it embodied among us.
Like Matthew’s community, we are maybe a community of missionaries who’ve lost our nerve. Certainly, like Matthew’s community, the Church today finds itself surrounded by a strident secular culture that threatens to drown out the good news of the gospel, trying to live counter-culturally in an Empire of competitiveness and consumerism. We seem to have lost confidence in our ability to articulate the gospel, perhaps we don’t know how to reply to criticisms like the one I read in the Letters to the Editor a little while ago, that Christians are like children believing in a big Invisible Friend in the sky. Perhaps as Christians living in two cultures at once we have forgotten how to live as a community of reconciliation and freedom.
We need Matthew’s handbook for missionaries more than ever. Never forget the two basic instructions: Be fully present to one another. Rest secure in the knowledge of God’s love.
So now you can put your notebooks away.