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Monday, January 31, 2011

On Being Fed by Wolves

Recently I attended a gathering of pastors to talk about the challenges and opportunities in our churches and communities and what we’re going to do about them.  We spent a major part of our time meditating on Jesus’ instructions to the 72 (or 70 in some ancient copies) disciples that he sent to all the cities he wanted to visit in Luke 10:1-12.  Jesus meant for the 72 to go into the various towns of Galilee and do the kind of thing he did: heal and proclaim that God’s reign on earth was almost here.  Jesus gives some very challenging instructions to these disciples, instructions that only get more vexing the longer one looks at the passage.

One of the more perplexing instructions is when Jesus commands, “Do not carry a money bag, a traveler’s bag, or sandals. . . . Whenever you enter a town and the people welcome you, eat what is set before you” (vv. 4, 8).  Imagine traveling to another city with no luggage and no wallet, expecting that people you have never met will take you in and take care of you.  That’s what Jesus was telling his disciples to do.

What is this passage doing in the Bible?  We say that the Bible applies to our lives today, but it’s hard to figure out what you and I are supposed to do with this.  For one thing, in the ancient world (and in many places in the world today), hospitality was an enormously important virtue.  If a stranger came into town, the town’s honor was on the line for how they treated that stranger.  By contrast, we are largely inhospitable.  There are people in our culture—maybe you too—who haven’t had anyone into their home in the past ten years, much less a stranger.  So the disciples could expect a certain degree of assistance in many cases that we cannot.  Nevertheless, there was risk even for Jesus' disciples in his instructions.  Jesus outlines what they are supposed to do if they are not welcomed in—shake the dust off their feet in protest (v. 11)—apparently a very real possibility.

What is hardest for us to swallow, and it surely was for the disciples too, is that Jesus sends people in front of him in his name who are relying for support entirely on the strangers they’re going to.  This is dangerous; Jesus calls these people “wolves” that the disciples are sent among like “lambs” (v. 3).  These “wolves” are the people the disciples are counting on for food and shelter!  The 72 come with nothing but the word of Jesus and the power of Jesus.  Otherwise they are empty-handed and needy, dependent on the people they meet.

But of course, Jesus isn't telling his disciples to do anything that he didn't do to a far greater degree.  The Son of God "emptied himself" when he took on human nature; he didn't bring anything with him to sustain him or help him out.  As the Lamb of God, he was entirely dependent on the hospitality of the wolfish human race from his mother's womb on.  And though he came in the power and authority of the One who sent him, though he preached and healed and offered peace (v. 5), that didn't prevent him from being rejected by those to whom he was sent with gruesome consequences.  But it also gave people the opportunity to receive him, and those who did so became children of God.

Over the course of the last year my church became convinced of what God made us to do, which we call care along the way.  We’ve been assuming—at least I have—that the heart of care along the way is that we have something to give that our world needs.  I still strongly believe that this is true, and so did Jesus or else he wouldn’t have sent out the 72 to heal and preach.  But what if a starting point for showing care to others is admitting our own vulnerability, weakness, and need to the people we’re called to care for?  Imagine, for example, starting a relationship with an unbeliever by humbly asking for help for something, receiving it, thanking them, and standing in their debt.  That is a very different place from which to offer help than from a starting point of claiming to have what they need.  They might be much more willing to receive the care we have to give.

But this can be hard even in small ways.  One thing that successful pastors and other caregivers learn how to do early on is to foster one-way intimacy.  The pattern is, you have a problem, I show compassion, you expose your vulnerability, I help while guarding your dignity, you are grateful.  You think we're now close, because you bared your soul and I showed love to you.  But we're actually not close, because you have seen nothing of me.  The compassion I showed you was genuine, but it shielded the rest of me from your eyes.  In fact, some caregivers—myself included at times—actually use what feels to its recipients as wonderfully affectionate compassion and interest as a way to keep them at a fixed distance.  (For example, how much do you really know about your favorite doctor?)

I don't think this is necessarily bad.  I actually think it's necessarily wise, and Jesus modeled the same thing.  But Jesus also was seen naked by his parents and who knows how many other friends and relations in Nazareth, and in the upper room he disclosed his most intimate thoughts to those he knew were about to abandon him and deny they knew him (John 13-17).  This rebukes me when I inexplicably decline a ride home or some other small favor by someone whom I "serve," motivated by an egotistical desire to remain the person of power, the creditor, in the relationship or by a fear of becoming vulnerable enough to be betrayed and wounded.

There is a balance here to be struck.  The Lord didn't command his disciples to be best friends with everyone they met.  But he did command that they rely on them for their most basic needs.  It takes profound humility and faith to place the paw of the wounded wolf on one's throat.  But this models the humility and faith that wolf must display to become a lamb.

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