Pastoral Ponderings: Sometimes the message gets lost

This week’s Pastoral Ponderings looks at the message of Jesus and how it is interpreted

Pastoral Ponderings

Robin King

I sometimes think that my job ought to be a lot easier. Part of it, anyway.

Not the pastoral care, perhaps. Life is complex and full of challenges, there’s much grief and sadness in the world. There’s also joy and happiness, challenges and opportunities and everyone’s life is, of course, uniquely there own. How that all interacts is complicated, to say the least. And it’s always a journey worth taking.

But there’s a part that feels like it ought to be easier. It’s the “proclaiming the Good News” part, the sharing of the story of Jesus, the stories of the disciples, teaching the living Word which is the essential truth at the heart of the Bible. It just seems like it ought to be easier. I mean, who wouldn’t want to hear it? Didn’t everyone listen to Jesus? Didn’t Jesus fix everything and now we’re fine?

Well, no.

It can feel like that ought to be true sometimes. Whatever your opinion of religion, I’m not sure how things like the ten commandments or God’s love being for everyone or The Golden Rule or Jesus saying that we should love one another or Paul saying that love is the fulfilment of the law are things that you wouldn’t want to incorporate into your life.

Sure, some people just don’t care to hear it. It might not have anything to do with religion, it might just be a need to find that there’s no grey area in right and wrong, it needs to be crystal clear, something which I’m pretty sure is never really possible. And yet. I despair sometimes that the answer to why you wouldn’t has a lot to do with religion and it’s often very human driven need to seek power over people rather than vulnerability with them. Every now and then I even wonder if those who say they’re spiritual, but opposed to organized religion aren’t on the right track. And I wonder if Jesus would have been among them.

I wonder how often the message gets lost in the interpretation. Or manipulation. And, by all means feel free to challenge me on the same terms. It’s just that fear, hate and exclusivity are hurtful and destructive. If they’re part of the message you’re hearing, you should look elsewhere because the source of that isn’t Jesus. Jesus’ message is hope, love and inclusivity because those are life changing, life enriching and life giving.

Just the other day I found myself having a conversation with someone that was going just fine until we, somehow, got on to the topic of illegal immigrants in the U.S. I suggested that care and compassion are what’s missing from that story. It’s not deserved, I heard, because they’re all either terrorists or it’s human trafficking – “coyotes” – either way, illegal is illegal. I tried to say I didn’t think that was true, it was just rhetoric, but, even if you thought that, they’re still human beings. I’m not sure how early on the conversation was lost, but by the time we got to “godless lefties” and “something big is coming,” I was pretty sure I should just shake the dirt off my feet and move on.

That phrase only occurred to me in hindsight. Later in the day I read the story in Mark when Jesus goes back to his home town. He’d been busy and attracted a lot of attention with miracles and teaching and I think he was probably expecting a warm reception from the home town crowd at the synagogue. But he didn’t get one. Instead they took a “we know you, local carpenter boy, who do you think you are?” kind of attitude. So Jesus “could do no deed of power there” (Mark 6:5) and he moved on. I wonder how he felt.

But he moves on and, with so much to do, he sends out the disciples in pairs to do what he’s been doing (what I like to call “Jesusing” – Jesus is a verb) and he tells them to take nothing with them. They don’t need anything but themselves and the Good News. But he also says to them, “ if any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:11)

Jesus doesn’t say keep badgering them, “put the fear of God in them” – what a horrible phrase that is! – or tell them they’re going to eternal damnation. He also doesn’t tell them to give up.

This story’s a reality check. Barbara Brown Taylor calls it an “un-miracle” story. Not everyone wants to hear the message of Jesus and when they don’t, there’s nothing you can do but move on. It’s what Jesus did. It also didn’t stop him loving, caring, respecting, forgiving, healing, helping and all the things that go into “living and loving like Jesus.”

Remember, too, that Jesus knew something we should as well, but find hard to accept. Not long before this story in Mark is one in which Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. That’s not just a reflection on great things coming from a single small thing, but of how they do: the mustard seed grows like a weed. That’s how the love of Jesus works. It sneaks in the cracks and grows and questions and wonders and changes things.

It may not seem like it, in the moment, but sometimes a dent has been made in the armour of certainty or an idea has floated gently over the wall of indifference. Was it the Word or the action of living it out or both? That’s why Jesus sent the disciples without any gear: they are the message and the medium. And so are we. Let’s move on.

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