The Discovery Channel once hosted a series called “Dirty Jobs.” Mike Rowe, the host, mucked-out, dug under, flushed, slogged, and slid through some of the most filthy and foul places on the planet.
But whether he had been hanging from rafters or slipping through sewers, Rowe consistently showed his viewers how even the most grungy, grimy, gross job still has its own dirty dignity. Rowe always offered respect to those who were “showing him the ropes,” whether they were demonstrating how to scrape up penguin poop or harvest worms. The underlying message of “Dirty Jobs” is that no matter how nasty, a job is a job and doing it well gives a sense of well-being and worth to humanity.
Except . . . . and it’s the exceptions that prove the rule . . . some jobs have always been just too “dirty” to redeem. Jesus honed in on the performers of these most despicable jobs throughout his ministry. Jesus spoke with and reached out to exactly those who were supposed to be shunted off and shoved aside for the unredeemable “dirty jobs.”
Jesus touched and healed the untouchable and unhealable — lepers, Gentiles, crazies.
Jesus comforted a Roman centurion grieving for his daughter. Jesus extended his hand to those out of their minds, “possessed” by demons.
But perhaps the most wretched refuse Jesus consoled and companioned were the tax collectors and prostitutes. Neither disease, nor demons, nor DNA made these people outcasts. They had professions that they knew would make them outcasts among their own people and despised by the people they served.
In Jesus’ day both tax collectors and prostitutes were viewed as “collaborators.” They profited from the despised existence and detested ruling authority of the Roman Empire.
Tax collectors brought the reality of Roman rule into the pocket of every Jewish citizen. Every action taken, every aspect of life, was scrutinized and taxed by the Roman authorities. Every sheckel paid was a cruel reminder of Israel’s defeat, of the loss of identity and the fear of no future that haunted the “chosen people” of God. Every time the tax collector dumped coins into Rome’s coffers, Israel’s hopes became emptier.
Prostitutes violated their own sexual purity, to be sure. But their existence also threatened the purity of Israel itself. According to Mosaic law any child born of a Jewish mother was considered Jewish. But what happens when the “chosen people” are being created by Roman soldiers?
The tax collectors were instruments used against Israel’s political identity. The prostitutes were instruments used against Israel’s genetic identity.
Yet it is precisely these two groups, one the most dangerous and the other the most despicable, that Jesus singled out and elevated above “the chief priests and elders of the people.” It was the ultimate insult.
Jesus did not care about the offense he was giving. He cared about the defense he was building. Jesus sided with the tax collectors and prostitutes not because of what they were — but because of what they had become.
These were the people who had received John the Baptist. These were the people who had heard his call to repentance. These were the people who had responded to his invitation to baptism.
These were the people who had recognized and revered the divine hand guiding John’s mission and message.
What those tax collectors and prostitutes had done in the past was overwritten and overcome by what they had done in John’s presence. Faith and repentance bumped up the bottom of the heap to the first in line.
This was not a message that went down well with those who were “large and in charge.” But Jesus did not tone down this turn off. Jesus stood in the temple courtyard and confronted with holy boldness the temple chief priests and Sanhedrin leaders on their home turf. What is more, Jesus dared to inform them that they needed to get to the back of the line. The tax collectors and prostitutes were getting into the kingdom of God before they were.
This is an “in your face,” “pull no punches,” “no-holds barred” bare-knuckled assault on someone’s reputation and authority. This is a method and a message guaranteed to make enemies. We always remember that Jesus admonished us to “love” our enemies. But Jesus never said don’t MAKE any enemies. In fact Jesus’ directive to “love” your enemy assumes that enemies will abound!
If you stand for something, someone else will stand against you.
If it weren’t so, we could all lie down and relax. This is not a time to relax. Jesus made enemies by revealing an unflattering truth to people in power, to people who were perfectly poised to cause him great harm. Jesus offered the priests and elders an alternative world view, a view outside their tight circle of what was “acceptable” and “righteous.” Jesus showed them that God could not be contained within their small orbits of ritual observance and obedience.
Jesus used John the Baptist’s “break-out” mission and message to introduce his listeners — both those hospitable and those hostile — to God’s on-going plan for the salvation of the world and for human redemption and return to the garden. Jesus’ message was not a condemnation. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Jesus came to save the world and call us to repentance and prayer.
Going on the offensive will give offense.
Ironically, for someone who never had use for God all his life, Norman Mailer’s last book is a conversation with God entitled On God: An Uncommon Conversation (2007). Looking back on the 20th century and on his life, Mailer says that the best metaphor he can come up with for how the universe operates is a gridiron. Creation, he said, is like AstroTurf on which God and the Devil duke it out for victory. The Devil’s work, according to Mailer, is left-brained stuff. The Devil’s strengths are systematic, actuarial, technological, consumer-driven stuff. God’s “plays” are more imaginative and creative, but the Devil is on the offensive for a variety of reasons. Both God and the Devil for Mailer have limited powers, and on that basis Mailer says the outcome of this battle between good and evil is uncertain. But the points on the board right now are in the Devil’s favor because the forces of evil are on the offense, partly because evil right now is more willing to take risks and be creative, and good is stuck in a defensive, play-it-safe posture.
To go on the offensive means to give offense. Jesus offended, not with a “holier than thou” righteousness, but with a offensive defense of the marginalized whose humanity was being minimalized. Sometimes we can “love our enemies” the best by showing them without fear how wrong they are.
I like the story of the 100th birthday party where a man was interviewed by a reporter with the stupid question, “What one thing are you most proud of after having lived such a long life?”
The old man replied, “Well, here I am, 100 years old and I don’t have a single enemy in the world.”
The impressed reporter responded, “That is truly remarkable, sir. What made it possible for you to be able to say such a thing?”
“Well,” said the 100 year old man, “I’ve outlived every one of them.”
Not exactly “every one of them.” There was one “enemy” the centenarian didn’t outlive.
That was himself. God is more than faithful to his friends. God is faithful even to God’s enemies. For that includes us. The Bible says Abraham was both God’s friend and God’s enemy. Each one of us is. The very best in us and the very worst in us is only a thin membrane apart.
Let us give thanks that God’s faithfulness endures forever . . . . and offers forgiveness to both friends and enemies. And let us not be afraid to “love our enemies,” especially while we’re making them.
The most famous Winston Churchill address is supposed to consist of three words repeated over and over again: “Never give in. Never give in. Never give in.”
This graduation address is the only speech most of us have ever memorized. But this is not the whole speech. This is not even the whole point, although it may be the whole of life.
Churchill said these words on 29 October 1941, when he visited Harrow School. It was after the Blitz and things were looking up a bit for Britain. Here is the relevant part of the speech:
But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period ?? I am addressing myself to the School ?? surely from this period of ten months, this is the lesson: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never ?? in nothing, great or small, large or petty ?? never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
Love your enemies, but don’t be afraid to make them or stand up to them.
Leonard Sweet Sermons, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2011, 0-000-1415