What Jesus Did—and Still Does
The church I attended as a brand-new Christian once had a picnic at an elder's sprawling farm. We engaged in all the usual activities: paintball, games involving eggs on spoons or legs tied together, small children getting overexcited, and people telling jokes about their spouses.
When we were all sufficiently hot and dirty, the men got together and grilled, while the women set out buns and bowls of potato salad. After the meal, the elders and deacons and their wives collected in the basement rec room for their regular meeting.
I was given the job of folding up the tables and chairs and carrying them down to the basement. Coming and going, I inadvertently eavesdropped on the meeting, where a discussion was underway about a member who struggled with alcoholism.
The man had three children and a wife whose health problems prevented her from working. Whenever this man went off the wagon, as he recently had, he either showed up drunk at work or else got out-of-control angry at his boss and coworkers. Either way, he'd lose his job, and whenever this happened, the church ended up paying his family's rent for months at a time, counseling him back into AA, and pulling every string they could to get him another job.
Apparently, this cycle had been going on for years, and the church leaders were discussing whether they ought to keep rescuing this man. Some of the group argued that doing so was simply enabling him by providing a safety net for his next collapse.
"If we didn't fix everything for him," one woman suggested, "then he'd have to fix it himself, and that might motivate him to stay with AA."
Others in the group talked about the man's family. "They're the widows and orphans of the Bible," an older man reminded everyone fiercely. "We need to do whatever it takes to defend their interests."
The church, I knew, had financial difficulties of its own, and I was impressed that no one brought these into the discussion—at least not while I was trundling the tables and chairs past them. This must be what it means to be the church, I thought, my first of many such reflections in the years to come. I listened closely as the discussion continued.
"What would Jesus do?" the fierce man demanded. Everyone fell silent, nodding. He would take care of the widow and orphans, of course, I thought. He would forgive the man's failure to stay sober, seventy times seven.
Then, a younger man with a beard repeated the other man's question with slightly different intonation.
"But what would Jesus do?" he asked them. He went on to talk about other things Jesus had and hadn't done in his time on Earth besides help people in trouble.
"Jesus didn't heal everyone who came to him, and he reminded his disciples that the poor would always be with them," this young elder pointed out. "He rendered unto Caesar Caesar's own. Once, he told a paralyzed guy not just to walk, but to pick up his mat and walk.
"Jesus was pretty hard to predict," the man summed up.
I, meanwhile, was thinking about a story I'd recently read in one of the gospels in which a Canaanite woman cries out to Jesus, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly" (Matthew 15:22). Jesus, Matthew tells us, remains silent. When the woman persists, he tells her that he "was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel" and that "it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs" (Matthew 15:24, 26). He relents only when the woman, with the gutsiness of desperation, counters, "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table" (Matthew 15:27).
Jesus was such a mystery. His explanation notwithstanding, his initial unwillingness to help the woman seems so cold in comparison to the universal message of hope he offers elsewhere in the gospels. Nevertheless, I heard his reluctance to help her—a holy sort of reluctance—in the earnest voices from my church calling for an end to supporting the alcoholic.
Solving a sufferer's problems apparently isn't always the right thing to do, I considered. And, in the voices that called for the church continuing to support the man, I heard Jesus' eventual compassion for the Canaanite woman. He not only grants her request, but commends her: "Woman, you have great faith!" (Matthew 15:28).
No wonder Jesus called the church his body, I thought. The metaphor had previously perplexed me. Jesus is not a single, simple answer to the intricacies of daily living. He's not a straightforward rule for behavior, or even a collection of such rules, that one can just tack onto any dilemma and be done with it. Rather, he's the revelation of human holiness in all its complexity, in all its magnificence.
People often offer "What would Jesus do?" as a clear answer to any question—as an end to discussion, it always seems to me—rather than as an invitation to really consider the intricacies of God's love. We shouldn't ask, "What would Jesus do?" but rather, "What didJesus do?"
Jesus didn't simply end human sin and suffering—although he could have, and certainly we all wish that he had. Rather, he came to us in person, joining us in our suffering, and offering us an entirely human but also entirely holy way of loving one another. As the church, we give voice to that love, even when—especially when—we disagree, as long as we're united in the goal of searching out God's will.
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What Jesus Did—and Still Does
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