I saw a sign in front of a church the other day that read, “Jesus didn’t reject anyone, and neither do we.” Really? Didn’t He? I don’t know.
I recently saw a theatre production called Jesus that portrayed a blatant rejection He carried out. And they got it really right, to my eye, that not everyone gets only warm-fuzzy hugs from God all the time (see Psalm 18 for starts if you take issue). My favorite scene in the show was when Jesus overturned tables and used a whip in the temple (in Matthew 21:12-13, He ejects the sales people from church). It was aesthetically cool, done partially in live slow motion, for one. But more importantly, they didn’t rush or minimize the entirety of the scene. It went on for a good, long while. They showed Jesus mad, unapologetically. And I loved it. Sometimes I get the impression that we Christians today only endorse indulgent love to the exclusion of tough love, fluffy feelings to the exclusion of intense ones. But who do we think originated righteous anger?
The play most definitively didn’t portray Jesus’ aggression as a mistake. It wasn’t an emotional vent with a quick self-correction, “Oops, I should calm down here. What am I doing?” There was no apologizing, thinking better of it or acting as if it’d been an accidental lull in appropriate self-control. They pushed the message front and center that Jesus was full of rightness, grace, mercy and love crashing those tables and chasing off those people. (In other words, it was true to the Bible as I read it.)
He needed to communicate a clear message and did: Those who usurp or control for selfish gain, especially trying to put themselves as self-appointed authorities over other people or necessary liaisons to God, will not be allowed to continue in that behavior in His house. Boom.
He clearly declared that if you steal from or actively stand in the way of people intimately knowing their Father, that’s bad. And his rejection of its badness was good. It’s not an ultimate rejection of the people, of course. He wishes for everyone to come to Him. But they weren’t, and they were seriously harming others, so they got kicked out of church that day. Like the prodigal son, they could return repentant and changed (truly, actually changed) and He’d embrace them. But at that moment, denying them entry was profound justice, passion and strength on the behalf of innocent people. Every future individual who would want to seek and find Him needed to know, No person should be in your way, folks. No thieves belong here. My house is for loving God and being freely loved.
So for those who were doing harm or putting an unnecessary hurdle between the Father loving His children, Jesus brought holy upheaval and a swift kick in the pants out the door. Jesus never turned back and never said sorry. In that moment of muscle, he was loving both those who were misusing His Father’s house and their targets. Everybody getting it wrong had to go, for their own benefit and others’. He simply wouldn’t pretend that a wrong thing was right. And he risked His life to clarify that wrong things going unchecked in church isn’t OK, since the debacle seems to have expedited the cross. (It seems to precipitate similar rejection for those who propose the same things today.)
Why did He risk reputation, credibility, life and limb over tables? Because this was life and death for everyone for all time. Jesus is spiritual bread, water, air. Gaining direct relationship to God is life itself. Jesus was about to submit to nails in his wrists and feet, thorns in his skull, a spear in his side and three days under the weight of all humanity’s past and future sins. Obviously, He’d go to any length to prevent spiritual death, unite us with God and protect us, including get mad and act on it. He’d go to any length to save seeking hearts from destruction by those who self-serve. Do we follow this example?
Jesus called such people whitewashed tombs and wolves in sheep’s clothing, etc. Jesus brought His game face to ministry; He wasn’t smiling all the time. Those three years were speckled with strong language against the proudly self-sufficient and the other-using types. Because Jesus was a lamb chaser. He went after the ones whose humble hearts knew and loved His voice—who acknowledged desperate need of rescue, aware they were truly helpless and ignorant and hopelessly wandering lost without a Shepherd. The self-satisfied and self-reliant could sorta fly a kite in Jesus’ world, but not because He didn’t care about them.
Jesus just had to chase off, or let walk away, the wolf sorts who weren’t ready to yield their appetite to destroy sheep. He didn’t chase after them to bring them in for another free meal of lamb. He chased them out and said, Not on my watch. Not my sheep. He gave everyone a chance, but with those who chose the route of threatening sheep safety—that wouldn’t get their hearts involved with or actions tempered by Him—what could He do? He’s a gentle leader who confers freedom to all above all. If some people hike a trail separate from Him, He grieves (to the point of heartbreak I’m sure), but He doesn’t drag them kicking and screaming onto the straight and narrow. He picks up the sheep baaa-ing for Him, that don’t resist and says, Rest safely now. I got ya back on my turf, kid.
Again, take the prodigal son’s father as an example. He waited for the rebellious son to return. Nothing could be done with that child before he broke down and turned himself around. God is the ultimate boundary respecter. He makes us responsible for ourselves and then lets us be just that. The law of sowing and reaping kicks in, and sometimes pig pens and starvation work their magic. But we can’t say He didn’t warn us. He woos, but some will say no to love—both receiving and giving it. And then He will forcefully oppose the harm they do to his beloveds, the ones who humbly rely on Him for protection.
It was no surprise to Jesus that his love wouldn’t be enough to win everyone over. He always knew full well He’d be an unrequited lover in many a heart. He always knew there would be hardened souls and wolves trying to take refuge in the temple, dressed as sheep, but in fact eating sheep. And it’s not an act of revenge when He turns up the dial on aggression to shelter his true bride—the authentic coats of wool in the flock–tossing out the predators. He simply won’t let the fact that some won’t respond to His voice stop Him from the mission of getting his arms around those who do and doing right by them.
Everybody has the same opportunity to humbly accept and receive His love, to repent, to show that they’re Christians by their love. And Jesus knew not everyone would. If you don’t believe you’re a sinner—I mean believe it with your actions, not just your words—you can’t believe in the need for a Savior dying for you, and then you’re not a sheep. Because that’s the exchange: repentance for intimate familial relationship. It’s a package deal offered to all but rejected by some carnivorous howlers of arrogance.
And because Jesus knew all of this, He showed over and over that soft-hearts paying for hard-hearts wasn’t kosher. He walked straight into the temple and ousted the whole lot of wrongness so the world would see that He’d fiercely pave the way for those who knew they needed to be near to God, who needed to not be robbed at the entrance to the house of prayer. And as for those doing the robbing, move aside or be moved out of the way.
Because one more thing that Jesus clearly knew was that if liars, deceivers, cheaters, thieves and self-promoters go unopposed, they will bring destruction and death to those around them. He stopped them at every opportunity. He pointed to wolves, took names and exposed them.
That day at the temple, He simply wouldn’t let the wolves bite the sheep in church. Jesus said, NO. Not here. Not in my house. Get out. In Luke 17:2, He says such biters are better off with a weight around their neck at the bottom of the ocean than if they trip up one of His innocents. Luke 17:3 does say to reconcile with a sinner who says sorry. Wolves don’t say sorry—not truly, not with actions, not with change, not with sincerity, not with integrity. So, He warns us about them, because His mission has always been to find and fight for lambs. Might we be mixing up the two, calling the chronically unrepentant “sheep?”
Jesus made it quite clear that even a wolf who claimed to know Him just plain old wasn’t in the Kingdom—in His Church. Even if it looked and acted squeaky clean, claimed to do things in His name, successfully played the game of external appearances but lacked love and wouldn’t bend the knee of submission to Him as Lord, the beast just plain didn’t belong to His family. Jesus could always tell a poser from the real thing. We might do well as a Family to get better at the same based on their fruit.
Jesus simply pronounced and announced megaphone-style–not hesitantly or protectively– inauthentic, duplicitous people full of double standards, especially if they set up hoops for people to jump through in the name of religion or they were cruel to his kids. He knew some people would always, in Enemy-style, paint their rock-hard hearts up in superficial, pretty colors even though they contained no genuine beauty, trying to claim greatness and attain the worship and authority due only to God. With the breath of one sentence Jesus would clear the smoke-and-mirrors used by these seducers to deceive lambs into believing their professions of faith, declaring the easy-prey mealtime over. Jesus threw over those tables that day to declare, Just because you’re within the walls of my church claiming to be offering a service doesn’t mean I ever knew you, or you me. I am not fooled.
Jesus with 100% consistency opposed money-changing, oppressor-wolves: people taking advantage of others, controllers and manipulators, the unrepentant rebellious, those elevating themselves to god-likeness or gatekeeper-to-God status, liars and connivers appeasing their own consciences with false confessions, those leading others out of truth. He said no to these. He said it loudly. He acted on it. And He said we should do the same, having nothing to do with them if they’re claiming to be Christians.
I know it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between sheep and wolves dressed up as them. It’s not an easy game, so it can be scary to play. But I’m not even sure we’re trying to play the game anymore. Could doing anything other than following Jesus’ expulsion example be a simple act of cowardice? Are we sleeping on our flock-watch shift? Do we not believe games are afoot at all? Have we lost our collective taste for appropriate intolerance? Do the wolves succeed in tricking us into coddling them and kicking out sheep who point to them instead? Are we offended at the thought of calling a wolf bad?
I argue that only the maker of something gets to label it. If the Creator called a wolf a wolf and a money-changer a robber, who are we to re-label them something else? And if He says only repentance covers those problems, who are we to overrule that? And if he protected the flock, who are we to sacrifice our sheep instead of the wolves? Do we do this sometimes thinking we can turn the wolves into sheep eventually by mere, prolonged proximity to sheep, all while in actuality enabling their blood-lust instead? I don’t think an addict is best served surrounded by their drug of choice. It seems to me that Jesus just pushed them out of the way for the sheep but also to save them from themselves and their own viciousness. If they returned repentant—truly rehabilitated flock destroyers—I know He’d have open arms. But until then, He said, Back up. Back off.
So, I do wonder at what I’ve seen in church, on church signs, in the Family of God at large. Have we forgotten there are wolves in the temple? Do we still know there are people to whom we must say no and oppose for the sake of the innocent? Have we lost the ability to be wise as serpents?
What I know is that if there’s a battle for a soul and spirit—a lamb’s search and rescue operation—Jesus is all over it. That’s where He’ll be every single time, shielding the sheep and rejecting the wolf. Again, He made the cross available to the wolves. But he knew that while they chose themselves over Him, he had guarding to do.
For us people pleasers and haters of conflict, it would be easier to ignore Jesus’ example about these things. Standing against wolves is harder than campfires and Kumbaya. Conferring mushy grace and blanket acceptance makes us far more popular, loved (and unchallenged, comfortable?) than drawing boundaries and speaking hard truths. We may feel bigger and more heroic always patting every back in endless blindness, but is it self-serving or loving, following the full breadth of Jesus’ example or just pursuing ease?
One more thing Jesus and Enemy alike fully know is that wolves allowed to live ravenously among sheep can so wound or consume little lambs that they’re rendered useless for a time. What better war tactic could be employed than to disguise wolves as sheep, lead them to the doorsteps of church and convince shepherds that wolves don’t even exist or that everyone bar none should be allowed entry into the sheep pen? Many sheep driven to share Jesus’ light would then be effectively muted or incapacitated. Has this happened?
Because Jesus called out imposters, turned them out, removed himself from them repeatedly and stopped the harm they cause…We, too, Church. We, too. Look for:
Wolves don’t learn how to genuinely love, but they can do a “loving” act when it’s self-serving.
Wolves don’t stop their dangerous behavior, but nor are they dangerous to everyone all the time.
Wolves do in private what they lie about in public so that they can keep the sheep mask.
Wolves don’t have anger management problems but can control it perfectly when in danger of exposure.
Wolves’ presence in a pew is disingenuous, because they’re parading as disciples but aren’t changing.
Wolves spew toxic shame with every snap of their jaws, misplacing blame with every word.
Wolves have a distinct lack of loving motives; peel back the veil by asking for stories from attacked sheep.
Wolves have no reverence for reality and truth; they go for the kill if you merely point and say, “wolf.”
Wolves don’t check themselves or regulate their voracious appetite for winning and destruction.
Wolves will try to re-enter again and again with the same money-changing tables and beliefs they got kicked out for.
Wolves take advantage of grace, acceptance & attention; these should be reserved for sheep in danger.
Wolves, with pleasure, take for fools those who don’t believe wolves exist or know what to do with them.
Wolves try to separate the flock from the Shepherd, incurring (often covert, invisible) chaos, death and destruction.
Wolves don’t believe acting like a wolf is bad. Destroyed sheep can educate you otherwise if asked and believed.
Wolves are in our temples, tables undisturbed, money-changing purses in hand. And the sheep are being forced to flee. Will we stand up or stand down?
With Hope & Heart in Hand,
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