“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away!” – Jesus, John 6:37
Did Jesus ever turn anyone away? Did he ever reject anyone who sought him?
This is something I’ve been wondering about, because I’ve noticed before that the disciples frequently offer that as a solution: “Send them away, Jesus!”
When the crowds are demanding or the needs are too big or someone is very annoying, they say, “send them away!”
I confess, there are times I think I probably might have, too.
After all, we all run out of energy. We all run out of resources. I know I need time alone to recharge (and it looks like Jesus did, too – those all night prayer meetings with his Father on the mountain!). It is good to know our limits and it is also good to have wise boundaries.
Then again, sometimes we send people away not because we are tired, but because we reject them. Sometimes we even think that God wants us to reject them. We think that makes us holy.
But did Jesus do it?
I looked. The answer is, no. Jesus did not send people away without meeting them in their need. No matter what.
Now, it’s true that after Jesus fed the 4,000 in Matthew 15, it says right there that he “sent them away” – but that was after a full day of teaching and then dinner! That phrase does not indicate that they were in any way rejected. (Matt 15:29-39) It was just time to go home!
And then, we have that story of the Canaanite (non-Jewish) woman who came to Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter, but, quite out of character, he told her he only came for the lost sheep of Israel. (Matt 15:21-28) But if we’ve read the gospel, we know that he had already healed the Roman soldier’s servant a couple of chapters before. What’s going on?
It seems clear that Jesus was putting his disciples to the test when this woman showed up: would they understand what was needed here? (Their first response? “Send her away….”) In the end, he heals her daughter and compliments her faith (I suspect the disciples were embarrassed). We sensed they were supposed to know by now what Jesus was here to do…and that Jesus doesn’t send people away!
There are times when Jesus so thoroughly challenges someone who comes to him, that they leave of their own accord. There’s the “rich young ruler,” whom Jesus instructed to give away his wealth and come follow Jesus if he wanted eternal life…and the young man went away sad. He did not choose the Jesus way. (Matt 19:16-22) But Jesus didn’t reject him.
There are the people whom Jesus challenged to let their parents go and come follow him (“whoever doesn’t hate his mother and father…”) (Luke 14:26; Luke 9:59-60). Some of them left him, too. Was Jesus really so cruel? No, we have to understand: the man who said, “let me bury my father first,” didn’t mean his dad had died and they hadn’t had the funeral yet. He meant, “my parents will never approve of me following you, so after they have died I will come.”
Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Jesus is saying, that’s an excuse. You might have conflict with your parents, but if you have found the Son of God, if you trust him, then you are going to have to risk it. There is no waiting for an easier moment!
No, Jesus didn’t send them away, even though some of them found his challenging teachings too much. Jesus did not sugarcoat following him. He was calling people out of death into life – if they wanted to put it off, it was clear they didn’t yet understand. But there was room for them to come tomorrow if they did.
I am interested in this because it seems like there is a strain of “religion” that likes the idea of sending people away, as though that makes the religious folks holy. As though we know they are not called by the Father. As though that were up to us!
We get some strange ideas going, sometimes – like our job is creating and preserving a church full of righteous people who behave as they should, as a gift to God. But Jesus didn’t tell us to do that.
Jesus sent us out to rescue the “sinners”! Jesus, who walked right up and touched lepers, who went and ate with the tax collectors (those who collaborated with Rome, considered traitors) and reprobates…Jesus, who would have gone home with the Roman centurion to heal his slave if he wanted him to, understood that he brought holiness and cleansing where he went. He was not infected by sin or disease or “uncleanness”; he spread healing and new life.
“As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” Jesus told us.
“Whoever comes to me, I will not drive away,” Jesus said. (John 20:21)
Now, I don’t mean to say that Jesus was too far the other way, overly concerned about being popular and keeping up his celebrity. No.
Jesus did not trim his teaching to make it popular and easy to swallow in order to keep the crowds coming.
No, the crowds said he taught “like one with authority.” (Mark 1:22) He told them about God’s love and about the kingdom of God, but he called them to holiness. “It is what comes out of your hearts that makes you ‘unclean,’” he said. (Matt 15:18) Everyone who came to Jesus needed a heart transplant, which he would provide, if they would trust him. But following him entailed a cost – one’s own life!
Thus did he require that the “rich young ruler” give away his money, because it was an obstacle to his wholehearted devotion to God and his new kingdom.
In the same way, he confused the group that followed him the day after the feeding of the 5,000, who wanted more free food and were trying to manipulate Jesus into producing it. “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” he said. We know what he was talking about, but most of those folks that day hustled home. He had confused them and freaked them out.
That’s followed, though, by one of my favorite passages – the confession of Peter’s faith. Jesus looks at the disciples and says, “You don’t want to leave me, too, do you?” And Peter says, “To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”
Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about that day, either – but he knew Jesus was trustworthy, and so he trusted him. He knew Jesus was trustworthy because he heard him teach, and saw him heal people and set them free, and heard what Jesus said about the kingdom of God – he trusted all that Jesus taught him.
A lot of people are talking about “Evangelicals” these days in contemptuous tones. It has to do with politics but it also has to do with the experiences some people have had, who felt that they weren’t welcome in an evangelical church, because they did not seem to meet the standards, or fit in the group. They were “sent away.” Or at least, they felt like they were.
But if JESUS didn’t send anyone away from him, why on earth would we think he expects that of us? Who are we to drive away someone, whom Christ is calling to himself? Jesus sent us out to love and to tell the good news from God – where did we get the idea it was up to us to be the gatekeepers?
Let God do what he is going to do in others; this is a hospital for sinners, and the doctor is Jesus. Open the door. God is sending the wounded. May we do as Jesus taught us.