Enthusiastic about Jesus’ message of love, tolerance and mercy, Abner was one of Christ’s earliest followers. At times, however, he was concerned that Jesus didn’t always deliver this core message of acceptance and compassion. This is his story…
All Are Welcome
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus declared, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 4:17). Abner, though, felt this was getting Jesus’ movement off on the wrong foot. He confided to his fellow disciple Judas: “I understand that Jesus might include repentance in his message, but I don’t think he should lead with that – it’s not very pastoral. He needs to emphasize that God is all-forgiving and welcoming. Maybe later he could mention that people should make some changes, but that’s a gradual process. He needs to be more understanding of where people are.”
In spite of Abner’s misgivings, the number of Jesus’ followers continued to grow. Abner was excited to realize that this had potential to be a mass movement. But one day Jesus proclaimed, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13-14) Abner again was concerned.
“I’m worried, Judas. Overall I love what Jesus is saying, especially the part about leading people to life, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea for him to emphasize how hard that way might be. It can discourage people. Look at the Romans: most of their religions don’t make any unreasonable demands, and their numbers are booming. And you can forget about attracting young people with all this talk about narrowness and hard ways. Instead we need to emphasize this movement’s teachings of acceptance toward all.”
Shortly afterward, Jesus told those around him, “Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Abner was starting to get uneasy. At mealtime he expressed his frustrations with Judas: “First Jesus says that few people will follow the path to life, and now he says that even those who call him ‘Lord’ might not make it? Isn’t our central message ‘All are welcome in this place?’ We need to be making it easier for people to be disciples, not harder! Jesus really needs to tone down the negativity and be a little more positive.”
Follow When You Like
Abner continued to follow Jesus, however, hoping that he would focus more on mercy and tolerance, and less on the demands of discipleship. Then a scribe came up and said to Jesus, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Abner was excited: another follower! But Jesus said to the scribe, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” And another man came up to Jesus and said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:18-22)
Both the scribe and the other man left, but as they walked away, Abner ran to them and said, “Guys, guys, don’t take Jesus so literally – of course he wants you to follow him! He was just speaking metaphorically. Take care of your business, and whenever you have some free time, just pop on by and see what Jesus is doing. If you like it, feel free to join – but no obligations. If you don’t want to follow him, that’s fine too. There is no sense of judgement here among Jesus’ followers. We understand not everyone will live exactly like Jesus teaches and we are fine with that.” Even with Abner’s best efforts, however, they turned away and went home.
But Abner was undeterred: a few weeks later he was telling his friend Japheth about Jesus, and how Jesus was accepting of everyone and just wanted people to get along. “That is the essence of his message, Japheth: welcome and tolerance.” Japheth was interested, so Abner brought him to Jesus, who was preaching. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-38)
“Um, Jesus doesn’t sound very tolerant or welcoming, Abner,” Japheth said.
“Well, perhaps Jesus is just having a bad day. It happens to the best of us, “Abner hastily replied.
“I guess so, but I think I’ll pass on following Jesus.”
“That’s fine too, Japheth! That’s the great thing about following Jesus (or not) – he is tolerant of everyone – what matters to him is if you are happy with yourself.”
“If you say so, Abner…”
The Way Should be Easy
Later Jesus had only his closest disciples with him. Abner was honored to be included. Peter had just declared Jesus to be the Christ, and Jesus had put Peter in charge of his followers. Now things were going to get moving! But then Jesus started talking about his suffering and death, and Abner again became distressed. Fortunately, Peter, much to Abner’s approval, reproved Jesus, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But Jesus rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matthew 16:23).
Abner was floored. Didn’t Jesus know that Peter was trying to help the cause? Peter knew that talking about suffering and death was just going to turn people off. Why was Jesus so angry? And Jesus just put Peter in charge – was that any way to talk to a leader? Didn’t he know that any criticism of Peter could undermine Peter’s authority with the other disciples? And calling Peter “Satan?” Abner found that intolerably offensive. Jesus really should have been more sensitive to Peter’s feelings – there was no place for name-calling in the Jesus movement.
Abner reached a crisis point: he really believed a new age of tolerance and mercy for all could be ushered in, regardless of people’s lifestyle choices. But with each passing day he wondered if Jesus was the one to do it. Then Jesus moved from talking about his own suffering and death to suggesting that his followers might face it too: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Abner vented to his good friend: “I just don’t know if Jesus gets it, you know, Judas? All this talk about ‘denying oneself’ – how is that going to attract anyone? And it isn’t really healthy anyway. All the experts say that repressing your desires leads to a whole host of psychological issues. Sometimes I wonder if Jesus really understands human nature. He doesn’t seem to live in the ‘real world.’”
Finally came the straw that broke the camel’s back. Some Pharisees approached Jesus and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Abner immediately perked his ears up. He was a divorcé himself, and he was getting serious with another woman he had met recently. He had felt a bit uncomfortable about the relationship, but he hoped that Jesus would pardon the youthful mistake of his early marriage and want him to be happy. But Jesus responded to the Pharisees, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:8-9).
Abner was devastated. He had hoped – assumed even – that Jesus would relax the current rules about divorce, but here he was making them more difficult! How was that loving and accepting? How was that compassionate? How on earth would this attract people to his movement? Didn’t Jesus know that you only turn people away with rules and regulations? And how dare he label a committed, loving relationship as “adultery!”
What Would Jesus Do?
Abner realized that his time with Jesus was over. He approached Jesus, saying, “I can’t follow you anymore. Your intolerance, lack of pastoral sensitivity, and judgementalism of other lifestyles goes against my core values of mercy and acceptance. I prefer to live by the motto, ‘What would Jesus do?’”
Jesus protested, “But I am Jesus!”
Abner replied, “Not the Jesus that I follow.”
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.