At the beginning of one semester as we were going over the requirements for my course, one of my students said excitedly to me, “you’re a Jesuit, that means you have to be nice.” I immediately took the opportunity to relieve him, and the entire class of this notion, explaining that there was nothing in my job description as a teacher or as a Jesuit that required me to be nice, fair and just perhaps, but not “nice.” If they didn’t believe me then, I think a number of them changed their mind when they got their first paper back!
Many of us, though perhaps we don’t come right out and say it, often approach Jesus in the same way, “You’re Jesus, so you have to be nice!” And many people persist in this idea, even though it seems that we have plenty of evidence to the contrary. Jesus wasn’t very nice to the Pharisees, and he’s not being particularly nice in our Gospel reading today. In fact, if anything he appears to be cruel, and downright unreasonable.
Nevertheless, I think we have to avoid the temptation to dismiss this Gospel story by saying something like, “I don’t believe in that Jesus.” If we only listened to the stories of Jesus in which we liked Jesus, or thought he was being nice, we would have to throw out or ignore a good portion of the Gospel. But I think we can—and should—ask the question, “Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?”
It hardly seems fair the way he’s treating these people, turning his back on them, claiming he never knew them, and telling them to go away! After all, the evidence seems to be in their favor. They say, and we have no reason to believe they are lying: We have prophesied in your name, we have driven out demons in your name, we have done mighty deeds in your name. We might expect Jesus to say “thank you,” not “depart from me, you evildoers.” Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?
What seems to be the problem is that Jesus’ standard of judgment in this case is not simply concerned with what they have done, or even in whose name, but why they have done it. Jesus is challenging the “all I have to do is be a good person” approach to life. He is trying to cure us of the approach to life in which we really expect little of ourselves, because we are confident that in the end, Jesus will be nice to us. Just because God is a God of love, compassion and mercy, he might be saying, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t expect much of us. We make a mistake if we think that our life with God comes with such low expectations.
What was expected of the people that Jesus rejects? And what is expected of us? Jesus makes this pretty clear: that we do God’s will. It’s not enough to just do things, even if they seem to be good things. As Christians, we are held to a higher standard because we love God and because God loves us. And it’s important that we listen to what Jesus is saying today, because he is explaining that following God’s will isn’t about simply “doing,” but is first about “listening.” Those who follow God’s will, he explains, are those who “listen to these words of mine, and act on them.” Jesus’ problem with those that have come to him is not with what they have done so much as it is the fact, as his parable suggests, that what they have done has no foundation. They have not listened to the voice of God telling them what to do. It may be that God did not want them to prophesy, cast out demons, or do mighty deeds. It may be that this was someone else’s job, that God had something else in mind for them, but they never asked, and didn’t listen.
Jesus is warning against the life of “just being a good person,” a life in which we are relatively nice to others, mostly stay out of trouble, but more or less just do what we want, confident that the nice Jesus won’t hold our mistakes against us. He is also warning against a life in which we do all kinds of “flashy” God stuff like prophesying and casting out demons without ever paying attention to what God really wants for our lives. We can live our lives doing the kind of things God might want us to do. Or we can instead listen to what God is asking us to do. The challenge, of course, is that the God we are now paying attention to is going to expect a lot more of us than the God we were just counting on being nice to us in the end. But, why, anyway, would we want to follow a God with such low expectations?
Instead, each of us needs to answer Jesus’ call today to listen and to act. To listen to the voice of God which may be inviting us to do something extraordinary, or even, to the disappointment of some, something quite ordinary. To risk doing great things for God, and in doing so, sometimes failing quite spectacularly, as many of the disciples did before us. To make us of the unique gifts, talents and quirks which God has given us, and which God desires us to use for God’s glory and the good of others.
To do this we must all take the opportunity, like the one we have today in our worship, to stop our doing and start listening to what God’s desires are for our lives. If we listen for God’s will, we will see that what God invites us to do is to become most fully what God intends us to be, as we deepen our relationship with God. When we discover the confidence that what we are doing is not just something God might like, but something God wills, our lives are transformed. We become more accustomed to hearing God’s voice guiding us in times of trial and decision, hope and joy. And though our lives don’t become free of mistakes or sin, we won’t find ourselves in the end hoping for a Jesus we don’t really know to be nice to us, but we’ll be looking forward to belonging more completely to the God we’ve been listening to for so long.