When I was just a poor college student, I did things I’m not proud of.
Things – for money.
In a local apartment complex (dubbed “smurf village” for the bright blue paint), there was one particular residence that looked like all the others. Yet on the inside it was filled with recording equipment.
And there, on numerous occasions, I sang radio jingles for money.
Out of shame, I told no one. Thus my friends (if they noticed) probably thought that I had come into a very small inheritance – perhaps the life insurance policy for a departed hamster.
But eventually the truth came out.
One evening, as the college basketball team drove through a lonely stretch of rural Kansas, across the radio airwaves, came my voice – singing the praises of a “Christian lifestyle store” in a tiny town called McPherson.
Somewhere a rooster crowed.
All kidding aside, the jingles were easy to produce because whatever the merchant—a Bible bookstore in Kansas, a tanning salon in Illinois—the music and the melody remained exactly the same. Only the lyrics were different. This allowed the jingle producer (“Chuck”) to save both time and money when it came to composing and recording.
And most importantly, it ensured that I never had to learn new music.
THE GOSPEL IS NEW MUSIC
And that’s the trouble for Christians too.
All of us have a set of cultural assumptions that seem right and reasonable to us. These assumptions form the “soundtrack” of our lives, and they color everything from our politics to our parenting. Depending where you were born, your soundtrack may be different.
So while Scripture gives WORDS that are meant to tell us how to view the world, those words are easily lost amid the MUSIC of our tribe and our tradition.
It’s like trying to discern the lyrics to a “screamo” song when you’re used to Kenny Rogers.
The result, as one scholar observed, is that we look down the long well of history in search of Jesus, and in the water at the bottom we see a reflection of our own face. “That’s him!” we shout; “He looks and thinks a lot like me!”
Hence, we assume that Christ’s view on something is pretty much the same as whatever seems most “practical” or “reasonable” to us. Thank God. Or rather, thank us.
JESUS, THE IMPRACTICAL
But a quick read through the Gospels (with our music turned down even slightly) shows that Jesus is far from “practical” and “prudent” as we usually define those terms.
In fact, he says many things that don’t seem reasonable or “safe” at all.
A few examples, just from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
- “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
- “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
- “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
- “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”
Elsewhere, in an even more radical passage (Mt. 25), Jesus claims that hellfire—yes, hellfire (see verse 41)—hinges upon whether or not one welcomes “him” in the form of poor and marginalized:
- “I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least, you did for me (vss. 35–36).”
Despite interpretive nuances, all this demands an ethic of radical love that seems impractical in many cases. And to be honest, I don’t always like it.
I WAS A STRANGER
I thought about this recently as I read a predictable comment thread on Facebook.
A pastor friend (and former student) had written a heartfelt post lamenting the recent Presidential edict summarily banning refugees and Green Card holders from certain countries, even when they pass the current vetting process.
My friend’s post was not partisan or angry, but the first comment was invariably a rebuke from a fellow churchgoer.
The respondent appreciated the compassion, but just wanted to share that it really isn’t “safe” or “responsible” to allow in Muslim refugees. After all, they’re Muslims.
So just as we “lock our doors at night,” so too we should lock our borders to such refugees—it’s just safer that way.
In response to this “locked door” analogy, the Scriptures tend to tell stories of people opening them (even late at night) to help the vulnerable (Gen. 19; Luke 11). And on the two occasions that a door remains locked, we discover that the church has shut out Jesus himself (Rev. 3.20; Mt. 25.43). The analogy is flawless, except for the Bible.
To be fair, I’m all for safety and secure borders. And I’m all for improving the vetting process (when possible) for the folks that we allow to immigrate. A concern for safety isn’t bad, and it can even be a way of “loving thy neighbor.”
But what many fail to see is how radical the WORDS of Scripture actually are on such matters. And I suspect the reason is that while we’re happy to let Jesus say some things, we’ve never let him change our MUSIC.
Hence, the background noise (whether liberal or conservative; Fox News or MSNBC), drowns out the gospel call to a different set of values.
To disagree with the radio station that aired one of my jingles, Jesus has never been “safe and fun for the whole family.” He got tortured to death. And so did his followers.
Radical love, not safety, has always been the mark of Christian character.
This may sound risky, and that’s because it is.
But to sign on to the Jesus movement means that Jesus picks the music.
And in this soundtrack, sacrificial love trumps “safety” as the highest virtue.
For one organization helping refugees, see here.
For one book that has shaped my thinking on this issue, see here.