Coming to his home town, [Jesus] began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.”
—Matthew 13:54-57, NIV
As a side note, James and Judas in the above passage later became disciples and each wrote one of the New Testament epistles. (In English Bibles, Judas is called Jude to distinguish him from the betrayer of the same name.)
This is an important phenomenon that we all can observe: people tend to accord greater honor to an expert from a faraway place than they do an expert who lives among them and whom they know intimately. A minister friend of mine created a big special event once just by flying me in to preach. It was a big success! Was it because I am a great speaker or some great authority? No, I am neither of those things. It was just a trick to get them to pay attention! They wouldn’t have listened to him as attentively because it was his hometown. They knew him since he was a child. He was the lawyer’s son, and they knew his brothers and his sister.
Hasn’t this happened to you? Suppose you are standing in line and the person in front of you drops a dollar bill without realizing it. You retrieve the bill and return it to them. At first they refuse the money until you explain to them that it belongs to them, that they had dropped it. What is that other person’s reaction? If it is a friend, the reaction is much milder than if it is a total stranger. In fact, a total stranger may react with a degree of astonishment and gratitude that would be overdone between friends.
If you do good things for your friends (which of course you should do) there isn’t much payback. It’s not like you are going out on a limb or putting your neck on the line, because you know the day will come when your friends will reciprocate the deed and you will be paid back. In fact, if your ethics are completely fleshly, you might even resent it if the reciprocation isn’t promptly forthcoming. And if you are looking for a reaction in the form of gratitude, you will receive less than you desire. What parents complain about the excessive gratitude shown by their children? What children complain about the excessive virtue of their parents? What people seek counseling to discover how to cope with feelings of inferiority brought on by the exemplary thoughtfulness of their spouse? For within friendships and relationships, virtue is the expectation and often goes unrecognized and unrewarded.
It isn’t any credit to you that you do good deeds for your friends, because even gangsters do each other favors. If you limit yourself to looking after friends and family, then we can congratulate you on having achieved the same high moral standards as organized crime! The difference between a gangster and a Christian is not in how much they provide for their friends, but how they treat their enemies.
There is greater virtue in serving total strangers, because they can’t pay you back and they give you very good feedback about the quality of your deeds, one way or the other. They don’t pull punches because they don’t know you and they don’t have to worry about the consequences of hurting your feelings or inflating your ego.
The greatest virtue comes in doing good things for your enemies, because they are certain not to reciprocate! In those cases, your deeds are done by faith in God, because in order to justify doing kind things for strangers and enemies, you have to trust God to be the one to pay you back. By faith you make God the third party of all your deeds: you do good things for others, but look to God for the reciprocation.
So if you wish to adopt a discipline for developing virtue within your soul, serve strangers and enemies. It is a good exercise in faith, and the reactions that strangers have towards your deeds will guide you.
Imagine a town where a notorious atheist lives. He constantly battles religious activities of any kind and has no friends in town as a result. He was an orphan and he is single. There are also two churches in town, First Church and Second Church. Both churches have a store of blankets and canned food and a reserve of cash for needy families.
One day a natural disaster strikes, leaving many people homeless, including the notorious atheist.
First Church decides its resources are limited, so it distributes its assistance first to any church families that are in need, and then to other upstanding members of the community, even though all these people have many friends and relatives who also give them assistance.
Second Church also decides its resources are limited, so it distributes its assistance based on need. Because they feel that the atheist is in the greatest need based on physical and spiritual deprivation, he gets the most assistance.
Which church generates the greatest reaction, the one that stuck to its friends or the one that served its enemy? Which church had greater virtue in the eyes of God, and which church will reap the greater reward? If you were a newcomer to town, which church would you visit first? Which church is most likely to overcome the atheist’s attacks and which is more likely to heal his spirit and convert his soul? Which church will be featured on the eleven o’clock news?
If the answer is so obvious, why don’t you apply it yourself? When Jesus set out to do preach and do miracles, He certainly did not neglect His friends and family or his hometown, but for most of His ministry He served strangers and enemies in strange and hostile places.
If your Christian service doesn’t seem to be causing much stir, maybe you’d better leave your hometown from time to time, at least in a figurative sense, and serve strangers and enemies.
Now a question. There is a song that is generally sung with everyone holding hands in a circle, swaying back and forth. One of the verses contains the words, “they will know we are Christians by our love.”
They will know we are Christians because we love WHOM?
If we love each other, they will know we are a cuddly group, but they won’t be able to tell if we’re a religious cult or a street gang. Why should they be moved by a love that excludes them?
If we reach out and love them as unconditionally as we say God does, what will they think? How will they react? Won’t they drop the practices they now embrace to return that love?