God and Politics — Judas Ate Too

Matthew 10:1-4
October 25, 2020
Matt Goodale

Jesus calls to himself twelve disciples. This passage seems like a brief and innocuous inclusion that names Jesus’ twelve closest followers. But the content and nuance of this passage packs a whole lot of punch. This is more than just a list of twelve names. It’s a list of potential problems. We don’t know much about most of the disciples, but we know enough about some of them to raise our eyebrows at Jesus’ selection process.

Two names stick out in particular. Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. If you’re trying to put together a group of guys in the 1st century AD who you hope will be able to work together and grow to love each other, then you absolutely don’t pick these two guys. You can pick one of them, maybe. But not both of them. Matthew is a tax collector, like Zacchaeus, and tax collecting was one of the most reviled professions in Jewish society. Matthew takes money from his own people to give to Rome, the oppressive military force in the area. He’s effectively a traitor, enjoying the bread crumbs from Rome’s table. And Simon is a Zealot. Zealots were a revolutionary group of extremists who plot rebellion against Rome and anyone who sides with them. They believe that when the Messiah returns he’ll enact a violent overthrow of the Roman government. I can imagine you see the problem here.

Jesus has effectively just signed on the two most politically extreme and polarized people he could have found. Jesus couldn’t have invited two people more staunchly opposed to each other if he had tried. But maybe he did try. And Jesus not only finds two political powder kegs, waiting to blow up, he adds to the mix hot-headed Peter, and Judas, who will eventually betray him. Jesus’ list of chosen disciples reads kind of like the intro to a hilarious ‘90s sitcom, where you just know everything is going to go wrong. Either Jesus has no idea what he’s getting himself into, or he has a better imagination than we do for what can become of this rag-tag group of fellows.

Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot come from entirely different worlds. By nature of their professions and party affiliations, they had to hate each other. That’s the way things were. If you’re a tax collector in league with Rome, you avoid those crazy Zealots who were off their rockers and already probably plotting to do something violent and stupid. If you’re a Zealot, you avoid anyone who is tainted by the greed and corruption of Rome.

I wonder if Matthew ever really met and had a conversation with a Zealot before Simon. I wonder if Simon ever shared a meal with a tax collector before Matthew. If we believe that human nature doesn’t really change that much over time, then I’d have to guess ‘no’. Because I don’t see much evidence now of relationships, conversations or shared meals happening across the political divide.

The reality is that most of us intentionally or unintentionally surround ourselves with people who mostly think, look and act like us. Sure, we may have one token Black friend, or one token Republican or Democrat friend, but by and large our social circles probably closely resemble us.

It seems that nowadays conversations with someone on the other side of the political spectrum are either taboo or eventually erupt into terrible arguments. Mostly we avoid having real conversations and just stick more political signs in our yards. We are afraid to ask our friend or family member about their different political opinion because we are afraid they will say something we can’t forgive or move on from.

Part of the problem is that we carry these pre-made labels around with us to quickly identify who is safe to talk to and who isn’t. You’re a Democrat? Oh, you support abortion and are as self-righteous a person as I’ve ever met – no thank you! You’re a Republican? I already know I’m not having a conversation with you, because you’ll just say something racist like “All Lives Matter”—plus, you voted for Trump, and we’ll never be able to get past that.

I don’t know about you, but to me it seems like we’re losing our ability to relate kindly to those whose politics and ideas are different from our own. Forget being loving, we can’t even be civil in most of our political discourse. It seems to me that we are doing a whole lot of shouting about and arguing with groups of people, but we don’t have any real relationships with people in those groups. And I don’t mean the type of relationship where you avoid the topic of politics altogether; I mean the type of relationship that is defined by love and respect for each other – the type of relationship that seeks to understand the other person more deeply, that assumes the best about why a person voted a particular way, and that is able to forgive and move on when it needs to. We have few good examples of what such a relationship looks like.

One day after the 2016 election, an idea came to the mind of an Asian American woman named Justine Lee. She thought that having dinner with strangers and talking about politics is exactly what our nation needed. Yes, this was one day after the election in which Hillary Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” and yes, this was the same election where Trump invented a mocking nickname for nearly every political enemy and ignited crowds of followers to chant “lock them up.”

The day after the election, Lee had an epiphany. She thought, what if we gathered people from a variety of political and social backgrounds to talk and share dinner together? Lee was not a political operative; she was a marketer in San Fransisco. But she cared deeply about decency, and cared about America, so she and her friend Tria Chang cofounded a group called Make America Dinner Again (MADA). The group says that while people have avenues to protest, donate and fight, MADA is an avenue to listen. The dinner groups are small, six to ten guests with a variety of political viewpoints and backgrounds. Facilitators help guide respectful conversations while everyone shares some good food.

“We think of food and a warm meal as sort of a nice conduit to conversation and understanding,” Lee said. The one thing every dinner guest has in common is a desire to know and understand their neighbors in real life who think and vote differently than they do. While sharing a good meal together empathy is gained, respectful conversations had, and unlikely relationships form.

MADA has grown substantially and has been facilitating dinners in over a dozen cities across the US. At one particular dinner in Seattle, as guests pass the side salad and ask each other questions to better understand, raw stories and experiences are shared:

At the table, in a room full of strangers, when asked about her thoughts on abortion, Janet says, ‘I’m an atheist, and a liberal-leaning one at that…I don’t believe God exists. But I’ve always believed in the sanctity of life. I don’t know why, and can’t articulate exactly what it is about it, but there’s something inside me that refuses to let the innocent die.”

At the table, when asked point-blank why he “dared” to vote for Trump, Serge, an immigrant who waited ten years to gain entry into the US, responds, he “would have been on the streets if tax laws continued to rise for self-employed citizens under a different presidency. His health insurance costs were choking him out and left him little to no choice in his presidential vote at the ballot.”

At the table, Rowan, who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home, but turned away from the faith in later years, asks, “Why are Christians so adamant about life being lost in the womb but turn a blind eye to suicide rates and the mental health crisis we face today?” (above examples taken from Eugene Cho’s book, Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk).

At the table, Lauren shares that she’s a quarter Armenian, that her grandmother came here from Syria. “Thank god America was accepting refugees from Syria when my grandma needed somewhere to go,” she says. There’s always a new group vilified by the dominant group, she says; now it may be Muslims, but at one point it was the Irish and Italians. Eloquently and calmly, she discusses how conservatives call for bigger walls, while liberals call for bigger doors, when what we really need is a bigger table – not to just keep people out or let them in, but to know and nourish each other. (Example taken from Seattle Times).

All it takes is one meal, one respectful conversation, one pause to listen; all it takes is one relationship to begin to peel back the false narratives and labels we attribute to others, as we realize that they too have a story, that they too voted the way they did for a reason, that they too are human and deserve love and respect. What we need is a bigger table.

And this is exactly what Jesus does as he gathers his group of followers. Jesus invites Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot to follow him, to share meals, to live and travel and preach the good news together. These two disciples represent two extremes of the political spectrum of Jesus’ day, and yet with Jesus between them they are somehow able to become disciples, sitting at Jesus’ feet together despite their differences and living out the good news alongside him. Their differences become no less different, but in Jesus’ presence, something new is being created. This newness created in Christ’s presence is what we call “the Body of Christ,” a diverse but holy and whole body that is enriched by difference rather than harmed by it. Jesus is not afraid of different political opinions. He makes them sit down in a room together, break bread together, suffer together and learn to love together. Because the common humanity that unites God’s children is a greater bond than can ever be severed by any sort of political difference.

Jesus is creating a new kind of community, one relationship at a time. We keep learning again and again from Jesus’ ministry that relationships matter. And relationships aren’t possible if we’re unwilling to listen to one another and share our respective stories. In our nation we put so much emphasis on voting and affecting change at the highest levels of government, but we ignore the power of a single unlikely friendship to begin to mend our nation’s ever-widening divide. Jesus did not overthrow Rome using political power. He transformed communities in Rome from the inside out, one relationship at a time.

So yes, please vote. Let your voice be heard. Yes, please be involved in and informed about politics. Go to protests or rallies; vote to affect change at the highest levels of government. Exercise that privilege. But please don’t stop there, and please don’t assume that’s all there is to do, because the real work is just beginning.

I think back to the Last Supper and how Jesus willingly ate with all of his disciples who were so different from him, including Judas. Yes, the same Judas who would turn Jesus over to the authorities. Jesus shared a meal with the man who would betray him and lead him to his execution. Just when we think we start to grasp what it means to follow Jesus, he goes and washes the feet of his disciples, including the man he knew would betray him, the one who would deny him, and the others who would abandon him.

It’s at this same meal that his disciples are jockeying for power as they argue, who was greater? Who would be the right hand man? It’s at this same meal that Peter pledged to be by Jesus’ side no matter what, and yet we know what happened. It’s at this same meal that Judas shares a cup with Jesus, even as he contemplates how to turn him over. Yet Jesus sat down and ate with his family of friends and believers. It was a radical move. It was a move of an all-powerful God who exemplified the way to live. Everyone was invited to Jesus’ table. Everyone ate.

If we are unable or unwilling to seek out relationships, conversations or meals with people who vote differently than we do, then we should ask ourselves this question: Am I more in love with the idea of changing the world than I am with doing the actual work of changing the world? It’s easy to vote. It’s easy to hold strong political opinions and care about hot-button issues. But it’s difficult to maintain relationship across political difference. It’s difficult to articulate your passion about a real issue without yelling at or shaming someone who doesn’t understand. It’s difficult to suspend judgment and pride long enough to really seek to understand somebody else. It’s difficult to extend that love and respect when it isn’t extended back to you. But this is kingdom work that requires kingdom imagination. Real change must happen together. One conversation at a time. One meal at a time. One relationship at a time. Amen.