Shaking the Dust from Our Feet

Author Bill Tesch shows in this article that by the power of the Holy Spirit, scripture becomes for us the living word of God, and our encounter with this life-changing Word varies across the seasons of our lives.

A shift from judgment to compassion

The prompt for this blog post was: “How has your interpretation of a particular bible verse changed as a result of events or personal experiences?” My immediate reaction was, “I wonder if it’s possible that there could be a verse where my interpretation has not changed?”  I believe that by the power of the Holy Spirit, scripture becomes for us the living word of God, and our encounter with this life-changing Word varies across the seasons of our lives. This conviction has come not from a doctrinal stance, but from the experience of living as a follower of Jesus Christ and trying to tune my ear to his word. I remember the first time that I recognized this dynamic of the Word of God that encounters us right where we are. 

Thirty-two years ago, my family and I had moved to a new community where I had accepted a call to develop a mission congregation on the northeast side of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In that bygone era, this meant walking unfamiliar neighborhoods knocking on a couple thousand doors and inviting conversation about this emerging faith community and, when the spirit opened a way, about Jesus. To prepare, I spent time dwelling in those Gospel stories where Jesus sends his disciples to spread the good news. In each of those stories Jesus prepares his disciples for rejection: 

12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.” (Matthew 10:12-15)

I was already nervous about the possibility of rejection, and I didn’t want to proceed with an attitude of judgment and suspicion toward my new neighbors. This teaching of Jesus, or at least how I was receiving it, wasn’t helping! These verses seemed to describe a mission field mired in spiritual conflict, poised to become actual conflict at any moment. But my lived experience as I walked the streets of those neighborhoods and met and conversed with the people who lived there, my new neighbors, transformed the way I understood both the mission field and this text. 

I still remember the first door I knocked on. The smell of fresh baked goods wafted through the screen door. A woman—“definitely someone’s grandma,” I thought—peered around the corner from her kitchen where she was going about her loving work and called out, “What ya want?” I quickly recited the opening greeting that I had endlessly rehearsed beforehand. My name, something about a new church coming into the neighborhood, getting to know the neighbors, curious about the needs, etc. 

She eyed me for a moment and said, “Well, you better come sit down.” Her name was Marla. What ensued was a delightful afternoon of stories about this proud and once prosperous working-class neighborhood, how it had changed over the last several years since the local plant had busted the union. And of course there were tales of her grandchildren. I lost track of the number of cookies I ate. We prayed, mostly she prayed for me. She said she might just show up at that new church one day and she sent me on my way.

We had placed door-hangers days before so that the arrival of a stranger at people’s doorstep would not be a complete surprise. At the next home, a gentleman held up that door-hanger and declared, “I was just praying for you!” We chatted briefly at the door. He was a member of a church on the other side of town, and he was excited about the prospect of a new one in his neighborhood—not for him, but for his neighbors. He sent me off with a heartfelt blessing, but not before telling me to go gently with the guy next door. He was one of those, he said, who could use a new church, “But just know, he’s ornery.” He explained that his neighbor was one of those who struggled mightily since losing his good-paying job at the plant. I detected true compassion mingled with his words of caution.

Indeed, the next neighbor was not inclined to welcome a stranger. He let me know that without getting up from the couch, and in terms sprinkled with profanity. To my own surprise, as I stepped off his doorstep, I did so with no resentment, no judgment, and compassion inherited from that of the previous neighbor. My peace had returned to me. I looked down at my shoes and knocked them together. I imagined the anxiety and the suspicion falling away while the compassion remained. Those words of Jesus’ that I had heard as warning laden with judgment, now resonated with reassurance and promise. Jesus had already been here. He knew the lay of the land, knew the people. 

Adjust the tone of Jesus’ words from suspicion and judgment to lament and compassion, and they come to mean something entirely different. He calls us to receive and to give hospitality, but the hard reality is that for so many beloved neighbors, the pain of deep disappointment, too many losses and unimaginable betrayal has hardened their hearts against such things. As Jesus sees it, their resulting isolation and loneliness is more terrible than the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

This is not a story of judgment and abandonment, but a story of a Lord who enters deeply into the pain of this world and is transforming it in ways visible and not. He surrounds us with neighbors of peace and keeps sending his disciples. And he won’t stop until everyone finds their place at the table.

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