we praise you for sending your Son
to be one of us and to save us.
Look upon your people with mercy,
for we are divided in so many ways,
and give us the Spirit of Jesus to make us one in love.
We ask this gift, loving Father,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Christ said “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” (Matthew 10:16a)
When are we sheep in the midst of wolves? Who are these wolves? Where are they?
Christians often see themselves as fighting against the world. An “us vs. them” mindset sadly prevails much of the time. (Sad because Christ died for the world, and like our savior, we too should die for the world.) We might even think of ourselves, and especially our children, as being like innocent sheep being sent out into a world full of wolves. Homeschooling parents especially like to think of public schools as being wolf dens; so they keep their children safe by keeping them close to home. We tend to see Churches and Christian establishments as havens from the wolfish world. But if that is the way we think, then we might miss a stern warning from Christ.
To whom was Christ speaking? His apostles, the twelve. What was he doing? He was sending them on a mini-mission, perhaps we should call it a training mission, to proclaim the gospel. Christ the teacher knew his apostles would be the first missionaries, taking the gospel to the world, so he was teaching them. He was giving them the opportunity to experience what proclaiming the gospel was going to be like while he was still with them, while they could still come back to him and debrief. He knew it would not be easy, and he gives them some specific instructions and the warning above. Let’s take a look at that verse above in its fuller context:
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 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. 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. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (Matthew 10:5-23)
The answer to who and where the wolves are is this: The apostles are not to go into the world in the way we might think, but to go to those who already reside in the house of Israel. He says: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” So “the world” is not the world out there among the gentiles, but the world right there before them, among their own people. And therefore the wolves come from among them as well. Simply, the wolves are the Jewish religious leaders, the teachers of the Torah and the Law, the wise men, the kosher men, the good Jews, the embracers of of being Israelites, the good Jewish families, the upright citizens, the parents and siblings and children, the so-called lovers of God, etc., etc. If we can draw a comparison with us today, the wolves are the pastors and associate pastors and their wives (maybe especially), the deacons and elders, the church bake-sale organizers, the religious right and the religious left, the para-church enthusiasts, the Christians who bring their big floppy bibles with them to every meeting or conversation, the “I love Jesus and not religion” people, the successful Christian business persons, the fashion leaders, the social leaders, the Bible study leaders, the Christian school headmasters, the ones with a Bible verse always on the tip of their tongues, the quiet church ladies, the “real men love Jesus” guys, the arbiters of morals, the gatekeepers, the “prayer warriors”, the church youth activity chaperons, the concerned parents, and all the rest of us Christians who so easily confuse fear with love of God, who choose sacrifice over obedience, and who refuse to weep, mourn, or be poor in spirit.
In other words, the wolves are us if we do not abide in the light.
Preach and, more importantly, live the Gospel in the midst of these “good Christian” people who are really wolves and you will be torn to shreds and eaten alive; usually in the most unassuming and apparently innocent ways. You might even feel that you deserved it. The greatest enemies of Christians, apart from the Devil and his minions, are those who go by the name Christian yet who do not love God or the things of God. And yet, when they serve the Devil they believe they are serving God. When they eat lambs alive they claim they act only out of love. Remember how Christ chastised Peter by saying, “Get behind me Satan!” Geeze, Peter was only helping Jesus be the right kind of messiah. Jesus continued: “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter would have been a wolf if not for the great love and mercy of Christ in his life. Peter had to learn what following Christ really meant.
If Peter then why not us? He would eventually be crucified for his authentic faith. Oh that we would have Peter’s faith.
One reason that we sometimes cannot tell the wolves from the lambs is that the wolves seem to be the best Christians. They really seem to be the ones who know, often emphatically so, what Christianity is all about. They are the ones who are good at using Christianese (that ubiquitous Christian sub-culture language), at dropping Bible verses in every other sentence, at piety, at being visible in the sub-culture, and saying how much Jesus is really important. They can also be wonderful family people, homeschooling their kids, leading Bible studies in their homes, planning and leading church activities, and much more. One way to spot a wolf is to look for the super-Christian in your midst who has taken it upon herself/himself to test other Christians to see if they really are strong enough believers, especially for leadership. They will quietly corner people, draw them aside, talk to them in private, and then drill them with questions like, “How do you define yourself as a Christian?” and “Do you believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible?” and “What does it mean to be saved?” They will do this saying they only want to know where someone stands, to see if they are on the “same page.” And they will generally do this only to those who are not their personal friends, to people they don’t know closely, and especially to those who don’t look or talk like they do. And they will do this because they are protecting something, like their church or school, or worse, their reputation, and not ultimately for the benefit of the one being tested. Remember Christ was tested by the Pharisees (you brood of vipers) for the same reasons. These wolves appoint themselves as the gatekeepers. They see their actions as noble. It is not an unusual experience for a lamb to feel like an inadequate Christian in relation to the wolves.
One of the great problems with Christianity is that the Church is filled with wolves, mixed in with the lambs, eating people alive. (It is a problem, but perhaps it is by design as well.)
Here’s the rub: How do you know, truly know, if you are on one side or the other? How do you know if you are a lamb or a wolf? Do you love God or only think you do? Have you given your life to Christ or only believe you have? Do you know the truth or only think you do? Are you a lover of the things of God or only believe you are? Do you confuse merely being annoyed at life with mourning? Do you confuse anger that the world isn’t going your way with weeping? Do you confuse your feelings of being a “little man” in the face of big government with being poor in spirit? How are you to know? How is one to untangle oneself and see clearly?
Perhaps the only way to truly know is through suffering. Our faith is tested through suffering because we would not know if we had faith without the testing. (Know this: I cannot “test” your faith, only God can. And He does it for you, not for Him. Thus I can only, at best, surmise if you have genuine faith if I can truly witness how you deal with suffering. But I can never truly know. And it cannot come via hearsay.) Faith is not something you know just by claiming to know, rather it is something you discover. You don’t claim to love Jesus and that’s that. God tests you and you break and then run away, or you break and then grab hold of God. For lambs, knowing one has faith often comes from being eaten alive by wolves and seeing that their faith has not left them. For wolves, knowing one has faith comes from repentance, which is the only thing that can turn wolves into lambs. The thing is, true wolves cling ever more strongly to their “Christianity” but never repent. In fact, they see no need to repent since their wolfish actions are what fuel their self-righteousness and convince them of their faithfulness. Wolves win and claim the victory as God’s blessing. And yet, suffering works for them as well. It works by giving wolves fodder for their cherished self-image. Lambs will cry out to God in their suffering, knowing they are unworthy of God’s mercy and love. Wolves will cry out as well, seeing their suffering as a badge of what must be their worthiness to suffer, their righteousness, that they must be a target for Satan because of their holy standing before God.
It is the wolf that thanks God that he is not like others.
It is the lamb who bows before God saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”
And so… I am no saint, and I know well how easy it is to to find fault in others and not in oneself. I am sure that I have been a wolf at times; probably far more often than I realize. The following words come from a guilty participant, who stood by rather than stood up.
Several months ago, in a private meeting, I sat in a room of wolves who were accusing a lamb of not being worthy to teach their children. This teacher is a believer, and genuine lover of God, a servant of Christ, and a truly excellent Christian classical teacher who gives tremendously out of love for the students. But he is different, a little eccentric, a little atypical; not at all like so many cardboard evangelical christians populating the scene today. And so they accused him of having insufficient faith, of not being enough of a believer, of not giving unambiguous, Baptist evangelical “orthodox”, tip-of-the-tongue answers (read: fundamentalist/baptist orthodoxy) to their testing. (I previously addressed some of this story here.) They said he’s a “nice guy”, but just not Christian enough to teach. The teacher’s response to this attack was one of the most Christ-like examples I have ever witnessed. I saw the comparison play out before my own eyes—their accusations, his loving and honest responses, his weeping. And I saw their stone-faced reactions—and I knew it was a scene of wolves tearing into a lamb. The accusers took the teacher’s emotional response as weakness rather than strength, and merely considered it fodder for their claims. They were blind and I believe they remain so – I do not believe they are as yet capable of seeing themselves as anything other than champions of the Gospel. (I later heard that one father took the teacher’s weeping in genuine sorrow as evidence the accused is not man enough to be in a position to teach this father’s child. Oh how to completely miss the message of Christ’s sermon on the mount!) Perhaps they would have accused Christ himself of unworthiness as well. For me it was both disheartening and nauseating to witness the event. I was asked to not say anything at that meeting I really wanted to say, so I didn’t. Looking back I wish I had. But I know God is sovereign, and I know that God sees all. If God wills, they will see the error of their ways. But I don’t want to put myself up on some righteous pedestal, and I am getting too close to the line of judging the hearts of others, for I cannot truly see their hearts and I am certainly not righteous or free from sin in this matter.
Eventually the overall context shifted such that the teacher stayed (because of overwhelming support from others and from the organization he works for) and the wolves began to ruthlessly attack those who God had placed in authority over them and who supported this teacher, starting a campaign to smear the character of those in their target sights, telling both veiled and outright lies, and using Christian language to elevate themselves as righteous victims. I’ve seen a lot over the years, but this was one of the ugliest examples of Pharisee-ism I’v ever personally witnessed. And so they left to form their own “Christ centered” and “pure doctrine” (their words) educational endeavor which, in my opinion, they falsely and, from what I can tell, self-righteously claim is more Biblical, thus sowing division among believers in the name of Christ. Is this not taking Christ’s name in vain? I grieve at how quickly many Christians are willing to separate themselves from other Christians, and even claim the act of pulling away as some kind of badge of holiness. They made no attempt to seek reconciliation, to find a middle way, to let love rule over their pride. But isn’t this just par for the course, especially in our division-loving Protestant world? I mean no attack on Protestantism per se – though it is important to recognize certain prevalent tendencies when they are there. Perhaps many churches and “Christian” schools should have “Thank you Lord that we are not like other churches/schools” as their mottoes.
Of course I could be wrong in my judgement. I have been before. I admit I am biased and not a little emotional about it.
As hard as that was and is to go through, most troubling perhaps is watching the number of families follow the wolves to their new “Christ centered” educational endeavor, not knowing the backroom stories, not discerning (if they know any of the story) the difference between wolf and lamb, and not seeing that the beatitudes are the first touchstones of the Christian tutor. I am also disheartened especially by how easy it seems for the fathers of these families to so quickly abdicate their role as spiritual leaders by accepting hearsay without demonstrating any desire to know the truth—truth that is readily available if any would ask. (Only one father of the lot, because he suspected there was more going on, partially reached out to find out some of the truth for himself.) Perhaps it’s just too easy to “lead” without really leading. It seems much of popular Christianity is play-acting “Christian” spirituality without any true spiritual discernment (which is more the result of very hard work and lots of prayer rather than cheap intuition). I challenge fathers, as I challenge myself, to step up—not with a kind of American Christian macho cartoon version of being a Christian man, but a true Christ-like, beatitude loving, truth demanding, love rules kind of Christian man. Of course, it’s all too easy to slap on a Christian façade without really being different than everyone else. We all do it. But remember wolves often appear as the best Christians, thus garnering many unquestioning followers. Woe to us if we are not wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Please keep in mind that I am not seeing myself as above it all. I am deeply sinful and have said things and thought worse things in my own way. I am the opposite of a saint. And perhaps I am only taking the side of the lambs because this time I feel as though I am one of the victims. I’m sure when I am a wolf I don’t see it.
In many ways this story has been like a classic Protestant church split. What I see too often is an easy acquiescence to the idea of Christians splitting. It is so much a part of Protestant culture and history that many see it as normative. More than that, many Protestants, like the one’s above splitting to form their “pure doctrine” school, often see separating themselves from other Christians over perceptions of doctrine or practice as a badge of their right standing before God (I suppose this is a broadly Christian thing as well). I come from that background. I was trained as a good Protestant. I know that mindset, and I have come to believe this easy spirit of disunity is the spirit of Antichrist. It arises from the leaven of the Pharisees.
Then again, and with fear and trembling, I wonder how often I have been a wolf who thinks he’s a lamb. I wonder how often I have believed I have the truth, but really do not. I wonder how often I deceive myself, even now as I write this, about my own faith. And I wonder how often I have said faith is more important than love.
I’m sure some would say there is no little amount of hypocrisy in this post of mine. God have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, at your Last Supper
you prayed to the Father that all should be one.
Send your Holy Spirit upon all who bear your name
and seek to serve you.
Strengthen our faith in you,
and lead us to love one another in humility.
May we who have been reborn in one baptism
be united in one faith under one Shepherd.