Pandemics, Politics, Zealots and Tax Collectors

Posted: 3/15/2021

“We must not stop meeting together! That’s living in fear,” cries one Christian, citing a verse from Hebrews as they flaunt government guidelines and public health recommendations.

“How could you meet together? That’s not loving your neighbor,” insists another, citing a verse from Matthew as they challenge carefully crafted social distancing protocols.

“You shouldn’t address those things from the pulpit; it’s not a venue for politics,” says one Christian, as the pastor tentatively ventures to share a Christian perspective on the events of January 6 at the Capitol.

“You must address those things from the pulpit; silence is implicit affirmation of violence,” says another, as the pastor’s tentative venture didn’t quite go far enough.

It has been exactly one year since my church was shut down due to the pandemic, on March 16, 2020, by government order. And to be perfectly, embarrassingly honest, I wasrelieved when it happened. I should have been grieved, or brokenhearted, or upset, over the loss of life and the loss of opportunity to gather. But I was relieved, because I had a way out of the conflict and something else to blame it on; I’d been criticized both for continuing to meet and for considering not continuing to meet.

At least, I thought I had a way out, till another Christian told me that I shouldn’t be caving in to government regulations and that Jesus would be disappointed with the church.

This past year has been one of the most challenging of my life. I phrase that carefully, because I wouldn’t say it’s been the hardest year; there have been really good things about this year. It has been full of gifts, like getting married, adopting a puppy, and experiencing the love of friends and a congregation through a tricky time. I choose the word ‘challenging’ because there have been times pastoral and personal decisions literally have felt impossible. Whatever decision you make, whatever thing you say, whatever approach you take, someone disagrees with you and thinks you are part of the problem. 

But this time, the stakes are higher. Those in my mind on different ends of the spectrum are not just “some Christians.” They are family, or friends, or respected mentors, or people I really love. The decisions I have made and not made through this past pandemic year have strained my relationships, frustrated my church, or crushed my own hopes. I had to uninvite 150 people from my wedding, re-shut-down a church when other churches were still meeting, ask my family not to hug them when I finally saw them again, and deny countless kindhearted invitations, and every one of those decisions would be made differently – either with more caution or with less – by people I deeply love and respect. It has been extremely challenging. I have hated the pandemic, and I have found being a leader in the pandemic to be brutal, because there is no way to meet everyone’s expectations on what it means to lead right now. People are still disappointed with me for being too cautious or not being cautious enough, with regard both to pastoral and personal decisions.

There always will be disagreement on things – and that’s okay. Someone will think I should be crate-training my dog, others think crates aren’t good for dogs, and some people think dogs are dumb, and some people think I am dumb. Disagreement is fine. But there has been a painful disunity that has come as a result of pandemic and politics and protests in the Christian world. The social media venom has been to another level. Christians have made straw man arguments out of Christians on the other end of the spectrum, then set them on fire. I have never felt like I am on such eggshells before. Don’t mention vaccines in conversation, you don’t know what they think of them. Make sure to use neutral terms when talking about the Capitol or they’ll make assumptions about your politics. Don’t say you’re still social distancing or they’ll think you’re gullible or living in fear and won’t give you a chance to explain.

Something is deeply wrong in Christianity if we cannot disagree in love and respect with the other side…because disagreements, even fundamental ideological ones, have been around since the very, very beginning of the Christian faith…like, the very beginning. 

This past week I preached a sermon on Mark 3, when Jesus calls the twelve apostles. It’s easy to glaze over the list of familiar names, but I think there’s some quiet beauty in the list of identities: among the twelve are included “Matthew (the tax collector from Mark 2)…and Simon the Zealot.” (Mk 3:18)

Matthew, as a tax collector, would have worked for the occupying Romans. He was the IRS agent of the day but one who worked for an invasive species, a man who would have collected taxes from his own people to fork over to the hated Romans. Worse than that, Rome’s tax collectors were notorious for extorting more than they should and keeping the prophets to themselves, and thus were largely despised by their own people (see the story of Zacchaeus in the book of Luke). Though a Jew, Matthew had sold out. He was working for the other guys. He very possibly was despised, a sellout, called out for his lack of national pride, viewed as a traitor.

Simon the Zealot, on the other hand, might today be called Simon the Patriot. The Zealots were a strongly nationalistic Jewish sect who hated Rome even more than normal Jews hated Rome. Zealots were fiercely independent, with emphasis on the fierce; some Zealots were associated with assassinations or murder in plots to overthrow invasive governments. He would have had a “Make Israel Great Again” flag draped over his donkey, a concealed carry license for his slingshot and dagger, and a wanted poster of Matthew sitting in his bedroom.

If Matthew and Simon were alive today, they very possibly both would have been at the Capitol on January 6, and been on opposite sides of the walls.

They very possibly both would have been at a Black Lives Matter protest on opposite sides of the shields.

They very possibly both would have approached the pandemic from wildly different standpoints, with Matthew following every rule to a T and Simon nailing the Constitution to his door and proclaiming his rights.

But Jesus wanted them both.

Jesus called them both.

Jesus changed them both.

Jesus used both of them to transform the world.

And Jesus made them get along with one another and be part of the first tight-knit group of twelve disciples who turned the world upside down.

How could we possibly think Jesus wouldn’t do the same today?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to say there are no rights or wrongs in Christianity. Far from it. Jesus in Luke 3 told tax collectors not to collect more than they were authorized, and soldiers not to extort money by threats or accusation, which might have made both Matthew and Simon shift uncomfortably in their seats as they glared at each other. Jesus didn’t let them stay the way they were. Matthew might have been greedy. Simon might have been violent. We don’t know for sure. But we know enough to know that they ran with people in their circles who trended those ways. And we know enough to know that Jesus took two very different men and changed them both and used them both and made them both work together.

Maybe Matthew and Simon had political arguments we don’t know about. Maybe they became best friends. Maybe they simply tolerated one another. But we do know that Jesus wanted both of them, changed both of them, used both of them, and if that isn’t enough to say that Jesus wants people on both sides of the political spectrum, both sides of the pandemic spectrum, and wants them to love one another and treat one another with respect and work together for the mission of bringing more disciples to know Jesus rather than tear one another down – well, I don’t know what is.

The most heartbreaking part of this season has been to watch gulfs widen. Whether it be politically or pandemic-wise, it is far too easy to form camps of people who think like or act like you – and to blame people on the other side for being the problem. Whether those with a higher risk tolerance blame the pandemic-wary for being too cautious, or the pandemic-wary blame those with a higher risk tolerance for prolonging the pandemic; whether the Republicans blame the Democrats or Democrats blame the Republicans; it has been far too easy to make “those other people” the target. Even if we’re confident the other side is wrong, we at least owe it to fellow image-bearers to not assume the worst, hear them out, understand from their perspective, and show them respect when we disagree.

When it comes to pandemic, some lean “tax collector” and some lean “zealot” in my congregation, my family, my friends – the whole spectrum. I’m weirdly somewhere in between, and thus usually feel like I’m disappointing most. That’s part of why this season has been so hard for me. I really hate social distancing, and have chosen to do so because I think it’s what is right at this time based off my understanding of Scripture and my current situation, and it’s frustrating when others assume I haven’t thought through my decisions or am living in fear. I also am very aware that I work with a high-risk population and have taken the pandemic into sincere account as I plan out our worship services, and it’s disappointing when others assume I’m just not being careful. 

It brings me tremendous life when someone who disagrees with me hears me, listens to me, understands, and has compassion, regardless of whether they agree or not. It drains life when someone hears my approach, assumes things about me, and moves on. I have really good, well-thought out, well reasoned, and Biblically grounded rationale for my decisions, as hard as they’ve been to make. Others have really good, well thought out, well reasoned and Biblically grounded rationale and have come to a different conclusion. But we owe it to one another to give that a chance, rather than assume the worst or put one another into the “problem camp.” 

I think we must always disagree. I think it’s a natural and healthy part of Christianity – Jesus invites people from all walks of life and all different approaches, and therefore we must always disagree. We also all are sinful and need one another’s challenges to be better sharpened. I am not saying that we should refrain from stating our opinion – from encouraging others to socially distance or to meet together as we believe from Scripture and science, from encouraging others to vote one way or another as we believe from ethics and reason, from challenging others when we believe their actions might be unhealthily motivated.

But we owe it to one another, and to our Lord, to do it in respect and love with the main goal in mind – bringing more people to Jesus. If he called a Zealot and a tax collector, then he can call the leader of a Black Lives Matter protest and a stormer of the Capitol. If he called a Zealot and a tax collector, he can call the director of the CDC and a pandemic denier. It doesn’t mean everyone’s beliefs or actions or approaches are right. It simply means all are welcomed by Jesus, all are wanted by Jesus, all are invited to be transformed by Jesus, and all are required to welcome and love one another in the image and name of Jesus, no matter how wrong you think they may be.

So go call one another out, but do so with compassion. Go challenge someone, but only after you listen and understand their perspective. Go try to change someone’s opinion, but only if your motive is in the right place. Recognize that there is a spectrum of Christian approach. Is there a “right way” or “right answer”? Sure. Stand up for what we believe it to be. We’ll find out when we get to heaven if not before. But the reality is that there are Democrat Christians just as confused about Republican Christians as Republican Christians are confused about Democrat Christians; pandemic skeptics just as bewildered by those following CDC guidance as those following CDC guidance are bewildered by pandemic skeptics. The reality is you can be a Christ follower and be a Democrat or Republican. You can be a Christ follower and be a pandemic skeptic or follow every pandemic rule by the book. The question is whether, whichever camp you’re in, you have a genuine relationship with Jesus and are allowing him to transform you – including how you treat people on the other side.

I’m sure Matthew and Simon had plenty of arguments even after Jesus sanded off their rough edges; Simon may still have been nationalistic and Matthew may still have hung out with other tax collectors. But at the end of the day, they both remained part of the Twelve. Let’s ensure that in our conversations and challenges, at any cost, we all remain part of the Church, so that we could be part of Jesus’ disciples with someone on the total opposite end of the spectrum, and still walk in love.

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