Friday, August 9, 2013

Stepping on Toes

Today is the final day in our thirty-first week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Amos 7-9; Matthew 15.

Within the Baptist tradition (from which I come), "stepping on toes" is when a preacher intentionally calls people's sins or faults to their own attention, in the hopes of prompting consideration or repentance.  When a preacher steps on the congregation's toes, he or she knows that there's a risk of offending people.  But delivering God's message to the people is more important than the potential risk of raising the listeners' ire, so the preacher steps on those toes anyway.

In Baptist churches, toe-stepping can often have a perverse quality, where the preacher enjoys sticking it to his congregants, and the people enjoy being the subject of a rant.  Sometimes, parishioners will leave church and say, "Well, you sure stepped on our toes today, preacher.  Thanks--we need more of that!"  Some Christians actually enjoy getting yelled at every Sunday morning.  Others are glad to hear the preacher stepping on toes, as long as the toes that are stepped on belong to someone else.  "Yeah--you tell them, preacher!"

In today's New Testament passage, Jesus steps on the Pharisees' toes.  He tells them that their ideas of clean and unclean are wrong.  Eating with unwashed hands doesn't defile a person; the evil that comes out of a person's mouth defiles a person.  In Matthew 15:3-9, He uses some pretty strong language:

He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,”[a] he need not honor his father.’So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

Jesus' words frequently got Him in trouble.  Eventually, they would get Him crucified.  Many pastors don't like to step on toes because they are afraid of the repercussions.  They haven't forgotten who writes their paychecks.  It's difficult, stepping on the toes of the same people who control the purse strings.  But, just as Jesus did, sometimes ministers need to step on people's toes.  The trick is doing it in a way that honors the people you're talking to, without calling them names and belittling them.  After all, didn't Jesus remind us that the malicious words that come out of our mouths defile us???

Sometimes a preacher's words cut like a knife.  But those words should be intended to heal, and not to hurt.  Like a surgeon's knife, they should cut disease out of our souls--but they should never inflict more pain than is necessary in order to lovingly do the healer's job.  

Maybe you're not a preacher, but there's someone who you feel like needs their toes stepped on a little bit.  There are a few questions you need to ask yourself, before you speak:

  1. Is God asking me to be His messenger in this situation?  Just because you've got something you'd like to say, that doesn't necessarily mean you should say it.  Maybe God is calling you to to speak to that person, but just to pray for them.  Maybe God has someone else designed as His messenger, in this particular case.  Or, maybe the Lord is calling you to speak, after all.
  2. Have I carefully chosen the right situation in which to say this difficult thing?  Just because you have something to say, and you believe God wants you to say it, that doesn't mean that any old time is the right time.  Not everyplace is the right place.  If you're going to speak a difficult truth to someone, it's probably best to do it in a way that doesn't embarrass them publicly, or challenge them at a time when they're not receptive.  
  3. Have I carefully chosen the right words to use?  You can say the right thing, but use the wrong words, with disastrous results.  Already, as I've been writing this blog post, I've asked advice of someone I trust--to get another person's opinion about some specific word choices.  Make sure that the words you use have the right effect.
  4. Am I following Matthew 18:15-20?  Check this out.  Jesus gives a specific way to confront someone, if they have sinned against you.  It's a loving way that honors that person rather than exposing them unduly.
  5. Am I speaking the truth in love?  Sometimes we're truthful but unloving, and other times we're untruthful but loving.  We need to be both truthful and loving in the way we communicate with one another.
I pray that God will give you the right words to use, and the right opportunity to us them.  In the meantime, wait and pray about stepping on toes that belong to people that you love.

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