“Whatever place you enter that does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet as testimony against them.”
This seems to be a challenging teaching! Why wouldn’t Jesus say something like “If your teaching is rejected, stop, do some thinking, and try to figure out if you’ve said something offensive or what is causing the problem.” Or at least encourage some mercy and forgiveness! Is he assuming that the Christian disciples will always be in the right? That they won’t ever mix up the message, and therefore that any resistance to them must be in error? Can’t towns get a second chance?
I think our first reading gives us a key insight toward figuring out how to interpret Jesus' instructions today. In our reading from the book of Amos, we hear about a battle between two prophets: Amos and Amaziah. Amaziah was a professional religious figure, a priest of the local temple. He had a vested interest in making sure that the copacetic message got out – a message that would bring people together around the temple and the social and political leaders of that time. His livelihood was based on saying what people wanted to hear about God – he was concerned to make sure that religious teaching was well received in society. And so he tailored his message to meet where the people were at that time, which unfortunately happened to be a time of profound immorality and decadence.
Amos, on the other hand, was not a professional prophet. He was, as he said in the reading, a dresser of sycamores. He liked doing that simple work, and it sounds like he would rather have continued on dressing sycamores, if God had let him. When he was called from the trees to prophesy, he did so not to make a living off of what he said, but because he felt compelled to obey when he had heard from God. Because of this, he has a certain detachment from whether what he said was well received or not: and that gave him a freedom to speak the uncomfortable truth. And speak the uncomfortable truth he did. My old scripture professor used to say that whatever you find in the book of Amos that is positive was probably added by someone else later. He was a prophet of doom, and he did not mince words. He called out the immorality of the people and he called out their decadence, and he told them that there would be consequences.
In today’s reading we see sparks fly between these two prophets – Amaziah confronted Amos and told him to get lost. Amos was upsetting the apple cart. He was causing a stir, making people uncomfortable. The collection was going to go down. The people did not want to welcome him or to listen to him. Off with you – back to the sycamores!
Amos responded to Amaziah in the way that Jesus teaches his disciples. He was detached enough from the worldly success of his ministry to go back to tending sycamores. He said his piece, it was rejected, and he was happy to shake the dust from his feet and move on. He knew that getting rid of him would not get rid of the truth he preached. And he was vindicated in hindsight – the decadence and immorality of the Hebrew people led to their destruction, just as Amos had said it would.
A danger for all of us as we seek to teach and give witness to the Gospel is the tendency to speak of God according to our own liking, to make Him in our own image. But there is also another challenge that I would say is far more common, and far more destructive. And the danger is this: that a desire for human affection, esteem, advancement, or other forms of earthly success compromises our ability to proclaim the truth of the Gospel. And this is what Jesus was working to counteract by his instructions to his disciples and to all of us today.
Why does Jesus send them out with so little and insist that they leave if they are not listened to? Because he knows human nature and he knows that if we are too concerned with earthly success, we are very likely to justify changing the message. Instead of walking away and kicking the dust from our feet, we will stay and adapt our lives and message until what we say is well received. But what has happened? Rather than being a light in the darkness, rather than bringing good news to the poor, we become just like everyone else: getting along just fine in our worldly ways.
The reality is that, when faced with a choice between losing the love of neighbor or betraying the love of God, fallen nature has given us a tendency to favor the neighbor we see, rather than the God we don’t. We have the tendency to avoid the negative repercussions we will have to endure from the neighbor and to convince ourselves that worldly success must be a sign that we are on the right path. And before we know it we have drifted very far away from God.
So think about Jesus’ instructions in this context: that he told his disciples that in the face of resistance to his message they were to leave and shake the dust from their feet. He said this not to encourage spite or malice, not as some kind of retaliatory gesture toward those who resisted the message, but so that the disciples would not be tempted to gradually water down and weaken their proclamation, eventually losing their ability to bear witness to the Gospel altogether.
What is the lesson for us? If someone is unwilling or incapable of accepting our witness of the faith, and we keep pushing, I think we need to ask ourselves “Why am I doing this?” Is this what God is asking of me? Or am I pushing because of my own needs: because I want to be successful or right, or because I want this relationship to be strong, or because I am uncomfortable with conflict or disagreement? Why am I not willing to let go of this desire for the person to accept Jesus and shake the dust from my feet? Have I forgotten that he is the savior, not me? If he gives people the freedom to reject him, why do I insist on forcing the issue? Have I become selfish with the Gospel, using my witness to Jesus as a way to get what I want, or to feel successful in my life?
Jesus wants his disciples to be selfless in their proclamation of the faith so that they can remain true to it. This selflessness creates a kind of detachment because the truth is that we should not need others to listen to us, to believe us, or to accept us in order to be at peace with our witness. We should ask ourselves regularly: am I at peace even when my witness is not accepted? Can I walk away and shake the dust from my feet, in order to give another person the space and freedom to respond to God as they choose, or do I feel the need for them to respond in a particular way for me? How much is my ego involved? How much is my desire for affection and worldly success involved?
This weekend, let us pray for the freedom and detachment of Amos, and of every authentic prophet who proclaims the Good News selflessly. May we shake the dust from our feet when we need to: not out of spite, but in confidence and trust that the truth about God is much bigger than any of us, and his grace will find a way to reach hearts that are open to him. As Mother Theresa always said: “God does not ask us to be successful, but to be faithful.”