taking the words of Jesus seriously

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Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Red Letter Book Club. It is an excerpt from Margot Starbuck’s book, “Small Things With Great Love.”

Biggest loser wins. That’s the whole premise of the popular weight-loss reality show featuring women and men who are hundreds of pounds over-weight. Whoever loses the most, wins. Every week, as someone is voted off of the weight-loss ranch, a compassionate host must confirm, “You are not the biggest loser ” Dejected, the not-loser packs up his or her belongings and heads home.

If the scene feels weirdly familiar, it’s because it’s a story that’s been told before. In Matthew 25, Jesus describes a divine host who gathers all the contestants and divides them up into two teams. Up until then, they’d all been living and dining and working out together in one big group. The host forms a red team on his right and a blue team on his left. And although the show’s producer knows how the cut was made, the participants aren’t yet privy to the behind-the-scenes priorities.

Then the host turns to the red team and says, “You win! You’re the biggest losers! You lost your life, for me. You saw me hungry and shared your healthy snacks. When I was thirsty, you offered me your water bottle. When I was brand-new here, you welcomed me. When the airline lost my luggage, you shared your clothes. When I was sick, stuck in my room, you visited me. Even when I landed in jail, you visited.”

The red team then looks at the host, feeling confused “Um, did all that stuff even happen? We don’t really know you that well—probably because you’re the celebrity and we’re just regular people dressed in red T-shirts. We actually don’t remember doing any of that stuff.”

“What you didn’t realize, ” the host explains patiently, “is that my kid brother, Marquez, who suffered a brain injury when we were kids, is on the food service crew. So whatever you did for those guys, you did for me.”

Slowly, the red team catches on. Thinking back, they recognize that they sort of had done all that the host had mentioned. That very morning, in fact, when local cops had mistakenly picked up his brother, they’d gone to bail him out at the police station.

Then, the host turns to the blue team. “You’re finished, gang I was famished while you feasted. I was thirsty while you drank your pricey flavored vitamin waters. I was in need and you ignored me.”

Because a lot of the folks wearing blue had been sucking up to the show’s host all along, they were particularly confused.

“Um, ” they asked, “when did we see you have any of those needs and not help you?”

The host explained, “Whatever you didn’t do for the folks who cleaned the rooms where you’ve been sleeping, the ones washing your dishes, the ones working in wardrobe—not to mention the undocumented ones living in trailers along the route where you jog who’d love to have any of those jobs—you didn’t do for me. I’m sorry to tell you, blue team, you are not the biggest losers.”

In the weird kingdom reversal, those who gave their lives away kept them, and those who clung to their own lives lost them. The blue team, disappointed, packed up their belongings and headed off dejectedly to eternal damnation. The red team, now sharing the stage with the gracious host, started jumping up and down, waving their new friends—the camera operators and paper pushers and the wait staff and the cleaning crew—onto the stage to share in the shower of confetti.

Not A Huge Loss

Once you’ve grieved the disappointing ending for the blue team, you’re left with the gospel-driven men and women on the red team who are daily choosing to lose their own lives for the sake of the ones Jesus loves. In this kingdom reversal, whether a relationship elevates one’s own status or meets one’s own needs becomes less important than the ways it confirms the inherent worth of another and satisfies his or her needs. Giving one’s life away in relationship with those in need—according to Jesus—is the way to gain it. Whoever loses the most wins.

That said, we’re not talking about huge losses here. We’re talking about grabbing two sub sandwiches from the grocery store and sharing one with someone you just met who is really hungry. It might be offering some cold lemonade to the recent immigrant who’s been mowing your lawn all morning. Inviting a stranger in might be as manageable as opening your dinner table once a quarter to foreign students attending a local university. Clothing the naked might just mean you quietly slip the athletic director at your kids’ school—or your school!—some extra cash for the players who can’t afford to pay for pricey uniforms. Visiting those in need could mean that you have coffee at the nursing home with an elderly woman from your church and then give her a ride to visit her son, who is doing time in prison for white-collar crime.

This is how Kingdom Losers is played.

If I were putting together an all-star team of kingdom players, it’s these kingdom losers in red who jump immediately to mind I’m thinking of Coach D, who pours her life into students who did not succeed in traditional schools. I’m thinking about Wesley, whose kids miss naptimes because a friendship has developed with a family who recently emigrated from Syria. I’m thinking of Sarah, who gives her energy to women who are currently incarcerated. I’m thinking of all the folks who, like Jesus, see and know and love those on the world’s margins.

Go Losers!

Two Local Losers

My sons are losers. They are. Specifically, they are losers of stuff. They don’t lose Legos or remote-control vehicles or action figures; somehow those stay permanently affixed to the floors of our home. Put a sweatshirt on one of my boys and send him out the door to be educated or play soccer, however, and that garment is as good as gone.

I’ve tried all the things parents try. I wrote names and phone numbers with fat black pens. I nagged my boys. I reminded others to nag them. I threatened. Because none of these proved effective, we eventually ended up layering long-sleeved T-shirts and any sweater we could find. Now the sweaters are missing.

On a particularly bad week, my youngest son lost three sweat- shirts. Three. One had been a hand-me-down, one had been a gift and one my husband had foolishly purchased at an actual store. Each time I fly, I scour the Sky Mall catalog for some sweatshirt- locator device. I want there to be a discrete safety pin with a locator chip, like they put in dogs, so that we can track down these sweat- shirts. Inevitably, the locator costs more than the sweatshirt.

Clearly, I’m pretty driven to hold onto stuff. I’d rather keep my stuff than lose it. I’d rather keep my life than lose it. Unless you’re an eight-year-old boy, being okay with losing stuff can feel pretty counterintuitive. Jesus, though, has been pretty clear—both in word and deed—that losing your life, for the sake of others, is the way to go.

Legitimate and Illegitimate Fear

A few weeks ago, after a late-night flight, I had to walk through a dark parking structure at the airport to get to my car. As scenes from every scary movie I’ve ever seen flashed through my mind, I clutched my keys in my right palm, ready to scrape the face off of anyone who tried to mess with me. As I approached my car, a man was waiting for me in the shadows, holding jumper cables and ask- ing me for a jump. A surge of fear and adrenaline shot through my veins. Noticing the man’s pilot hat and uniform, I quickly deduced that he was either a pilot or one very clever predator. After we spoke, however, I realized that he didn’t mean to be a creepy man waiting in the shadows; it’s just where his car had died while he was piloting other travelers across the country.

Fear, in a poorly lit parking garage, was a very appropriate and life-preserving response to the unknown in this situation. Too often, though, we have the same reaction to folks out in broad day- light whom Jesus would love to get close to, through us. These are the ones who elicit in us—by their need or by their difference— the same fearful fight-or-flight response.

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker describes how human beings are moved in the most primal ways by fear—in particular, by our fear of death. If perchance you do not self-identify as someone who is afraid of death—either because you don’t have a terminal disease or are not pushing your ninth decade or simply because you don’t give death much thought on a daily basis—please keep reading.

Whether or not we recognize it, this impulse—to protect ourselves from the threat of death—influences everything from where we buy a home, to why we stay in jobs we hate, to who we invite over for coffee, to why we suddenly stop scheduling flights that land at midnight. Naturally wired to preserve our own lives, we are moved by an almost imperceptible fear of death. Toward this end, we often pick neighborhoods that are “safe, ” jobs that are “secure, ” friends who are “similar” to us and travel plans that are “sound.” In choosing that which is familiar and promises to satisfy our needs, we fortify ourselves against dissonance, difference and, ultimately, death. Once we become alert to the impact of this fearful drive toward self-preservation, we begin to recognize it in all sorts of places.

That impulse to protect ourselves from those who make us anxious is palpable when we cross paths with a stranger in a dark parking garage. We notice it when we slow our cars to a stop too close to a weathered woman holding a cardboard sign asking for food or cash. We become aware of it as we pay attention to our gut reaction to the Middle Eastern man boarding a 747 next to us. When approaching a gang of urban teenagers on the sidewalk who we have decided look like trouble, we feel our heart rate increase. Too often, to protect ourselves from the anxiety evoked by strang- ers, we insulate ourselves from interacting with those we identify by their difference.

We do the same thing when we avoid folks whose needs—their explicit entanglement with the powers of death—evoke our anxiety. Though we have good intentions of visiting a neighbor in the hospital, time slips by before we ever do. Though we mean to care for a colleague who is grieving, we fill our schedules with other things. Though we long to support a friend going through a divorce, we remain at arm’s length. And though we know that Jesus has called us to visit a classmate who is recovering from an emotional breakdown, weeks limp along and we never quite get around to it. Wired to preserve our own lives, we’re moved—and unmoved—by fear.

Having What It Takes

I only mention this primal human tendency because of Jesus. Rather than being driven by the natural anxieties that propel so many of us, he moved through the world and into relationships pretty fearlessly. Instead of being repelled by those marked by difference or by need, he was attracted to them and gave little thought to his own comfort, reputation or security. Again and again in the Gospels, we see Jesus moving toward those who— by their gender or disability or pain or sin or religious preference—seem most unlikely.

Today, as captain of the red-team losers, he invites those of us who want to play for his team to lose our lives instead of secure them. When we are no longer driven by self-preservation, Jesus moves in and through us to engage with others across natural bar- riers. What this means is that our lives—at work, at home, at school—start to look more like his. Instead of backing away from the kind of needy ones who can make the rest of us so uncomfortable—the deaf, the blind, the sick, the lepers, the demon-possessed—we make a point, like Jesus did, of moving toward them. At church, we step toward the brother in personal crisis. In our neighborhoods, we embrace the single mom struggling to feed and clothe her children. In our communities, we respond with assistance to a report in the local paper about the ones nearby whose home burned down.

You might think that to live fearlessly like this you’d need a big old injection of courage. If you’ve ever seen The Wizard of Oz, you know that this would be a reasonable guess. To live fearlessly in relationship with others, however, doesn’t depend on courage. Fa- thers who rush into burning buildings to save their children, wives in accidents who lift automobiles off of their husbands and friends who keep one another alive in an air pocket under an avalanche of snow—such people aren’t moved by courage at all. They’re moved by love.

So are those who try to pattern their lives after Jesus.

That said, I’m delighted to announce that all this movement toward beloved strangers doesn’t depend on our love. If it depended on my love for someone I don’t even know, the stranger and I would both be up fear creek without a paddle. Instead, courageous self-giving love depends on God’s unshakable love for us and God’s unwavering love for those in need. Just as the Father’s love drove Jesus to be for you and me, his love is exactly what drives us from comfort to be for the ones God loves who are in need.

Jesus invites those of us who are weary from our hectic sched- ules and harried commutes and the burden of taking care of so much stuff into an entirely new way of living. Whether we run an office or wipe runny noses, we whose plates are already full—literally and figuratively—experience real relief in yoking ourselves to Jesus by moving toward the ones he loves. As we extend small acts of self-giving love in the course of our normal daily routines, God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.

I can hear how it kind of sounds too good to be true, and almost magical, and sort of like wishful thinking. A healthy dose of skepticism is in good order. The kingdom reality, though, is that the same gospel that is good news for me and for you is inextricable from the one that is good news for the poor. His name is Jesus, and he’s inviting you into the upside-down, big-loser adventure of life that really is life.

This post is excerpted from Margot Starbuck’s book, “Small Things with Great Love, ” currently featured on the Red Letter Book Club.

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About The Author

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Margot Starbuck—author, collaborator and speaker—earned an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Bachelor’s from Westmont College. She’s convinced that because God, in Jesus Christ, is with us and for us, we’ve been made to be with and for others. So she’s passionate about equipping folks to love our (sometimes unlikely) neighbors and is the author of seven books and collaborator on others. She enjoys speaking to audiences around the country that include: Messiah College, MOPs International, Young Life Women’s Weekend, Urban Promise Ministry Summit and Wheaton College Center for the Application of Christian Ethics. Margot lives downtown Durham, North Carolina, with her three teens.

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