The Worst of These

I've been reading a book about pastoral leadership called "Tending to the Holy" and came across the phrase "the worst of these." We hear a lot about Jesus admonitions (in Matthew 25) that serving "the least of these" is serving Christ himself. But this book about pastoral leadership wanted to go on record as saying that in our congregational life together as the Body of Christ, it is not only the least of these with whom we are called to interact. "The least of these," of course, are the oppressed, the poor, the downtrodden, aliens and widows and orphans and prisoners and those who suffer from mental illness and abuse. But in our congregational families, there are also "the worst of these."

These are the difficult people in our lives and they can be found everywhere in the church and at the office and at home. We all know someone who fits this description, and perhaps realize that at times we have fit that description ourselves. Blessed are those who mourn and blessed are the meek, Jesus says, but what about those who whine and those who stand up in meetings and demean others and those who get on the phone or email and start negative campaigns against the pastor or the youth minister or the choir director or the sexton or their neighbor?

How do we see God in those who are continual irritants at best and sometimes outright antagonists with whom we are nonetheless bound through the love of Christ? How do we love (love as an action verb, not a feeling) those who drive us crazy?

I'm pretty sure that Jesus was a continual irritant to the religious authorities of his day. The Scriptures attest to this uniformly. And he didn't always say nice things about them. (Thumper's mother, whose advice was, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say nothing at all," hadn't come along yet.) My own mother used to say that the way to deal with people who made one crazy was to "kill them with kindness." Paul says this in Romans, and perhaps he was quoting Proverbs: tending to the enemy in great kindness will be like heaping burning coals on the enemy's head. In other words, the enemy would become ashamed because of being treated so well by an enemy. Still, "killing" and heaping "burning coals on his head" don't seem all that loving. And we may be called to be like Jesus but discernment is needed. We may think that we are being like Jesus by hammering away at Democrats or Republicans or Tea Partiers or Feminists or our rector or choir director, but I'm a little wary of self-appointed or group mob-mentality "other group bashing."

As in all things having to do with life in God, the basic point is about transformation. We are in relationship with others, both least and worst as well as best and collegial and most fun, and through that relationship we are always to be willing to be transformed. Naturally, we will hope that the irritating person will be transformed. And then they will stop irritating us. And perhaps this will happen.

But it is our own transformation that we must be attentive to - be open to. Whether or not anyone else is. That's not our business. How we treat others is our business. (Note: I am not talking about taking abuse or rolling over at every challenge or any of that. We may be called to die for our friends, but I don't think that means to suffer abuse or endure constant humiliation or to just let others undermine us. I don't think that means we wordlessly tolerate bad behavior.) How we respond to the worst of these may indeed call for firm resistance or challenging bad behavior.

But in all our dealings with the least and the worst and the best, we are called to keep God in the center, to see Christ in the other, to look for and affirm the holy even if it is mostly obscured or marred by something lesser. Jesus calls us to our best selves. It seems to me that if we can call ourselves first and the others to our/their best selves, this is the way we are being like Jesus.