24 January 2021

Deaf ears aren’t opportunities.

Matthew 7.6, Luke 13.6-9.

Back in college I was at my home-away-from-dorm, a popular Capitola coffeehouse called Mr. Toots. (Figured I’d throw ’em a free plug.) I got to talking to some UC Santa Cruz students, ’cause they quickly figured out I was a fellow student and wanted to know which school I went to. Once they realized I was a biblical studies major—a “God expert” (in training, anyway)—they wanted to talk God.

A lot of pagans go through a phase when they head off to school where they question their faith—and rightly so, ’cause they need to question everything, and get rid of those things in their religions which aren’t growing their relationships with God any. But a lot of ’em ditch their faith altogether, assuming they ever had any. Some of ’em dabble in other religions; some of ’em even invent their own. And some of ’em flirt with nontheism—either because they really think there might be no God, or because they’re jerks and just wanna outrage theists.

That’s what our conversation quickly turned into. These guys wanted to try out their newly-learned anti-God arguments on the religious guy. Kinda like a kid who just learned a new judo hold, wants to fight everybody with it, and foolishly picks a fight with the taekwondo black belt. Not that I was any black belt; more like red. I did have a decade of Christian apologetics on these guys. So it wasn’t at all hard to slap their commonplace arguments down.

But the arguing grew tiresome after a while. I realized the debate was never gonna go anywhere: These guys weren’t at all curious about God: They didn’t wanna learn anything new about him, listen, repent, and become Christian. This was purely an intellectual exercise for them. They were just killing time at the coffeehouse.

Pearls to pigs, I realized. Yep, just like in the Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 7.6 KWL
“Don’t give holy things to the dogs, nor throw your pearls before the pigs.
Otherwise they’ll trample them under their feet, and they might turn and attack you.”

So I called truce. “Wanna talk about something different?” I said. “I mean, to you this is just light conversation. But to me this is something I take very seriously and personally. I’m having trouble not taking all your God-bashing personally. Wouldn’t you rather talk politics?”

“Yeah, okay.” So we talked politics. And after a bit, they left.

“But… planting seeds!”

I hadn’t come to Mr. Toots alone. I had two fellow bible college students with me. One was a missionary who was finishing his B.A. before he went back to the Philippines. The other was my roommate, a relatively new Christian who hadn’t entirely learned the difference between sharing Jesus and proselytism. And my roommate was outraged. To him, I just blew an opportunity: The Holy Spirit had just sent me these two guys to witness to, and my job was to wear ’em down and seal the deal! To him, I just threw away these guys’ eternal souls.

No I didn’t. These guys were fruitless fig trees.

Luke 13.6-9 KWL
6 Jesus told this analogy: “Someone had a fig tree planted in his vineyard.
He came to ask for fruit off it, and none was found.
7 He told a vineyard worker, ‘Look, three years I’ve come to find fruit on this fig tree.
None is found; knock it down. Why should the ground be wasted?’
8 In reply the worker told him, ‘Master, leave it here this year so I can dig round it and add manure.
9 Then it should produce fruit. If not, then I’ll knock it down.’ ”

I mean you can try… and try and try and try. But you’re not gonna see any fruit. So it’s time to give up. The tree’s never gonna do as you want.

And because Jesus’s Fruitless Tree Story has the vineyard worker suggest a year, some Christians take him literally and say that’s our guideline: Work on these people a year. If they don’t repent within that year, then shake the dust off your feet and move along. But when Jesus sent his Twelve to evangelize nearby towns, do you think he sent ’em to work on each particular town for a solid year? Of course not. At some point, probably within the same day, they had to realize they were either getting somewhere or nowhere, and if nowhere, they had to go to the next town—and not for a year.

This is what I tried to explain to my roommate. These guys weren’t a missed opportunity. There was no opportunity. I tried to take the chip from their eyes, and they wouldn’t have it. So I was done.

I’ve worked with more proselytizers than he. Just about all of them can’t abide the idea of giving up “so easily.” They wanna keep pushing, and push hard. “I preached the word of God to them, and it won’t return void.” Yeah, that’s not at all what God meant by “return void”—it’s an out-of-context quote used to justify our hard-heartedness. We’re too impatient, too proud, to ever concede any argument, much less a pro-Jesus argument.

See, we’re supposed to want to see ’em come to Jesus. And hey, I do want ’em to come to Jesus! But for the proselytizer, mixed in with this desire (or often taking the place of this desire) is this desire to see ’em lose and fail. We want to win the argument. We want to beat them. We want a victory. We want God’s word to be so powerful and irresistible, they can’t help but cry out, drop to their knees, and embrace Jesus. We’re on the Almighty’s side, so why shouldn’t we have nothing but success every single time?

But what about when we don’t have success? Well, denial. We tell ourselves we sorta did have success: “I planted a seed. He thinks he’ll never become Christian in a million years, but I gave ’em God’s word, and it won’t return void, and it’ll burrow into his soul like a tapeworm, and God’ll change him eventually. I started that. It wasn’t for nothing.”

Clearly we missed the point of Ecclesiastes: Some things are for nothing. We tried to argue ’em into God’s kingdom, but they don’t wanna go. It sucks, but it happens. Telling ourselves we “planted seeds,” that our efforts always produce fruit no matter what: ’Tain’t biblical. Like Jesus said in his Fruitless Tree Story.

Recognize the signs you’re getting nowhere.

Denial means plenty of Christians can’t accept the idea they’re throwing pearls to pigs. Unlike the vineyard worker in the Fruitless Tree Story, they never will cut down the tree. Won’t recognize warning signs. Won’t accept cutoff points and deadlines. They’ll just keep piling on the manure.

Instead of admitting that sometimes evangelism is hard, they’ll skip those stories and only tell the ones where they converted a hardcore holdout. Like some pagan who just hated Jesus, but eventually the Holy Spirit wore ’em down. A tough customer like Paul of Tarsus. So keep plowing the alkaline soil!—’cause someday you’ll convert your Paul.

Again: Not biblical. Paul was a tough customer, but he required Christ Jesus’s direct intervention. And when you listen to those former holdouts, you’ll quickly notice a lot of them tell of how the Spirit cracked ’em open. Not us evangelists. No matter how much their praying grandmas or persistent preachers would love to take credit. Bringing ’em to Jesus took a miracle. Not our persistence, nor stubbornness.

When Jesus told his Four Seeds Story, you might recall Satan immediately snatched some of the seeds away. Mk 4.15 Not every seed is gonna take! And in many a situation, you’re not planting seeds; you’re giving holy things to dogs. Pay attention to your surroundings. Notice whether the conditions are right, or all wrong. If you’re dealing with hard-hearted, mocking antichrists, stop evangelizing. Stop wasting their time and yours. Their hearts are hard. Shake the dust off your feet Mk 6.11 and stop giving them your pearls.

Look for real opportunities.

Evangelists are fond of saying there are always opportunities to share Christ. They’re absolutely right. We Christians blow a whole lot of opportunities because we’re gutless. Every time someone asks us a religion question, a moral question, a philosophy question, or bluntly, “What’re you doing Sunday morning?”—here’s our chance to pipe up!

And if they back away—“Whoops, didn’t wanna go there”—then drop it. But a lot of times they are curious. There’s our opportunity. Share!

At the same time, be cautious about their curiosity. Antichrists are happy to listen… because they’re looking for something to slam and ridicule. Heretics wanna “correct” you. The “open-minded,” who aren’t open-minded so much as they’re trying to look for clever ideas to swipe, but not so much follow Jesus, aren’t real opportunities either. Pay attention. Discern what you’re dealing with.

See, dogs and pigs were ritually unclean animals. In ancient Judea they ran wild, eating anything—including dead animals, which is also ritually unclean. Lv 11.24, 39 So if you touched such animals, you couldn’t go to worship. (Commentators like to point out κυσὶν/kysín was also slang for male prostitutes. But it’s really unlikely this was the metaphor Jesus had in mind: “Hey, don’t give God’s word to whores.” He gave God’s word to whores.)

Jesus’s point in this saying, is there are some people who are just toxic. What we find valuable, they won’t. What they find valuable is nasty. Try to share Jesus and his gospel with them, and they’ll stamp on our message, then try stamping on us.

So pay attention to the Holy Spirit, ’cause looks can be deceiving. If they look good, but the Spirit says, “Drop it and go away,” you tell him “Yes sir,” drop it, and go away. Never assume you know better than the Spirit.

Don’t be one of those evangelists who pretend they heard the Spirit, but what really happens is they psych themselves up to overcome any anxiousness, then indiscriminately share God with random people. This happens way too often. You’ll know them by their fruit: They win very few people to Jesus. They claim bigger numbers than they actually have, ’cause they include people who were already Christian, whom they got to recommit to Jesus… but those aren’t new believers, and we’ve no proof they’re gonna be any more devout than before.

Ask the Spirit to lead you to receptive people. Step away when it turns out they’re not. Remember, you’re there to share, and if they don’t want what you’re sharing, find someone else. Spend your time on people who are worthy of Jesus. Mt 10.11 Worthy of pearls.