Years ago, as director of our diocesan diaconate program, I discovered that the desire of the minister to be liked by those to whom he or she ministers is among the unique personality traits that contribute to good ministry.
Study after study shows that individuals who are indifferent about the feelings of their community toward them are usually ineffective ministers and often "cordially" disliked by those they serve.
If we assume that Jeremiah and Jesus ministered effectively, Sunday's three readings contain an easily overlooked dimension. As ministers, both must have longed to be liked by those to whom they ministered; yet each lived in an environment in which few people felt deeply drawn to them. The first reading (Jer 38: 4-6, 8-10) narrates just one of many situations in which Jeremiah's people try to kill him. Notice the grounds which the princes give for the prophet's death sentence: "He demoralizes the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such things to them; he is not interested in the welfare of our people, but in their ruin."
Connected to people
Though eventually rescued from this brush with eternity, Jeremiah must have been profoundly hurt by King Zedekiah's total misunderstanding of his prophetic call. It was precisely because he was "interested in the welfare of (his) people" that he originally agreed to be Yahweh's prophet, the conscience of the people.
From his "confessions" (chapters 11 to 20), we know that, as well as physical pain ,each rejection brought Jeremiah great psychological anguish. No Scriptural passage is more depressing than the last verse of chapter 20, where Jeremiah asks rhetorically: "Why did I come forth from the womb, to see sorrow and pain, to end my days in shame?" This man as not indifferent to the feelings his people had toward him.
In the same way, Luke shows Jesus creating an environment parallel to the one Jeremiah experienced (Lk 12: 49-53). Though He passionately strives to bring life to all who follow Him, Jesus knows what happens to those who "light a fire on earth."
"Do you think," this great proponent of peace asks, "that I have come to establish peace on the earth?" Jesus gives His disciples no chance to respond. "I assure you," He continues, "the contrary is true; I have come for division. From now on, a household of five will be divided....Father will be split against son,...mother against daughter,...mother-in-law against daughter-in-law."
One need only read the gospel narratives to see how often Jesus' words and actions not only create problems for His followers, but also bring animosity down on Himself. Once we resolve to live according to Jesus' convictions, we put ourselves in the sights of a firing squad.
Staying the course
Listening to this passage against the background of the community for which it originally was written, we suspect that Luke's Jesus simply is assuring many of Luke's second and third generation Christians that their experience of being a pain in the neck for their families is a logical consequence of following Jesus. Their passionate desire to unite people always will be met with great opposition from those who feel no such desire. Yet, such opposition should never sidetrack them from pursuing their (and Jesus') goals.
We know the danger of giving up one's faith in order to be liked was very prevalent in the early Christian community, because even the unknown author of the letter to the Hebrews addresses the issue (Heb 12: 1-4).
"Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus,' he writes, "who inspires and perfects our faith. For the sake of the joy which lay before Him, He endured the cross, heedless of its shame....Remember how He endured the opposition of sinners; hence, do not grow despondent or abandon the struggle."
Antagonism is to be anticipated, not feared; it's to be something we endure, not something we let conquer us.
I often warned our deacon candidates never to reach a point in their lives in which they no longer had a desire to be liked. It's at that point that they'd start becoming ineffective. Such a desire is God's gift, just as the ability to proclaim God's word is a gift. Combining the two creates the dying and rising experience which makes us one with Jesus.