Thank you soooo much. This is soooo nice of you guys.
I smiled despite my discomfort and took my cue to re-direct this young woman’s appreciation: We know that Jesus cares about you so we thought He would like it if we could do something nice for you. You don’t have to do anything in return, but if you want to ask God if He is real, that would be great.
It was the Bay to Breakers race: seven miles of serious physical exertion for some, an entertaining San Francisco spectacle for others. About 70,000 people participated, some athletes, some exhibitionists who either wore elaborate costumes—or in some cases, nothing at all.
Bay to Breakers is a San Francisco institution and it has become an annual tradition for Jews for Jesus as well. For the last two decades we’ve greeted the runners (or walkers) just past the finish line with a smile and a broadside tract, inviting people to interact with the gospel in a good-natured way.
In 2001 we broke a bit with tradition. It was the last week of Behold Your God San Francisco, and the grand finale for our very first BYG campaign was the Bay to Breakers sortie (tract passing expedition). I asked David Brickner if we could offer free foot massages in addition to the broadsides. It seemed biblical—kind of ancient yet fresh—like foot-washing with a twist. David agreed and our small team of foot massagers had a great time. Maybe you read about it in the July, 2001 newsletter. One of the campaign stewards prayed with a woman to receive the Lord after massaging her feet.
We did the foot massages again at the 2003 Bay to Breakers sortie, and it will probably be part of our tradition from now on. It’s hard to imagine a more appreciative group of people than those who received this ministry.
Which brings me to the point. Why was I so uncomfortable with people’s expressions of appreciation? In part, there was an appropriate concern that we not draw appreciation to ourselves, but that people know the Lord’s care and goodness through our actions. But there was something else.
Most of our team was engaged in a far less popular task. We sat as people lined up, waiting for an opportunity to have their sore and tired feet rubbed. We had at least a bit of meaningful conversation with most. Meanwhile, our colleagues stood for 2-2.5 hours, offering gospel tracts to a majority of people who refused them. Yes, they handed out a little over 11,000 broadside tracts that day. But thousands more people passed by, sometimes pretending to ignore them, sometimes tossing out cruel or crude remarks. Some ripped up tracts. Some merely looked at the broadsiders as though they were the scum of the earth.
I felt guilty that we were appreciated while they were rejected.
What do you do when you feel guilty about doing something you truly believe is right? On reflection I recalled that Jesus did not spend His entire ministry being rejected. Some appreciated Him for His acts of forgiveness and grace. Many more appreciated His gifts of healing or feeding. He did these things that people might know that the Father had given Him power and authority, but He also did these things because He had compassion. He especially had compassion for those who were afflicted.
The Hebrew Scriptures also give examples of prophets meeting people’s physical needs. Elijah blessed the poor widow with a never-ending supply of flour and oil. He revived her son from death. He and many Bible personalities had a ministry of compassion that greatly comforted the afflicted. Of course he also afflicted the comfortable,” especially those in authority like Ahab and Jezebel.
Likewise, Jesus’ compassion seemed to run deepest for those who were afflicted. His words to leaders who were self-sufficient and self-satisfied were not so comforting.
My guilt feelings were an opportunity to reflect on how proclaiming God’s kingdom includes compassion as well as proclamation—not an either/or proposition.
We Jews for Jesus are accustomed to “taking the heat” as we stand on the front lines and proclaim Jesus as the only way of salvation. Contrary to the opinions of some, we do not delight in “the heat.” It is not that we thrive on rejection. Rather, the pressure to stop doing things that might bring rejection has made our resolve to risk rejection for Jesus a big part of who we are. Most of us have to push ourselves to go on sorties. We prefer the part of the missionary week when we meet with people who have agreed to study the Bible with us, people who actually want to know if Jesus might be the Messiah.
So why not stick to responding to those who show an interest? Because many, if not most, do not show an interest until someone risks inviting them to become interested. “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14) Well, when the preacher preaches, some want to hear more and others are angry.
What does all this have to do with feeling guilty and uncomfortable about people responding gratefully to our massage ministry, while those handing out tracts are receiving significant doses of rejection?
Just this: when you know that it’s right to do the difficult thing, the thing that brings rejection, sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s also right to do some things that do not bring rejection. And the reverse is also true: when you know you can do a right thing that does not involve rejection, it is easy to forget that it is sometimes necessary to do things that may bring rejection as well.
Some believe that the only way to minister the gospel is to begin and end with a clear cut call to repent. Others believe that actions speak louder than words, and that acts of compassion will draw people to the gospel. The Bible indicates that words and actions go hand in hand. Words can be undermined by opposing actions, which was Jesus’ complaint against the Pharisees. On the other hand, words are an important part of God’s wooings and warnings, from the prophets, to Yeshua (Jesus) and on to the apostles. Actions without words can mislead people so that they are drawn to us instead of the One we serve. Actions give credibility to words but words clarify actions—and it is through words and actions that the gospel and our need for it are comprehended. The foot massages and the broadsides were both important to our outreach at Bay to Breakers. One wasn’t better than the other. And frankly, the ministry of compassion in tending to people’s feet and the ministry of proclamation do overlap.
Handing out tracts can be a great opportunity to show compassion. I’ve had many meaningful interactions during sorties, have seen people walk away touched that someone cared enough to listen and talk to them about important life issues. Many times I have stopped during a street witnessing encounter to pray for a person’s concerns and people respond with grateful hearts.
On the other hand, extending the ministry of compassion through caring for people’s feet still presented opportunities for words that stirred the pot a little. One man introduced the subject of God saying, “I believe in a higher power, but who is to say if it’s important to know more than that?” I smiled and said, “Well, I guess only you are to say whether it’s important to you since no one else can decide your priorities.” He replied, “I’m satisfied to leave things as they are because really, you can’t know.” To which I said, “How do you know whether or not you can know? It seems to me like you need to at least ask yourself a hypothetical question like, ‘If it were possible to know if Jesus is true, would I want to know?’ Because until you know whether you even want to know, it’s impossible to conclude that you can’t know.” That statement, even spoken softly and with a smile, ripped through his awareness. I saw a flicker of fear in his eyes because he recognized, possibly for the first time, that he did not want to know too much about God. Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
One of the most poignant moments in our foot massage outreach was hearing one person say softly, “I don’t have enough touch in my life.” And in direct contrast, another person walked by commenting to a friend, “I wouldn’t let anyone touch my dirty, smelly feet.” Jesus came to touch our dirty, smelly feet, to cleanse our dirty, smelly souls. That’s our message and it will touch some, whether it comes via a foot massage or a gospel tract.
Both aspects of ministry are valid and necessary. Maybe what we really need to remember is that whichever God is calling us to do at the moment, it’s not about people appreciating or rejecting us. It will ultimately come down to whether they appreciate or reject Jesus.