Did Jesus Prey on the Vulnerable?
Perhaps you have noticed that those who stand against the gospel often appear very concerned for the welfare of others. Some who oppose evangelizing Jews say that missionaries like Jews for Jesus prey” on the weak and vulnerable. They present themselves as advocates of those who are weak as they sound the alarm against evangelists. According to them, only the very needy or neglected respond to our message.
In “True Believers?” (Jewish Week, October, 1995), Michele Chabin depicts the messianic movement in Israel. The subhead of the article is “Are Jews for Jesus in Israel just praying to their God or preying on unsuspecting immigrants?” Though balanced in her reporting (she includes testimonies of several Jewish believers), Chabin interviews some of the more intemperate antimissionaries in Israel who lambaste Jewish believers and outreach workers for “preying” on jobless, disoriented new immigrants from Ethiopia and Russia.
Shmuel Golding (who discovered that he was Jewish when he was in his 30s) is one such antimissionary who directs the anti-cult Institute of Biblical Polemics in Jerusalem. He says, “Most immigrants need a lot of help and these people [missionaries] come along and befriend them.…I have Ethiopians calling me every day upset about the missionizing going on in the absorption centers and caravan parks. The missionaries go around and give out the New Testament in Amharic.” Golding implies that only people in dire straits or those who were somehow deficient in religious upbringing would accept the gospel message. He and other antimissionaries insist that to approach any Jew who was not taught to reject the gospel is to take unfair and unethical advantage of the vulnerable.
That kind of opposition is not peculiar to the Jewish mission field. You might hear the same rhetoric from unbelievers who accuse missionaries to bush people of destroying the beauty of a native religion and its attendant cultural mores. Others say that campus ministries entice “geeks” and “nerds” by making them feel important. In other words, only geeks, nerds, innocent, ignorant, primitive, disoriented, simple or emotionally crippled people come to faith in Christ—unless, of course, they’ve been raised that way!
What can a Christian (Jewish or otherwise) say to the accusation that we direct our message to the weak, the vulnerable and the fringe of the community—be it the Jewish community or any other? The Scriptures show that the person and message of Jesus certainly appealed to the disenchanted, the outcasts and those who were hopeless and helpless. But does that mean that Jesus preyed on the vulnerable, and that we who seek to win others to Him are only interested in or successful with “less than normal” people?
The idea of preying on the vulnerable is based on the assumption that ordinary people are not vulnerable. It’s a false assumption because all of us are either weak, weaker or weakest depending on our life situations.
We are all vulnerable because of the very transitory nature of life. We are vulnerable because of illnesses and the fragility of human relationships. No one is so formidable as to be victorious in all circumstances. We are weak, hence vulnerable. It takes courage to face the fact of how very weak we are.
Whatever strength, whatever power the very strongest people might wield could not lengthen their days upon the earth or force open the gates of heaven in the world to come. Jesus came because the whole human race was lost and liable to the judgment of God. The entire gospel message declares the weakness and vulnerability of all humanity and God’s grace to save us with a strong arm and an outstretched hand.
Likewise, the story of the Jewish people is one in which God has demonstrated His strength. It is by His power that the Jewish people have prevailed in the face of overwhelming odds. When God chose Abraham and Sarah, He did not choose the mightiest or the strongest people on the earth. He chose a man of simple faith, and He chose a couple who was barren apart from the miracle He would provide. When God chose Moses, He chose a person slow of speech, one who begged that someone else be sent to Pharaoh. When God chose Gideon, he did not choose a valiant warrior but a man who was fearful and tested God over and over to make sure that victory was secure. Do we worship some kind of a “cosmic codependent” deity who attracts only the weak? No! We worship the Almighty who is merciful and so powerful that in Him even the weak are strong.
Some expected God’s Messiah to come to earth resplendent in the shechinah glory. They thought He would present Himself to rulers and nobles with a show of power that would command the obedience of all. But the Lord of all came first to the humble, the weak, the lame and the outcasts. He had the time and patience for children, yet He had no patience for the self-righteous who made an ostentatious display of their religion and their strength.
It is not that the gospel message appeals only to those who are vulnerable; rather the message appeals to those who have the courage to allow themselves to know that they are vulnerable. Everyone stands in need of the gospel. But the proud and the self-sufficient refuse to see their need, or if they do, they fail to admit it. Yet that does not mean that only the poor and despondent will admit their need.
In the Gospels we see that not only tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick and the poor responded to Jesus. Well-educated and powerful people like Nicodemus also sought Him out. Jesus’ tomb was provided by a wealthy and prestigious man who appears to have been a follower. Humility is not a virtue reserved for the poor or the outcast. It’s simply a bit easier to acquire by those who have obvious reminders of their limitations. It takes a humble person to accept what God has offered through Jesus. And humility turns weakness into a kind of strength—the strength to accept God’s grace.
C. S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, illustrates what keeps people from heaven. In this fantasy, the damned are permitted a trip to the outskirts of heaven. There they receive the opportunity to leave hell forever and join the saints in glory. The overwhelming majority rationalize away the opportunity. One, refusing to even get off the bus, declares, “I don’t want your bleeding charity.” The saint chosen to help him replies, “Take it…take the bleeding charity.”
Dear friends, in our proclamation of the gospel we are offering people God’s charity. Of course the proud and the “strong” will be offended, but God wants us to follow His example. He wants us to offer His gift to people of all stations of life, from the homeless to the prostitute to the successful businessperson. And if our churches are filled with more of the broken, the sick and the helpless than the successful, the self-assured and the sought after, let the world hold us in derision. We cannot turn away those whom Christ holds dear, and we needn’t pursue those who have contempt for His grace. The world judges according to appearances. We must look at people through the eyes of Christ, seeing not only what is, but also what will be as God heals and mends the broken and transforms the humble into the image of His Son.
To say that Jesus “preyed upon the vulnerable” is not only to misunderstand the object but also to miss the point of the verb. To prey means to pursue and kill in order to devour. Jesus didn’t come to the weak to devour them but to present Himself as holy food and drink: the bread of life and the living waters. As we partake of His sacrificial body and blood, those of us who are weak and vulnerable become strong and steady and spiritually alive. Indeed He is our strength and our salvation!
The goodness and strength of Yeshua (Jesus) is seen in the fact that He didn’t prey on the vulnerable—He chose to be one of them! He did not set aside His godly strength because humanity was so worthy of such a sacrifice. He emptied Himself to become a man, to be tested in all ways that we’re tested, to endure all pain, shame and even an ignominious death. Yet by virtue of that very weakness He showed His strength, inasmuch as even death could not gain the final victory over Him. Christ’s resurrection stands as a story of what God can do with the weak and vulnerable. It is a story of what He can do with you and with me and with all who will come to Him. In proclaiming this truth we take nothing from those who receive it. We offer them the greatest gift ever given.