My friend Rob was spending a couple of days in Rome, seeing the sights. Instead of using public transportation, he opted to walk to the tourist spots. That way, if he saw something on the way that interested him, he could be spontaneous and stop.
He visited all the typical tourist spots, and a few more besides, but that meant that he walked about fifteen miles a day. By Sunday afternoon he was worn out. So he found a table at a local café, ate his meal, and was grateful for a little time to rest before his train departed.
The café was pleasant, the servers were kind, and Rob was comfortable. Then a man dressed in a restaurant uniform came into the café and the atmosphere immediately changed. The workers, who had been casual and relaxed, suddenly put their heads down and went to work. Rob surmised that the newcomer was the owner.
And that’s when it got weird. The man sat down at a table a few yards away from my friend and began to stare at him. Not the kind of stare that ends abruptly when eyes meet, but a stare-you-down, stare daggers, glower. The man never took his eyes off Rob. He sat still for ten minutes, just staring. And he didn’t look happy.
That was disconcerting enough, but when the man got up with a knife and other utensils and walked out of the room, things got even stranger. The moment he was out of sight, Rob’s server rushed to his table and said, “Get out of here. Right now. Don’t walk…run!”
Rob didn’t run, but he left. Shaken, he wondered what had just happened. Was this a gag that the restaurant staff plays on naïve Americans, a sort of Candid Camera, we-got-you practical joke? Or was the owner some kind of mafia kingpin who mistook Rob for someone else, or maybe just hates Americans or despises tall people with blue eyes?
Rob never found out what the owner was thinking, and it’s unlikely that he’ll go back to ask. Maybe he completely misread the situation, but why take chances?
Some people have a similar experience with God. They’re not at all sure what he thinks of them and, judging by appearances and other people’s comments, it might be better not to ask. As soon as they get the chance, they put a little distance between them and him.
In my friend Rob’s case, getting away from the café owner was probably the right thing to do. But when people allow themselves to be frightened away from God by the way they read a situation or by the remarks of some self-proclaimed expert, they’re making a mistake.
There were many self-proclaimed experts in Jesus’s day, eager to interpret God’s actions (or inactions). For example, when people were ill, they said that God was punishing them. That claim was based on a belief about God’s character that Jesus rejected. He explained (in Eugene Peterson’ paraphrase): “There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.”
Many people saw God as a distant, yet angry, deity. Jesus helped people see God for what he is: a loving and intimate Father who “knows what you need before you ask him.”
When Jesus was on earth, it was widely assumed that God was principally interested in whether or not people kept the rules. But Jesus reimaged God. Rather than a persnickety rule-keeper, he insisted that God cares most about people’s hearts, because it is from there that things go right or go wrong. Jesus taught that God has never been satisfied for people just to keep the rules. He’s always wanted people’s hearts to be genuinely good and free to love.
Jesus also helped people understand how God thinks about “sinners.” The prevailing opinion was that God couldn’t stand them, but Jesus showed people a parent-like God who longs for his children to escape the sinful and destructive habits that are ruining their lives.
Jesus really is the expert on God who has, in the words of St. John, “shown us what God is like.” And it’s a good thing he has. Otherwise we, like my friend Rob and the café owner, would never really know what God is like or what he thinks about us.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/28/2015