The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” (John 2:13-16, ESV)
Periodically, at the inner-city congregation which I pastor, we notice a familiar visitor in our midst. I’ll call him Marvin.
Marvin is, basically, a nice guy. Smart. Polite. Personable. That is, as long as he takes the meds he’s supposed to be taking, and avoids cocaine and booze.
Trouble is, this man never seems to stay on his meds. Always, it seems, alcohol and street drugs displace them—and then, in very short order, Marvin’s schizophrenia takes over his life. And the nice-guy Marvin disappears. In church, he becomes disruptive, loud, combative and threatening. He scares people. Trying to reason with this Marvin is pointless.
It always ends the same way: with me ejecting him from our building, telling him I will call the police if he shows up again. And, typically, Marvin keeps his distance for months or years afterward.
Over the past 16 years or so, this drama has played out no fewer than four times … and counting. Marvin always returns, of course—and when he does, I give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he has straightened out. Perhaps he’s finally gotten it together, I think … until it turns out … he hasn’t. And then, once more, I cast him out of the temple.
On the wall in my office hangs a large framed picture, which has occupied that space above my desk for some years now. It is a photograph, actually, of a magnificent specimen of Canis lupus, whose transfixing gaze yet gives me pause. And it has a caption, printed large: “THE GOOD SHEPHERD KNOWS THE WOLF.”
I keep it there because it reminds me that one of the most difficult roles of a pastor is also one of the most essential: the role of shepherd. Although we are used to seeing that biblical image rendered in comforting pastels—usually portraying Jesus carrying a lamb in his arms or draped over his kindly shoulders—we should remember that a shepherd’s care for his flock needs to be as robust as it is gentle.
David, for example, was a shepherd in his youth. To King Saul, he described his job in this way: “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him.” (1 Samuel 17:34-35).
Yeah. I don’t think I’d ever go so far as to kill poor Marvin … I’d much rather talk to him, always hopeful that someday, somehow, he will accept the wise counsel and practical help being offered to him from many sources … But I won’t risk having him kill one of my sheep, either.
However—like I said—this business of “knowing the wolf” and dealing with him … this is one of the most difficult pastoral roles. Perhaps it’s the most difficult. Because, of course, pastors are supposed to be welcoming. Friendly. Compassionate. We aren’t supposed to turf anyone out of God’s house, are we?
Certainly, we don’t want to. Always hoping for the return of a prodigal son or daughter, our inclination is to keep the sheepfold gate flung wide open. After all, everybody is always welcome in church … right?
Actually, I would submit that the biblical answer to that question is, “No.”
In the well-known story of Jesus “cleansing the Temple”—reported in all four canonical gospels1—we find the Good Shepherd violently removing quite a number of small businessmen from the Temple precincts. And although John’s account frames the Lord’s anger as a reaction against commerce (“do not make my Father’s house a house of trade”), the synoptics quote Jesus as saying the livestock dealers and money-changers comprised “a den of robbers.”
In other words—as James Wetzstein has pointed out in his astute comic strip2—Jesus was condemning not honest trade, but unethical practice. The church bake sale is no concern of his; but he will not countenance swindlers out to extort and abuse the faithful. As John describes the scene, the Lord was angry enough to flog the crooked merchants!
“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild; dirty dealers drive you wild.” (Are you listening, Bell Canada?)
The hard truth is: NOT everybody is welcome in church! If that sounds unnecessarily cruel, ask yourself: would you want to be part of a family which failed to protect its members? I know I wouldn’t.
Those with malicious intent—who want to bilk our senior citizens, or abuse our children, or embezzle funds from the treasury—all of these should be most pointedly not welcome in anybody’s church. Neither should anyone who—by dint of their refusal to acknowledge their own demons—poses a threat to others.
A harsh principle? I guess so. Fun to enforce? Absolutely not. Something which will trouble the shepherd’s conscience, even though he realizes it must be done? You betcha. For even the predators are God’s own creatures—as are the unfortunate Marvins of this world.
So what’s a perplexed pastor to do, when the wolf raises its head? Pray for wisdom, I suppose. Especially in those situations where neither compassion nor wisdom comes easy.
1 Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-25.