Scripture: Matthew 10: 24-39
After seventeen seasons, the show went off the air in 2019, but do you all remember Who Wants to be a Millionaire? This game show tasked a person to answer multiple choice questions in an effort to reach a million dollars. The show broke new ground, because the contestant could always just walk away at their current level. The tradeoff between guessing and climbing the ladder or taking the money and walking away created a lot of tension. The game also had a strong “I can do this feeling” because the contestants had a series of lifelines. This meant that even if they did not know the answer themselves they could rely on a lifeline to pull them through. The most dependable lifeline was poll the audience. In the history of the show Who Wants to be a Millionaire the majority of the audience picks the right answer 91% of the time. That is really crazy to think about. Presumably the average audience member is roughly of equal intelligence to the contestant. Each individual person is just as likely to know the answer as the contestant who is struggling, so why then as a group does the audience get it right so often?
This is a well-known social science phenomena called group intelligence. It was popularized and shown to be a real thing by a well-known experiment in 1987 involving jelly beans. Students were asked to guess how many jelly beans were in a container, and everyone was wrong. Most people were wildly wrong. However, the average of all the guesses was only 2.5% off from the right answer. This experiment has been replicated many times with similar results. In general, we tend to trust crowd wisdom. In advertising, it is the Holy Grail for a product to become the most trusted brand because it has group wisdom. All companies want their product to become the one that “everyone” knows is the best. Most cultural convictions, mores, and values are upheld by group wisdom. We instinctively know where the majority falls, and we fall in line because we do not want to be an outlier. This morning’s scripture thought is a bold and honestly uncomfortable challenge to that way of thinking. When seeking to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ puts us at odds with group intelligence or group wisdom what do we do? When it feels like we are one vs all how do we know that we are on the side of truth? These are the questions that this morning’s scripture seeks to answer.
This morning’s scripture is a difficult one for us. It comes from the middle of a major teaching discourse in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus is commissioning his twelve disciples to be sent out on his behalf, and he is telling them what they can expect to encounter. What he tells them is not good news. He tells them they will be insulted, they will be threatened, they will be hurt, and they will experience discord. What is worse, is that the Jesus tells his disciples that this is not just theoretical, but it is something that they will experience personally and close to home as following Jesus will set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother.” Jesus tells his disciples that following him will cause conflict in their life because it will make them an outlier, and it will feel like they are the one going up against the all. Despite that Jesus urges his disciples to follow in his footsteps boldly. Three times in this morning’s scripture Jesus declares “do not be afraid.” Jesus told his disciples to make bold proclamations in the light of day and to proclaim truth from the rooftops. He dramatically and passionately urges his disciples to follow him, no matter what the cost.
Throughout the course of Christian history, this is exactly what faithful disciples did. In the early centuries of Christianity, disciples of Jesus stood for their faith under persecution that was sometimes intense and led to death. Generations later when corruption had begun to seep into the church, faithful reformers sought to return God’s people to holiness and passionate faith. They did this despite immense political pressure and in some rare instances burning at the stake. Still later, it was faithful Christians who took on many of the social ills in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. It was faithful Christians who stood against their culture and saw it a moral imperative to abolish slavery. It was faithful Christians in the United States who willfully broke the law to help slaves escape and move to safety along the Underground Railroad. It was faithful Christians who sought to educate poor children as a way of freeing them from a life of poverty, and it was these same Christians who campaigned tirelessly to protect the rights of children and create child labor laws. It was faithful Christians who were at the forefront of the civil rights movement. In all of these instances, the faithful Christians went against the grain, they broke with the group wisdom, and they stood alone for the sake of the gospel. They picked up their cross and followed Jesus
Today, we celebrate these faithful witnesses of our faith who put their belief in Christ into action by taking a stand for justice and love. However, we have to acknowledge that while these people were living out this morning’s scripture, their opposition, the crowd who belittled and threatened, were often made up of good religious people. While some Christians were working to abolish the evil practice of slavery, others were twisting scriptures to explain why slavery was the God-ordained way of things. While some Christians were seeking to end poverty through education and compassion on children, others were chiding and belittling their efforts by criticizing that God only helps those who help themselves. Throughout history in being faithful to following Jesus, some Christians have sought to enact real social change to make this world a more kind, equitable, and loving place. Every single time this has happened the strongest and most vitriolic voices of opposition to these changes have been other Christians.
Religious people opposing change, even if the change is motivated by religious reasons, is not anything new. We have to remember that in this scripture when Jesus said “do not be afraid of them”. The “them” Jesus was talking about were the Pharisees, the respected religious leaders of the day. Whenever following Jesus leads us to challenge and want to change the way things are then there will be opposition and pressure to get back into line from established religious culture. All the way back in 1918 American Baptist pastor and theologian Walter Rauschenbusch pointed this out. In his book A Theology for the Social Gospel he wrote, “The more subtle and spiritual forms of pressure have doubtless been felt by every person who ever differed with [their] own church, whatever it was.”
This morning’s scripture should cause us to take a long, hard look in the mirror. This morning’s scripture challenges us with the question are we the student that is being like the teacher, or are we the many standing in opposition. None of us get it right all the time, so we have to be willing to humbly confess that sometimes we allow the group wisdom to dictate our choices instead of walking the path of Jesus.
This does lead us to an important question. When it comes to living out our faith, how do we know the group wisdom is wrong? How do we know when being faithful to following Jesus will lead us to stand apart from the crowd? If we feel like taking an action that puts us on the outside where it feels like a one vs. all scenario, how we know that the action we wish to take is God-inspired and not just from our own minds. By looking at this scripture, scripture as a whole, and considering some of the failings of group wisdom we can find ourselves on solid ground.
Following Jesus will often lead us to take steps in faith, and that is an area that group wisdom is not the best at. Further research on group intelligence or group wisdom has found that it somewhat limited. Group intelligence is excellent at getting trivia answers correct, but it is significantly worse at innovation. For instance one study had a group of people pick between four food options. One was plain chicken and rice. The others were much more exotic and creative featuring flavors like garlic, jalapeno, and ginger. The majority picked the plain chicken and rice. However, the people were also asked to rank the dishes, and chicken and rice was the least favorite. More people picked chicken and rice than any other single dish, but everyone who did not pick the blandest option rated it the worse. This experiment and many others like it show that group wisdom tends to the safest choice. Group wisdom more often than not bends towards maintaining the status quo. The status quo tends to make the majority comfortable, but allows injustice to continue. The status quo tends to make sure those that have security, have privilege, and have power keep it while not caring about the experience of those on the margins. The status quo of this world is that it is broken and fallen in sin, the Kingdom of God is not the status quo.
Jesus most certainly challenged the status quo during his time on earth. He had compassion on those considered undesirable. He loved those who were considered unloveable, and he forgave those who were considered unforgiveable. When Jesus did this the religious leaders of his day, tried to exert pressure on him and Jesus pushed back. Jesus opposed them and opposed the status quo so that the good news of redemption, reconciliation, and acceptance by God could be experienced by all. If we are feeling led to put our faith in action in similar ways, then we can feel confident that we are being faithful to following Jesus even if that challenges the status quo and even if that goes against group wisdom.
In this morning scripture Jesus states, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” To acknowledge Jesus we have to acknowledge all of his message, life, and teachings-not just the bits we like. This means we acknowledge Jesus by showing compassion for the marginalized. It means we listen to, empathize with, and have compassion for people whose life experience is different than our own. It means we seek to include those who have been made to feel excluded. When we stand by the type of people Jesus stood by and we oppose the type of people that Jesus opposed, then we will find ourselves pushing against the status quo. We will find opposition, just like Jesus said we would in this scripture.
Given that, what is our next step? What should we do? If seeking to follow the example of Jesus makes us a cultural outlier, if it puts us as one against the group wisdom, then we should do it anyway. Not only should we do it, but we should do it with boldness, because Jesus himself said “do not be afraid of them.” In verse 25 Jesus encourages the students to be like the teacher or the servants like the master. He encourages us to be like him. If we truly take that seriously, then we will do world transforming things that will make tangible and eternal difference in the lives of others. Whenever we put our faith into action we will be doing something significant and that will always bring opposition. The message though of this scripture is clear, do it anyway.
When we seek to follow Jesus and face opposition it will likely not be violent and may not even be particularly hateful. No, often the opposition is more along the lines of “we’ve never done it that way before” or that is not possible. Often the impossible is impossible until it becomes possible. For generations it was assumed that it was impossible for the human body to run a mile faster than four minutes. Then in 1954 the impossible happened and Roger Banister did it in 3:59.4. Since then the record has been broken 18 times and the current world record is 3:43.13. History is full of incidents of the impossible becoming possible. If people of capable of doing the impossible, then how much more true is that for God. Just because it has never been done or it does not seem possible is a poor reason to oppose something. As it says elsewhere in Matthew, “with God all things are possible.”
As long as people seek to faithfully follow Jesus, there will be people who seek to transform this world into a more kind and loving place. When we encounter someone else who is seeking to bring the impossible into the world, when we encounter someone who is seeking to join God in transforming the world, when we encounter someone who is seeking to follow the example of their master and teacher Jesus Christ may we not be among the opposition. May we seek to encourage them. May we go a step further though, may we acknowledge before others our Lord Jesus by loving the people that he loved and serving the kinds of people he served. May we not be afraid to take risks, even if that means taking up our cross. May we follow Jesus with such a reckless abandon that it can only be described as faith. May we may not be afraid, even if following Jesus leads us to challenge the status quo. May we not be afraid, even if following Jesus leads us to going against group wisdom. May we not be afraid even if following Jesus makes us feel like we are one vs. all. May we never be afraid, because we never stand alone. If we are standing for love, peace, and compassion then we can be assured that Jesus is standing right there with us.