A Hill to Die On
by Alicia Johnston, 2017-02-14
“That’s just not a hill I’m willing to die on” is a phrase I’ve heard many times. I’ve probably used it myself, since it’s especially applicable to pastoral ministry. We pastors deal with so many political issues that we have to pick and choose which ones we’re willing to stick our necks out for, and which ones to stay silent on. (If you’re not a pastor, that’s just a little insight into what life is like for us.)
The phrase is military in origin, but it reminds me that Jesus, too, died on a hill. And this isn’t a question Jesus ever asked. When faced with a suffering person, Jesus never asked himself whether this was a hill worth dying on.
Issues or People?
Here’s part of the problem: We tend to think in terms of issues instead of in terms of people. Is this issue worth risking my career over? The answer to that question is normally going to be “no.” But what about when the question is about a person?
Jesus had a shady reputation. He hung out with prostitutes. What would you think about a single guy who hung out with prostitutes? He spent time with the wrong people for the right reasons. He wasn’t much concerned about his reputation among the religious leaders.
This always amazes me. I don’t know a lot of people who think like Jesus did.
My theory in life is that if you do something meaningful and bold, you will be criticized. The goal is not to avoid criticism, but to be criticized for the kinds of things for which Jesus was criticized. “He receives sinners and eats with them,” for example. (Though Jesus was also criticized for claiming to be the messiah—not a criticism I have to worry about, not being the redeemer of humanity.)
But whereas Jesus thought about ministry in personal terms, the Pharisees thought about it in legal terms. What is okay to do, and what is not okay to do? Is Jesus saying the right thing about the law? Doctrines about the resurrection? Our relationship to Caesar? It goes on and on.
I still see this today, a tendency to be focused on behavior, doctrine, and controversial issues.
What Got Jesus Killed
Jesus didn’t pick and choose what one issue for which He would die. Jesus always sided with people. Every time. There is no instance when Jesus saw someone in pain and refused to stick his neck out for that person. It was the culmination of these events that got him crucified.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day couldn’t abide a man who cared more about the people than he did about the religious establishment. They were busy defending their values and caught up in their fights between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
Jesus was intensely compassionate. Even the way he taught the law was compassionate. He taught them to love their enemies instead of focusing on who is wrong and who is right. He told them “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). While to the Pharisees he said, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matthew 23:4).
This is why the people loved him so much. He showed them that their religion was about loving their enemies, being compassionate to all people, and learning to place their trust in a God who loves them. He never compromised this message of love and compassion. He also said that this was a revelation of the character of God. “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Jesus died because every time someone asked him if compassion for people was a hill he was willing to die on, he said yes. Whether it was a Samaritan woman with a bad reputation, a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, a crowd of sick people, or the masses of humanity who felt like they weren’t good enough to meet the of arbitrary religious requirements the institution placed upon them.
He died because he chose people over powerful institutions, because he was willing to call out those institutions, and because he was unafraid to criticize the institutions that harmed people. He scared them. He undermined them. He had the gall to claim that he was from God, that he revealed God, and even that he was and is the Messiah. The people were being turned away from the religious leaders and turned towards this unorthodox man who never asked whether a particular hill was worth dying on. He just did the right thing, every time. Ultimately, he died for us all.
He said that if we want to come after him, we should take up our cross and follow him. We don’t get to pick and choose which hill is worth dying on, or which person is worth dying for.
Alicia Johnston serves the Arizona Conference of Seventh-day Adventists as the pastor of Foothills Community Church. She is an obsessive reader, a poor guitar player, and a lover of sunshine.