The Odd Couple

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Few people have come to know the inner workings of Capitol Hill as intimately as the late journalist and bestselling author Cokie Roberts.

Both her parents served the state of Louisiana as Congressional representatives – her mother succeeding her father after his untimely death. 

Roberts spent more than 40 years as a political reporter, senior news analyst for National Public Radio, and national commentator for ABC News. 

Shortly before she lost her battle with cancer in 2019, she observed that Congress had been transformed during her journalistic career.  Four decades earlier, it was common knowledge that approximately 10-15% of our national elected leaders were zealously liberal, while another 10-15% were staunchly conservative. 

Governance happened in the middle.  The majority of senators and representatives might hem and haw for a while, but ultimately they would reach across the aisle, establish partnerships, and agree to compromises.  And the nation would move forward.

Cokie, at the end of her career, noted wistfully that that arrangement seemed like a lost world.  The Center is gone.  In order to get elected, you have to be certifiably Left or Right.  In order to stay in office, your job is to lob grenades in the direction of the Other Side.  And you must never give an inch to “those people”, even if they occasionally come up with good ideas.   

Every issue – whether the economy, immigration, gun control, the validity of science, or even the rules of debate – is a battleground. 

When every hill becomes a hill worth dying on, leaders no longer have the capacity to move forward. 

It’s not just Capitol Hill.  Families shudder to think about the next holiday, since the last one dissolved into an ideological battle at the dinner table.  Town hall meetings become shouting matches pitting someone’s right to speak vs. someone else’s right not to hear what they think is drivel.  A few years ago, the pastor of a conservative congregation in North Carolina paused during worship to read aloud the names of a dozen church members who had recently voted for a Democratic presidential candidate.  He suggested they find another church. 

Who in their right mind would think that the Radical Left and the Reactionary Right could ever go through life together?

That would be Jesus

Within his original cadre of twelve followers were a pair of disciples representing dramatically different perspectives. 

Jesus personally recruited Matthew the tax collector. 

As we noted a few weeks ago, tax gatherers were despised collaborators with Judea’s Roman overlords.  They were sellouts.  Tax collectors not only levied the crushing burden of 40-60% of household income demanded by Rome, but fleeced their neighbors above-and-beyond in order to become rich.  Since the rabbis taught they had thrown away all hope of a happy life in the next world, why not live it up in this one?

Jesus also recruited Simon the Zealot.

The Zealots wouldn’t come into full flower as a terrorist organization until 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection.  But we have every reason to believe that Simon bore that name because he was sympathetic to the Zealots’ commitment to overthrow Roman domination – no matter what sacrifice might be required.  Murder was not out of the question.  The sicarii, a Zealot splinter group, might walk into a crowded marketplace and stealthily approach a human target (a tax collector, perhaps), bringing him down with a flurry of stabs from concealed daggers.

Jesus apparently thought it was a great idea to invite a Zealot and a tax collector into the same band of brothers.  They were the original Odd Couple.

Their pictures appear above in the etching based on a detail of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Last Supper.  That’s Matthew on the left, Thaddeus in the middle, and Simon on the right. 

In Jesus’ new community – his vision for a new kind of world – Left and Right belong in the same space at the same time.  “Hey Matthew and Simon, why don’t you guys room together on our next mission trip?” 

It seems incredible even to imagine this.

But maybe it’s as easy as riding a bike.

Do you remember your first pangs of fear when the training wheels came off?  How could you possibly not tumble to the right or the left?  But you learned to pedal your bike and go forward. 

Our call as families, congregations, and communities is to keep pedaling.  There are so many things that liberals and conservatives, Left and Right, can do together. 

We can sit down together and talk to God.  We can stand up together holding opposite ends of a piece of drywall.  We can serve together cleaning up a neighbor’s yard or handing out fresh vegetables at a local pantry.  We can save lives together at a medical clinic.  We can elicit smiles together by visiting a retirement home.  We can make music together in a choir.

Suddenly, and strangely, we discover we have much in common. 

We breathe the same air, eat the same food, and cherish the same hopes for our children and grandchildren.  We’re loved by the same Father, rescued by the same Savior, and empowered by the same Spirit.

It just may be that Simon and Matthew discovered their differences on the left and right were far less important than pursuing the One who was leading them forward.

So put down your grenades.  Walk towards the center.

You may not even believe it yourself at this moment, but you just might end up making a new friend.