People keep telling me this: “You don’t get to pick and choose.”
I keep saying, “Amen! Yes, exactly.”
But then it turns out we still disagree. It turns out they don’t mean the same thing I mean when I say “You don’t get to pick and choose.” I’m talking about people. They’re talking about texts.
Our disagreement and mutual confusion is exacerbated by the fact that my claim — “You don’t get to pick and choose people” — is itself based on texts. Not on a handful of clobber texts or proof texts or single, isolated verses of scripture, but on whole stories and on the whole story.
There’s Jonah, for example, who tried to flee because, unlike God, he wanted to pick and choose the recipients of God’s grace and mercy and to insist that God not be so unacceptably abounding in steadfast love for Ninevites. Jesus seems to have been fond of that story, reworking it and retelling it in parables like the one about the two wayward, “Prodigal” sons.
There are the Gospels as a whole, too, in which “you don’t get to pick and choose people” is a major recurring theme. That theme isn’t subtle. It’s pounded home again and again as a steady stream of the supposedly “unclean” outcast people line up to find refuge with Jesus the same way that the anachronistically “unclean” animals lined up to find refuge in Noah’s ark.
And then there’s the book of Acts, a text that could be summed up, start to finish, with that same phrase: You don’t get to pick and choose people.
These are all, again, texts — scripture. They are scriptural texts explicitly rejected and neglected by the very people loudly insisting that we aren’t allowed to “pick and choose” among texts. They are texts those people have chosen not to pick.
They have, instead, picked and chosen other texts — a small collection of clobber texts that they say carve out exceptions never mentioned in the larger texts they reject. These clobber texts, they argue, trump every other text that suggests anything else. And because of these clobber texts, they say, we have not only the right, but the duty to pick and choose people.
This is not a new dispute. This exact same argument has been going on for thousands of years. It is, in fact, the very same dispute that caused the nameless smart-alecky genius who wrote the book of Jonah to put pen to parchment all those centuries ago. It’s the same dispute that got the Apostle Paul so angry that we’ve had to clean up his language in our translations of his letter to the Galatians. It’s the same dispute that Jesus took one side of in winning all of his arguments with the religious excluders of his day, and that he oddly took the other side of in his argument with the Canaanite woman — the only argument Jesus ever lost.
The particulars of the dispute have changed over the centuries, but the argument remains the same. The two sides of the argument are still arguing the very same thing. “You can’t pick and choose texts,” one side says. And the other side responds, “No, you can’t pick and choose people.”
St. Paul is sometimes called the “missionary to the Gentiles,” which is another way of saying that Paul’s entire life and ministry was about this very argument. It was, for Paul, an obsession. The apostle insisted, and all of his epistles insist, that we cannot pick and choose people — that we cannot exclude Gentiles as unclean outsiders just because of a bunch of clobber texts.
This was a tough fight for Paul because he didn’t just have to contend with a small handful of scattered scriptures. He was up against a vast, daunting wall of unambiguous biblical commandments. These Gentiles he was arguing for were uncircumcised, they were literally not kosher, they ate meat that had been sacrificed to false gods. These were not minor points. It was downright easy for Paul’s opponents to argue from scripture that such unclean, uncircumcised outsiders were emphatically and explicitly excluded by the text of scripture. And it was near impossible for Paul to argue that the text of scripture said otherwise.
But Paul, like the Canaanite woman, won the argument. You don’t get to pick and choose people.
And from where I’m sitting, that’s incredibly important. I’m a Gentile Christian in the home of the cheesesteak and yet, despite the vast sea of clobber texts that clearly forbid my inclusion and acceptance, I have been included and accepted.
That’s one reason this argument is so important to me. Freely you have received, freely give. Like the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable, I am obliged and compelled to show the same grace to others that has been shown to me. Or else.
It would be the definition of ingratitude for me to accept my hard-won exemption from the multitude of clobber texts excluding treyf Gentiles like myself while at the same time insisting that the tiny handful of clobber-texts that exclude some others must still be allowed to trump every other text and every other story. That would be ignoble, despicable, too dickish for words.
So that’s not an option for me. I don’t get to pick and choose sides in the ongoing argument over picking and choosing, because I’m only able to participate in that argument thanks to one side already winning one round of that fight. I’m one of those Canaanite “dogs” eating the crumbs that fall from their master’s table, and as such it would be foolish, inconsistent, unjust and abominably selfish of me to start pretending I’m some kind of special case. It would be every kind of wrong for me to say that in my case, you don’t get to pick and choose people, but in other people’s case, the clobber-texts must prevail — outweighing every other text, every other virtue, every other person.
But it’s not only a matter of gratitude. I also think that Paul and the church in Acts and Jesus and the smart-aleck prophet who gave us Jonah were all right. I’m not just grateful that I benefit from their argument, I’m persuaded that their argument was true.
I simply cannot make sense of the nonsense of those who argue that “You don’t get to pick and choose texts” in support of their claim that some texts should be picked and chosen over other texts. I simply do not agree with those who say that love is not the fulfillment of the law. They’re simply wrong. Paul said they were wrong. Jesus said they were wrong. The entire church in the book of Acts said they were wrong.
You don’t get to pick and choose people. If you’re picking and choosing your clobber texts in order to pick and choose people, then you’re misreading and misapplying those texts. You’re wrong about those texts and you’re wrong about those people.
And you’re probably also a self-serving ingrate, which doesn’t add much to the appeal of your argument either.