Jesus mentions proselytism only once, and it’s not nice. In Matthew 23:15 (ESV), he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” These words stop me in my tracks. I have traveled across sea and land in hopes of seeing more people come to faith in Jesus. How do I know that my human failures are not making them children of hell?
While the Pharisees were making proselytes, Jesus was making disciples. He did so with a very simple message, the same message as John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!”
A proselyte has changed an opinion, has adhered to a different way of thinking—or perhaps just a different set of rituals. A disciple, however, has a new way of being. Repentance means their life has turned no less than 180 degrees and they are now living differently. How are they living? They are living in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus further said to the scribes and Pharisees, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13). How is this possible? How could they be making proselytes, but not allowing them to enter the kingdom of heaven? Jesus explains in verse 23 (ESV), “…you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.”
Justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Jesus didn’t bring a new religion; he brought a new way of being human. Not that it was new, but he was the only one who has lived it perfectly and integrally. No wonder he called himself “the Son of Man.” It’s a designation that originated in prophecy and basically means “The Human.” The anointed king came to be and to live the kingdom that he was creating brand new in his own body. He lived justice, mercy, and faithfulness in his every action and word. And he was inviting others to live in this New Humanity by making disciples.
His disciples weren’t proselytes—they didn’t change any hats or badges. They were just real people in the process of listening to Jesus and receiving his loving humanity. That process is called being a disciple.
Proselytizing is inherently manipulative. To make “the convert” is the main goal. And we have certain means of attaining that goal. I’m reminded of a homeless shelter in Detroit that offered a meal to the homeless, but only after they sat through the devotional. But Jesus healed and fed people because he had compassion for them and their human needs. He made disciples with his whole honest person and in that way opened wide the door to the kingdom of heaven.
I have a friend. He has four wives. He is the most educated and respected religious teacher in our town. He leads prayer at the mosque and judges disputes in the community. He calls me White Teacher and I call him Imam. He’s gregarious and always has a story to tell, and he’s not remotely interested in the Christian Scriptures that I bring. Or at least he won’t show it. But he shares my humanity; he is a person in process. So, I can open the door of the kingdom to him in the way I live and speak.
I learn from Jesus that the invitation into the kingdom of heaven is always open, always explicit, and always free. It’s open because Jesus’ resurrection is for the life of the whole world. It’s explicit because communication is part of being human: Jesus is the Word. And it’s free because Jesus’ death excludes any other price. As a missionary, my job is sometimes just to get out of the way!
We have started several projects in Chad: a Bible Story project, famine relief for war refugees, Bible translation, a cattle project, and a new elementary school in our village. In each of these projects we end up handing the management to our Chadian brothers and sisters. We are learning to walk alongside these Chadian believers as fellow humans growing in justice, mercy, and faithfulness, so that they become compassionate refugee aid workers, schoolteachers, Bible translators, and evangelists. As we do this, the message of Jesus rings constantly in our ears: “Repent of your proselytizing, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Nathanael S. serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as a missionary in Chad, Africa.