by Emily Carson
Jesus consistently stepped into tense situations rather than tiptoeing around them. He didn’t avoid difficult interpersonal dynamics; he embraced them and recognized that tension is often a catalyst for transformation (of people and systems).
Tension can be defined as the state of being stretched. We can experience it individually, and it also happens collectively within workplace teams, congregations and communities. While many of us tend to walk in the opposite direction of tension, Jesus offers an alternative: walk toward it.
As we figure out what to do with tension in our daily lives, it’s useful to step into several narratives from the Gospel of Luke that reveal insights about the ways Jesus navigated disagreement and uncertainty.
Mary & Martha: Luke 10:38-42
It’s a story about two very relatable sisters. Sometimes I cringe a bit when I read commentaries on Mary and Martha because theologians and preachers are sometimes far too quick to make caricatures of them–especially Martha, Martha, Martha with all her busy work.
To me, they both seem relatable. Sometimes we’re more like Mary–able to slow down and savor important moments of connection. Sometimes we’re more like Martha–frenzied and distracted with work that feels sincerely important but perhaps isn’t as pivotal as we might imagine.
Mary and Martha had different approaches to preparing for a visit from Jesus. Rather than avoid the tension that was going on between these two sisters, Jesus stepped into it. He valued them both immensely. But he didn’t want to miss an opportunity to expand awareness and insight. Jesus wasn’t a silent guest. He stepped into the tension and shared reflections with respect; he used the discord to invite Mary and Martha into a new way of thinking about what matters most.
Religious Authorities: Luke 15
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus ruffled plenty of feathers. Jesus had been spending a lot of time with people characterized as tax collectors and sinners. Religious authorities were dumbfounded. They couldn’t figure out why a religious person like Jesus would be cavorting with people of ill-repute.
Rather than dismissing their commentary and confusion altogether, Jesus steps closer and tells stories meant to expand their empathy and compassion. In Luke 15, we find some of the Scriptures’ most beloved parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. Jesus embraces the tension in the system and offers stories. He did what he could to equip the people around him to see their environment and neighbors in new, less judgmental ways.
Fighting about Greatness: Luke 22:24-30
The disciples were some of Jesus’ closest friends. They ate meals together. They traveled together on foot. Even with their proximity to Jesus’ ministry, the disciples weren’t perfect. Like any other group of people, they sometimes disagreed.
In Luke chapter 22, the disciples get into a dispute about who was the best. They all aspired to greatness. As with Mary and Martha, it’s easy to make caricatures out of these people, but perhaps they’re more real and relatable than it initially appears. Maybe the real argument was about which disciple had the most useful ministry skills. Or perhaps they had different ideas about how best to share the Gospel, and some believed their ideas were much better than the perspectives of others.
Into the tension of this disagreement between the disciples, Jesus entered with a transformational perspective. He didn’t allow them to fight it out. Instead, he said, “The greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves.”
Jesus invited his friends to reimagine greatness, and he correlated it with humility and service. Into the discord, Jesus offered new insights, and the disciples’ perspectives were reframed. Their tension paved the way for an important learning moment.
Being stretched is a normal part of life. When tension arises in our households, congregations and workplaces, we have options. Jesus shows us that disequilibrium is nothing to be feared but instead is an opportunity. A world of transformational possibilities opens when we courageously step closer to tension.
1. How would you summarize Jesus’ approach to tension?
2. What are some of the ways you generally deal with discomfort and disagreement?
3. What’s a situation you’re currently navigating that might be aided by a new approach to tension?
God of Courage, we often strive after pleasant feelings, and that leads us away from tension. As we encounter stories of your ministry, we witness the ways you stepped closer to unease and disagreement. We pray today that you would help us to see the transformational opportunities that exist within tension. Amen.
Emily Carson is a gardener, houseplant collector and big fan of public libraries. She enjoys exploring new hiking trails and coffee shops with her husband, Justin, and their pups, Maeve and Finn. She is a pastor and currently serves as an Assistant to the Bishop & the Director for Evangelical Mission in the Southeastern Minnesota Synod, ELCA. Find Emily on Instagram at @emilyannecarson. Her book, “Holy Everything,” is available in print and digital formats. A free discussion guide is available at http://www.holyeverything.com.
This article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Boldcafe.org.