Last week on the blog, we sat in tension. We looked at stories from the Old Testament where outsiders were treated harshly, and others where outsiders became heroes, and central figures in the Hebrew story.
Today we will try to resolve some of the tension between these Old Testament themes. In the life and words of Jesus these two seemingly contradictory priorities work together brilliantly to open a new path for inclusion.
Theme 1: Jesus isn’t worried about contamination
Last week I shared a story where the prophet Ezra was so worried about the Hebrew people being contaminated that he commanded them to send away all of their “foreign” wives, and their children (Ezra 10:1-3). Ouch!
In the life of Jesus, we see a completely different story. Far from being fearful, he seems to be looking for opportunities to spend time with people that the Hebrew laws and customs tell him to avoid.
Here are some examples:
Jesus even says in Matthew 11:19 that he has been labeled as a “friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
What is Jesus up to? Is this a simple rebellion, where Jesus is thumbing his nose at the religious elite? Or is he up to something bigger?
Theme 2: Jesus values mission over boundaries
Throughout his life, Jesus taught his disciples by using stories called parables. Many of these parables focused on the inclusive vision God had for his kingdom.
The most famous of these stories is the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The hero of this story is a complete outsider, a Samaritan, who is honored for his acts of compassion and service towards a Jew. Meanwhile the pious Jews in the story ignore their countryman in distress.
In another parable, the parable of the feast, the “poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” enjoy the last half of a banquet together, while the original guests never even bother to show up (Luke 14:15-24).
The parable of the workers describes God’s desire to include everyone in his work, even those who show up late (Matthew 20:1-16).
The message is pretty clear. Jesus is undercutting the barriers and categories that have defined Jewish life up until this time. He is challenging a system that puts holiness, or any kind of exclusionary policy, before justice and mercy and compassion.
Does this mean that holiness doesn’t matter anymore? Not exactly.
In a final testament to Jesus’s priorities, he overhears someone talking about him behind his back, commenting on him eating with “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus interjects, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
Jesus is not leaving holiness behind. He is bringing it to people. In Jesus, justice means going out to where people are and bringing wholeness and healing with him.
Jesus isn’t afraid of contamination because he expects to transform, heal and renew the people and systems he encounters. That is his mission.
Theme 3: The new invitation
Last week we looked at how the “inside” group was based heavily on ethnicity and purity. This week Jesus is drawing a new boundary for who is in and who is out.
Look at Jesus’ rather startling statement to his followers in Mark 4:10-12:
“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mk 4:10-12)
At first glance, this might sound like Jesus’ most exclusive statement ever, as if he is purposefully blinding the eyes of his listeners or closing their ears so that they will be condemned.
But look at who he is talking to. “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” Who? To those who gather around him.
That’s it. The parables are an open door. Anyone who wants to learn can come, listen, and discover the secrets of God.
But those who think they already understand, who feel no need to come seek and listen, are going to miss what Jesus is doing.
Jesus has torn down the old boundaries that prevented outsiders from being near him. He’s replaced it with an invitation, the same invitation he gave to his very first disciples. “Follow me.” (Matthew 4:19)
So-how about you? How are you gathering around Jesus? Are you peeking inside the door, looking and listening for what God is trying to share with you today?
The following exercise is an adapted version of the Examen, an end of day prayer practice to help you remember and notice how God is active around you.
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