The Pharisees were busy deciding who they couldn’t fellowship with and who they had to separate from. We have developed a similar line of thought in our religious, racial and class sectors today. More and more, walls have been going up between communities, as gaps between people of different groups have grown ever wider. People have been shutting themselves off from others, many of whom are in great need of mercy. Instead of helpful conversation between us there is mistrust and a buildup of selfserving propaganda. Neglecting, or even cutting off helping relationships with others is dangerous. It’s what happened to Jerusalem in the First Century.
This way of living is entirely opposite to the logic we see in the incarnation of God in Christ. Here is a God who draws close to those unlike himself. Not only in his birth, but when he is grown he heads straight for the homes of those rejected by his society. The logic of Jesus was to do his best to draw others in, without any reference to who they were and whether or not they should belong. This is one of the most alarming behavioural patterns to the power sectors of society. Society wants us to buy consumer goods and compete for world resources, making money, instead of making relationships paramount. Bringing down the walls of division could open the door to a tsunami of people in need that we would have to help.
If Jesus’ life style wasn’t bad enough for the power groups of his day, when the church was born it broke through group barriers on a much wider scale. As more and more people joined, from all economic, racial and faith backgrounds, eating together in their homes, the whole class systems of Jerusalem’s and Rome’s power bases were in jeopardy. This is what the church needs to be like today. Instead of buying into the religious, racial and political propaganda on why we shouldn’t make the Aboriginal, the poor, the refugee, the other tribal group and the Muslim our neighbour, we should instead reflect the values of our new kingdom, which our Lord taught us.
It’s hard to see how we have missed the inclusivity of Jesus. It must be because our hearts are naturally not inclined that way. The incarnation of the Son of God shouts of God’s inclusivity, of his coming towards those who regarded him as their enemy, not his going away from them. The whole concept of Jubilee, which is the very centre of the gospel (Luke 4:18), is one of radical inclusivity: bringing in the marginalised, the poor, the people our group doesn’t normally include, forgiving and serving them. The very concept of forgiveness has inclusivity at its very centre. Saying, “I forgive you”, means I am opening the door to the one who is on the outside, I am drawing those in who have been separated by sin and abuse, to be reconciled. This is to be the mark of the Christian life, just as it was with Jesus and his ministry.
Inclusivity even goes as far as to our enemies. And being inclusive isn’t passive. It isn’t saying, “Well, if they repent, if they come, if they change, we will accept them, I suppose!” It is rather adventurous. It is pioneering. It is reaching out to our enemies and doing all we can to attract them and to draw them in. It even goes to the extent of giving our own life to make these connections, to open these doors, to build bridges of relationships that can bring the grace of God into both our lives. This is the extent that Jesus went to to include us in his kingdom. This is to be our model.
At the centre of Jesus’ teaching was our treatment of people different to ourselves. This goes to the heart of our social nature, because we always like socializing with people most like ourselves, and this habit is what helps break our communities apart. This problem was at the heart of the issues in Jesus’ own time. It was because the Pharisees were not drawing others in that the society was heading for total destruction. They weren’t gathering the poor, the sick, the foreigner, those of other faiths, those in need. They only accepted those in their own group. We live in a world just like this today. It has suffered from years of religious fundamentalism, growing in Christian, Muslim and Jewish circles, that has brought us to the brink. This separates us from others in need. It breaks down the usual compassion that we are supposed to have for those who suffer, just because they are “not like us.” This lack of care is what leads to the rise of desperate measures from people. It tore apart first century Israel. This was exactly what Jesus warned them about. It is also central to James’ epistle, on how we judge and separate ourselves from others. The remedy James gave us was the opposite action: care for others.
When Jesus was at a party, he spoke to his host: “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet, don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbours. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward.” Imagine saying this to a person who was good enough to invite you to their place. This speaks to the very centre of our commercial way of life. We all do what Jesus was addressing. None of us naturally want to heed what Jesus told us. But Jesus was speaking about the very nature of God. The incarnation is at the very centre of what Jesus said here. Jesus went on, “Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Jesus said our reward would be in heaven. This doesn’t mean when we get to heaven. It means God in heaven will see and bless our communities here on earth. Jesus was speaking about earth, our land, our communities here, about how to heal each other, to care for others and bring them in. This was the ultimate Hebrew view of our reward. This was Jesus’ central critique of the Pharisees, who were supposed to be good shepherds of Israel. The lesson here is about true shepherding, gathering the sick flocks and healing them.
When the scriptures speak of heaven, they aren’t speaking about an eternal spiritual existence someplace else, but about God’s rule, his kingdom. The point of this rule and kingdom is its function here on earth through the gospel, bringing heaven and earth together like the temple did, the place where they meet. This place is Jesus, his gospel and his teachings, which his Spirit indwells, to bring God’s heavenly rule to earth. When the Bible speaks of heaven, it speaks of it in this sense, of the rule of God filling the earth, not in the gnostic sense the Greek held to, of an eternal separation between heaven and earth, separation between the spirit and the material world. We need a Hebrew sense of “heaven”, which transforms this world through the church. Jesus’ ministry was not about where we go when we die, which is what we all fixate on, but about how we live new covenant loves on earth. It we fixate on the wrong things we tend to miss what is being said.
“If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.” We tend to think that Christian virtue is exhibited by us staying away from sin. But if we do that and yet do not include others in our life, then how are we reflecting God, who he is and what he does? We have said that God hates sin and can’t associate with it, and we have reflected that in our lives, by excluding others. But this is not the nature of God. God is the opposite. He seeks out sinners, he includes them in his plans, he comes towards them. He comes in incarnation and then into their homes. He is opposite to the religious expectation. So if we are going to be like him, we better jettison our past thought patterns, which are no better than those of the pagans, and start to love others. Peace comes to our community as we include others in our plans. If we make plans for the future that only include our group, then we are building walls. Those walls are going to get higher and are going to produce injustice for others. They produce segregation, apartheid communities. That can only lead to a breakdown of peace. Jesus taught us as Jeremiah advised Israel when they were taken captive to Babylon: “Seek the peace of that city, for in the peace of that city you shall have peace.” It is in the peace of the wider community, that our own people will have peace.
Peace comes to our wider community as we include them in our plans. We don’t just live for our own group, but we think of others, what their needs are and how we can help them. This is exactly the meaning of what Jesus taught. But Israel refused to follow, because they liked thinking of just themselves, and justifying it with religious excuses. Jesus’ conclusion was, “If only you knew the things that made for peace” and then he predicted their fall in that generation.
We are not called to our religion. We are called to love God with all our heart, and our neighbour as our self. This is exactly what Jesus taught us about. It isn’t a spirituality divorced from this world. It is about a new heart, through which we build a better world, shaped on the values of his kingdom, and not on the values of fallen human cultures.