I think love and inclusivity are the central virtues of Jesus’s kingdom vision. I’ve thought this for quite a while. And it’s a significant reason why I resigned from my post and surrendered my ministry credentials after 10 years as a lead pastor in a conservative evangelical denomination.
I reached a point where I couldn’t be the pastor I believed that God called and gifted me to be, the pastor I wanted to be, and I couldn’t love people — all people — the way I believed Jesus’s central kingdom virtues demanded.
The denomination was fond of saying that we welcomed all people. But we really didn’t. We welcomed them with stipulations and strings attached. We welcomed them if they conformed to our ways of thinking, believing, and behaving. We welcomed them if they would capitulate to “our tribe’s” way of seeing and doing things.
LGBTQ people? Of course, we love the people, but we hate their sin, was the mantra of that denomination. We love the person, many people would say, but we disagree with their lifestyle. And until they got their lives straight, LGBTQ people couldn’t be part of and minister in the congregation in significant ways. As if their sexual orientation is divorced from the image of God in which they were created and their standing before God contingent upon our approval and acceptance.
People of other religions? They’re deceived and will spend eternity in hell unless they repent and accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, was the standard answer. There was especially a lot of vitriol aimed at Muslims from some of the people in my congregation.
Let me elaborate on this one. One of the proverbial straws that factored into my resignation was when it came to light that several people in the church — including someone on the church board — were upset that we had done a series of special offerings for one of the denomination’s missionaries in inner-city Chicago that worked primarily with Muslim refugees. He wanted to supply a $20 box fan for refugee families so they could get some comfort from the sweltering Chicago summer heat in their cramped apartments. I thought it was a fantastic way for our tiny church to help. Over several weeks we encouraged people to “Be a Fan” and give towards this ministry opportunity. We raised over $400.
But later I was blindsided at a church board meeting when one of the board members said that many people, including her and her husband, were upset that we raised money for terrorists that were trying to kill us. I seriously wish I was telling a bad joke here. But I’m not. This really happened.
I was befuddled when this conversation ensued, though I tried to explain the situation as graciously as possible. That incident is a microcosm of the kinds of things I repeatedly dealt with as a pastor in that denomination and particularly at that specific church. I had to get out.
There were other kinds of people we didn’t really welcome. Especially the following two groups.
People that are “liberal” or “progressive”? They’re part of the secular liberal agenda to destroy America was what many people in that denomination sincerely believed. Those liberals and progressives may even be socialists or communists. Any “Christians” that were liberal or progressive were thought to be self-deceived and not really Christians. Because, of course, Jesus would have been conservative and a Republican.
People who question church polity and practice, who think that perhaps some things need re-thinking? In other words, those who embodied the Reformed mantra ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (“The church reformed, always requiring reformation”)? Dangerous liberals. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. Watch out for them!
I was dubbed as one of those dangerous liberals and progressives. And it was regularly communicated to me in various ways that my kind was not wanted or welcomed in that denomination. I finally came to the place where I didn’t want to be part of that kind of denomination, so I guess the feeling was mutual. The way they saw the world and understood what God was up to were fundamentally at odds with my own convictions. I wasn’t part of their “tribe” and never would be. So I left.
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The way Jesus is presented in the New Testament strikes me as much different than the exclusionary and fear-based posturing, practice, and polity that I experienced during my decade of full-time ministry.
The religious authorities of Jesus’s day had developed clearly demarcated boundaries about who was “in” and who was “out”, who was “included” and who was “excluded”, who was good, righteous, and holy, and who wasn’t. Following the rules — their rules, governed by their interpretations— took precedence over everything. They were convinced this was how to faithfully worship and live for God.
Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t concerned about following the rules. He was in constant conflict with the religious leaders of his day for breaking them. The only reason Jesus was concerned about the clearly demarcated boundaries was because of the way they excluded people, rather than helping, welcoming, and including them. In one of his most scathing indictments of the religious leaders, Jesus preached, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).
The religious leaders of Jesus’s day were repeatedly scandalized by his practice of hanging out with and welcoming all the wrong kinds of people. They called him a friend of sinners, a drunkard, and a glutton (see Matthew 11:19 and Luke 15:2). And those weren’t intended as compliments.
A story from Matthew’s Gospel (paralleled in Mark and Luke) illustrates the point:
9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.Matthew 9:9-13 cf. Mark 2:13-17 and Luke 5:27-32
10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
A few observations. First, it’s notable that Jesus attends a dinner party at Matthew’s house with all of Matthew’s less than savory friends. This riles up the religious leaders because every self-respecting, pious person knows that you don’t hang out with sordid types. You yourself may fall into sin. Or at least you could be guilty by association. It perplexes them that this doesn’t bother Jesus.
Second, Jesus subversively rebukes the religious leaders and tells them that their theology is wrong when he tells them, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” This is a partial quote from Hosea 6:6. Basically Jesus is accusing the religious leaders of being more concerned with outward appearances, practices, and observances than they are with the far more important matters of justice, mercy, and faith. He does this again, quite directly, in Matthew 23:23.
Finally, Jesus says that he has come to call not those who are already righteous, but rather sinners. Since we probably assume we know what Jesus means by “the righteous” and “sinners”, it’s important to unpack what these words mean and their implications for living in the way of Jesus. We might be surprised.
The word translated “righteous” here is the Greek dikaious. It carries the meanings of just, upright, innocent, pious. Yet we’ve already seen that Jesus apparently has a different idea of justice, uprightness, innocence, and piety than the religious leaders. Their idea is that all of these things are embodied in following the rules, doing correct practices and observances, and staying away from and ostracizing all the people who fail to keep their standards.
Jesus’s comments and his regular practice of hanging out with all the supposed wrong kinds of people suggest that they have this twisted. They think they’re righteous. But Jesus redirects them to go and rethink some things. Maybe they’re not as righteous and correct in their theology as they suppose.
Second, the word translated “sinners” here is the Greek hamartolous. It means one who deviates from the path of virtue, a sinner. More broadly it gives the sense of missing the mark, losing or falling short of a goal.
Jesus says he has come to call “sinners” — those who’ve deviated from the path of virtue, who’ve somehow fallen short of and missed the mark. This begs the question, what is virtue according to the way of Jesus? What’s the goal or mark we should be aiming for? I think the ultimate answer is love.
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“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love” wrote St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:13). Again, Paul says in Colossians 3:14: “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” And St. John, who often speaks of love, wrote in his first epistle: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them” (1 John 4:16).
Most fundamentally the way of Jesus is about love — loving God and loving others, and demonstrating compassion and mercy (see Matthew 22:34-40 cf. Mark 12:28-33 and Luke 10:25-37). It’s loving others with the same kind of self-sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated (see John 13:34-35). It’s equally about social justice for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized, as well as bringing healing and wholeness to broken people in a broken world, as Jesus makes clear in his Nazareth synagogue sermon (see Luke 4:14-21 cf. Luke 1:46-55 and Luke 7:18-23).
I’ve not found a better encapsulation of what seems to me Jesus’s understanding of sin and those who are sinners than in Shusako Endo’s novel Silence. In a famous passage from the novel, one of Endo’s characters ruminates: “Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind” (see reference here).
This is what it means to be a sinner by Jesus’s estimation — to walk brutally over the life of another and be completely oblivious to the wounds we’ve left behind. This happens in big and small ways by our words, attitudes, and actions. It happens because of our selfishness, neglect, and indifference. It happens in our families and with our friends and acquaintances. It happens at work. It happens when we turn a blind eye to injustice and suffering. It happens as we blithely go about our daily lives, complicit in the systems and structures of society that contribute to injustice and suffering.
And the way of Jesus is to turn from all of that and intentionally orient ourselves towards his kingdom vision for the world — the way of self-sacrificial love and service, justice, mercy, compassion, and faith.
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Luke’s version of the story we’ve been studying adds that Jesus has come to call sinners to “repentance.” The word “repentance” isn’t in Matthew and Mark’s version. But let’s look at this briefly too.
The word “repentance” in Luke’s version of the story is the Greek metanoinan. It means a change of mode of thought and feeling. The New Testament scholar William Mounce suggests in his Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words that “Repentance denotes a radical turning from sin to a new life oriented towards God” (581).
Jesus is calling sinners — those who have deviated from the path of virtue embodied by love, compassion, mercy, faith, and justice — to change their mind and reorient themselves to his inclusive kingdom vision for the world. It’s indeed a radical change of direction. And it turns out that perhaps the “sinners” Jesus was calling were not merely the guests at Matthew’s dinner party, but also and even probably primarily, the self-righteous religious leaders who thought they had all this figured out.
There are moral implications to this, of course. And if we’re tracking with the way of Jesus we know those moral implications are not simply about our personal piety but also the structures and systems of society that suppress, oppress, and marginalize people.
We also know that those moral implications are definitely not about categorizing people with clearly demarcated boundaries about who is in and who is out. The religious leaders of Jesus’s day majored on that. But Jesus rejected their categorizing and redirected them towards love, mercy, compassion, faith, and justice as the heartbeat of what God really wants from us. One of my favorite Scriptures sums it up well: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Jesus’s kingdom vision is about the restoration of all people and all things. It’s cosmic in scope, and yet also very practical in the nitty-gritty details of everyday life. Ultimately the way of Jesus is the way of love and inclusivity. And those who live this way will discover they’re partnering with God’s redemptive purposes in the world through Christ.