There is a danger if we throw a party for people we see as needy and inferior, such as the prostitutes we mentioned last week. Or if we go out and volunteer at the Jinju Disabled Centre, as we did yesterday. Or if we visit prisoners or support widows or help orphans.
And the danger is this. We throw the party, or do the good deed, and it makes us feel better about ourselves because we had pity on ‘them’. We are tempted to think better of ourselves because ‘they’ didn’t deserve our help, but we helped ‘them’ any way. We feel superior when we aren’t.
Almost before we know it we have created division where Jesus talked about building unity and harmony.
Jesus got into a lot of trouble because he wasn’t like this. He didn’t make a show of spending a little time with inferior people, who he then ignored the rest of the time. Jesus spent real time with them, and he never treated them as inferior, and his enemies noticed it and plotted against him.
When I was just a mere teenager, way back in the previous century, back even in the previous millennium, I wondered if politics was a good way to get involved in improving the world. Out of curiosity rather than anything else, on a summer’s evening I attended a youth meeting of one of our main political parties.
I was impressed by how earnest everyone was, how seriously they took themselves, how superior they all felt, how attractive, well educated or well employed they presented themselves as being. I was genuinely interested and genuinely wanted to know if there was a chance these people were interested in building a better world.
I was also serious. We got on fairly well, and at the end a well-fed young man with a friendly smile suggested I return for the next meeting. That was very kind of him, but he rather spoiled things when he added, ‘After all, we’re not like that lot in Eastbourne – we don’t mind your sort here!’
I rather wanted to ask him what sort he thought I was and why they would not welcome my sort in Eastbourne, but I thought better of it and said goodbye.
By whatever his measure was, I was on the outside and he was on the inside.
Jesus said to his disciples in Mark 4:11: “You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders.”
And then he told his disciples in Matthew 18:3: “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Are there insiders and outsiders then? Are there some people who are just not suited to be in heaven? Is heaven available only to ‘special’ people like us?
Is Jesus message radically inclusive, or radically exclusive? Many people will tell you that they see the Christian religion as divisive, judgemental, rancorous and exclusionary. Are they right?
Is it all about in groups and out groups, us versus them, condemnation and exclusion, or is it really – as many people say – an embracing message of Good News for all people? Does heaven have borders and immigration police?
On the other hand, we are free and no one is forcing us to enter heaven against our will. No one is ever tied up and dragged into heaven kicking and screaming.
But neither is Jesus saying heaven is open to all. He is not delivering a message of permissive naïve inclusiveness.
We have seen clearly that Jesus invites the sinners, the sick, the poor, the meek and the children. We’ve seen clearly that admission is not based on merit or some achievement on your part, it is not about your superiority over those locked out. Entry to heaven requires humility, because we have to be humble enough to change our views and opinions, to allow others to lead us and teach us like children, to accept we have sinned and allow ourselves to be forgiven.
The invitation from Jesus is for everyone who is willing to participate and cooperate and contribute, but those who want to destroy or be selfish and cannot or will not join in God’s purpose are not allowed in.
In Luke 9, Jesus’ disciples are arguing stupidly about who is going to be greatest in heaven. They are trying to make boundaries and create a special exclusive even-more-in group for themselves. In answer to them Jesus places at his side a person of no possible worth or social status and says they must be like this person, a little child, who has welcome him openly and without conditions.
This person is the greatest, he says, the one who doesn’t want to be great. The least of all is the greatest.
Straight after this John reports to Jesus on a stranger who has been going around casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and how he and some other disciples had tried to stop the man because he isn’t in their group.
In this attempt to make themselves special and set apart as disciples of Jesus they also fail, because Jesus says directly in verse 50: ‘Don’t stop him!’
Why not? Because Jesus does not allow this sort of barrier in heaven.
‘Anyone who is not against you is for you.’ He says.
We have to ask ourselves now whether Jesus is contradicting himself two chapters later when he says in Luke 11:23: ‘Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me.’
Look at the context. It is revealing. Jesus has just been accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan, and responded, ‘If Satan is divided and fighting against himself, how can his kingdom survive?’
The kingdom of hell, or the kingdom of heaven, either would be ruined by fighting among the citizens. If people in heaven are working against each other, how can heaven be heaven? Anyone who is causing division in the body of Christ then that person is working against the purposes and dreams of God. It is as simple as that.
In the first statement Jesus told his disciples, and thus us, that anyone who is cooperating with God’s purposes is included. In the second statement he says bluntly that anyone working against God’s purposes is excluded.
Jesus doesn’t care who you are, a prostitute who is working to fulfil God’s dream is welcome while a president who opposes God’s dreams is not.
All the time he walked on this earth, Jesus constantly reiterated the need for us to be changed. He still calls us to repent and be humble, to adopt his new way of life, to pay the full price of being his disciple. Jesus says that anyone who does not give up everything is not worthy of being his disciple. (Luke 14:33.) That if you once start you must not look back and long for the old ways. (Luke 9:62.)
We are called to include the excluded, to gather everyone who is willing to share God’s dream of a better tomorrow and a better today. Jesus tells us to gather the people, not scatter them; to push back the boundaries of who can be included and work for a God centred inclusive society with a reconciling network of relationships. When we do this we will find out quickly that there are people who are ready and willing to insult, imprison, torture and kill us.
Wherever we go, if we are like Jesus we use that space to allow God’s kingdom to become real. On the beach, in the coffee shop, at home, in the village market, on a boat, beside a well, along a road, or even in a place of worship we create an inclusive experience for everyone who is willing to experience heaven.
And if those who are against Jesus change their hearts, we shall welcome them as well. And love them and include them. Won’t we?