Ever since the first century, when the early Christian movement began, there has been a preoccupation among Christians about who is on the “inside” and who is on the “outside” of the faith. It has often shown up in conversations discussing who are believers and unbelievers, righteous and unrighteous, saved and unsaved, Christians and non-Christians. Have you ever been part of these conversations?
While discussing definitions is important and necessary (words do have meaning), this preoccupation of who is on the “inside” and “outside” has, all too often, gone beyond merely defining terms. They’re not just innocent conversations free from judgement.
On the one hand, they can be a way to bolster confidence and pride that “we” are the ones on the inside, and, conversely, a way of driving a stake in the ground about who we think are (or should be) excluded from the Christian faith. Be careful here my fellow Christian brother or sister! This is a path full of pride, arrogance and hypocrisy especially when we consider the fact that Jesus made a habit of turning this kind of conversation on it’s head.
The interesting and shocking thing about Jesus’ life and teaching is that the very people Jesus saw and treated as “insiders” (or potential insiders) were often those already considered “outsiders” by others.
Consider how Jesus treated these known outsiders.
UNTOUCHABLES: In the eyes of others, they were outsiders: those who were blind, paralyzed, with leprosy or other sicknesses and diseases, those with blood conditions, the demonized–all of them were considered outsiders even within their own communities. But Jesus spent time with them, talked to them, touched them and healed them. By speaking to them, Jesus affirmed their God-given value as human beings created with worth and potential. By touching them and healing them, he restored them to fully engage in community life again. According to custom and cultural mindsets, others might not have seen them as community participants–even fully human–until they had been healed. But for Jesus, they had always been human.
SAMARITANS: If there was ever an example of racism in the Bible, it was the way Samaritans were treated by the community of Israel. Samaritans were a mixed race with an Israelite and non-Israelite (i.e. “Gentile”) ancestry. The broader Israelite community considered Samaritans outside the community of faith, even though technically Samaria was a region inside the borders of ancient Israel. This bigotry stemmed back generations into Israel’s history. So when Jesus described a Samaritan in a story as the hero and someone worth modeling after over and against the Jewish priests and leaders of his day, it would have raised more than a few eyebrows among the community and ticked off the Jewish teachers of the law. And when Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman (never mind that a first century Jewish man was not to talk to a woman alone) at Jacob’s well, it showed Jesus’ willingness to include those who the broader Jewish community would not.
PROSTITUTES & ADULTERERS: Both women prostitutes and women adulterers were on the outside. A little context first: Ancient women, like modern, typically don’t enter the work of prostitution for the thrills. These Israelite women, more often than not, would have engaged in this work out of survival due to necessity or force. Single or divorced Jewish women at this time in history would have severely struggled to survive financially, so those who entered the life of prostitution more likely than not did so to survive. However, people in general often assumed the worst about prostitutes (seems some things never change). It’s because they are sinful. They’re immoral. They’re daughters of Eve, the one (unlike Adam) who is prone to the devil’s schemes. So when Jesus told a story to the Jewish chief priests and elders in which “tax collectors and prostitutes” will enter the kingdom of heaven before them, you can imagine that didn’t go over so well. Jesus had included women prostitutes in the family of God.
When it came to sex outside of marriage among non-married persons or adultery, women were often viewed and treated much harsher in certain circumstances. Religious leaders and other Jewish men oversimplified prostitution and/or adultery as “a woman’s sin problem” or “immorality” in Jesus’ day. This of course demonstrated how far removed those men were from any compassionate conception of how they (the men and ancient culture) shaped a Jewish woman’s life and reality. Inquiry as to who initiated the “immorality,” or perhaps forced it, was not always given equal weight when the person in question was the man. So by Jesus publicly pushing back on a group of Pharisees for their attempt to execute capital punishment on a woman who was “caught in the act of adultery,” he was compromising their sacred customs and laws. But it begs the question, why and how were they even around to catch someone “in the act of adultery?” When they brought the woman to Jesus to see what his response would be before they stone her to death, Jesus stated that “he who is without sin” should be the first one to “cast the first stone.” In his statement, we see his compassion on this woman and his critique of this all male crowd of spiritual leaders which, consequently, exposed their less than holy motivations. A woman who would have been seen by them as an outsider had made insider status with Jesus.
TAX COLLECTORS: Perhaps at the bottom of the list of outsiders, just after prostitutes, were the tax collectors. Jewish men who worked for Roman authorities to receive taxes for Rome from their Jewish community members were highly criticized and hated by many. Since Rome and Roman soldiers were considered Israel’s enemies and as barbaric taskmasters over Israelite communities, working for them meant you had compromised and abandoned your own people. So when Jesus had lunch with Zacchaeus, a known tax collector, it would have been scandalous. Not only this, but one of Jesus own disciples, Levi (also called Matthew), had collected taxes for Rome also. These actions by Jesus said loud and clear that tax collectors could be insiders too, something the religious leaders and others would have scorned.
Not only did Jesus suggest (by his actions and words) that people who were commonly thought of as outsiders were actually on the inside (or at least could be) he also suggested that those who others would commonly think of as insiders, were actually on the outside.
PHARISEES AND TEACHERS OF THE LAW: If there was any group of people in Israel that would have broadly been considered on the inside, it was the Pharisees. While the general populace may have been troubled and deeply concerned about some of their hypocritical tactics, it would likely have been broadly understood that the religious sect known as the Pharisees had an unequalled discipline in their faith and obedience toward the God of Israel. They thought of themselves that way as well.
Shockingly, Jesus boldly and publicly stated that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” Lay aside for a moment that when Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of God” he was not referring to heaven in the popular 20th century sense (“heaven when we die”). For Jesus to say that someone had to be better than the Pharisees in their obedience to God would have sounded a bit daunting for those who first heard this. What could Jesus have meant? Did we just hear him correctly? But as Jesus’ teaching showed, God is concerned about the whole person. God cares not only about what we do, but also why we do it. God cares about our intentions.
The Pharisees and teachers of the Law were experts at appearing righteous on the outside. But inside, their intentions were deeply flawed; Jesus once referred to them as “white washed tombs.” For Jesus, following him and his way involves both internal and external transformation. Don’t just pray; pray in secret not to be seen. Don’t just fast; fast in secret. Don’t just give financially to those in need; do so in secret. Give not so that you can get back; give for the sake of those you are giving to. Treat others the way you want to be treated. This is the Way of Jesus.
This was not the way of the Pharisees. To be seen, to be publicly rewarded, to be the best, to be idolized by others in the community of Israel; these were the tendencies and ambitions of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. For Jesus, as a rule, going the way of Pharisee meant living and acting as an outsider.
WEALTHY: Jesus once said that it was easier for a camel to go into the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to enter God’s kingdom. In a country that was financially oppressed by Rome’s taxes, control and crucifixions, there were many more unwealthy persons than wealthy. To be wealthy would have been desired by many, even to have just a little more than they presently had. It was common in some 1st century circles to assume that having wealth automatically meant God was blessing you for your obedience to the Law of the Lord. In those same circles, it was also thought that to not have wealth, to be in poverty and without, meant that God was disciplining or punishing you. Jesus corrected both teachings. His teaching in Matthew 5 and 18 and Luke 6 assumed that people were often poor, not because of a lack of obedience, but because those with power and wealth had taken advantage of them. And he encouraged them to trust God to hold their oppressors accountable as they endure injustice.
On the flip side, he didn’t teach that having wealth was wrong or sinful. His point of contention with wealth was not with wealth itself, but with the tendency of those with it to let wealth consume them to the point that they compromise their ethics and values and use their wealth to hurt and oppress others. Instead, they should use it to help people in need. For Jesus, making a practice of giving away one’s wealth to help others is one of the ways of not letting wealth consume us and ruin relationships.
Of course, not everyone who is wealthy can accept this teaching, which is why so many find themselves on the outside.
RULERS OF THIS WORLD: Jesus once said, “You know how it is in the pagan nations. Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it’s going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave. Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life ‘as a ransom for many.”
Most of the community of Israel would have no problem with critiquing Rome. They saw Rome, the Roman military, and the Roman emperor, Caesar, as their mortal enemies, full of corruption, violence and wickedness. They were outsiders. But for Jesus, the problem of bad leadership didn’t solely rest with Rome. Bad leadership was entrenched in Israel. From Herod, to the Sanhedrin, to the wealthy, to local synagogue rulers, to neighbors and their neighbors, to husbands and wives, leadership was in wanting in Israel.
Jesus called out this leadership identity of Israel to be a light for the nations even though as a whole they had fallen short of it, especially their religious leadership. He called them to take up their cross and follow him. This way of Jesus was sacrificial and was costly.
No Christian spiritual leader is exempt from this, then and now, no matter how “holy” they appear on the outside, which church they participate in or which theological doctrines they have put a check mark next to.
Which brings me to a question? Who do you consider an insider or outsider? At one level, it seems that part of the point of following Jesus is to actually follow him. This means following the Way of Jesus. It means living and reflecting the kind of life that Jesus called people into. To live out the love and compassion God has shown us. To treat people as those worthy of the insider status, not as some are in the habit of doing. They drive steaks in the ground to keep out as many people from the inside as possible while they enjoy the comforts of God’s blessings, but they are unwilling to share them with others.
It’s popular in some Christian circles too to operate from a Christian superiority complex (what author Brian McLaren calls “Christian supremacy“). These Christians manipulate and control people who are not like them, and they do this for their own personal gain (never mind how their actions affect others). This kind of living is antithetical to following Jesus.
The truth is if your (or my) being a Christian does not benefit the world, we would be wise to ask why? The reality is we do have something to offer if we truly follow him. And if we do follow him, we should practice the Way of life that serves people sacrificially for their good and for their sakes as humble servants of Jesus even if we don’t get anything in return.
If that is not the kind of life we are living, if that is not the identity we are living into, we may need to consider the possibility that we were never on the inside to begin with.
For other blog posts on Jesus check out the following: