Jesus Decides Who’s Included (and It’s Not Who You Want)

The Gospels (really all Scripture) are filled, over and over again, with stories about who we think belongs or doesn’t belong. We are by nature boundary-forming, exclusionary creatures. A world where I can know who is in and who is out, or who has it right and who doesn’t, is a much neater world. It’s a world where I get to make the rules — or at least where I get to know what the rules are.

These stories and teachings in the Gospels abound, and they often take one of two perspectives. Sometimes, those who are presumed to be “out” or “excluded” are shown to be included against our expectations. Take the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.

The poor inherit the kingdom, those in grief gain comfort, the meek and lowly inherit the land. It’s an intentional subversion of our expectations and our instincts. My instinct is that it is not the poor but those who work and gain and live richly are the favored ones. My expectation is that those who are powerful, great orators, or skilled politicians are the most powerful.

In the second perspective, it’s not simply that those who are normally excluded are now included — it’s that those who think they’re in actually aren’t “in.” Often, Jesus uses his harshest language in these stories. Any kind of Gehenna/hell/torment language is when he’s talking about people who thought they were in because they fit certain criteria. Let’s look at Matthew 23, and Jesus’ famous “woe” language:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

I come from evangelicalism and (mostly) non-denominational Pentecostalism, and we often talked quite poorly of Pharisees (naturally, given the fact that they were the “bad guys” in the Gospels and some of the New Testament epistles). But what we often didn’t realize is that many of us were much closer to a Pharisaical idea of religion, right belief, morality, etc. Evangelicalism has a strong streak of holiness ideals within its expectation of what Christian faith looks like. In other words, if you call yourself a Christian, this means that you ought to 1) actively mentally affirm a certain group of religious statements and 2) act (or not act) in certain ways. If you don’t do these certain things, you are not in or you are shamed out.

There are probably tons of psychological reasons for this — reasons I plan to get into later.

But! I think it’s important to make this particular point when we are talking about “inclusion” within Christian communities. We build communities that usually have clear boundaries that help us determine whether certain kinds of people belong or do not belong. Jesus’ actions, teaching, and parables quite often are meant to short-circuit and subvert our natural inclinations towards exclusion.

It’s almost as if, of all the things you could do as a follower of Jesus, including those whom you want to exclude is of the highest priority. When in doubt, include.

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