Inside Repentance

canstockphoto16838376If you think about it, Jesus could be horribly inconsistent in the way that he treated people.

On the one hand, he could treat people with such grace and kindness that it almost seemed as if he was cavalier about their sin, enjoying dinner fellowship with cheating, traitorous tax collectors and letting women with bad reputations touch him and make a scene at his feet.

On the other hand, he could throw down lightning bolts with John Brown fury, tossing money-changer’s tables aside and thundering out a stream of “Woe to you” curses.

He could go very hard on one group and go very easy on another.

When you examine this more closely what you discover is that Jesus was utterly uncompromising when it came to religious insiders and extremely lenient when it came to religious outsiders.

And it was the very fact that there were “insiders” and “outsiders” that caused him to treat them differently.

Few people who are on the outside looking in are there because they choose to be there. They are there because someone defined being “inside” in a way that included themselves and excluded others.

Sure, there’s always the gadfly, the person who seems to relish how different they are from everyone else, but usually they are simply expressing their individuality in the face of what they feel is arbitrary homogeneity. They aren’t in fact looking for exclusion from the group but rather inclusion in spite of their “weirdness.”

We all want to be a part, to be welcomed into community. Having a door slammed in our face always stings.

So Jesus went around opening doors to those on the outside of Israelite religion, and let’s be clear who these people were. They weren’t regular people who simply didn’t join up with the Pharisee club, nor were they simply sinners in the regular sense of a person who sins. All the religious leaders admitted that they sinned, so sinning wasn’t enough to exclude someone.

These were a special class of sinners. When the New Testament writers refer to “tax collectors and sinners” they were talking about a group of people who committed certain sins that were taboo and thus made them outcasts.

Obviously tax collectors were a part of this group, but the “sinners” category also singled out prostitutes, people with leprosy, Samaritans, and other “wicked” people. These were people who never had a chance to be “in” and never would.

Until Jesus came along.

What’s interesting to me is that Jesus’ acceptance of them preceded any action on their part. He didn’t say to Zacchaeus, “If you promise to repay everyone you cheated, I’ll eat with you.” He simply said, “Let’s eat.”

Acceptance led to repentance, not the other way around.

On the other hand, Jesus absolutely demanded repentance of the religious outsiders. He was uncompromising in both his condemnation and his requirement that they change their behavior.

Specifically, he warned them that the drawing of lines that placed them inside God’s favor while excluding others had in fact resulted in just the opposite—they were outside God’s favor and blessing and therefore in grave danger themselves, while those they had condemned had already been welcomed into God’s fellowship. Unless they changed they would always be outside.

Every culture has its taboos and its outcasts, including the Christian culture. We seem to fear being soft on sin and lenient on sinners when what we ought to fear is that we, in the name of God, will draw lines tightly around ourselves and those like us, excluding those whom God has included.

When we exclude the people Jesus likes to hang around with, we end up excluding Jesus.

When we do that, we are the ones who end up on the outside looking in.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / stokkete

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