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Sight-Seeing: The radical inclusion of Jesus

NILS VON KALM looks at how what he once thought was exclusive about Jesus is actually inclusive…

Melbourne, Australia

“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”– Rachel Held Evans

Evangelicals like me love to see life in black and white. There are Christians and non-Christians. If you pray the sinner’s prayer, you’re going to Heaven; if you don’t, you’re going to hell. When I was a fully signed-up evangelical, we loved to talk about the exclusive claims of Jesus.

And while much of what I believed back then, I no longer believe now, I do still believe that Jesus is who He says He is in the Gospels. One of the things that’s changed is that what I used to believe was exclusive about Jesus, I’ve now come to believe is actually radically inclusive.

The woman with the flow of blood touches the hem of Jesus’s garment as recorded in the Gospel accounts. ILLUSTRATION: rudall30/iStockphoto

Let me explain.

Jesus lived in a society that was exclusionary. The Pharisees loved to exclude people, especially “sinners”, as being unworthy. There were “clean” and “unclean” people. If you were a “sinner” it was because you had done something wrong, and that was especially the case if you had a health issue.

“Jesus lived in a society that was exclusionary. The Pharisees loved to exclude people, especially ‘sinners’, as being unworthy. There were ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ people. If you were a ‘sinner’ it was because you had done something wrong, and that was especially the case if you had a health issue.”

Take the woman with the flow of blood, a story deemed so important that it’s told in all three of the synoptic Gospels.

I remember hearing Brian McLaren give a brilliant description of this woman’s healing, in which he clearly detailed the context behind what happened in that story.

First, you have Jesus at the height of His popularity. During this part of his ministry, He had rock-star status. Everyone wanted a piece of Him. We’re told that the crowds were so big that they hemmed Him in, and sometimes He had to go out on a boat on the Sea of Galilee to speak to the masses.

Then you have the woman. She has been ill for 12 years, more than a decade, and it’s just gotten worse. She’s been to countless number of doctors, spent all her money, and her troubles were just continuing to pile up.

Given her flow of blood problem, she was probably unable to have children. That meant she was probably divorced. In an honour and shame culture such as that one was back then, a husband could divorce his wife very easily. On top of that, she was ritually unclean according to the purity laws of that society.

In short, this woman didn’t have a lot going for her. She was a social outcast. Her sense of self-worth would have been at rock-bottom.

But desperate times called for desperate measures.

She’s heard about this guy who has a reputation for healing people. She’s tried everything else; why not try this? What has she got to lose? You can imagine this woman, probably hunched over, just wanting to touch Jesus’ cloak and then scurry away without being noticed. The terror of someone like her being noticed would have been too much for her, such was her low sense of self-worth.

But this is where Jesus’ radical inclusion comes to the fore. Not only is the woman healed physically, but what does Jesus do? He exposes her in front of everyone. Can you imagine anything more terrifying for someone who just wants a hole to swallow her up? And in this honour and shame culture, where this woman has been shamed for 12 years, Jesus gives her the highest honour. In front of everyone, He calls her “daughter”, a term of radical inclusion. This woman, who has been seen by herself and by others as “less than”, someone to be avoided at all costs, especially not to be touched, is now said by Jesus to be included. One of the family, a respected member of society. This is the kingdom of God in their midst. The last has become first.

Where so much of the church excludes, Jesus includes. To quote Rachel Held Evans again, the offense of the Gospel is not in who it excludes, but in who it includes.

We see this again and again throughout the Gospels. The very passages that evangelicals use to show who’s in and who’s out are actually the passages that show Jesus’ radical inclusivity.

Take his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. This, of course, is the passage where Jesus says what every card-carrying evangelical says is what marks you as going to Heaven or not. It’s where Jesus says that you can’t see the Kingdom of God unless you’re born again.

But what if that passage doesn’t actually delineate who’s in and who’s out (if you’re born-again, you’re in; if you’re not born-again, you’re out)? What if it instead shows that what was previously only open to the Israelites as the chosen people of God, is now open to anybody, that what was previously about your nationality is now something where it’s not about your nationality anymore? What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus is that the blessings of God are open to anyone, especially the outcasts, the “sinners” and the poor. That’s radically inclusive.

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Or what about John 14:6 – “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me”? That’s the passage that says that Jesus is the only way to God and that that is therefore an exclusive claim.

But again, what if in the same way as the “born again” passage, this passage actually shows that it’s no longer about nationality, but it’s open to anyone and that it’s through Jesus and following Him, and not through being born a Jew? You can be born a Gentile and still be in.

The reason Jesus attracted the poor, the outcasts and the forgotten was because they were the ones He called blessed. In today’s church, we have a subtle form of ‘blessing theology’ where we believe God will bless us with health and good fortune if we follow Him (many other churches, of course, promote a more overt ‘prosperity’ theology).

Well, if it didn’t work for Jesus, who was tortured and crucified and was known as the Suffering Servant, who are we to think it will work for us? Jesus says that those who are blessed are the poor, the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice, the persecuted. Hardly a list you want to be on as a nice, respectable, middle-class, suburban Christian.

The message of Jesus is outrageously inclusive. No longer is it only for those of a certain nationality. The way of Christ is open to absolutely anyone, and it’s especially the broken ones, the downtrodden, the ones we sheepishly exclude, who are the ones Jesus includes. May we, as those who claim to live in His name, go and do likewise.



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