Some time ago, my son came home from school and started recounting his day to us. He told us that one of the most consequential things that happened to him that day was in regard to his lunch. His schedule was being shifted to accommodate the new classes he needed to take which meant he wouldn't have the same lunchtime for the rest of the year. It also meant that the friends he made this year at his new school are friends he wouldn't be able to eat lunch with any longer. He handled it well, but I know he was disappointed.
Can you remember having that kind of experience when you were growing up? Maybe you changed schools or moved to a new neighborhood and felt like you were out of place for a while until you established new friendships. It can take a while to do that. Maybe you felt that way when you started college or took your first "career" job. It isn't easy to be the "new guy." It isn't easy to feel like the "outsider" or even the "outcast."
Now imagine if you lived in a context where you felt like no matter what you did, you were never going to be accepted or welcomed? For many people, that's the way they would characterize the bulk of their daily experiences. They feel unloved and can give you many examples of how they've been treated like unwanted, unloved, and unappreciated outcasts.
That was certainly the case during the days of Christ's earthly ministry. In the context in which He was living and doing ministry, there were those who were considered the respectable and admired people of society, while others were considered unclean and unwanted. But Jesus didn't avoid the outcasts. He offered Himself to them and gave them the opportunity to become part of His family.
What did it look like when Jesus did this? What should we be learning from His example? How can we begin practicing in this era what Jesus demonstrated in that era?
I. Jesus loved the easiest people to hate
In this world, there are plenty of people we may like and enjoy spending time with, while there are plenty of others that, if we're honest, we might feel somewhat uncomfortable giving our time. Maybe we're fearful of their bad reputation rubbing off on us. Maybe we aren't comfortable with the sights and smells that might come with placing ourselves in certain company. Maybe we feel pressure from others to avoid hanging out with people of certain backgrounds, ethnicities, faiths, or lifestyles.
There's a little bit of a dilemma at play here. We are highly influenced by those we spend the most time with, for good and for bad, yet we're also called to be ambassadors of Christ in all the world. That tells me that we need both the wisdom and protective guidance of the Holy Spirit if we're going to love those who might be the easiest people to hate, or the most dangerous to spend our time with.
In the context of the gospels, this dilemma would often play out in the interactions Jesus had with others. On one hand, there were the religiously legalistic Pharisees who took great pleasure in burdening people with regulations and expectations that seemed ethical, yet often stretched the teaching or the heart of the word of God in harsh and inaccurate ways. On the other hand you had tax collectors and other so called "sinners" who didn't even bother conveying a sense of religious pretense.
Yet Jesus who is the sinless, holy, Son of God didn't appreciate the harsh hearts of the scribes and Pharisees. And even at the risk of being chastised by them, He was willing to eat with the tax collectors and sinners.
The tax collectors were particularly hated by many of the people, particularly those who were of Jewish background like Levi who was hosting the dinner party spoken of in Mark 2:15-17. Jesus had just called Levi, also known as Matthew, to be His disciple. In celebration, Levi threw this dinner party and invited his friends, the other outcasts. But Levi was hated by many in that community because they viewed him as a traitor. He was likely excommunicated from the synagogue and despised for his allegiance to the Roman government. If Levi followed the pattern of many tax collectors, he most likely had also been overcharging the people when it came to their tax payments so he could pocket extra money.
But Jesus was willing to look at Levi, call him unto Himself, enjoy a meal with him, transform his heart, and send him into this world as a new man. Levi was once a disreputable sinner, but Jesus cleansed his sin and made him an apostle. It would have been socially accepted and even applauded if Jesus avoided outcasts like Levi, but that's not what Christ did. Levi was easy to hate, yet Jesus showed him love. Jesus wasn't worried about Levi's reputation rubbing off on Him. Jesus didn't sweat whether or not people would hate Him too if he was seen with Levi. Not only was He willing to eat with him, He was also willing to invite him to be part of His inner circle of friends and ministry partners.
Who does this world hate that Christ has called us to love? Are we willing to be seen with them, eat meals with them, and call them our friends, or do we care more about the smug opinions of insecure and self-righteous critics?
II. Jesus showed respect to the disrespected
Dealing with physical infirmities can be one of the most difficult things we face on this earth. Physical limitations can sometimes feel embarrassing and discouraging. I have a close friend whose son has muscular dystrophy. Not long ago, his son asked him, "Dad, why can't I run like the other kids?" That's a hard question to answer, and an even harder condition to live through. I sense that my friend's son may have been feeling somewhat disrespected by his peers, but Jesus shows respect to the disrespected.
In Luke 13:10-17, we're told that Jesus was teaching in the Synagogue on the Sabbath day. Many people loved to hear Christ's teaching. He taught with clarity, authority, and compassion. He helped people understand the heart of God and the truth of Scripture. Among those listening to what Jesus taught, there was a woman who for eighteen years had been severely bent over. She couldn't stand up straight. She experienced pain, limitations, and probably the unflattering stares of those who couldn't identify with her experience. And while others may not have shown her the respect they should have, Jesus reached into her life.
We're told that Jesus called out to this woman, declared that she was free from her infirmity, laid His hands on her, and healed her. She stood straight up and rejoiced by giving praise to God for her healing. And you would think that everyone who witnessed this miracle would have rejoiced at it and joined her in giving God praise, but that's not what happened. The ruler of the Synagogue, who in my mind was probably somewhat jealous of the attention the crowds would give Jesus when He spoke, decided to express his displeasure with this miracle.
We're told that the Synagogue ruler criticized the fact that this miracle took place on the Sabbath when it could have been done on a different day. Isn't it a shame that this man didn't understand God's heart in designating a Sabbath day? The Lord created the Sabbath in part to show us mercy. It was a day for rest. Shouldn't an act of mercy be celebrated instead of being condemned on a day like that? When I look at an event like this and I think about my friend's son, I can't imagine a critical word being spoken if his child was healed on one day over another, but the Synagogue ruler disrespected this woman and disrespected Jesus in front of the crowd because he didn't understand the depth of God's mercy.
In the aftermath of World War I, many soldiers returned with severely disfiguring facial injuries. It was said that the soldiers who also lost their sight tended to fare better than those who could clearly see their newly disfigured faces in mirrors, or catch the startled glances of those who stared at them in public. Responding to this need, a talented sculptor, Anna Coleman Ladd, began designing individually sculpted masks that could be worn by these soldiers to disguise their facial injuries. She didn't have miraculous powers, but to the men she helped, she was a gift from God. She treated them with dignity and blessed them with a tool that made them feel more comfortable when they appeared in public.
When I hear stories like those of Anna Coleman Ladd, I'm reminded of the heart of Christ toward those who feel like outcasts. Jesus treated this woman with respect. He even respectfully referenced her as a "daughter of Abraham." Then Jesus chided the critics. He reminded them that they showed more compassion to their animals than they showed to a fellow human being, and we're told that the crowd rejoiced at Christ's confrontation of His adversaries.
III. Jesus blessed those who could offer Him nothing in return
Speaking of Christ's treatment toward outcasts, there's one group of people that can be very easy to dismiss and disrespect, and we interact with them all the time. Children can at times feel like the biggest outcasts there are, but Christ showed them love. He blessed those who could offer Him nothing in return. He blessed those who were at an age when they could easily test the patience of others. To be honest, I think you can tell a lot about a person by how they interact with children.
Mark 10:13-16 tells us that the crowds were bringing their children to Jesus so He could lay His hands on them and bless them, but the disciples were starting to get annoyed by this. I'm sure we can picture what the scene may have been like. Adults and children rushing forward. Children making a scene. Some of the kids escaping and going off in other directions. Some of the children staring blankly because they had no idea what was going on. Maybe the disciples were tired or were feeling flustered by the chaos, but whatever they were feeling, they tried to stop this noisy event from proceeding and began telling the parents to take their kids away.
Children are easy to chase away. They probably even expect you to do that sometimes. I remember years ago when I was a new pastor, I had started a youth ministry that grew too big for one meeting, so we divided the group into two groups that met on different nights. Soon after the second group was started, some of the adults got mad and blamed the new teens for marking up one of the walls, implying that it was a bad idea for this group to meet at the church. Except it wasn't the teens that made the marks. The marks were made by an artificial Christmas tree that was placed too close to the wall by the adults, and it left marks by brushing up against the flat white paint.
In Mark 10:14b-15, Jesus said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” This is good counsel for us that we would be wise to heed. Children live in a state of continual faith. Their lives and well-being are at the mercy of the adults in their lives. They intrinsically trust what you say and copy what you do. Shouldn't that also be the pattern of our lives in regard to the Lord? Shouldn't we trust Him, remain confident in every word He says, and copy everything we see Him do?
Jesus loved the outcasts and we should to. Keep in mind, when we're talking about outcasts, we're ultimately talking about us. We were the outcasts. We were distant from God. We were foreign to His promises and His presence, yet through faith in Christ, we are brought near. We are made part of the eternal family of God.
Jesus loved the easiest people to hate. Jesus showed respect to the disrespected, and He blessed those who could offer Him nothing in return. This is the heart of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and by faith in Him, empowered by His grace, this too can become the fruit of His love demonstrated to others through our lives.
© John Stange, 2018