Who’s In?

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:9-13

Why were the Pharisees so bothered by Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners? Because they had a very rigid picture of “who belonged” in the family of God, who fits the mold, and what hurdles someone would have to jump to be included. If Jesus is truly from God, how could he interact with such filth?

This is the picture in their mind:

There’s a very clear picture of who’s in and who’s out. A set list of character traits, traditions and rules to follow. “I’m a believer because I don’t do x, y, and z.” The border to enter this exclusive club gets thicker and higher and more difficult to cross. The Pharisees were experts at maintaining this boundary, but Jesus later reveals that they weren’t even in this so-called circle themselves (Matthew 23:13)!

Jesus refers them to Hosea 6:6 – “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” They would have known the Scriptures like the back of their hand, but it turns out they don’t really *know* them. How much else do they think they know that they really don’t? How much do *I* think I know but really don’t… In Matthew 12:6-7, it’s apparent they still haven’t figured this out.

If Jesus didn’t think like this, then clearly we shouldn’t either. What’s the alternative?

Instead of thinking in terms of who’s in and who’s out, let’s simply consider movement to the center, the very clear center being Jesus Christ.

We could be within those walls we’ve pictured before, but not be moving toward Jesus at all. We could be born into those traditions, following the right rules, and avoiding all the temptations that come our way, but if we’re not pursuing Jesus, moving closer and closer to him, we’re no better than the Pharisees in Matthew 23:13. Would we be any better than Judas…someone in the very inner circle that quite obviously wasn’t moving toward the center.

Who was Matthew? A tax collector. A traitor to his people. He represents the presence of an oppressive military empire. Romans bought out Jewish people to be rulers and tax collectors over their own people as puppets. Jesus calling Matthew goes well beyond religious implications. There are political, social, and and cultural implications here.

Even though Matthew and his friends were far away from Jesus, Jesus’ love and mercy were so compelling that he decided to follow. He drew them in. He invited them.

The Pharisees create an environment where the outsiders aren’t welcome unless they first change. They are making the willpower of people to be the center. It’s about your ability to meet the criteria so you’re in, or a failure to so you’re out. They could claim they are merciful “any time Matthew wants to repent we’ll welcome him with open arms” but the hurdles are so huge, the culture so foreign.

Jesus creates an environment where he moves toward you to compel you to follow. Your identity is in Christ, not your willpower. His grace and mercy reshapes what it means to be a community.

Matthew isn’t going to jump the bounded set boundary. But he follows Jesus.

They know that Jesus doesn’t agree with their life choices, but they are still compelled by him and want to be around him.

Just after this, even John’s disciples come to Jesus asking about why Jesus doesn’t follow the religious traditions of fasting (Matthew 9:14-17). They seem to be thinking “This Jesus is just too lax with all these dinner parties. Shouldn’t he be fasting like the rest of us?” The Pharisees after all did consider Jesus a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). If he’s truly devout, if he’s truly the one, why does he behave like this? Even Paul talks about this kind of thinking in his letter to the Colossians about the idea of basically needing to be monks to be true disciples (Col 2:20-23).

John’s disciples are asking the same question as the Pharisees and Jesus’s response is again related to Hosea 6:6. Jesus said there will be a time for fasting, but not now. The Kingdom has come. It’s time to celebrate!

The old way of establishing God’s family is no longer compatible with the Jesus’ bringing the Kingdom. The wineskin and patch are a picture of this new community paradigm. Jesus is redefining the family of God around himself. Identity is not self-centered anymore, it is Christ-centered.

He loves the lost sheep, and he wants them to respond to the invitation to follow him. In this new community, we can celebrate the fact that despite our flaws and our failures, Jesus doesn’t remain distant from us, he moves to the sick, sinners, and those that know they need to be shown forgiveness and mercy. Jesus forms those into a community to celebrate life, joy, forgiveness, the fact that we’re not trapped by old identity.

This Jesus community definition is messy. Think about who else Jesus calls to be in his inner circle (Matthew 10:2-4). Simon the Zealot–the group that dedicated their lives to killing Roman authorities and those who sided with Rome. I’m sure he and Matthew got along just splendidly. Jesus was at the center–moving toward him meant moving closer together themselves. They had to learn to look beyond each other’s individual flaws, perceived qualifications, and their past. Then of course there’s Judas too. He was with Jesus, closer than most, and yet he was moving away from Him the whole time.

Uniformity is not the picture of God’s community of faith. The key is that we’re UNIFIED in the Center, Jesus Christ. May disagree on various things, but are we becoming more generous, loving, merciful, forgiving, and humble? Are we becoming more like Jesus? Are we all moving toward him relative to our individual starting points and are we helping each other make that movement? To think we have to be uniform from the start is to think like the Pharisees. To think like Jesus, we see that we are all in a growth process to look more and more like our Lord as we move toward him.

Now what? Are we resting on the “safe side” of some arbitrary wall of religion or are we truly moving toward the center? Maybe we use the right words, go to all the events, avoid the “big” sins. But are we growing closer to our Lord? Refocus your sights, turn your feet, and let’s really follow Him.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” – Colossians 3:1-4

(Adapted from Tim Mackie’s “A Jesus-Centered Community” – https://youtu.be/k6VXvVWdX5o)

Light the Fire

Imagine you’re a first-century Christian—a brand new convert in your family. You met Jesus face to face. You listened to his teachings. You saw his miracles. You know in your heart that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. He came to save the world. He was just crucified for your sins and he was raised again, defeating death forever and ever.  Your immediate family doesn’t believe. They have made many comments about Jesus being a threat to society and their civilization. You know that mentioning your beliefs could be dangerous, but you’ve just realized the most important thing imaginable. You have the keys to a truly full and abundant life (John 10:10)—a life that extends well beyond our short time here on earth. 

What do you do? Are you going to share this truth with your family? What if they disown you? What if it puts your life in real danger?

How can you just sit on such find, though? (Matthew 13:44-46) You’re ready to give up everything you have to follow Jesus. You know that he is the way and the truth and the life. But you’re more scared than you’ve ever been.

You have close friends that were with you listening to Jesus. They have also counted the cost and are devoting their lives to follow Jesus. They have to make the decision of how to handle this with their unbelieving families as well. One friend of yours was already hauled off to prison for proclaiming Jesus to his friends and family. Another one of your friends was beaten terribly—after going through this, he boldly rejoiced that he was counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ (Acts 5:41). You are greatly inspired by their heart, dedication, and conviction. Their fire fuels your fire. You know that your life is now in Christ, it is no longer yours.  You’ve been crucified with Christ—it is no longer you who live, but Christ who lives in you (Galatians 2:20).  You are no longer concerned with things of the world (Mark 4:19).  You are not seeking the approval of man, you are living your life for Christ (Galatians 1:10). 

In light of this, you proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom to your family. As you reluctantly predicted, they disown you. Your life as you once knew it has changed in a matter of moments. There are threats from former friends. You’ve lost your source of income. But you have a new family in Christ and His disciples. You’ve banded together, knit together in love and Christian unity (Colossians 2:2). The fire within their spirits keeps your spirit warm and brightly shining. 

You remember this teaching of Jesus (recorded in Matthew 10:16-23): “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

How easy would it be to give up in these circumstances? What if you were going through that without brothers and sisters? 

Bottom line: We need each other. Keep encouraging each other. Keep your fires lit so that you in turn keep my fire lit.  We warm each other and keep each other going in this life. Satan wants nothing more than for us to be separated from each other. We are like coals in a fire—if you pull one out, it doesn’t keep burning long at all. The glow of the ember quickly dies and you’re left with a cold lump. But together, those coals will keep burning for a very long time. As more fuel is added, the contagiousness of their warmth spreads. We are meant to be together—fueling each other so we can then fuel others.

We are like coals in a fire—if you pull one out, it doesn’t keep burning long at all...We are meant to be together—fueling each other so we can then fuel others. Share on X

“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.” – Romans 12:11-13

“If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” – Jeremiah 20:9

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-16