Jesus talks to outsiders; Jesus talks to insiders

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There are always outsiders who don't quite fit in. Outsiders may be outside by an inch: An odd quirk keeps them out of the inner circle. Outsiders may be outside by a mile: Their skin is the wrong color, or their religion is wrong, or their culture is a threat. We like to keep people outside our circle well, outside. We push them to the margin. We blame them for their problems. When outsiders come to our church, our smiles are a little forced, and they pick up the cue: Go find your own people.

Jesus met outsiders in his day. Tax collectors were outsiders. Jesus met at least two. To Matthew he said, "Follow me." "Follow me" is the ultimate invitation to become an insider. To Zacchaeus, he said, "I'm going to stay at your house today." This is less an invitation, and more Jesus busting down the door of the outsider to say, "I've come to make you an insider."

In Jesus' day, women were outsiders. For Jewish males, foreign women were seen as exotic temptresses. Jewish women were thought by some to be of value only for bearing children. Jesus stopped to noticed women, not as sexual objects or reproductive agents. He gave hope back to a widow when he raised her son from the dead. When a woman who had ongoing bleeding touched the hem of his garment, he stopped to discover her and then pronounced her healed. He protected a woman caught in adultery from being stoned. His longest-recorded conversation was with a Samaritan woman at a well. He changed her life and her village.

Every time Jesus encounters the outsiders, he speaks to them invitingly. He notices them. He lets them know they matter to God.

There are always insiders who have position and power. Oddly, insiders often protest they are not insiders. Sometimes they do this so their power can stay hidden. Sometimes they protest because they are genuinely clueless about their privilege.

We all long to be inside. This longing is so deep, if we are deprived of it, we will create our own insider group to exclude others (usually people from another insider group that threaten us). Kids from dysfunctional families join a gang. A group at work forms to gossip about another group at work that gossips. We want to be inside.

Jesus met insiders too. Pharisees were insiders. Their keeping of the religious code made them the spiritual elite. Every time Jesus encountered a Pharisee, he challenged his ideas of superiority. When Jesus met Nicodemus, a Pharisee, he opened the discussion with a challenge: "You must be born again." Translation: Your insider status counts for nothing.

The rich young ruler was an insider, based on the fact he was rich, young and a ruler. Jesus loved him enough to tell him to sell everything he had, give it to the poor and follow him. A more radical challenge could not have been given. The rich young ruler couldn't do it. Being an insider was more important than following Jesus.

Every time Jesus met insiders, he challenged them. He challenged their convictions. He was fearless. He did not need or want their approval. He had no desire to enter their inner circle. He wanted insiders to turn away from the insider circles they had created to realize the radical change they needed.

Churches are supposed to speak like Jesus. Followers of Jesus need to speak invitingly and warmly to all outsiders. We need to say, "Come and see." Followers of Jesus need to speak confrontationally to insiders, especially to ourselves. There are too many opportunities to fool ourselves into believing we're special because we keep a religious code. Maybe instead of passing the peace of Christ, we should pass the challenge of Christ: "Are you humbly seeking Jesus each day?"

Don't miss the truth of Jesus: He loves the outsiders enough to invite them in. He loves the insiders enough to challenge them with the truth. Which way is he loving you?

Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.