Jesus’ ministry involved frequent confrontations with the religious status-quo of his day. Ironically this included friction with the traditionalist Sadduccess and the reform minded Pharisees. A missional reading of the text is interested in the ways that Jesus' engagement with religious insiders serves as a warning to modern Christ followers lest we fall into the same traps of the insiders of Jesus' day.
Part of Jesus’ critique is the implication that outsiders may be in a better position to hear God than religious insiders. If the core call of God is (re)alignment, then there will always be a danger that insiders may choose not to realign with God’s contemporary mission. Over time, what began as a vital movement crystallizes into a suffocating status quo that ends up hindering God’s work in the world. New life may be added to God’s people by the inclusion of outsiders but this inclusion often comes as the cost of conflict with religious tradition especially religion’s calcified leaders.
Matthew 9:9-13 records Jesus’ calling of Matthew the tax collector along with a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees over Jesus’ dinner with “tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus’ inclusion of Matthew into his band of disciples is a clear example of boundary breaking and a profound statement about mission in itself. The Pharisees who in many ways reduced the Torah to Sabbath keeping and table rules were incensed that Jesus would risk ritual contamination by choosing the company of persons who any decent religious leader would know to avoid. Jesus’ rebuke is classic and cuts to the heart of Jesus’ critique: “Those who are strong have no need of a doctor, but the ones who are ill do. Go and learn this: I am desiring mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call righteous people but sinners" (9:12-13). Since the Gospel is for the world, God’s people must be willing to move out of their own circles to interact and engage people who are desperate to learn and experience God’s grace and mercy. This text is also vital for reflecting on the relationship between holiness and mission. Holiness as Jesus models it is a holiness that engages the world with an understanding that a true holiness can infest the world rather than be infected by the world. Holiness often comes with calls to separate from the world, but Jesus points the way forward to a missional holiness that carries light into places that the merely religious people consider to be dark and void of hope. Dining with tax collectors and sinners ran counter to the religious status quo of the Pharisees, but Jesus values the reaching of new people over the misplaced religious sensibilities of insiders.
Another danger for religious insiders involves viewing the world through a self-justifying framework that finds pride in the contrast between us and them. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Both men enter the temple to pray. The Pharisee’s prayer is a profoundly self-serving one that attempts to elevate himself before God on the basis of religious practices in contrast to those of outsiders including the tax collector in his presence. The Pharisee’s words demonstrate a scarcity understanding of God’s grace and reduces life to the mere performance of correct actions detached of any sense of mission or the values of God’s kingdom. It takes pride in one’s performance in contrast to “sinners” rather than in understanding one’s spiritual life in light of God. The tax collector on the other hand simply prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” According to Jesus, of the two men only the tax collector went home justified before God.
Even knowledge of the Scriptures is no guarantee of hearing and discerning God. For example, in Matthew’s infancy narrative, pagan astrologers from the east are contrasted sharply with Herod and all Jerusalem (including the chief priests and scribes). The astrologers have come to Jerusalem looking for the Messiah in response to their interpretation of astronomical phenomena. Herod calls on the religious leaders to provide insight and appropriately they cite Mic 5:2 identification of Bethlehem as the place to find the Messiah. But astonishingly enough no one travels to Bethlehem to find the newly born Messiah except for the astrologers. Instead Herod and all Jerusalem (including the religious establishment) are “frightened” at the prospect of the Messiah’s birth and ultimately respond to the Messiah’s announced birth in Bethlehem by murdering all boys under two. In contrast, the astrologers find the baby Jesus, worship him, and give gifts in symbolic surrender to this newly born King. This episode in particular is a warning to God’s people today of taking care lest one’s knowledge of Scripture actually blind one to God’s desires and intentions in and for the world.
Nothing is more suffocating or potentially harmful to God’s mission than a status quo religion that is more concerned with protecting its own power base, propagating tradition in anachronistic and legalistic ways, exalting itself by criticizing others, or promoting ideology over relationship than it is with declaring God’s eternal “Yes” to those women and men desperate for the good news that God has called us to share. The Gospel is for outsiders. God leads outsiders to God’s people. Those religiously inclined must not be blinded to this reality lest they find themselves on the outside of God’s kingdom.