Discipleship as boundary-breaking
Jesus’ kingdom embodying mission cut across the boundaries that commonly divide humanity. The model of Jesus is of a mission that embraces all humanity and one that tends to be offensive to the religiously minded.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew has skillfully constructed Matthew 8–9 into a series of mighty acts of Jesus. The initial segment (8:1-17) is instructive for seeing Jesus’ kingdom signifying actions as involving the shattering of religious and cultural boundaries. Jesus performs three explicit miracles in this segment: cleansing of a leper (8:1-4), the healing of a Centurion’s servant (8:5-13), and the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-15).
It is significant to reflect on the reason for Matthew reporting these initial three events as he does. All three of the persons whom Jesus engages in his mighty actions represents a group marginalized in some fashion in the pious circles of first century Judaism. The leper was ritually unclean and forced to exist on the fringes of society as an unwanted outcast. The Roman centurion represented the hated Empire and was a tangible reminder of the ongoing Exiled condition of God’s people evening their own land. Likewise the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is significant because women enjoyed much lower status than men in the culture of the time. But throughout the Gospels, Jesus associates freely with women. This was uncommon for a spiritual leader.
The importance of boundary breaking is not merely symbolic or politically motivated. It is central to the values of the kingdom. The Gospel is for all humanity. Moreover the Gospel advances through its introduction to outsiders. When former outsiders become insiders through the Gospel, they become new conduits of God’s grace to previously unreached people. Jesus’ boundary breaking created new mission driven people. Reflect on the three groups mentioned in Matthew 8 (lepers, Roman centurions, and women). All of these groups serve as unexpected witnesses for the power of the Gospel. Jesus sends the leper immediately to the priest to serve as “a testimony to them” (8:4). Immediately after Jesus’ death on the cross, the centurion’s present at the crucifixion exclaimed, “Truly this was the Son of God.” This is profound in that their confession mirrors Peter’s earlier declaration at Caesaria Philippi (Matt 16:16), but unlike Peter who balked at an understanding of Jesus as Son of God that involved death on a cross (Matt 16:21-23), the centurions recognize the reality of Jesus’ identity after watching how he died. In essence, they are the first truly public witnesses of Jesus and they are outsiders. Likewise (and perhaps unsurprisingly in light of God’s mission) women serve as the initial witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (Matt 28:1-10 cf. Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12, and John 20:1–18). Deploying women as heralds of the good news of God’s victory is profoundly significant and subversive. Women were unable to serve as witnesses in legal disputes yet God unleashes them to be the first proclaimers of the Resurrection. Their message ultimately changed the world.
Thus, by engaging such persons actively and without reservation, Jesus models a cross-cultural and boundary exploding mission that can run against the current of societal prejudice and injustice. The Gospel is liberating and egalitarian in outlook. God’s mission involves extending the message of the Kingdom to all people, especially to those marginalized by society or by religious insiders. Boundary breaking mission also keeps social justice on the front-burner. Jesus demonstrated through his life that God is radically for the marginalized, the poor, the sick, the dying, the foreigner (even representatives of the privileged empire), and the outcast. Christ followers of today would do well to heed this model as they plot to launch to communities of faith.
Perhaps reflection on these question: Where would Jesus establish new communities of faith today? What people in our social location represent outsiders? A missional reading reminds God’s people that a biblical model of missional outreach will always include persons different from us.