Inclusiveness And Repentance

Inclusiveness And Repentance October 20, 2022

Did Jesus practice inclusiveness? Not too long ago, I saw a meme claiming Jesus ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners not to be inclusive but to call them to repentance. Curious. I hear the distant voices of ancient Pharisees. What is not inclusive about calling people to repentance? I find no reason to think the two are mutually exclusive. Again, while discussing this with another clergy person, he claimed these people repented at the preaching of John the Baptist before they met Jesus. Why did Jesus not explain this to his critics? There is something lacking in the answer even though Jesus says many did repent.

Discipleship and Inclusiveness

The best example of the controversy described above is the call and celebration of Matthew (whom Luke calls Levi). “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. As he sat down at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, 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 have come to call not the righteous but sinners.'” (Matthew 9:10-13) There are other examples. But this story will suffice.

The readers are supposed to understand what Jesus says here. He claims only sick people need a physician. And then he says, the Pharisees should read Hosea 6:6 again, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” No sacrifices are being offered in this story. So, the focus is on the “mercy” for which God asks. Jesus is a physician who makes house calls. Healing is a large part of his ministry. Healing the whole person is his goal. What medicine does that require? Mercy.

Mercy And Repentance

The story is about what Jesus requires of the so-called righteous. They must recognize that which is obvious to everyone else. The lust for power and prestige has overtaken their good works. The evidence is there desire to exclude some of God’s people to hold sway and be accepted by others. Tax collectors deal in money. Prostitutes sell sex for money. The spiritual elites afford themselves the ability to look down on the people for whom money is the everyday goal. These are people who have no time for studying the Torah. Therefore, they are accursed sinners.

Repentance means literally a change in life. Matthew is making a major change. He is joining Jesus’ group of followers. But this is not welcomed by the Pharisees. Why not? Probably because Matthew still associates with his old friends. It harms his witness in their eyes. Matthew is the only one among the “Tax collectors and sinners” who has offered anything like repentance. The critics do not see anything going on here as repentance in the accepted sense of the term. Appropriate ritual sacrifices are not being made. Neither are the appropriate sacrifices of people being made.

Inclusiveness of People

Jesus would have been glad to have every person at the dinner make changes in their lives right then and there. But the point is, Jesus does not judge them for not making that choice. Jesus criticized the Pharisees later in Matthew because they knew the changes they could make for the sake of other people. Stop tying heavy burdens on people. Stop devouring the inheritance of widows. Cease the pretentious attitude of being God’s defenders.

The next question is did any of the “tax collectors and sinners” decide against Jesus after these dinners. Did they walk away skeptical? Did any decide he was not helpful to them? I wish one of the Gospels showed Jesus dealing with just such a situation. I would like to know what he did in response. Was it always, “Forgive them?” How did he practice mercy towards them? Would he condemn them as he did the Pharisees?

The Actual Point

None of this is really the point of the meme I mention earlier. The meme is meant to paint Jesus as exclusive of certain people. He called the Canaanite woman a dog. (Matthew 15:26) Yet, ultimately, he includes her and her daughter into his ministry. Some interpreters argue the centurion is asking Jesus to heal his sex slave. Perhaps. We know, given the status of slaves in the Roman Empire, it is entirely possible. But it could just as well be he treats the slave like a son. Jesus heals the slave who otherwise had no legal standing. The centurion and his slave are included. Yet, some people are determined to exclude themselves.

Did Jesus call everyone who invited him to repentance? Yes. Was that a condition of his sharing the table with them? No. Simon the Pharisee sees a demonstration of repentance but only sees the woman as a sinner. He does not recognize her actions as loving repentance. But Simon is judged by his own standards compared to this woman. She is saved. It is Simon who has a decision to make.

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