Today, there is perhaps no more important topic for Christians to study than inclusion – that’s why I love to write about my journey. This is in part a continuation of my previous post, “Interfaith harmony: the kinship of Christians and Muslims,“ where I began a discussion of the fact that the Bible doesn’t always tie salvation to a specific belief in Jesus.
Today’s post adds to that progressive idea that heaven isn’t just for those who have specifically “asked Jesus into their hearts.” It’s about inclusion – but it’s also about the heart of God.
In the years since I was “born again again,“ I’ve been reading the same Bible, but seeing it differently – with grace-colored glasses. Time and time again, I’ve stopped in the middle of a chapter and murmured, “well, that wasn’t there before!”
I think my eyes were newly opened because I was done with searching Scripture for the perfect formula (how to pray in order to get what I wanted, finding “the correct answer” to every issue, etc.). God was mysterious and enigmatic: generous and compassionate, yet demanding and withholding. I thought if I could find the right combination of promises that he has made, and muster up a strong enough faith to believe in what I was praying, I could (maybe) convince him to bless me.
But now I began to understand God more as Someone with whom I was in a long-term relationship, whom I could get to know better and better over time – not for my purposes (answered prayer), but for His (much grander) purposes. And His purposes became our purposes: I began to desire justice and peace in the world, instead of success for myself; I began to love the marginalized as Jesus did, instead of judging them as the Pharisees did.
And I began to see the Bible in a whole different light. The book that had been ho-hum predictable began to surprise me, and God began to surprise me.
In the spirit of edification, I’d like to share some examples with you.
Take the parable in Luke 18 of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.
I’d always understood this story as: we should be as holy as the Pharisee, but as humble as the tax collector.
But is that what it says? Nope. It says that the tax collector went home justified. The Pharisee didn’t see himself as needing justification. There was no reward for his fasting and tithing because that’s not what God is looking for – he is looking for humility and contrition. The humble and contrite go away not only justified, but also resolute. Will he sin again? Probably. But he is still better off than the Pharisee.
How about the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10)? The question in v.25 is “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer boils down to: “Live a life of love, like the Samaritan (whose theology doesn’t match yours).” The theologically conforming priest and Levite were the bad guys in this story. (I’ve also written about the Good Samaritan here.)
Jesus looks for faith and love
Look at Jesus and the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15): she was a non-Jew so, like the Samaritan, she did not have “proper” theology. Still, Jesus declared, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”
When Jesus spoke to the centurion (Luke 7), Jesus made a startling claim about this non-Jew: “I have not found such faith in all of Israel.” He was impressed with the man’s faith, not repelled by his theology (or lack thereof).
Or what about Jesus and the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume (Luke 7): we don’t know whether she was a Jew or a Gentile, but we do know she was a sinner. In anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume, she demonstrated that she “loved much.” Jesus forgave her simply because of her love. He honored the person that everyone considered unworthy.
Check out the conversation between Jesus and a teacher of the law (Mark 12): “…Teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but Him. To love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus applauds the one who understands that love is paramount. (A few verses later, Jesus roundly and soundly condemns the rest of the teachers of the law.)
Peter and Cornelius
Perhaps most significant is the story of Cornelius, another Roman centurion (Acts 10): Although he was not a Jew (i.e. he did not worship God “by the Book”), God took note of Cornelius’ faith. (“Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.”) This is what God seeks as His eyes run to and fro across the earth (2 Chron. 16:9)! In the words of Peter to Cornelius, “In every nation, he that fears [God] and works righteousness is accepted with Him.” Of course, Cornelius went on to learn more from Peter—but the point here is that God rejoiced over him as he was.
When I look with fresh eyes (or perhaps “grace-colored glasses”) at these stories, here’s what I see:
God looks at the heart, and where He finds worship and faith and love, that person is on the right path. God joins with that person and walks her/him into the Kingdom.
God is obviously less interested in religious correctness than we are.
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