One of the games we play on our youth ministry nights is to place some hula-hoops on the floor and play some music. When the music stops, the young people need to stand in one of the hoops. If a person can’t fit in a hoop, or if people fall out of the hoops, then they’re out of the game.
This game illustrates what we often do in our relationships with others. We can set up lines or boundaries that determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ like the hula hoop in the game. Those lines can be a lot of different things, such the way people look, how they dress, what they own, where they live, or even what football team they support. As I was growing up in the church, I saw some hard and fast lines being drawn based on the denomination of the church people attended, their theological perspective or the way they interpreted the Bible. I’ve even known people who have felt excluded from churches because their surname didn’t fit in with the church’s cultural origins.
People in Jesus’ day did exactly the same thing. In the time the New Testament was written, there were very hard and fast rules about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ based on their race and their observance of their religious laws. If people were descended from Abraham with a family history that proved that connection, and if they kept the rules and religious traditions, then they were considered to be in God’s chosen people. If not, then they were seen to be outside of God’s love and blessing.
The stories from Mark 7:24-37 are great examples of how Jesus crossed the lines the religious leaders of his time constructed to extend God’s grace and love to people who were considered ‘outsiders’. The first is a woman from the area of Syrian Phoenicia whose daughter was possessed by a demon. The second was a man from another non-Jewish area who was deaf and had a speech impediment. Both of these were considered outsiders for a whole range of reasons, but Jesus crossed the lines people had put up to give them freedom, healing and wholeness, and to include them in the Kingdom of God.
To what extent do we also construct lines or boundaries that distinguish between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’? Our culture talks about valuing tolerance and inclusivity, but I still hear a lot of talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’ from both the church and wider society. We can set up barriers that separate us from others based on our age, gender, cultural background or opinions about almost any topic. We still tend to construct lines that divide the insiders from the outsiders around issues in the church such as worship, ordination or even moral standards. We might be critical of the religious people of Jesus’ time, and we might like to think that we are inclusive and tolerant, but to one degree or another don’t we all set up boundaries between the insiders and outsiders?
Jesus deliberately crossed geographical, religious, socioeconomic and even moral boundaries in order to bring the life-giving and liberating grace and love of God to those who needed it the most. He met outsiders on their territory so they could find a sense of value and self-worth through their connection with him. When Jesus was crucified, he identified with everyone who has ever felt like or been judged as an outsider. When Jesus was nailed to the cross and left there to die, he became the ultimate outsider as he suffered a form of death reserved for the worst of the worst of Roman society. Jesus didn’t only meet outsiders during his ministry. Jesus became an outsider in order to bring all the outsiders of the world into a new relationship with God and make them insiders in the Kingdom of God.
This is so important for us because, according to the religious view of Jesus’ day, we are outsiders. I don’t know of anyone in our church who is Jewish by birth. None of us keep the religious law that the people of Jesus’ day were expected to keep. We can’t even keep the Ten Commandments the way we should. We like to think that we are good people, but when we construct lines that divide ‘insiders’ from ‘outsiders’ in any way, we fail to love each other the way Jesus teaches us to. We were all outside of a relationship with God until Jesus met us as the ultimate outsider, gathered us into himself and carried us as members of his body into a new relationship with God as our loving heavenly Father, a new identity as God’s children, and a new place to belong in the Kingdom of God, (see Ephesians 2:11-18).
As people who have been on the out but have now been brought in to a new life through Jesus, we are his loving and grace-giving presence among those whom the world considers outsiders. Jesus calls us to break through the barriers that are constructed to separate the insiders from the outsiders, no matter what those barriers may be.
This week, think about the ways in which you might consider people to be either ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. Is it age, gender, cultural background or morality? Do our views on worship, ordination, interpretation of the Bible or faith generally divide us? If so, then break through whatever barriers might come between those who are considered ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. Worship at a different time or place next week. Talk to someone who is one or two generations younger or older than yourself. Make contact with someone who you might not have seen for a while because of their moral or lifestyle choices and ask how they’re doing. In one way or another, recognize the boundaries that we, our church or our society have constructed, and spend some time with a person who exists on the other side of those boundaries.
Because when we break through the boundaries and sit with the outsiders, we just might find Jesus is already there.