15th March 2020 Russell Braund

Community Focussed: Breaking social barriers

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In the novel ‘A Passage to India’ there is a young Indian doctor who is keen to befriend English people and be part of the club. He is warned that it is not truly possible to be a friend to an Englishman and be accepted, because of his race. However, this is something he desires. He befriends an old lady who has come out to India with a young woman who is going to be married. He arranges an expedition to some caves and as a result of an incident in the caves, he is accused of sexual assault. 

He is entirely innocent, but the British community are determined to find him guilty, because it is exactly the sort of behaviour they would have expected. Dr Aziz comes to realise just how unacceptable he is and how high the social barriers are to inclusion. Even the person who could testify to his innocence – Mrs More – will not do so. He is not part of the club.

My brother is a civil engineer in France and involved in the refurbishment of top hotels and the construction of high end developments. His company’s clients are multi-millionaires and have money to spend! To stay at the hotels they go to costs thousands for one night and people will spend £25 000 on a bottle of wine. the hotels are aimed exclusively at people who drive Maseratis and Lamborghinis – so don’t turn up in our Ford Focus!. They don’t want just anybody in their set. To buy a property in a development will cost millions. Even the richest person you know could not gain you entry to this social circle. You would be out of place – and out on your ear!

The Indian doctor couldn’t join the English club and unless you have so much money that you can waste it being extortionately exploited in a hotel, then you can’t join the French set. People like to be exclusive and feel that in some way they are better than others. Is the church like that? Is Emmanuel Baptist Church like that?

Story 1 Matthew 9:9-13. Jesus was recognised as a teacher, although the religious establishment early on had taken exception to his teaching, his actions and certainly took exception to his company. He walked along the shoreline and came to a tax collector’s booth – and he called Levi who is one of the vilest of men in the Jewish community. He was a tax farmer. 

There would have been a tax district and the person in charge of the district would have franchised out sub divisions, expecting to be paid so much for the franchise and part of that would be passed onto the authorities and the rest kept as income. The local tax collector would need to collect enough to cover his franchise and then anything else on top was profit. Possibly Levi was collecting taxes from the fishermen.  He was working for the occupying authorities; he was an instrument of exploitation and oppression for the people. 

There is a hymn by Fanny Crosby that has this verse:

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,

 To every believer the promise of God;

 The vilest offender who truly believes,

 That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.

In the eyes of the Jewish community and religious authorities there was no redemption possible for this man and others like him.

To become a tax collector meant you were an outcast, disqualified from serving in the judiciary or being a reliable witness and excommunicated from the synagogue. You were fundamentally outside the law and permanently unclean. Your disgrace extended to your family. You could no longer be part of the club and there was no way you could get in. 

Tax collectors and sinners got lumped together. Sinners were those who were inferior because they did not take the law as seriously as they should. They didn’t keep the rules and rituals as the religious people did and so were often in a state of uncleanliness too. Sometimes it was as a result of the fact that being poor meant they couldn’t stick to the law because of their work. Unreasonably, people who worked on the land were often dismissed because they didn’t follow ritual cleansing before eating or follow tithing rules. The vile tax collectors belonged to this group.

Jesus called Levi, a member of this group, to join him and become a follower – a disciple. The implication was that there were many of his crowd who followed – v.15. Jesus was criticised because he ate with these people and failed to distinguish between the righteous and the unrighteous. What he was doing was disgraceful and the disgrace was felt by his family which is probably why they thought that he was out of his mind and came to get him on one occasion. If he was truly a religious teacher from God he would not be mixing with these people. He would keep himself apart and only mix with the righteous.

It has to be said that the church down through the centuries has followed the same attitude: because people have not adopted a certain way of life and certain values, or because they come from different backgrounds and understand the gospel differently, they can’t be part of the kingdom. People have felt excluded and judged – and still do. There are groups of people who would never think of coming across the threshold of the church, because they believe they are judged and won’t be accepted before they even walk up to the door. That is why I asked at the beginning, is Emmanuel Baptist Church like that? 

Story 2:  John 4:1-30 . How many social barriers were disregarded here? 

  • Talks to a Samaritan 
  • Talks to a woman in public – a Samaritan woman – and asks her for a drink
  • Talks to a woman who has to come to the well at lunchtime – socially isolated among Samaritan women
  • Talks to a woman about theology, taking her seriously

No self respecting rabbi would disregard so many social conventions. The disciples were surprised when they got back. 

The contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees was this:

  • They wanted to safeguard themselves against the impure and immoral.
  • Jesus went out of his way to reclaim those cast as impure and immoral.
  • They wanted concrete evidence of repentance before there could be any possibility of contact.
  • Jesus just touched and ate with whoever came along – including Pharisees.
  • They steered clear of sinners
  • Jesus went looking for them.
  • They categorised who was in and who was out.
  • Jesus announced the Kingdom and took it to whoever would listen and respond.

As Jesus heard the criticism of his actions he cut the ground from under the Pharisees with his response: there was no point eating with them because they were righteous. He came for the people who weren’t. It is a real surprise as to who is in the kingdom.

The sinners and tax collectors had no status and no rights in the religious world, except condemnation. They knew they were fundamentally unclean and so I guess that as with people today when they think they have been judged, they gave good grounds for people judging them: might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. In entering the Kingdom they could only come as children with nothing to bring. They had no righteousness of their own and were dependent on the grace of God. They knew it and there was relief and excitement when they realised that they had been accepted. 

As Jesus shared a meal with sinners and tax collectors, relaxing in their company, he demolished social and cultural barriers. I cannot imagine there was anything patronising or condescending in Jesus’ manner. These were people he loved and wanted to be with. Jesus wasn’t afraid of being contaminated as the righteous people were. As he talked with the woman at the well, he demolished social and cultural barriers. His discussion doesn’t come across as condescending in anyway, but on terms of equality. This is what the pharisees couldn’t accept and what many Christian pharisees cannot accept today, as social or cultural barriers are crossed.

When Jesus met people he didn’t start telling them how to live their lives once they had encountered him. That their lives were transformed as a result of meeting with Jesus was clear, but he didn’t start turning them into ‘decent’ people, but called them to follow him. Where I think we get confused is that we think people who become Christians should be like us and see things the way we do and live as we do. 

Undoubtedly lives change as a result of meeting with Jesus, undoubtedly the Holy Spirit works in people, but that doesn’t mean we become clones of each other. And we need to accept others with their differences as full members of the kingdom and not as inferior. There may be weaker members of the Kingdom and stronger members, but there are no inferior members. All are equally accepted and equally loved by Christ. All have received forgiveness at the same cost and in the same way– by the grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ who takes away our sin.

The challenge for genuine Christian community is to value each person equally as part of God’s family and not think, ‘It’ll be no great loss if they leave’; or have as a goal social or religious purity. The challenge is to value each person equally when they don’t have the same skills and abilities as you do. The challenge is to value each person equally when they are dependent and weak. The challenge is to treat people with disability in the same way as we treat anyone else. The challenge is to avoid putting up barriers and to invite people to follow Jesus.

It is important that we ask ourselves these questions in relation to people in general in order to allow the Holy Spirit to challenge us so that we can be bearers of good news and welcome people into the Kingdom, rather than those who have become a closed group with its own culture and expectations which are not necessarily gospel based and which end up excluding people. The Pharisees became a stumbling block and had no good news to share with anyone. Jesus came along and he certainly had good news for those who had given up hope and thought they could only expect judgement and condemnation. 

The central message of the gospel is not that Christ came to condemn and exclude, but that Christ came to save sinners – to save those who were separated from God and want to be reconciled. Those people are from different cultures, backgrounds and experiences. They haven’t been saved to become like me, but like Christ. His light shines in their lives and brings about change that glorifies him. The Kingdom of God is a surprising place.