Just recently I prepared a devotional thought for a group of friends who are each coordinating a large women's event in their area. These friends have been charged with the challenge to lead their teams in prioritizing inviting women who are not a part of a church or who do not have an intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ. While the time with my friends was necessarily incredibly brief because they had many items on their meeting agenda, I have not been able to get away from the larger lessons I learned while studying for this devotion.
I was really forced to ask myself some questions about my own personal ministry and the ministries in which I participate. The primary question I am still struggling with is this: am I prioritizing relationships with women outside the church, and especially those women who most likely don't have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? As a Midwestern, suburban pastor's wife and stay at home mom, it's really easy to fall into the sinful trap of living inside a "Christian bubble". If I'm honest, I have very few good friends who are not Christians, and I tend to find myself primarily around Christians throughout the week. I have this sense that God may be pruning me in some areas to foster a rearrangement of my priorities and opportunities when it comes to stepping outside of my little bubble. Can I honestly say that scares me?
Luke 15:1-7 is a parable with which I am quite familiar. If you're reading this blog, I"ll bet you know it as well. Check it out at http://bible.com/111/luk.15.1.niv. Over the next few days I hope to share a few of the truths in this passage that are shaking me up and making me rethink some ministry strategies in my life.
For today, verse one is enough to both encourage me and challenge me! Verse one says, "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus." Just this first verse, not even getting into the parable itself yet, actually surprised me! As you probably already know, tax collectors were those Jews who worked for the Roman government to take money from their Jewish neighbors. They were considered traitors by their Jewish peers because, not only did they work for the Romans, but they extorted extra money from their Jewish neighbors in order to make money themselves. They literally took the money from their own people for themsleves as well as for the oppressive Romans. Jesus was obviously Jewish, as were the Pharisees, so he should have despised the tax collectors like every other Jew. At the very least, He should have distanced Himself from them. Because of this, the tax collectors should have felt ostracized by Jesus and His followers...as ostracized as the Pharisees attempted to make them! But not only are tax collectors hanging out with Jesus, just plain old sinners are eating with Him as well. One resource I read described these sinners as those who refused to follow the law the way the Pharisees interpreted it. In other words, sinners were those who didn't even attempt to be "perfect". Who knows why they didn't follow the law? Maybe the hypocritical Pharisees made them sick at their stomach and it was a sort of passive aggressive way to get back at them. Maybe they just honestly realized that they were completely unable to be perfect so they gave up. Maybe they thought it was just too much fun to be bad. I have no idea why they chose to be sinners, but I can honestly relate a little. Anyway, these tax collectors and sinners were definitely outside of the Pharisee's "religious bubble". These tax collectors and sinners were considered, by the Pharisees and obviously not by God, to be the riff raff, the secular humanists, the appalling losers who obviously deserved to be separated from God. (As if we don't all deserve that?!)
I am very much impressed that Jesus wanted to hang out with the tax collectors and sinners, but honestly that isn't even what grabs me the most about this part of the story. I'm not at all surprised by the mercy and grace of Jesus because He's extended it to me and my family over and over again. I think the tax collectors and sinners must have been surprised by Jesus' attitude toward them, though. No one "religious" had ever accepted them. I firmly believe that is exactly why it says they were gathered around "to hear him." The Message renders it like this, "...they listened intently to Jesus..." This is precisely what has most captivated and encouraged me today!
Totally honestly, I usually assume that people outside the church or those we would call "lost" wouldn't possibly listen to me tell them about Jesus. This is why I rarely invite them to church or Bible study or women's ministry events. For many reasons, I think that most unchurched friends are unchurched because they just don't want to hear it. I mean come on, this is the Midwestern US, haven't most people heard of Jesus and just decided either they are in or out? And if they don't seem to be searching then why would they listen to what I've got to say about God? But here's the deal: they weren't listening to anyone but Jesus in this passage. And again, I cannot help but believe that they listened because He actually valued them. My NIV study Bible notes on this passage say, "More than simple association, eating with a person indicated acceptance and recognition." So, of course, no one is going to just listen to me talk ABOUT Jesus, but they very well might be willing to associate with someone who values them as Jesus did.
I can hear some of you say already, "But I can't accept the way they live or their views or their actions." No, but I can value them, because God valued all of us enough to send His Son. I can deeply care about those outside the church or those who aren't really seeking God...at least don't realize they are seeking God. I can eat with them, engage in ongoing encouraging conversation with them, be a true friend with them. All the while I want to pray for them and share with them when they are struggling.
I am encouraged that "the lost" and "the unchurched" will listen to Jesus. They will actually lean in and listen intently. This encourages me to actually invite my friends into situations where Jesus is accurately represented and praised. This encourages me to stop assuming that people won't listen to Jesus. So the question becomes, am I speaking and living Jesus' words alongside them?
Or am I muttering about them as the Pharisees were in this scene? (That may be a totally different post!!!)
And to those friends with whom I shared this devotion on Tuesday: be encouraged that if you value the "lost" and "unchurched" in Jesus' name, they will listen. Don't just throw some tickets in their direction, really invite them and engage them and make them know they are more than your ministry. Make them true friends!
No real earth shattering new thoughts, but ponderings that will hopefully rearrange how I'm living.