Last week we laid the foundation for this series by talking about the perspective of grace. I offered two opposing views of grace: either a reward or a gift from God, and looked at how each of those views could shape our views on God, self, and neighbor. If grace is truly a free gift from God, then we have no reason to view other people as morally inferior to Christians. We haven’t earned anything, we don’t deserve anything, we have just been the recipients of God’s overwhelming grace. This week, we are going to look at how Jesus seemed to view the people around Him, and compare that to how we view our neighbors.
The society we live in is governed largely by lines. Imaginary lines form the borders of towns, counties, states, countries, and even continents. But the lines I want to talk about today are the lines that we draw around ourselves—the “tribes” we create. For many of us the tribal identifiers have changed. It’s no longer about geography. We live in a globalized world where it’s as easy to talk to someone in Dublin as someone in Durham. Instead, our tribal identifiers have become things like race, language, behavior, politics, and religion—a “moral circle”. Too often, we extend grace to those who are in our moral circle, and withhold it from those who are not. All of us draw our moral circles differently. But there’s no questions that they have an impact on how we treat the people around us. Some of the lines being drawn in America today are particularly deep and damaging. One of the most common lines I see drawn is around politics. As soon as someone identifies themself as being of a different political ideology, we shift our view of them. Others’ lines aren’t political, but religious. Now, let me be clear: it’s not that you have to agree with or condone every action of every person in your circle. It simply means that you don’t reserve your most loving, gracious, kind self only for the people that meet your tribal criteria. Jesus, of course, is our best teacher of what a moral circle should look like.
Jesus seems to be placing a tax collector inside his moral circle (Matthew 9:9ff). No good Jew would do this. Tax collectors are thieves, traitors, and outsiders. You shouldn’t be seen with them, much less invite them into your circle. The Pharisees wondered if Jesus knew that there were good, reputable people he could be eating with instead of tax collectors and sinners? Jesus continually associated with the sick, the disabled, the poor, the outcast, and the untouchables of his society. The gospels record situation after situation in which Jesus invites unexpected people inside his moral circle. Then there are those moments in Scripture where Jesus doesn’t seem to care for people the way he did the woman at the well (see Matthew 21:12-13). He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. These people clearly stirred up righteous anger in Jesus. What exactly was Jesus’ problem with them?
This was not a group of innocent merchants. They knew that during Passover week they could take advantage of people who needed a sacrificial animal or Temple currency. In doing so, they were being manipulative, dishonest, and even racist (they took up the only place in the Temple where non-Jews could come to worship). Jesus wasn’t OK with that behavior! In Matthew 23, we see Jesus with some especially challenging words for the Pharisees. Your bible might have the same heading as mine for the passage starting in verse 13… “Seven woes to the Pharisees.” I really hope that there’s never a heading in any book called “Seven woes to Lanier”! That’s when you know you are in trouble. Jesus had some scathing words for the Pharisees. Surely, one would think, with warnings like these, the Pharisees must find themselves outside of Jesus’ circle—right? Once again, Jesus’ moral insight takes our breath away: Jesus told them: “How often I have longed to gather you together, as a hen protects her chicks under her wings—but you are not willing!” Yes, even after the tongue lashing they just received, the Pharisees are invited in to the circle. Jesus wants to be able to be tender with them, to be gracious to them, to speak gently to them.
It’s not Jesus who has pushed them away; the Pharisees pushed Jesus away. The woman at the well, the tax collectors, the prostitutes—all these people came to Jesus broken, thirsty, humbled. Even though they were sinners, even though they missed the mark over and over again, they came to Jesus desperately wanting to receive what He had to offer. And so to these people, Jesus could be gentle. But the Pharisees didn’t come humbly. They thought Jesus was the one who needed what they had to offer. They weren’t in need of a Savior; they were saving themselves—by excluding people from their moral circle. Jesus’ compassion, love, and grace meant nothing to the Pharisees. To the self-righteous, Jesus had to try and rattle their cages, to try and show them that they were hurrying down a path towards destruction. If you go to your doctor’s office and you are 20 pounds overweight, your doctor won’t ignore it, but she can afford to be gentle, subtle, because your situation isn’t a crisis. But if you’re 200 pounds overweight, you’re going to receive a very different message. Your doctor will be blunt, forceful, and and serious. Those who are proud and self-righteous are in crisis. They have deluded themselves into thinking that they can find their own way to salvation—and it’ll destroy them if they don’t change. Jesus doesn’t place people outside His circle; the Pharisees removed themselves from it.
So, if we are to look at Jesus as our model of how to draw our moral circles, who goes in and who goes out? Everyone is invited in. He didn’t withhold his most generous, loving, or sacrificial behavior from anyone. We shouldn’t either. Everyone should receive our best. But love looks different in different situations. The broken people, the humble people, the searching people in your life need your gentle, compassionate reminders of grace. But the proud, the righteous, the people on the path towards ruin might need a message of woe. You love them less, you don’t place them outside your circle. Their situation requires rebuke because you love them.
APPLICATION / CHALLENGE
- On the back of today’s Talking Points Walking Points (download pdf below) is a drawing of the “Moral Circle” we explored today. In the space below it, fill in some factors that you’ve used in the past to define who’s “in” and “out” of your circle. (It could be financial status, ethnicity—maybe it’s UNC or State or Duke fans.) Whatever they are, take some time to honestly consider how Jesus would evaluate your criteria for who’s inside and outside your circle.
- Read the “Seven Woes” recorded in Matthew 23:13-39. Could any of those warnings apply to you?
- Last week, did you try to find a tangible way to initiate love towards someone you’d previously pulled away from? If so, do it again this week! (If not, start this week!)
- Jesus has invited you into his circle, if you aren’t sure about your relationship with Christ or want to know more, contact us here (connect.tcc.org) Scroll down to the Ministry Information Request section and mark the first or second checkbox. We look forward to helping!
TAKE ONE STEP
Each week, write down one doable concrete step of obedience, small or large that you will put into practice this week. (James 1:22: “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”)