Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Crowds, Disciples, and Pharisees, Oh My!

In the Gospels, there are groups of people who seem to represent different facets of Jesus’ ministry. I resist categorization, and try to avoid labeling people. But for the sake of conversation, here are a few.

There are “crowds.” The crowd is the generic. There’s nothing particularly bad or particularly good about the crowd. Jesus teaches the crowds, and feeds them. The crowds come to see healing miracles. The crowd is kind of the nameless backdrop for the action.

From the crowd come “disciples.” Men and women who choose to follow Jesus step out of the crowd and become students and adherents of his teachings. Disciples pattern their lives after Jesus’ life. Jesus has special relationships with them, and many of them are named. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus come to mind, for example.

From the disciples Jesus calls the 12 “apostles.” The twelve have a particular mission in Jesus’ ministry, and he appoints them to various tasks. In some cases they are imbued with divine power for miraculous healing. They comprise a kind of “inner circle” of disciples, and their names are listed specifically.

Two other groups are present throughout the story, one of which is a target of Jesus’ anger, and one of which evokes particular compassion.

The “scribes and Pharisees” are the purveyors of hypocrisy and corruption, and incur Jesus’ condemnation on several occasions. They are the powerful minority in Jerusalem, who unjustly control both religious and civil life for all the people. They are propped up by the might of the Roman Empire, which has granted them limited temporal control of the people to the local authorities, until such time as their armies are needed.

And then there are the “outcasts,” the people that no one else cares about. They are people whom the “crowd” shuns, people at the outer margins of the social structure. It seems as though Jesus has a particular compassion for this group of people, often reaching out to an outcast in spite of the criticism it frequently invokes. Healing people with leprosy, sharing a meal with “tax collectors and sinners,” or defending a woman caught in adultery all illuminate Jesus’ special compassion for outcasts.

Sometimes people move from group to group, and most often this movement is from a group to become a “disciple” – an outcast named Mary Magdalene, a Pharisee named Jairus. Maybe a crowd member even becomes an apostle – like Bartholomew (what did he ever do?). Sometimes even an outcast becomes an apostle, like Matthew the tax collector. But rarely does anyone move the other direction. It might be argued that Judas was the noteworthy exception.

The movement we witness most of the time then, is from “farther away from Jesus” in the direction of “closer to Jesus.”

If we think about evangelism as “something that our lives, as disciple of Jesus Christ, exude as a way of being vehicles of God's love-filled grace” (Adam Gordon), then the goal of evangelism must be people moving closer to Jesus. How much of what the church does is effectively working toward that goal? What are we sharing with the “crowd” that will help us move closer to Jesus? How are we in ministry with the “outcasts” so that justice and mercy will come to bear? What are we saying to the “scribes and Pharisees” of our day that will challenge and illuminate God’s will?

Of course, the question that precedes ALL of those is, “How am I myself moving ever closer to Jesus?” It’s all too easy to label someone as an “outcast” and think that we privileged Christians need to get her moving closer to Jesus. To tell the truth, there have been many people I have known that may have been labeled “outcast” by someone who have helped me move closer to Jesus than I can describe.

Furthermore, it is all too easy to stand in the “crowd” and consider myself a “disciple,” or even an “apostle” called by God to a particular mission. This condition is perhaps even more pervasive, and quite insidious in contemporary Christianity. Our congregations are filled with gigantic crowds of self-professed disciples. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with being in the “crowd;” Jesus loves the crowd, too! But it’s not discipleship.

I need to remind myself always that Jesus is the one doing the inviting, and I’m just acting as his ambassador. And at the same time, I must stay open to receive from others the Christian invitation to a life of grace myself. Evangelism is relationship, relationship is invitational, invitation is mutually shared among all.


Kory Wilcox said...

That third to last paragraph resonates with me. One of the reasons I am associated with Campbell still today is because many years ago (it feels funny to say that... it wasn't THAT long ago, only 9 or 10 years... right?) I was very encouraged by a close 'atheist' friend of mine, an 'outcast' even perhaps by his own label choosing, to not turn away from my pursuit of Jesus. Turns out he thought I was silly for ever even attempting to shed or redefine that identity, rather than for embracing it in the first place, which is kind of what I had assumed. It was a wake up call for me. There was a degree of respect and humbleness involved in the exchange, as I acknowledged that he was someone whose thoughts mattered to me, and he acknowledged that I might be on to something worthwhile after all. It was an extremely enlightening time in my journey, and our support of each other over the years has never changed!

Anonymous said...

I really like these ideas about all the different groups. Thanks. cb