When asked in an interview to identify the ugliest word in the English language, the late American writer Carl Sandburg reportedly responded, “exclusive.” Indeed, exclusive attitudes and actions have left a long trail of damage throughout much of human history — and continue to do so today.
Jesus was often in trouble for his brazen inclusivity. He simply refused to follow religiously and socially established rules of exclusion based on gender, ethnicity and reputation — just to name a few evident from his midday encounter with a woman at a well in Sychar (John 4).
The larger biblical story is about the wideness of God’s mercy that extends beyond lines of division that humanity often erects. Yet, also, there are warnings about choosing destructive paths that lead away from God’s constructive purposes in the world.
The dilemma, at least for me, is to affirm the grand way in which God has so loved the world in Jesus while not taking on the role of judge that suggests I can know exactly how sheep and goats or wheat and chaff are divided.
There are those, however, who will eagerly and confidently tell us which persons are “in” and which ones are “out” according to whether one has made a particular “profession of faith” or has embraced other matters considered essential for kingdom membership.
Other honest Bible readers, however, will acknowledge that there’s more than one biblical prescription: from believing/confessing (Rom. 10:9) to “those who have done what is right will receive eternal life” (Matt. 25:46).
More clearly stated is that God alone judges humanity — and needs no help from us. And Jesus’ striking story of a great banquet is a stark reminder that those who think they know who’s in and who’s out — including themselves — may be in for a big surprise.
There was a time when I was quite comfortable believing that those who believe like me are kingdom insiders while those who do not share my faith commitments (and superior doctrinal conclusions) are on the outside. I’m no longer comfortable with such assumptions that through closer observation seem so arrogantly presumptuous.
Who am I to set limits on the grace of God — even when able to string together verses of scripture that suggest my requirements for kingdom inclusion match God’s?
Yet challenges remain. And they are not easily reconciled when embracing both a wide openness to God’s expansive mercy and a strong belief that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God and the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation.
Therefore, there is an ongoing tension that comes with holding a very, very high view of Jesus while rejecting any attitude that implies (or reveals) a sense of superior, exclusive faith resulting in God’s grace extending to only those whose faith closely resembles mine.
It is a tension I’m learning to live with more comfortably than before — simply because it’s more desirable than the other options available.
Affirmations of faith remain strong, if not stronger: Jesus is the incarnation of God, the savior of the world and the model for meaningful living.
This Jesus of the Gospels, however, is far more radical and offensive and difficult than the domesticated version we often adapt for our own comfort. It is rather easy to follow a savior who both forgives freely and agrees with one’s own politics and theology — and shares one of the limited passwords to the kingdom clubhouse.
It is easy and attractive to choose such a chummy, comfortable understanding of faith. In doing so, salvation becomes neatly packaged — propped up by focusing on some aspects of the Bible while ignoring others.
We can create simple, low-demand, step-by-step spiritual prescriptions that end with a prayer and a signature. We can even define salvation in terms of a few spiritual laws.
In fact, Jesus did such — not with four but with merely two:
“Love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind — and your neighbor as yourself.”
Is that enough? It’s certainly hard enough. BT
By John Pierce