We spend an inordinate amount of time wondering, debating and worrying about who is in and who is out. I’m not a big fan of movies or t.v. series, but trailers and scenes stream unbidden across my computer screen, so I have a sense of how many scripts are dedicated to coming of age angst over being in or out, adult angst over being in or out, career angst over being in or out, and so it goes. And why not? Each of us has our own story of personal experience struggling with being in, out, or navigating the path between. Being the social animals that we are, life is not fully had if it is not had in community. We want and need to be part of a herd, flock, tribe or clan. In fact, we want and need to be part of several at the same time, each serving a different purpose, and we need to know our place in each. It’s nothing new. Humans in every time and culture have felt the same need.
The question of who is in and who is out of the community of God’s people has been the subject of religious debate and opinion for as long as religions have existed. Hebrew scripture tells the story of a people learning, with considerable difficulty, what it meant to be God’s people chosen to bear the flame of God’s grace for all peoples to see. In Jesus, we Christians see that flame spread throughout the world for all to see and take as theirs. It’s an act of holy generosity hampered by well meaning Christians who want to control tightly how it’s shared by setting many rules for who is in and who is out.
Christians scripture takes exception to religious rules about who is in and who is out, and none does it more powerfully than Luke’s gospel where a series of parables are grouped together on the road to Jerusalem where Jesus will be crucified. They reveal there are few who are cast out. God’s grace will go to extreme measure to seek out the lost and missing, no matter how insignificant others might think them to be. They demonstrate that there are many, unnamed, unheralded who are in and always have been. One has to work at it to evade God’s grace. Self righteous rule setters aren’t out, but their stingy lack of godly generosity creates obstacles that make it difficult for others to get in. God does not approve.
It begins with the recitation of the two greatest commandments (Luke 10) that establish the standard by which God’s grace is to be shared generously. The story of the Good Samaritan makes that clear enough with a despised Samaritan as the bearer of grace provided to a robbed and beaten Jew, who lived by rules excluding Samaritans from the possibility of being in God’s grace. In the parable, the Samaritan, the beaten man, and the anonymous inn keeper are all in. No one is out. Not even the priest and levite who passed by on the other side.
The parables come in quick succession, and each is fascinating in its own right. We can get distracted easily by parsing their individual meanings as if they weren’t grouped in the context of Jesus’ final few days of public ministry. Maybe that’s the lesson of the story about Mary and Martha, and how easily Martha’s duties distracted her from what was going on around her. As if to remind us, the readers, Luke inserted elements of the Sermon on the Mount that add practical guidance to the great commandments. Admonitions, as it were, not to water them down with trivial objections.
With that in mind, it’s a deep dive into a lost sheep, a lost coin, a prodigal son, dishonest stewards, the rich man and Lazarus, ten lepers, an unjust judge, and a pharisee and tax collector at prayer. They have a lot in common. God will seek out the lost who have strayed from the flock. They will not be abandoned, at least not by God. They will be brought in. In the meantime, the flock remains safely in, even if God appears to have left them on their own.
The coin did not wander away. Its owner misplaced it, but it was of such great value that all else was set aside until it was found and restored to its place. How many Psalms complain that God has forgotten ‘his’ people, and how often have you and I felt that God has lost interest in us, abandoned us? It’s a real feeling, and not wrong, but God will sweep the cosmos to see that we are found and restored. On that we can rely. We’re not out, but in, and always have been. And so is every other soul who has felt abandoned by God.
Even the sniveling, selfish prodigal son who came crawling back with a well rehearsed plea of dubious credibility was welcomed back. He’s in, not out. And so is his self righteous, grudge bearing brother who always obeyed and never wandered. They’re in, not out.
There are some who are not in, but they have chosen to be out. Isn’t that what the story of the dishonest steward is about. Make friends dishonestly with dishonest people serving a dishonest master, and you will have chosen to be out of God’s grace. It’s not an irredeemable choice. You can choose again, but some won’t. For more on this see C.S. Lewis’ “The Great Divorce.”
It makes me wonder about the rich man and Lazarus. A deep chasm lay between Father Abraham and Lazarus in heaven, and the rich man in Hades. Even for Abraham there was no way across. But not for Jesus who descended to the dead and rose again, not for him through whom the chasm was created, and through whom it is spanned. Hope remains for the rich man, if he will accept it. The parable doesn’t end on a promising note. The rich man, even in Hades, can’t get over the idea that some are in and some are out by virtue of their social status and wealth.
Who could be more out than a leper, and here were ten of them, a full minion, except one was a Samaritan. Despite their miserable life, they were never out of God’s grace, which was extended over them in healing power for the asking. “Go show yourselves to the priests,” said Jesus, and nine went off to do as they were told. The lone Samaritan, despised among fellow lepers, returned to the only priest he was allowed to approach, Jesus our great high priest. Was he the only one in? No. All ten were in. No one was out.
So what about the unjust judge? If he could be persuaded by a pestering plaintiff, what about God who loves with generosity, and has a bias for the oppressed? They’re in no matter how hard it is for them in a society that doesn’t care.
And so we come to two people at prayer. One was an insider, a pharisee who had devoted his life to knowing the rules, following them, teaching others to do the same, and confident of living into God’s grace. The other was an outsider, an outlaw, a tax collector who colluded with the occupying enemy against his own people. In the universe of God’s grace, they’re both in, and to the horrified dismay of the disciples, Jesus declared the despised outsider to be in first.
What ties these parables together? They each expand on what it means to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27) Lived into the way of love leaves no room for worrying or judging about who is in or out of God’s grace. With sure and certain confidence that we are in, we will find it easier to set our prejudices aside, the ones that incline us to judge others harshly. Knowing that we are in God’s grace means worrying less about whether we’re in or out in the social standings of someone else’s idea of what it means to be in or out. Are you not in the Social Register? Are you not on the A list, not even the D list? Does it matter? You’re on God’s list, and there is none higher.
But wait, there’s another question. Is there a time when someone should be excommunicated? If excommunication is understood to mean out of communion, and not condemned, the answer is yes. The time comes when someone, maybe you or me, becomes so toxic to the community that the community’s well being, and the well being of individuals in it, is in serious jeopardy. The same is true for relationships of all kinds. The excommunicated may be out to us (for a season), but they are not out to God, and that we must remember.