In and Out

And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a gentile and a tax collector. -Matthew 18:17

Church discipline. That’s what I was told this text was about. The explanation was satisfactory for a while because it appealed to something within me. I liked being justified, being proven that I am right. I liked those who did not listen to me to suffer the consequences. This text sounded like a perverted promise to my base instincts. People get what they deserve, being sent out into the wilderness so to speak because they refused to change. However, times have changed and I have changed. Now we are in the wilderness. We discovered that this text isn’t about discipline but about love. The wilderness where the Gentiles and tax collectors lived is not a place of abandonment. It is where Jesus dwelt. It is a place of discovery.

Gentiles and Tax collectors. Jesus was known to be a friend of the tax collectors. He sought them out. He had dinners at their homes. The religious authorities said that he drank too much with them. They did not like his association with them. They thought that tax collectors should be ignored and despised so that they could learn the errors of their ways. Jesus thought differently. He thought that tax collectors were to be treated more delicately and with much grace.

The religious authorities thought that the Gentiles were excluded from the promises of redemption. They were irrelevant as far as the Kingdom of God was concerned. Jesus hardly said anything about Gentiles. He had sufficient interactions with them to reveal His true attitude towards them. He sought a lonely man who lived in a cemetery in a Gentile territory. This strange fellow liked cutting himself with rocks and was violent and terrifying. The people preferred to chain him in the land of the dead. This is where he belonged, they thought. Jesus went despite the fact that this was a land where pigs dwelled. It was not a place for any religious Jewish leader of His time. Jesus thought it was important to go to this unclean land to heal this abandoned young man. The fact that he was a Gentile did not hinder him. There was another Gentile that Jesus praised, he was a centurion. A military officer of a people who oppressed the Jewish people. He was the enemy and yet, Jesus commended his faith. It was greater than anyone He met among His own religious people. There was another despised Gentile woman who won an argument with Him. She showed Jesus that faith is able to overcome boundaries. Strangely, the gospel never talks about bad Gentiles.

The gospel text tells us that we are to consider those who refuse to change as Gentiles and tax collectors. We are to treat them as Jesus did and not as the religious authorities did. To these, Jesus’ attitude towards the Gentiles and tax collector doesn’t seem to be much of a punishment or discipline. Today, some might even say that Jesus was basically enabling them to be bad if our goal was to punish the obstinate sinner. Perhaps it is not about punishing but about understanding where this person is spiritually. He is yet to understand what it means to be a child of God. He is still blind to God’s love. This is the primary difference between those who are “in Christ” and those who are “outside”. They are not out because they don’t deserve to be “in”. Neither should we think that we are “in” because we are deserving. It is all about grace and one understands grace enough to know how to walk in grace. Others still believe that grace is something you purchase with your merits.

There are many homeless teens and children where we minister but only a few spend quality time with us. These are the ones that are “in”. They understand something that the others have yet to perceive. They know that they are loved and with this comes a certain responsibility. It is something natural and we have never demanded anything from them. Whenever we go to the streets, we sit in a little square close to where the children and teens hang out during the day. Some of them will see us and ignore us. Felipe, Gabriel, Ruan, Bruna and some of those with whom we have a strong bond will come come up to us. Sometimes one of them will pass by and will assure us that someone will come to us and spend time with us. It is always the same everyday. There are times when their minds are fuzzy due to drug use and they apologize for not giving us any attention. We assure them that they don’t need do anything with them and they know this. However, they know that they are loved and they want to be in a place where they are surrounded by love. The others come occasionally to us but they have yet to understand. It doesn’t matter, We are always here for them. One day they will understand and most likely they will come to this stage through the examples of those who understand. In the meantime, we are open to receiving everyone but we recognize that some are “in” because they understand. The rest are “out” but the door is always open.


The Blessed Cross

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:22-24

We often refer to the Cross as if it is a burden or a great sacrifice. Peter thought so as well and he reprimanded Jesus for saying such awful things. The response was unexpected. It was the harshest rebuke anyone has ever received. Jesus never called any of his enemies “satan”. Unlike them, Peter was only looking out for Jesus. Maybe sometimes Satan comes disguised as our friend. Just because we have good intentions doesn’t exclude us from being used by the devil. As long as we reason like human beings in matters of the gospel, then, as Jesus said, “ ‘we’ are setting ‘our’ minds not on divine things but on human beings.” The way of the Cross is the way of the divine things. It is not an additional spiritual burden. Jesus is not in the business of burdening his disciples. To the contrary, He promised that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. When we carry the Cross, there is no room for all the unnecessary baggage that we haul around with us. We have to discard it. Consequently, the Cross lightens our load and helps us focus on the one thing that is necessary.

The Cross helps us understand the way God reveals Himself. The people did not expect the Messiah to be crucified. It goes against their understanding of power. Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ predictions was rational and logical. The Cross represented a lost cause. No one could imagine anything hopeful at the foot of the Cross. Strangely, it was the most glorious moment of Jesus’ life. It changes the way we perceive hopeless situations. They can be a place where God reveals His power and glory. Therefore, any missionary endeavor of Christians would be wise to start in places which the world considers as loss causes. It is highly likely that these are the places where the Spirit of Jesus is clearly sensed. They might not be considered successful ventures by the world. However, we are not called to be successful according to the world’s standard. The world’s values are based on its ruler, the Devil. This is why Jesus addressed Peter as ‘satan’ when he tried to instill worldly values into Jesus’ plans.

The Cross is embracing things that do not seem profitable, such as looking for the one sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind. The world would have counted the lost one as a write-off. The Cross refuses to recognize such values. Jesus changed the way we think about the wandering sheep. The lost sheep revealed the Shepherd’s heart of God who refuses to lose one soul. If we don’t look for the lost sheep, we will never discover the essence of God’s love.

The Cross is revelation of power as defined by God. It is unlike the definition of the world. The world honors warrior kings despite the fact that they might be ruthless and vicious tyrants and murderers. Violence is an accepted form of establishing law and order in this reality. Jesus kept silent when it was time to defend Himself. He was not going to subject Himself to this demonic system. The Cross achieved something that war and violence could never do. It made a Man who died a criminal’s death to be the greatest influence in humanity. He was able to transform hearts and minds without any violence or coercion. Kings, presidents, rulers and princes with all their brandishing violence and threats just eventually disappear into oblivion. Jesus on the Cross remains the symbol of power in the hearts and minds of many forever or at least for more than 2000 years.

Nothing about the Cross should or can be considered a burden. It is only a burden for those who reason according to this world. Those who are able to see the divine hand behind it will recognize that it is a gift, a very precious gift. Jesus did not want anyone to steal it away from Him. Satan is a thief and liar. Jesus was right in calling Peter by this name. He was acting according to Satan’s values. It is also an humbling fact. It is easy to fall from grace even with the keys of the Kingdom in your hand. It would be wise to never assume that we know how God should function in this world. As we can see in Peter’s case, God acts according to His own standards. The Way of the Cross is foreign to our understanding. We need help to transform the way we think. The disciples discerned that Jesus was different, drawing His strength and influence from a different source. They desired to drink from the same fountain. They asked Jesus to show them the way. It was the only time that disciples took the initiative and asked, “Lord, Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

In the Bible, prayers informed the course of action. Peter was praying when it was revealed to him that the blessing of the gospel was not limited to the Jewish community but for all peoples. Paul spent much time in prayer before he understood his vocation to the people whom he once abhorred. Prayer is not repetition of pious sounding words. It is opening our hearts and minds for God’s spirit to move within us. It is acknowledging our frailty and allowing God to be God in our lives. It is allowing God to show us that the Cross is something wonderful even though it might look and feel intimidating. It is giving the Holy Spirit space to remind us that we don’t carry the Cross alone; Jesus carries it with us.

Alex came up to us and told us that there was mute teenager in a shop asking for help. He led us to the store and there was a teenager writing on a piece of cardboard asking us to buy some clothes from the store. He claimed to be mute but our experiences alerted us that it might be a scam. The store salespeople were also a little suspicious too. Alex was the only one who believed him completely. Then we had to assure Alex that the boy will be fine. Incidentally this young teenager was well-dressed and looked rather well-fed. Alex, on the other hand, was dressed in torn and tattered clothes and looked malnourished. Then Alex blurted out, “Have you seen anything sadder than this young mute man without any money or family to help him?” We were silent because we were looking at someone who was hundred times worse off than the mute teenager. Alex comes from extremely poor family. His father died from crack addiction. His mother died on a filthy floor in the one room while they were waiting for an ambulance to arrive. It has been one disaster after another in his family life. Besides this, he was easily the most severely neglected teen in our group of children. Today, Alex was only able to see a helpless mute teenager and wanted to do anything possible to help him. I reminded him that there was a Catholic charity that gave away clothes for free. When he heard this and dashed back into the store and told the young man about this. However, the young man was only interested in getting new clothes and we will leave it at that. It is Alex on whom I want to focus.

The next day we went back to the streets, Alex was a little upset. He said that the store owner came out and yelled at Alex for being a nuisance even though he just walked by to say hello to some of the sale assistants. The store owner only saw in Alex what the world sees him. Jesus gave us a Cross that opened our eyes to see the Alex of yesterday. Inside the neglected teen who is socially awkward to point of being rude, there is a kind and gentle soul. This is the difference between those who carry the Cross and those who don’t. We see what God is working in the lives of the people. If the Cross does this, how can it be a burden? It is nothing but a wonderful gift and blessing.

I, for one, am grateful for it.