I’ve been struck by two things recently that seem to contradict each other.
The first is that I’ve heard a lot of people say “The economy is so hot right now!”
Granted I don’t really know what they mean. But I believe them. Partly because they seem like the kinds of guys who would know. And partly because I see lots of buildings going up everywhere. So I guess, the economy is so hot right now.
But the other thing I notice is that there seem to be more people holding signs asking for money than there were even a year ago.
Moms holding a baby in one hand and a cardboard sign asking for help in the other, standing next to the drive-thru at Chick-fil-a. That feels new. It feels wrong. And it feels like the opposite of the economy being so hot right now.
And more than anything, it makes me feel powerless.
I want to help. I do help. I’m sure you do too.
And at the same time, I’ve heard the same story, so many times, always with more details than I can keep track of, of job offers in other cities and cars that need gas, that I’ve become a little hardened to just how hard it is to be poor and vulnerable in this city.
People are in trouble. They are taken advantage of, stepped on, overlooked, and cast aside.
And I want to help, but I don’t know how.
Or more precisely, I don’t know how to help and still have my life stay exactly as it is.
So if that’s something that you struggle with too, keep reading.
Jesus has a lot to say about justice, about God’s intention for community, and especially about vulnerable people.
But Jesus teaches one thing, and the world teaches another.
Because Jesus taught about turning the world upside down. He said that the least shall be the greatest. And blessed are the poor. That the meek shall inherit the earth. And that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.
But that’s not what the world teaches.
The world teaches that…
- Everyone gets what they deserve.
- That people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
- That if people only work hard enough they can get what they want, or at least what they need.
- That everyone has the same opportunity to succeed.
- That it’s all about what you earn.
But none of that is in Jesus’ teachings.
So how does Jesus see the vulnerable?
And how does Jesus see us?
Let’s take a look at one parable. Mostly according to Matthew, but also a little at how Luke tells it, too. And there is a lot in this teaching. It’s the parable of the wedding banquet with empty tables.
Matthew 22: 1-14
22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven …
Real quick. First, what does the kingdom of heaven mean?
I think we read right past this word sometimes and don’t stop to think what it really means. Especially when you consider how much Jesus teaches about it.
And there’s one real problem with the way we usually define “kingdom”.
We usually think of a kingdom in terms of its borders.
Like back when there were kingdoms, you’d probably say, this here is the kingdom of Spain and over here is the kingdom of France.
But that’s not what Jesus is referring to when he says “kingdom”. Jesus isn’t referring to a land with borders. Jesus is talking about a King and his rightful reign. So a better word for us today would be kingship, or reign.
We aren’t a part of the kingdom because of where we live.
We are a part of the kingdom because of who we follow.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, put it like this.
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening–in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery.
– C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 45-46.
As we think about justice for the vulnerable, it’s this word, “conceit” that we need to be aware of. Another word for that would be Pride. Arrogance. A false self image about ourselves and our needs for God.
But more on that later.
We aren’t a part of the kingdom because of where we live, or who our parents are. We are a part of the kingdom because of who we follow.
So what kind of kingdom is it?
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
Luke’s version is a little lighter. In Luke, the people’s excuses are a little more bourgeois.
18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ 20 Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’
Basically, they can’t fit the wedding banquet into their busy and successful lives. While in Matthew, they outright hate the king and kill those he sent.
In both cases, they have been invited by the king to a banquet they could never have earned an invitation to, but they are convinced the last thing they need is a favor.
They are too busy to come to the banquet. They can do it on their own. Or so they think.
They believe the dangerous lie of “I got here on my own, and I don’t need anything from anyone else.”
We believe the same thing, a lot of the time, don’t we?
There is this powerfully seductive idea for those that have much-the idea that we have earned all we have and everyone gets what they deserve, so we don’t need anyone else.
But there are some major problems with that thinking.
The first is that it’s not really true.
Did you determine the time and place of your birth?
Did you pick your parents?
Did you choose your nation?
Did you create the opportunities that were made available to you? The dumb luck or coincidences that were pivotal in your success?
The same goes even your abilities and intelligence. You might have built on them, but you didn’t lay the foundation.
I think of the line, “If you really want to make chocolate chip cookies from scratch, first you need to create the universe.”
So that’s the first problem. But the second is worse.
The second problem with believing that we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps is that it leads us to say “No” to the offer of salvation.
We believe in grace, and these other beliefs we have can make us unable to see grace for what it really is. God invites us to himself not because of who we are or what we have or what we’ve done, but because of his unfair unmerited grace. If we don’t believe that, we RSVP “No” to God’s invitation.
But then some other guests are invited.
For the poor and oppressed, for those who have really experienced the unfairness and cruelty of the world first hand, unfair, unmerited, free for all grace is an invitation worth responding to. These folks come pouring in to the banquet.
7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Luke 14:21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’
And it’s from passages like this that we see how upside down the kingdom of God really is.
Those who the world doesn’t want, Jesus does.
Those who the world picks first, Jesus picks last.
That’s what the reign of Christ is like.
And that’s what Church is supposed to look like.
That’s what church is supposed to feel like. Church is the place, and we are the community, where those who are considered less-than out there, are wanted and loved in here.
So what’s going on with this next part?
Matthew 22: 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
That story took a weird bounce, didn’t it?
Let’s look at the man who got thrown out.
There’s something to be learned here about how just being vulnerable doesn’t necessarily make you good. As anyone has learned who has actually worked with at-risk people, it’s not always easy. They’re not always nice, or easy to be around.
But do you know who this man really is?
He is you.
He is me.
Or at least he could be.
Because this is us when we saunter into the kingdom of God like we own the place, like we deserve to be there, like Jesus died for everybody but me.
Everybody else in the parable has to put on the wedding robe – the sign that they were there because of what Jesus had done. But this guy comes in thinking he doesn’t need Jesus’ help to be a part of the kingdom of God.
He tried to come in without being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. He thought he could saunter in on his own righteousness, because it had always worked for him before. But it’s not enough. He is nothing without Jesus.
This is true for us too.
We are are Christians because we believe that the only innocent one was punished in our place, that he got what we deserve. And so we are dressed in his goodness, in his worth. It’s the only way we get to grace. There is nothing we can do to earn the grace God offers in Jesus Christ.
We can’t do it on our own.
We can’t do it on our own. That should shatter every idea in our heads that says “they” are less than “we”.
So as we think about justice for the vulnerable, about helping other people, the poor, the oppressed, the ones Jesus tells us to help, we’re going to end with just the first step.
And it’s not to figure out what’s best for them.
The first step is seeing that there is no them.
There is only us.
Because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and yet here we are. Sinners, saved by grace. We are all invited to the banquet by the king, but we can only get in when we accept that we could never have earned an invitation. And that should change the way we see the other guests.
About the Author
David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins