It was Dallas, Texas where I first encountered “gated communities.” Large iron gates and fences served to protect housing developments and apartment complexes. Getting in and out meant you had to “belong” to the community—or at least have an “in” with the residents.
While there’s surely times when such boundaries are appropriate—and necessary—we do Christ’s Church a great disservice when we apply this type of thinking to our church communities—or to society in general. Because really, we’ve only become increasingly polarized within our world. Where once we may have found common ground or at least the space for respectful disagreement, now we gravitate toward the extreme positions of either conservative or progressive values, content to clench our fists and raise our voices in an ongoing clash of cultures.
Put a bit differently, we like to think of ourselves as the “in” crowd. We’re right; the facts are on our side, by golly—so why bother with our neighbors? And if we’re foolish enough to spiritualize this, then we tend to think that our religious behavior uniquely earns us God’s approval.
Such was the case of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. In Luke 24, we find Jesus as a guest of one of the “Pharisees”—a group of religious separatists deeply committed to God’s Law:
One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. 2 And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. 3 And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” 4 But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. 5 And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” 6 And they could not reply to these things. (Luke 14:1-6)
“Dropsy” was a medical condition known for fluid retention and swelling—meaning it would have been caused by either the heart or the kidneys. Religious leaders of Jesus’ day would have associated such conditions as God’s punishment. Surely the man must have done something to deserve his misfortune. Notice how Jesus is the only one speaking in the above verses? Yet even amid the awkward silences, God is at work. Jesus brings the point home with two short parables before he gets to his third, longer parable:
7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:7-14)
In the ancient world, a disability was essentially a death sentence—unless, of course, you could depend on the care of family or the generosity of strangers. Jesus appeals to these folks because they could not possibly fulfill any of the usual social contracts.
Jesus’ whole point is this: we can very easily reduce relationships to a series of transactions. We love people who serve us well, who enable us to climb the social ladder. Likewise, we tend to distance ourselves from those we view as beneath us, socially speaking. After all, we have a relationship to uphold.
If, like the Pharisees, you see religion as only a set of moral codes, then this attitude makes perfect sense. Your “gated community” can be protected and free from the contamination of outsiders. My right behaviors earn me a place of moral superiority over those I think less of.
Jesus will have none of this. Sickness and suffering (like the man with dropsy) upset the equilibrium of our safely held beliefs. What everyone assumed would have been a cause for moral superiority, Jesus turned into a chance for compassion and healing. In the absence of grace, religion eventually falls apart. Moral superiority will only carry you so far. The gospel takes our usual categories and turn them completely upside down. If I’m accepted by God based on Christ’s performance and not my own, then I can never feel superior. Why? Because I am saved by work done for me, not by me. And I can never feel inferior, because the cross reveals God’s great love for me.
The gospel therefore becomes the key to unlocking the “gates” of my community—starting with my own heart. The cross provokes me to see life not as a series of social contracts, but as an opportunity for love, for service, and for grace upon grace.