Jesus knew how to tick off religious folk. Imagine for a moment going into a modern day Christian conference. You know, one of those shiny camp meetings advertised in a flashy Christian magazine or the like. In the midst of all the powerful teaching, anointed worship, and prophetic proclamations you walk down to meet with the pastors and church leaders only to give them a message that the homosexuals, foreigners, and non-Christians were entering the Kingdom of Heaven before they were.
One would probably find themselves crucified (if today, thankfully, only figuratively)
But thats exactly what Jesus did in Matthew Ch. 21. He enters the temple courts and starts talking with the senior religious leaders there. He tells them this parable:
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered. (Matthew 21: 28-31)
See, common sense told them the right answer. But in the religious leaders real faith they instead prefer the man who says the right thing despite ignoring the father’s intent over the one who does God’s will but does it outside the proper framework or with the right words…so to speak.
Then Jesus drops the bomb on them just so there is NO misunderstanding:
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Can you imagine? Jesus wasn’t just trying to make a point in order to get the pastors and elders to “up there game” so to speak. He was actually telling them that people who sold their bodies for sex as well as their fellow countrymen that were working against Jewish nationalism to collaborate with the Roman imperialists were seeing, understanding, and entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the morally pure church leaders.
So, with Jesus’ words in mind here are 5 reasons I believe “sinners” are often out in front of Christians when it comes to entering the Kingdom of God.
1) The “sinners” are not bound by religious conditioning
When someone has been told from a young age that in order to:
* go to heaven
* have God’s favour and / or protection
* avoid God’s wrath and /or hell
* make God happy!
you must do things, say things, attend things, and avoid things in a certain way it is VERY hard to get them to see past that “conditioning” to the Kingdom Jesus came to announce. Jesus comes to affirm the outcast, the foreigner, the broken, the seeking to which the “sinner” (often) says, “Hey, that’s really cool, that’s Good News. I like what this Jesus says” but to which the Christian often counters, “Yes, thats truuuue, but…”
2) The “sinners” see whole sections of God’s Kingdom religious leaders are blind to.
I was recently in England where I had the opportunity to catch up with a pastor friend of mine. We are roughly the same age with similar ministry backgrounds and we both found ourselves asking why, after all these years in Christian ministry, are we only now starting to SEE what Jesus was really talking about. It’s as if this clearer revelation of who Christ is was not the result of having studied or learned something new.
Instead it seemed to be the result of scales falling from our eyes so the “kingdom” became clearer. Like cataracts being lasered out, suddenly I was seeing colors and hues in what Christ was saying that I had never saw before. I guess sometimes you are so immersed in a system you can only see it for what it is once you have stepped out of it for a bit and see it from a different angle..
Jesus admonishes the religious leaders in Matthew 23 as well as John 9 that their biggest obstacle to what he has to say to them is that they are blind and they are actually leading people away from the Life he came to bring:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.
“Woe to you, blind guides!- Matthew 23: 13-16
Often it seems the “world” sees sections of God’s Kingdom that remains invisible to large portions of the church
3) The “sinners” were receptive to the Kingdom’s ambassadors (John & Jesus)
John the Baptist came preparing people’s hearts to receive Jesus’ announcement that God was reshaping society. The sick, the poor, the powerless, the marginalised and others on the fringes were hearing that the current way society was ordered, a system of power being reenforced through violence, was being replaced by a society of compassion reenforced by mercy and forgiveness. Then the Good News got even more good. This new way of ordering society was open everyone. It was not open only to rich or the powerful. It was not to be exclusive to a particular nationality or ethnicity. There no moral litmus tests to be passed in order to gain entry.
In order to participate in this new Kingdom, you simply had to be “born again” so you could “see” the Kingdom. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time however were to vested in the current system to entertain notions of a new one…especially a system that offered a place to people they despised.
In the end, those “Men of God” chose to reject the messages of both John and Jesus
The “sinners” on the other hand where much more enthusiastic and receptive to real Good News…
…and the same goes for today!
4) The “sinners” often produce more Kingdom “fruit” than the religious leaders.
The parable Jesus confronts the Pharisees with in Matthew 21 presents a conundrum for many Christians today. How do we respond to
* a Muslim helping to end human trafficking?
* an atheist couple who are addressing poverty needs in their community?
* a person perceived to be “immoral” who volunteers their time to help the handicapped?
These “brothers” may not be saying all the right things (Matthew 21:29) yet they are doing what the Father has asked. This is in contrast to the person who says all the right “Jesus” stuff on their lips and speaks the “Christian lingo” but actually do nothing to really heal the world and advance that Kingdom defined by compassion.
In Matthew 25 when Jesus rewards his followers for the works of compassion they did for others, they are surprised that it was Jesus who was receiving those works of compassion all along.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
I think one day we will all be shocked by who Jesus says was really doing what he taught!
5) The “sinners” saw the Kingdom as a gift God was offering to them now without condition rather than a reward later for good moral behaviour or “correct” belief.
More than 25 years of Christian ministry has shown me that most Christians see the Kingdom of God as a place we go when we die. Sure we can, through God’s grace, experience glimpses of it here and now at times, but mainly are job on Earth is to get people “saved” so that when they die they can go to heaven.
When Jesus though is asked by a Pharisee when God’s Kingdom is coming Jesus answers:
“The Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you!
But cosigning the Kingdom of Heaven to the afterlife rather than the “here and now” offers the present religious establishment some tempting options. It allows them to:
* dangle heaven’s entry as a carrot enticement for good behaviour and / or “correct” belief to the church’s congregations.
* invest themselves into the present power systems economically, nationalistically, politically, and socially without the guilt that they are in any way in conflict with God’s Kingdom
* ignore humankind’s original mandate to govern this planet in a way that reflects God’s image on it. Christians can treat the Earth like a motel room we are in for just a few nights and not care to much if it gets a little trashed.
In contrast, the “sinners” have a great interest in a “Heaven” that we can bring to Earth now. That we can choose to bring healing to ourselves, our communities, our cultures, and our planet now is a message that they are much more open to.
When Jesus said the prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the Kingdom of Heaven AHEAD of the chief priests and faith leaders he meant it. He knew those folk often could see God’s Kingdom, longed for God’s Kingdom, desired God’s Kingdom and were open to God’s Kingdom in a way that the church leaders of that day couldn’t even understand.
But things are changing. As C.S. Lewis is fond of saying, “Aslan is on the move.”