I dropped my son off for one of his first events as a junior high student the other day. As I drove off, I was reminded of the awkwardness of that age. Do you remember your first days in junior high school? As I recall, that is when the “in-crowd” started to form. Social classes within the school were built not necessarily with material wealth, although that may have given some an advantage, but with the currency of cool (doing and saying the right things, dressing and acting a certain way). The world seemed to work on this new system of cool points: making the basketball team might have given you a plus thirty for the week, but dropping your tray in the lunch line meant an immediate loss of fifty. I was never particularly rich or exceptionally poor in the “cool points” economy. In the harsh caste system of junior high culture (aside from a few brief moments of celebrity and of embarrassment), I was pretty much relegated to the lower middle class.
We church people pretend that we don’t operate on the “cool point” system. But we ALL keep a running tally — don’t we? The lady that volunteers all her time in the nursery is a little higher on the food chain than the college kid who shows up at the 11:30 each Sunday just a tad hung-over. The executive pastor who prays really eloquent prayers has a bit nicer portfolio than the construction worker who stumbles over his words each time he is asked to pray. The family who is zealous about attending every time the doors are open is a little more faithful than the ones who make it to one service a couple times a month. Curiously, Jesus mentions none of these attributes when he talks about His Kingdom. In fact, He shares some of his most scathing commentary for those of us who keep track of such things. His assertion that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” in His Kingdom undermines all of our religiosity and its point calculations, image concerns, and cool currency.
Times in my life when I have been deeply involved in projects or leadership at church, I have found it horrifyingly easy to begin considering myself part of the “in-crowd.” It is something we should all guard against. I was reminded of this as I read the story of Jesus hanging out with a tax-collector — a person farther away fromacceptable in his day than anyone we could imagine, a person considered a despicable traitor in Jewish culture:
“Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?”
Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”