January 2023 | The True Vine and The Soon Coming King

The Mission to the Marginals: Jesus' Model

The Mission to the Marginals: Jesus' Model

Pr. Shalin Lal

The statement of Jesus in Mat 9:13, “I have come not to call the righteous but sinners” is the third among the six (Mat. 5:17a; 5:17b; 9:13b; 10:34a; 10:34b; 10:35) “I have come” statements in the gospel of Mathew. In His statement ‘I have come not to call righteous but sinners’ Jesus makes the purpose of his mission clear. The immediate setting of this statement is Jesus’ calling of Mathew, the tax collector into His discipleship. Jesus was responding to the Pharisees’ criticism of tax collectors and sinners coming and dining with Jesus. 

In order to understand Jesus’ mission to marginalised and how evangelist Mathew narrated Jesus attitude towards poor and gentiles and sinners we must look into the background of the narrative.

The events narrated in the gospel of Mathew are the responses to the social situation of the time. The gospel of Mathew is believed to written to the Jewish Christians (probably at Antioch). It was addressed to small deviant group in the Jewish community which deviated from culturally accepted ways of act and thought of Jews; but they maintained Jewish outlook, behaviour, and identity. The small elite ( 5 to 10 %) of the total population had social authority rested essentially on economic and political power, wealth (land) and public repute. The non-elite served the need of elite. They included slaves, (freed and non-freed), small, merchants and labourers. 

Jesus’ opponents in the Mathews’ narrative are leaders of Jewish community in both Mathews and Jesus’ time. They were Scribes and Pharisees and their chief priests and elders in Judaism. They controlled the synagogue.

The gospel of Mathew arranges and acknowledges the gentiles who believed in Jesus. Gentiles are also the members of Mathews’ group. There were (persecutors) opponents of Mathews’ community (Mat. Ch 10 and 24-25). Jewish people in the first century were subjected to foreign powers. They were ruled by a succession of imperial reign of Babylon, Persia, Macedonia and Rome. Roman Empire fluctuated between direct and indirect centralised and non-centralised rule. Roman Empire was established and maintained by the institutionalised violence. They maintained pax romana by terror. Palestine had been under Roman rule when Jesus was born. It appeared that most Roman governors failed to respect the Jewish customs and privileges. They resorted to violence to surpass any movements or organisation which they considered as threatening the power or the authority of Romans.

In Mat.9: 9, Jesus asked Mathew (the tax collector) to follow Him. Mathew immediately responded. Later, there was great banquet at Mathew’s house. Jesus was invited and there was a strange combination of people gathered, the tax collectors, sinners and also Jesus’ disciples. Tax collectors were greedy, self serving and parasitic. They grew rich at the expense of the poor by exhorting from them more than what required by their superiors. They filled their pockets in these ways and consequently, they were rejected religious group. They further more compromised regulations for purity in their handling of pagan money and their dealing with Gentiles. In this context, Jesus’ call of tax collector to be His disciple must have been itself self scandalous. The sinners were probably the friends of tax collectors or who had some kind of affinity with tax collectors. Thus, they are sinners and out of the scope Jewish religious framework. The tax collectors had no room in the mainstream of religious life of the time. Jewish religious elite (or rabbi) always kept a distance from them. Tax collectors and sinners did not have enough courage to approach the religious dominants, for they felt that they were not worthy of their company. 

The dominant group held that judgment awaits those who did not live in accord with group claim. They were counted as sinners and denied the covenant status. The banquet meal was an expression of social relations. It talks about different degrees of hierarchy, inclusion, exclusion and boundaries etc. In the ancient meal customs there were stable hierarchical order, social relations, and status through invitations, different qualities and quantities of food, types of tableware and seating order etc. But there were people who resisted these conventions by including slaves and women of varying social ranks in meals. Jesus’ action belongs to this countercultural trend. We see an inclusive social order in Jesus’ dealing with the people.  

On the basis of Greco-Roman meal practices and its link between tax collectors and prostitutes, the sinner probably includes women of varying social status. This is evident in Mat.21:31-32 where Jesus says that “....tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God....”  The traditional gender and social divisions disapproved this increasing presence of women at public meals. Such women are regularly labelled as prostitutes or slaves regardless of their social status or role at the meal. (For more details see, Croley. K, Private Women and Public Meals: Social Conflicts in Synoptic Tradition (Peabody, Mas: Hendrickson, 1993), 24-79.)

Jesus shares the meal with those despised and marginalised by religious elites. Their job, gender, religious (non)observance, socio-economic status, etc are constituent elements for this marginalisation. As agent of God’s empire, Jesus formed an ‘open- alternative- inclusive community’ which is centred on Himself. 

Jesus’ coming into the world (incarnation) and His ministry are to be seen in the background of ‘Jewish messianic expectation’. The religious elite of Jesus’ time never expected a rabbi (guru) to mingle with the religious and social outcast. The Gospel narratives prove the holistic approach in His dealing with people and His concern for total well-being of people. Jesus mission also includes eating with sinners, healing and teaching. Jesus was an agent of God’s presence (Matt 1:21-23). Jesus was compassionate to people; He healed the sick and cast out the demons from those possessed and performed miracles. He did not limit His mission within this realm alone; but shared time with religious and social outcasts publically. His mission was also focused to identify with those at the margin of society. When the religious elite of the time kept a distance from sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes He had been with them and identified with them but not with their sinful nature. He showed his solidarity with the painful and with their state of being rejected. Jesus was much criticised for this act which went beyond the expectation of Jewish elite, who set boundaries that limit religious people to move within. They instituted a system by constructing hierarchy which forced the tax collectors and sinners to the margin. They defined what is sin (and who is a sinner) and what is not (who is not).

In fact, even today the powerful and so called ‘religious ones’ in the society decide what the sin is. If anyone fails to lead a life according to pattern thus set he or she is treated as a sinner. Yes, we should deal the sin with its own seriousness. Jesus also seriously dealt with sinful nature and condemned and convicted the sinner and warned not do it again (the women caught in adultery). But He never restricted their public mobility, freedom and human rights.

Zacchaeus (the chief tax collector) took a decision to give the half of his wealth to the poor. He became willing to give back fourfold if he had unlawfully exacted anything from anyone. He might have had these thought even before he met Jesus. He had no courage to say it openly till he met Jesus. There was a huge gap between the religious elites and sinners and tax collectors. They were not able to confess and pray in public for Pharisees always had a judgmental attitude (see Lk 18:9-14 Tax collector and Pharisee in prayer). Pharisees practiced and observed the Law of Moses and were ritualistic and thus they felt that they were righteous, being proud in that. 

Pentecostalism views and teaches about sin very seriously. We give more importance to spirit filled life. Jesus was filled and led by the Spirit. He seriously viewed sinful nature and at the same time was compassionate to the sinner. We teach and talk about sin; but need to think what our attitude about the sinners is? Sin is a unified term for all violation of divine order. But we many a time set different grade for various types of sins and accordingly we live. We teach and preach against adultery, alcoholism, smoking, perverted sexuality, idolatry etc. It’s true; we cannot deny evil working behind and seriousness of these things. But we take very lightly the spiritual pride, superiority complex, gossiping, rivalry, lust for position (power), unfaithful financial dealing in name of ministry, favouritism, attitude of self righteousness, unjust dealing in the cases against poor or weak. We never take these things under the unified term sin. Jesus understood that Pharisees always acted as stumbling block before sinners to come to Jesus. Thus He states “I have not come to call righteous... .” Yes, He has not come to call the “self-righteous” ones. To call sinners is to make them available God’s saving presence (Mat.1:21-23) of Jesus. To save from sin is to forgive it (Mat.9:2, 5, 6) and to end it completely. The forgiving and saving presence of Jesus as Christ is manifested in eating of meals with sinners and tax collectors. This symbolises the salvific plan of God to include those marginated in the society.  We read in Mat. 8:11 “I say to you that many will come from east and west and will make their places at feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” In the words of Jesus, there is a futuristic (eschatological) implication of meal that includes ‘all kind of people.’ 

Jesus’ model of mission to the marginals is significant. We need follow Jesus’ model to deal the sinners. We need to love the perishing people and accept them as humans crated in the image and likeness of God. In fact, we share gospel to sinners and marginalised and feel satisfied having a fulfilment agenda. Jesus was into the people. He healed the sick and demoniacs, spoke of kingdom of God, identified with marginals, forgave their sins and gave his life as a sacrifice once and for all. Jesus’ model is perfect which touched the extremes of social and spiritual realms of people, transcending all boundaries set by human (social) structure and satanic world. To identify with people is not a simple thing. Pharisees and Jewish religious elites failed in accepting the tax collectors. But Jesus tried to keep in touch with them, since he came to call them. When we follow Jesus’ model of mission to marginals we can never be perfect like Him. But we need to offer our lives to transcend all limit set by society and tradition in reaching and touching those lives at margins.

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