I once heard a story of someone being taken on a tour of a new church building. On the side of the main hall that the church met in was a room with a glass wall, looking into the hall. “What’s that for?” they asked. “Well, we’ve had a problem with homeless and drunk people coming into church services”, their guide responded. “We created this room so they can come along, but without disturbing everyone else”
The poor will always be with you, said Jesus. As long as there is a glass wall keeping the sounds and smells out.
‘When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid’ (Mark 5:15)
The thing I find most fascinating about this story from Mark is that the people were afraid when they saw the man had been healed. Nowhere else in the Gospels are people afraid in response to Jesus’ miracles. Why were they afraid?
They had invested a lot in putting that man out of the community. They had bought chains. There was a history. Accepted reality was that this man did not live with them. But now he was being invited back in. They were afraid because someone they had condemned to live outside was free to return to be amongst them. Not only free, but given Jesus’ stamp of approval to go back to his own people. (v.19)
I believe that it is basic, unholy human nature, to class some people as being on the ‘outside’, in order that we can reassure ourselves that we are on the ‘inside’. We clump together in cliques of common race, theology, or affinity to a boy band; and before long we’re automatically thinking that people who aren’t in our ‘club’ are deficient in some way. Like the Pharisee praying in Luke 18, we thank God that ‘we are not like those other people’. We develop unwritten codes – sometimes no more than raised eyebrows or wry smiles – by which we communicate with our friends on the inside, and by which we ensure that those on the outside stay there. And the desire to stay on the inside, to keep the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ clear, is a powerful one that we will do a lot to protect. Sometimes even ungodly things.
‘Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.’ CS Lewis, The Inner Ring.
But the embarrassing, annoying, fear-generating thing, is that Jesus takes those people who live on the outside, and he brings them right into the middle; and as the Body of Christ, that is what we must do. We must be known as the people who who invite the unexpected in; and the people who are not afraid to challenge the rules about who is in, and who is out.
This needs to happen in our local communities – and perhaps it’s easiest to see how that works. But I also believe that bringing the stories of people around the world who are living in crushing poverty to the attention of the Western church is what Jesus would do. It’s inconvenient. The implications are scary. But we’re called to live with the outsiders amongst us.