Thinking Outside the Circle and Focusing on the Center: What Direction are You Moving?

If we are not challenged to rethink what we think we know from time to time, we are not likely coming into close enough contact with Jesus.

I watched the Chapelstreet church service today and listened to the sermon by Jeff Frazier in Batavia, IL. It was just what I needed to hear. Not that it tills new ground; it covers familiar ground from a new angle. It avoids the ruts of old, tired ways of thinking and finds fresh new ground (for me) from which to approach how we see Jesus.

The sermon today was inspired by Matthew 9:9-13.[i] You can read it in full at the endnote below. In summary, Jesus called Matthew from the tax booth where he was sitting to follow him, and Matthew responded by following him. That was the extent of the initial story

Then Scripture jumps to another scene: Jesus reclining at a table with “many tax collectors and sinners”. We are left to draw our own conclusions about what happened in the interim. It could be that Matthew invited all his friends, who were naturally other tax collectors and “sinners”, to met Jesus who had just connected with him.

The focus of the new scene, though, isn’t on Matthew anymore. The focus shifts to the Pharisees who ask the disciples why Jesus eats with “tax collectors and sinners”.

Before I describe how Jesus responded to them, I want to focus on the fact that the people who had a problem with Jesus were the religious people. Jesus was hanging around with all the wrong people according to the religious insiders of his day.

This is nothing new. I have written often about the Pharisees, Jesus and tax collectors and sinners. In fact, I wrote on the same subject just two weeks ago. (The Danger that Good, Upstanding, Religious People Face Today)

It isn’t a new thing to realize Jesus defied categorization; he shattered expectations and common ways of thinking. He challenged everyone he met to see the world differently, but we sometimes forget the radicalness of Jesus in our routine orthodoxy.

I dare say, if we are not challenged to rethink what we think we know from time to time, we are not likely coming into close enough contact with Jesus!

Back to the story: in First Century Judea, tax collectors were traitors and sell-outs. They were Hebrews who collected taxes for the Romans and used the authority of the Roman occupiers of the Hebrew Promised Land to accumulate wealth for themselves. They were hated by good Jews. They were outsiders in their own community.

As outsiders, they naturally associated with other outsiders (“sinners”). Thus, for Jesus to establish a relationship with Matthew – and worse than that: to “hang out” with other tax collectors and “sinners” – was scandalous. It was unthinkable!

When Jesus heard the Pharisees challenge the disciples to explain why Jesus was associating with “such people”, Jesus famously responded:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 9:12-13

This is a familiar passage to us, but I think the application of the message is sometimes lost on us today. I think we can fall into the trap of the Pharisees in our thinking without even realizing it. Thus, we need to be challenged to see things from a different angle, just as Jesus challenged the Pharisees in the first century.

Again, these are not new thoughts, but the the change of perspective (for me) comes courtesy of Paul G. Hiebert. Born to missionary parents in India, he became “arguably, the world’s leading missiological anthropologist”.[ii]

When he moved back to the west, he wrestled with questions like these: What does it mean for an illiterate, Hindu peasant to know Jesus? How much of their old life and traditions must be left behind?

Having observed missionaries in India, he concluded that the western mission movement was importing too many western traditions and thoughts. He saw the need for thinking outside the western box – like Jesus encouraged the followers of his day to think outside the box…. or rather, outside the circle, as we will see.

Hiebert had an undergraduate degree in math. He saw something in the juxtaposition of bounded sets and centered sets that opened his eyes to provide answers to the questions he contemplated.

In a bounded set, things are identified in relation to the boundary. A bounded set is static. Things are either inside or outside the boundary. As an example, family, is family. People are either related to me, or they are not. The focus is on who is inside and who is outside the boundary.

This is the way the Pharisees viewed tax collectors and sinners. This is the way people in the church often view others also. Christians often think in terms of who is in and out. We do this with all sorts of things, like church attendance, doctrine, moral values, socio-political views and more. We do it consciously and subconsciously.

Jesus shifted the Pharisees’ paradigm from a bounded set to a centered set. Jesus looked at people not in the context of where they were in relation to other people, but where they were in relation to God… and where they were going. Jesus ignored the boundaries (labels, if you will) and focused on the direction in which people were moving – toward God or away from God.

The focus of a centered set, as illustrated above, is on the center, which is Jesus. The important thing in a centered set is not so much where people are, but the direction in which people are moving in relation the center/Jesus.

This way of viewing people discounts the importance of the boundaries and focuses on what is central. People could be outside the defined boundaries, but they may be moving toward the center (Jesus). A person inside the boundaries could also be moving away from the center (Jesus).

This way of thinking about things emphasizes the important point that we are not static in our relationship to God. We are always moving in some direction. At all times, we are either moving in some direction in relation to Jesus – either toward Jesus or away from him.

Jeff Frazier says, “The Gospel is messy” in this way. Indeed, the truth is often messier than we think!

If we think in terms of who is “inside” and “outside” of the boundaries that we set, we are bound to exclude people inappropriately. We don’t know the direction in which a person is moving in relation to Jesus (as God does), so we are tempted to set boundaries to define who is and who is out. Jesus didn’t do that. Joes doesn’t do that.

We shouldn’t do that either! Not that we know the hearts of other people, but that’s actually the point. We don’t. When we judge wrongly, we may be missing an opportunities that God wants us to embrace.

Just as Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and the goats, we may fail to minister to him in the people we have judged to be on the outside. On the other hand, when we respond appropriately, we may be entertaining angels unaware. We should not box ourselves (or God) in.

Matthew was definitely not “inside the box” (or circle) when Jesus called him. Tax collectors and sinners represented to respectable religious people everything that was “wrong” in society. But, Jesus called him, and Matthew started moving toward the center. He was an outsider, but he became one of the inner circle of Jesus followers.

Notably, Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot were both called to that “inner circle” of Jesus followers. (Matt. 10:2-4) Zealots were religious and political fanatics of the time. They desired to overthrow Rome rule at any cost, and tax collectors were at the top of the list of people zealots hated for that reason!

The fact that Jesus called them both, is no accident. They would have normally had nothing to do with each other, but Jesus called these two people from radically different places. When they both responded to the call, they both began moving toward Jesus.  

Jesus redefines the categories of what it means to be in or out. He seeks and calls people from radically different places to follow him. How a person responds to Jesus is the important thing – not a person’s past, heritage religiosity, political leaning or anything else. How we move toward Jesus, the center, is the important thing, not the boundaries we set on the periphery.  

To illustrate this further, consider the fact that Judas was an insider. He was not just called by Jesus; he was a trusted insider, the one to whom Jesus entrusted the funds for the group of disciples. Judas was an accepted member of the inner circle, but he was moving away from Jesus.

For Hiebert, the critical question regarding missions was not what the people knew, but whether they made Christ their God and sought to follow him. He realized that western missionaries were defining the boundaries and were introducing western thinking in the process. These boundaries were not of central importance. In fact, the boundaries distracted from Jesus, who is always central.

Paul seemed to realize this also. He told the Corinthians that he came preaching only Jesus, and him crucified. He said this to counter the factions developing in the Corinthian church over who follows him and who follows Apollos.

The Church (global) has grown more divided over the centuries, not less. We have become defined by the boundaries we have established to identify who is in and who is out of our circles, and we have failed (to that extent) to focus appropriately on Jesus at the center.

We tend to focus on the boundaries and become preoccupied with defining them, but the only thing that ultimately matters is whether any of us are moving toward Jesus or away from him.

On that point, we need to be aware that we are not static in our relationship with Christ. We are always moving in some direction in relation to him, and the danger is that we are moving away from him. If we focus on the boundaries (peripheral things), we may not even realize that we are moving away from him! We may think we are “in” when we are actually moving away (out).

Thus, we need to re-center our lives continually on Jesus.

I think of my own attitude just last night. This morning I confess that I was moving away from Jesus by allowing myself to become self-absorbed, giving in to self-pity and disappointment about things in my life. Fortunately, I realized it, repented and prayed for God to change me. Perhaps, it’s no coincidence that I woke to Jeff Frazier’s sermon this morning!

In closing, I invite you to think about these things:

  • Who or what have you placed at the center of your life?
  • What is the trajectory or direction of your life?
  • What is your focus? (Is it Jesus?)
  • Do you define yourself by a static set of values?
  • Do you define, and exclude, others by a static set of values?
  • Or is your focus centered on Jesus and your relationship to him?
  • Is Jesus dynamic in your life? 

I am reminded we always need to come to Jesus with open hearts and open minds, expecting him to challenge the patterns of thought we have settled into. This is not because Jesus or the Word of God changes. Rather we tend to become stagnant and settle into ruts in our thinking that prevent us from engaging dynamically with the world as Jesus did.

This Pharisaical tendency, I believe, is in all of us, and Jesus is always challenging the Pharisee in us.

God is much bigger than we like to think. We find comfort in defining the boundaries, but we lose our focus when we do that. When we focus only on Jesus, the boundaries may become messier, but we will be moving in the right direction.

[i] As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13)

[ii] Priest, Robert J. “Paul Hiebert: A Life Remembered”Books and Culture. Retrieved 7 February 2015.

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