By Liz Curtis Higgs
I grew up in a small Pennsylvania town where everyone looked like me: white, middle-class, conservative, Protestant. People with different skin tones found somewhere else to live. Immigrants steered clear. The only accents we heard were tourists from New Jersey. Even the economically disadvantaged were scarce. A few run-down houses here and there, yards full of broken toys, easily hurried past.
Our town not only was homogenous; it also strived to be righteous. We had nothing like a red-light district, and the only bar was tucked out of sight below street level.
When community events rolled around in our small town, everyone was welcome and everyone came, because everyone felt comfortable with everyone else.
Until I moved away, I didn’t see the problem. Once I finally did, I couldn’t see any solution.
Then I met Jesus, who offered a new definition of everyone, declaring that “everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:15). Everyone who believes stretched wider and longer and higher and deeper than I could have asked or imagined. Far enough to cover even me—a bigot who couldn’t see it, a racist who refused to admit it, a small-town girl who needed a big, forgiving God.
I soon discovered that numbered among the Lord’s friends and followers were at least a dozen kinds of people who were rejected or neglected by organized religion, yet made welcome by Jesus. Here are the 12 groups I found, as we reconsider what everyone means:
“While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him” (Mark 2:15).
Wait—Levi the tax collector? Men of his profession were despised because they worked for the Roman rulers and routinely used corruption and extortion to squeeze money out of their fellow Jews. Still here was Levi, throwing a party for Rabbi Jesus.
The Lord reclined at his table, the usual custom for a formal banquet. Additional “publicans” (Wycliffe Bible) were stretched out next to him, along with “disreputable folk” (Phillips) and others with “bad reputations” (Easy-to-Read Version). Sinners in any century. “Outcasts” (Good News Translation) with nowhere else to go.
Yet Mark assures us, “many of them had become his followers” (Common English Bible), no doubt because Jesus included them among his everyone. He valued these sinners as people created in his image, and he knew their potential, soon to be unleashed through the sending of the Holy Spirit.
Could we do the same? Could we look past labels and embrace those whom the Lord deems worthy of his love and attention, even if they don’t look, act, or think like us?
Naturally the church leaders of his day were unhappy at the prospect. “When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Mark 2:16).
These “proud religious law-keepers” (New Life Version) not only didn’t understand—they also didn’t approve. There were rules about eating and drinking, and Jesus was clearly breaking them. “Why does he eat with such scum?” (New Living Translation) they wanted to know. Though the men aimed their barbs at his disciples, Jesus missed nothing. “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (Mark 2:17).
When we look around our churches and see only “respectable people” (GNT), the kind who “think they are right with God” (New International Reader’s Version) and “feel no need to repent” (Expanded Bible), we’re in danger of missing the primary mission of the church. Jesus “came to invite sinners” (Contemporary English Version), and we’re called to do likewise, showing people how to “recognize their sin and humbly seek forgiveness” (Amplified Bible) by fearlessly going first—confessing our sins openly and asking his forgiveness daily. Our job as believers is to love and not judge, to care and not criticize, to show and not just tell.
So, according to Jesus, everyone means 1—people who are spiritually sick, waiting to be diagnosed and 2—people who are sinners and know it, which surely includes each one of us, no matter how many years we’ve known him.
A similar lesson unfolded during his last week on earth, when Jesus was teaching in the temple courts. The chief priests and elders came forward, asking questions and demanding answers. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).
In case they missed his earlier message, Jesus made his definition of everyone clear. “That’s right!” (Complete Jewish Bible) he told them. Even before these priests and elders, the “tax-gatherers and women who sell the use of their bodies will get into the holy nation of heaven” (NLV). On that day, the last will indeed be first, since Jesus specifically identified 3—crooks and 4—harlots among the members of his family.
When I first darkened the door of a church, I was guilty of embezzlement (though no one ever found out) and was promiscuous (though I was never paid for my services). Still, I was decidedly a crook and a harlot, convinced that, if anyone in the church discovered the truth, they would usher me out the door in a hurry.
Instead they made me feel at home. They smiled at me, shook my hand, invited me to Wednesday night supper, encouraged me to join the choir. Whatever they observed about me, they were willing to overlook. However unlawful or disgraceful my actions, these Christians wanted me to experience God’s forgiveness. Their unconditional love gave me a glimpse of his unconditional love. My mind was truly blown.
Because of his mercy, the impossible suddenly seemed possible. In Christ I could be washed clean, I could be set free, I could be made new.
It was nothing short of a miracle, friend. Then and now.
When Jesus told his disciples about his second coming, he described it like this: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).
What a word of comfort for all who call him Abba. Here Jesus defines everyone as 5—people “who have been called by My Father” (NLV). Since we can’t tell from outward appearance whether or not someone belongs to the family of God, we are called to love, serve, and meet the needs of each person he brings across our path, trusting him to provide whatever is required.
“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” (Matthew 25:35). We can picture his disciples staring at him with wrinkled brows, struggling to understand. Lord, when did all that happen?
Jesus assured them, “You received me in your homes” (GNT) and “extended hospitality to me” (Orthodox Jewish Bible). So everyone also includes 6—hungry people who need food, 7—thirsty people who need safe drinking water, and 8—homeless people who need lodging.
These desperate souls matter to him and so must matter to us.
And he wasn’t done yet. “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” (Matthew 25:36).
His list of everyone is growing. Now we see that he pays close attention to 9—poor people who need “clothes to wear” (CEB), 10—sick people who require “ministering care” (Amplified Bible, Classic Edition), and 11—prisoners who long for visitors.
Finally, Jesus revealed to his disciples—and to us—the true recipients of his love. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
The people who are “least important” (NIRV), if only “in the estimation of men” (AMPC), are the people you and I need to invite into our churches and homes and social circles. For Jesus, everyone includes his “brothers and sisters” (New Testament for Everyone) who are “overlooked or ignored” (The Message) and therefore counted among 12—the least of these.
That’s our dozen. Hardly an exhaustive list, yet enough to keep us focused on extending his grace for a lifetime. This good news, beloved of God? It truly is for everyone.
Liz Curtis Higgs has one goal: to help people embrace the grace of God with joy and abandon. She’s the author of 35 books with 4.6 million copies in print and has spoken at 1,700 Christian conferences in all 50 states and 15 foreign countries. Liz is delighted to be back at NACC this year, teaching a morning Bible study.