Last week I wrote a post in which I argued that the most significant characteristic of a citizen in God's kingdom is simply a realization that no one deserves to be in that kingdom, but that citizenship is dependent entirely on the mercy and grace of God. The kingdom is given to the poor in spirit and to the children who recognize their helplessness. It is withheld from the rich who bank on their self-sufficiency, as well as from the "righteous" who believe their efforts grant them with a visa into God's kingdom.
When the only entrance requirement is recognition of one's own insufficiency, the type of people who make up a kingdom may look different from what you would expect. Think of it like a football team. Normally, the requirements for being on a football team are athleticism, skill, knowledge, strength, and speed. But what if there were a team for which the requirement was only that players acknowledge their own athletic inability? What if making the team meant confessing that you weren't all that fast or strong, and that you don't know how to throw or catch a ball? I suppose that team would look a lot less like the New England Patriots and a lot more like the Bulldogs, my 4th grade team that didn't win a single game all season long.
If citizenship in God's kingdom depended on the candidate's own abilities or history, then you would expect the kingdom to be made up of a certain type of person. It would be filled with rich people. Morally upstanding people. Influential people. Powerful people. And, as far as the hearers of Jesus' teaching were concerned, Jewish people. (And kosher, bacon-abstaining Jews at that).
However, in light of Jesus' unexpected qualifications for leadership, the people of his kingdom look much different that you might expect. In Matthew 21, Jesus is challenged by the "chief priests and elders of the people" (people who, I assume, would have considered themselves first in line for God's kingdom). Jesus tells them a story about a father with two sons. One of the sons vows obedience to the father but then ignores his instructions. The other son first blows off the father's instructions but then ends up obeying. At the end of the story, Jesus points out that it's the son who actually did what his father asked who did the father's will, and then he says something very surprising: "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you."
The kingdom isn't full of Pharisees, priests, and kings. It's filled with swindlers, prostitutes, Gentiles, and sinners. Why? Because they understood they didn't deserve to be in God's kingdom. They knew that they needed Jesus. They poured perfume on the Messiah's feet instead of criticizing his every move. They invited Jesus to dinner instead of complaining about his unwashed hands. They surrendered to him instead of crucifying him. And so, "people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God" (Lk. 13:29).
One day, God's kingdom will come to its full realization. And when that day happens, I imagine I will run into some people that I didn't expect to be there. I assume also that many people will run into me and be surprised that I'm there too. But that's the beauty of the kingdom. It includes people you wouldn't expect, because it runs by God's rules and not our own. I'm glad that the kingdom isn't for the powerful or self-righteous, because I'm not powerful, and I'm rarely right.
We are what the band Switchfoot calls "a church of the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures, and the fools." It's an unexpected team. Not the type of citizenship most kings would choose.
Of course, not many kings possess the grace, mercy, and love that ours does.