I wasn’t always a Christian. I was once a Phishhead. At least, that’s what I really wanted to be. I bought the t-shirts, copied the bootlegs of shows, and tried my best to mimic the life of a nihilistic, rootless, thrill-seeker. Most of my friends did the same. And for some strange reason, I really thought I was something. I was “in.” Anyone who wasn’t as much of a “phan” (translation: anyone who had less Phish bootlegs or less Phish stickers on the back of their ride) simply didn’t get it. They didn’t understand what life was all about. I had one sticker on my car that I was particularly proud of. It simply read, “Phishhead.” “That was me,” I thought, “a real Phishhead. Really making something of my life.” But I’ll never forget the moment my dreams were crushed. It was the second Phish concert I ever attended. New Year’s Eve 1999, and I, along with 80,000 others, made the long voyage down to the Florida Everglades for what was going to be, in my mind, the greatest experience of my life. And I’ll never forget meeting a guy on the very first day that had been to hundreds of Phish shows. Looking at my sticker, he asked me, “So how many shows have you been to?” When I told him it was only my second show, he laughed out loud and shouted, “You’re not a Phishhead!” Perhaps I wasn’t quite as “in” as I had originally hoped.
We love to be considered “in.” And in order to consider ourselves “in,” someone, by necessity, has to be “out.” It’s the way the world works. There’s an “in” crowd and an “out” crowd. Those that get it and those that don’t. The enlightened and those who live in the Dark Ages. The funny thing about this phenomenon is that we’re never the ones outside. We categorize the world in such a way that we’re always right where we need to be. It’s those idiots over there that are the problem.
Do I really even need examples of this? It’s the mindset that drives a good deal of the bipartisanship in American politics where each side labels the other as “moronic.” The Apple people think the rest of us live in the Stone Age. The organic food eaters think the rest of us are unhealthy (and completely uncool). Even within the greatest sport ever invented, baseball, you’ve got the traditionalists against the sabermetricians. What becomes clear in each instance (and there are many, many more) is that, far above the mere difference of opinion about these matters, there is a great deal of self-righteousness involved. If you’re into organic food, you probably have a less than flattering caricature in your mind of those preservative-intaking, small-farm-destroying, chemical-imbibing, Big-Mac-inhaling, morons who don’t agree with you. Likewise, you probably view yourself as something of a very healthy world-changer. Here’s the point: we like to exalt ourselves, and we’ll use anything we can get our hands on as a means to do it. When I’m one of the select few who are “in,” it sure helps me to feel better about things to scoff at everyone else. And that’s what drives the “in or out” mentality. We need significance. We need acceptance. So we invent superficial ways of obtaining it. Enter social media. Now I can display my world-changing moral superiority to the world!
The Bible had an “in” group too. They were called the Pharisees. They really liked themselves. It was an exclusive club. You had to be moral to get in, and they got to define the terms. Ironically, they defined them in such a way as to keep themselves in the club while making it impossible for anyone else to join. Ultimately, it was, for them and for us, all about power. Mark 2:15-17 describes the moral outrage of this select group upon encountering Jesus hanging out with the “out” crowd made up of tax collectors and sinners. How could he? Those people don’t get it! What’s he doing?
And in typical Jesus fashion, the King of the Universe uses the episode to remind us all of a very important reality: None of us are really “in.” Beyond the hipster facades and the power grabbing, there is one fact that everyone must eventually come to terms with: Jesus “came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (v. 17). We’re all “out.” We stand on even ground as sinners who have offended a holy God. Every one of us must come through the same door to enter the Kingdom, and that door has a name. It is “Jesus.”
And in this Kingdom economy, it doesn’t matter how many Phish shows you’ve been to.