I was driving home from South Carolina just as the heavy rains hit that state in October 2015, and a song came on the radio. A woman was singing in a “blues” sort of style, “I hear you knocking but you can’t come in.” She was referring to a lover of yesteryear who now wanted to come back.
When I got home, I looked up the words to this song: “You went away and left long time ago/Now you’re knocking on my door./I hear you knocking but you can’t come in./I hear you knocking/Go back where you been.
The song, recorded in 1955 by Smiley Lewis, was kind of catchy to me as I listened. I thought to myself, “There’s a message in that song, in those words.” The message is about doors, how doors are a symbol of inclusion or exclusion. And they really are. We can open a door and invite someone in or we can keep it closed, as the woman singing the song said she would do, and break off a potential relationship.
I’ve been a student of the Bible for a long time, and I can even remember when I was a youngster looking for a lost golf ball, saying to myself, “Seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you.” Those words come from something Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
The thing about Jesus is that he opened the door wherever he went. There were plenty of people in his time who were excluded from the fellowship of the community of faith: lepers, prostitutes, winebibbers, tax collectors, men and women who had impurities, even a man sent out among the tombs at a distance, a man called “Legion” because he had so many demons. But Jesus invited all of these people to become children of God, to become part of the new kingdom he had come to open.
The religious establishment at the time kept these “defective” people out. They regarded these people as sinful and unworthy of inclusion in the community of faith. The whole attitude of exclusion was described in a parable that Jesus told about a prodigal son who became one of those sinners by taking his father’s inheritance, or his share of it, and wasting it in a far country. The father loved his son and welcomed him back. He opened the door, had a feast and wanted everyone to celebrate this wonderful homecoming. But the elder brother would not join in the festivities, would not go in the open door and embrace his brother. It was this unwillingness to include anyone who had made a mess of his or her life that Jesus came to change. The elder brother could easily have written, “I Hear You Knocking.” “I hear you knocking, but you can’t come in, at least not to me,” he could have said.
The call for inclusion that Jesus made was a central theme of his ministry. Jesus said in the last few verses of Matthew 5 that God, the Father, loves everyone and sends sunshine on the evil and the good, sends rain on the just and on the unjust. He concludes by saying, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) By this he surely means by “perfect” God’s full inclusion of one and all regardless of their condition and status. He means we are to be perfectly, totally inclusive in our care and love for one another.
Jesus tells us about his Father, our God, as being much more loving and forgiving than we may think. Because we so often are not willing to follow that insight and understanding, we end up with a very self-righteous and exclusive world. We allow our differences not only in terms of moral goodness or badness but also our differences in skin color, cultural or ethnic origins, and sexual orientation and religious or non-religious pursuits to divide us. It may be our human nature that makes us prefer to be around persons like ourselves, but that very preference is the thing that creates our animosity toward others and leads us to the many religious and cultural and ethnic wars that our world has chosen for as long as we can remember.
Today we face challenges about allowing or not allowing refugees into the United States. We see the same desire to be exclusive that Jesus faced in his time. Whether it was the rich man who totally ignored the poor beggar at his door, a man named Lazarus, (see Luke 16:19-31) or the workers in the vineyard who didn’t want those who had barely worked at all to get the same payment at the end of the day (Matthew 20:1-16), we are called to consider compassion for those people who are hungry, hurting, and so often left behind. We do live in a world where there is a door and a great divide between the rich and the poor. The question is this: “Are we going to answer that knock on our door and open it or are we going to say as that woman sang it in her song, ‘I hear you knocking, but you can’t come in’?”
The answer depends not so much on your personal preferences and inclinations and your human nature as it does on whose standards you believe we must follow.
The Rev. Bill Gramley is a retired Moravian pastor living in Lewisville, N.C. This essay won first place the North Carolina Senior Games Literary Arts Essay Competition in 2016.