“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” (Luke 15:2)
One of many accusations leveled against Jesus by religious leaders was that He consorted — and actually seemed to enjoy being — with sinners.
By virtue of His association with “those people,” Jesus acquired the appellation of glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:16-19), and the old adage, “You will be judged by the company you keep,” certainly applied:
“When the Pharisee who had invited him (Jesus) saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is — that she is a sinner.'” (Luke 7:39)
So, what’s a sinner?
In the above passage in Luke, which my Bible helpfully entitles, “Jesus Anointed by a Sinful Woman,” no elucidation is given of the woman’s sins, although, given our religious obsession with sex and tendency to blame females for it, it’s assumed that she is a prostitute, as if this is the worst thing that a woman could do, something so bad that it reduced her to tears.
(Women, think about it: what incurs a sense of shame this profound? — that you broke society’s rules, or that you hurt someone you love, somehow, by something you said or did, and you can’t take it back? People are more complex than our labels for them.)
Who Are the Sinners?
But back to sinners, and our choice of dining companions. Who were these people? Well, prostitutes are strongly implied, and tax collectors specifically mentioned, but for the most part, the term “sinners,” in quotes, is used with little attendant detail. But the distinct impression given is that the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees — in effect members of religious leadership — were not in this group.
(Worth noting: it’s not that Jesus didn’t put them in this group; it’s that they didn’t.)
From here, it’s not much of a stretch to identify sinners as anyone the religious leadership classifies as such, a situation that hasn’t altered throughout history to present day, and the sinners of the 21st century — with whom we, the righteous, are not to associate unless it’s under controlled, administratively approved “reaching out for Jesus” programs — include people who spend time in bars, smokers, marijuana users, couples living together without being married, women who wear tight clothing, men and women who swear (especially women: it’s so unladylike), homosexuals (that’s an easy one to point to), rebellious teenagers who don’t listen to and obey their parents, I know, it’s starting to sound really trivial, and a lot of these people look like members of our own household, including ourselves.
White Collar, and Corporate, Sinners
Quite tellingly, we — like the religious leaders of Jesus’s day — tend to overlook socially condoned practices like deception in business, usury, extreme overcompensation to chosen individuals, manipulation, nepotism, and outright lying — “white collar” crimes we call them, on the rare occasions that they surface to the point that we must admit that wrong was done. We also soundly condemn independent thinking, labeling as deviants those who do not mindlessly succumb and submit to authority, be it the police, the military, a pastor, or presidential decree.
(This latter offense, in some quarters, borders quite perilously upon the committing of the unpardonable sin.)
While what it boils down to is that we’re all sinners — something the fundamentalist Baptist contingent makes a point of spreading around the world as part of its sharing the “good news” — there is, oddly, a sense of grace given to those who sit in the church pews, that is not extended to those who repose on bar stools.
One of the unfortunate fallouts of this attitude hits families, those reeling from the actions of some of its members who quite unwisely make some bad choices, and the advice given to many parents of prodigal children, for example, is that the best way to get those children “back to Jesus” is to reject them in His name.
In other words, stop eating with them.
I have known more than one grieving parent dealing with the painful actions of their progeny who has been counseled,
“Cut them off. Do not associate with them and their lifestyle or you will be condoning their sin. You yourself will be as much of a sinner as they are.”
Rejection Doesn’t Work
Were it practical advice, along the lines of, “Hide the debit card when they visit,” this would be, well, practical, but the overall tone is small and mean, essentially commanding, in Jesus’s name, that all relations be suspended until the offending party repents and returns to the fold.
Quite logically, how effective is rejection in reaching out to people? And does love look like hate? And is their sin so egregious as to eclipse any of those that we, quite complacently, accept as reasonable and unexceptional?
Because many Christians attend churches where they are conditioned to think, act, and perform a certain way, well-meaning believers panic when they hear about Jesus eating with the sinners, because they fear that they — as imitators of Christ — are expected to follow suit.
“Do I need to go into bars and strike up conversations with total strangers?” they wonder, and if their church is large enough, it no doubt has a Jesus Outreach to Bars program into which they can be pressured to join. At the very least, they can go onto street corners — the “bad” ones — and pass out tracts.
But life with Jesus doesn’t has to propel us into a constant state of being intimidated, and eating with the sinners, quite frankly, starts at our own dining room table. There’s each one of us, for starters, and the more people we add, the more likely that there will be someone living in such a way that they incur condemnation from some religious quarter.
If Jesus hadn’t eaten with sinners, He would have eaten every meal alone.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity where my constant encouragement to believers is to stop allowing other people to define what Christianity is. We are not ancient Israelites, and have no Levitical priesthood, and yet we give much power (and money) to self-imposed leaders who foist upon us a Christianity that looks like nothing that Jesus preached.
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