I’ve been thinking about what it means that they called you “friend of sinners.” I know it wasn’t a title you gave yourself, it was a slur from the religious folks, who taught that the righteous should separate themselves from the wicked in order to stay pure and upright before God. You didn’t play by their rules, did you?
In my world today, when we talk about being a friend of “sinners,” we are usually talking about unchurched people and marginalized people. Kinda like the “Gentiles” or “heathen” and the “unclean” of your day. You certainly modeled loving those kind of people for us. You extended grace and kindness to all kinds of characters people considered outcasts — promiscuous women, lepers, and those viewed as traitors to their nation (and God), like tax-collectors. You were willing to touch and heal those whom people stayed away from like the plague, such as poor souls oppressed by evil spirits, scary, intimidating people. You were also hospitable and helpful to foreigners and even pointed to them as examples for us all of true faith and love. At the end you even welcomed a condemned criminal into your kingdom.
But until it occurred to me recently, I had not thought deeply what was probably the most basic aspect of what it meant when they called you “friend of sinners” – you hung around with essentially religious people who weren’t always very observant.
Jesus, you didn’t live in a “secular” society, but a religious one, a Jew walking among Jews, right? Most of the people you met and befriended and broke bread with were people of faith and religious heritage. They were members of the people of God living in the Promised Land, and though the land was occupied by the Romans, they were free to practice their faith. The leading religious voices were the Pharisees (the ones you criticized a lot). They were the most devout. They sought to live “by the Book.” They believed that when the whole nation became obedient and kept God’s commandments, the Messiah would return. So they not only sought to walk in righteousness and purity themselves, but to hold their fellow Jews accountable to the Law of Moses as well.
You didn’t seem to agree.
Yours was a heart and ministry for the “ordinary,” less pious folks. The ones who didn’t always wash their hands correctly. The ones who did a bit of extra traveling on the Sabbath (especially when it meant coming to see you!). Those who were perpetually unclean because they had certain illnesses or had to take care of sick loved ones, do business with Gentiles, or tend animals. They didn’t always fast properly and weren’t meticulous about tithing. And women. Women who were marginalized solely because of their sex – you approached them, talked to them, treated them with equal dignity, even included them among your followers, though much of that must have seemed scandalous to the scrupulous.
You reached out to plenty of folks on the margins, invisible, rejected and neglected by most. But I think most of the time you found yourself in the company of the hoi polloi, the commoners, the humble, hard-working, family-loving, neighbor-helping, quiet everyday people, who had a religious upbringing and a measure of faith, but who were not extraordinarily pious or fervid in the practice of their faith.
It seems to me that you liked them.
Am I right?
Because I like those kind of people too. But the people who say they represent you today are telling me it’s not enough to be that kind of person. Instead, I keep hearing that we must be “on fire” for the Lord. I’ve heard the word “radical” too. “Sold-out” is another way it’s expressed. Preachers and others keep bandying about terms like “passionate” and “fervent.” In fact, there is a whole culture and religious language, and if you don’t converse in those terms, you feel like an outsider. It’s not enough to have a measure of faith, one must be an enthusiast.
I have to confess, Jesus, I was in that culture and behaved like that for many years, and when I look back, I fear I might have loaded burdens on people that were too heavy for them to bear.
But now, every day I too walk among ordinary people, many of whom are not very pious. A lot of them don’t go to church, even though that’s their background. A great many of them tell me they believe in God and I watch them practice love and kindness in their homes in difficult situations. Of course, I don’t see or hear everything, and I’m sure my view of them is somewhat sentimental. However, I do know that very few refuse me when I offer to pray for them, and many of them ask me to do funerals for family members when they die. Some of them ask me if I have a church where I preach, exposing a longing for something, I don’t always know what.
What am I supposed to think about these people, Jesus?
Mostly I just try not to form opinions and give them the benefit of the doubt. Just be kind and treat them as my neighbors, with dignity and respect. Listen to their stories, tell them mine, and offer to be there for them if they need something. Commit them to God’s care in prayer, try to answer whatever questions they have, and let them know they have a friend.
Is that enough, Jesus?
Do you expect all people to be pious, observant, devout? Or do you still hang out with people who are content to just live life without making religious practice their life’s preoccupation?