In the last post we looked at the incarnation and 1st Corinthians 9 and saw that Jesus and Paul both became the culture they were in because they loved the people in it. That’s key…the love part. If love is absent then entering other people’s culture becomes some sick twisted game that is more about you scoring points as a hip-cool evangelist than what Paul and Jesus were about.
Today we will begin attacking our understanding of holiness. Let’s jump into Luke 5:29-32.
And Levi gave a big reception for Him (Jesus) in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax collectors and other people who were reclining at the table with them. The pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not the well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
We see this scene playing out over and over in the Gospels. Jesus hung out with people who made the holy religious crew very uncomfortable. It was oozing-bleeding woman who should have kept her butt outside the city gates, or the demon possessed guy chained in tombs who should stay there, or traitorous tax collectors who sold their soul to Rome, or the scandalous prostitutes whose scarlet letter somehow made them to far gone to ever be called clean. Jesus embraced those the religious would not, those that made the religious uneasy, those that scared the religious.
There are two things that strike me about this: first, Jesus’ holiness is not tainted by entering the culture of these unclean people; and second, these nonreligious, unclean, sinners are not put off by Jesus’ holiness.
I remember as a Southern Baptist teenager being told to be careful who I hung out with because I could fall into temptation if I befriended the wrong people. I didn’t go to parties because there might be alcohol there (and I wasn’t invited…more about that in a minute). I didn’t chill with the smokers behind the gym. I didn’t date girls with reputations (again…wasn’t really asked which has more to do with my appearance than holiness) or put myself in circumstances that might lead to inappropriate behavior. And in my head I was avoiding these situations and people because they might lead me into sin and my cleanliness had to be protected.
As I grew up this position matured, but didn’t disappear. I can remember sitting in a college leadership meeting discussing how we help our students not drink alcohol. The conversation centered around questions like, “Is it okay to go to a party where there is drinking?” or “If we are at a party can we have a cup in our hand full of soda? If the cup is clear and people can see it is soda are we cool? What if the cup is a solid color?” or “Are bars completely off limits? What if a lost person invites us?” At one point developing a rule book that would outline specific “safe” behaviors for different situations was suggested. As we started to make the list the room seemed to feel the whole thing was getting out of control and, thankfully, the leader backed us off the idea.
I could tell story after story, but you get the idea. In our Christian world there exists this idea that we need to protect our fragile holiness by controlling the level of temptation we expose ourselves to. This involves being careful about who we hang out with and where we go to have fun. I hear this same fear in the voice of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. “Why do you eat and drink with sinners?”
But Jesus’ holiness, his purifying relationship with God, was not dependent on who he was with or what was happening around Him so He didn’t see people as a danger or threat to his sinlessness.
“Sure,” you say. “But Jesus was God. Of course He isn’t going to be tempted.”
Look at who the religious leaders actually go to. They go and complain to Jesus’ disciples. (Personally, I think that is hysterical. I wouldn’t want to lock horns with the guy casting out demons either. The dumb confused fishermen in the corner is a much easier target.) The disciples relationship to follow Jesus also was not harmed by who they were hanging out with. Why? Because at that party there were two types of people – sinners and the Son of God.
You see, Jesus sees people differently than we do.
He understands that everyone is a sinner; that there is no one who is righteous – not one. It doesn’t matter how many rules we follow. It doesn’t matter how many worship services and Bible studies per week we attend. It doesn’t matter how often we meditate on Scripture, pray, fast, confess, beat ourselves in penance, or what ever other crazy spiritual discipline you might try…doesn’t matter. We are all still just dirty sinners.
Understanding this removes the temptation to judge people. If we are all messed up, than no one person is more or less clean than another. In the end we are all unclean so we have no right to label anyone. Ever.
Jesus also understands that everyone is a child of God, separated from the Father; and that the Father desperately wants them back. Jesus saw the image of God in every individual, regardless of their circumstances or behavior; and He felt the longing of God to be connected to each person. Jesus didn’t judge people by their actions but rather by their status as a son or daughter of the King.
When we adopt this vision of people our hearts breaks for them. We fall deeply in love with them; and as a result, we are able to become part of their life (culture) and love them where they are.
And here is the best part…
The truth was that in high school and college the “sinners” didn’t want me around because my “holiness” was a fun killer. I wasn’t invited to the party because my attitude made people feel guilty. The smokers didn’t want me hanging out with them behind the gym because my jugdmental presence made them feel like junk. No one wanted me at a college party because I would sit in the corner frustrated that the cups were a solid color and I couldn’t drink a soda.
Jesus didn’t have this problem. People seemed to love having Him around. Jesus brought the party!
Because people want to be accepted and loved. They want to be embraced. They want others to see the beauty in them, not the mess. Everyone knows they have mess and we fight to hide it. No one wants it pointed out. We want our friends to see what is fantastic and uniquely wonderful about us.
Here is the best part. Because we know God and are familiar with His image we have the unique ability to spot Him in each person and love them for it. We can live in culture with non-judgemental acceptance like no one else can by focusing on the image of God shining through their character.
There is a phrase Alan Hirsch drops in his book Untamed that I have fallen in love with…
Acceptance before Repentance.
Now we are faced with a different question – Is our acceptance of a sinner approval of his/her sin?
To be continued…