Jesus, friend of sinners

[Jesus said,] “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.”

One of the Pharisees asked to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with her ointment…

[Jesus said to them all,] “I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:34-38, 47-50

Can you imagine this scene? It is almost difficult to imagine a more embarrassing, shocking event, in that culture and in ours too.

In Hebrew, the word messiah – “christ” in Greek – means “anointed one.” Jesus the Christ is Israel’s Messiah, and this is the anointing he received: a woman with a reputation for sin burst in on a Pharisee’s dinner party and soaked his feet, and his host’s floor, with a strong-smelling mixture of perfume and her own tears. Had it been up to you, is that the kind of anointing ceremony you would have designed for God’s Messiah? Not me.

According to Luke 7:34, despite his flawless observance of Judaism’s complex religious law, Jesus himself had a reputation for sin, not because he sinned, but because he spent his time with lowlifes. He befriended them, identified himself with them, and pronounced blessings on them. Simply put, he loved them. Unabashedly, without pretense or suppressed disgust.

And they loved him, too. They flocked to him. They hung on his words. Consider the extent of this woman’s love for Jesus: she publicly displayed a level of affection for him considered by her culture to be appropriate only in the bedroom,  in front of a room full of  men who probably held the power to stone her as a prostitute. But what did the woman care about the stares or the threats? Jesus welcomed her, he forgave and blessed her, he spoke peace to her. What else mattered?

Grace is offensive. It really is. It turns the world upside-down. It looks around at a room full of upstanding citizens, then down at the disheveled, promiscuous woman weeping on the floor, and declares to the room, “You guys are the ones with the problem. She’s mine.”

The Pharisees at that dinner party two thousand years ago understood very little about themselves, the woman on the floor, or the promised Messiah they thought they would recognize. They imagined a massive gulf to be fixed between the woman and themselves. They looked for a Messiah who would vindicate the law-keepers, the hard workers, the pure bloods. They never imagined a Messiah who would associate with “tax collectors and sinners.”

Grace teaches that the best place those Pharisees could have been in that moment was not generously granting the controversial teacher a place at their table, as they supposed it, but with the sinful woman on the floor, abandoning themselves to the Lord’s love for them.

I ask myself, as a fellow receiver along with that woman of the Lord’s love, how would I have reacted at that dinner party? Would I have blushed? Apologized to the guests for the disturbance, frantically looked for someone to get her out of my house, lowered my opinion of Jesus because he actually let her touch him?

How do I treat “sinners” now? How do you treat them? What about our churches? Do marginalized, immoral people love our churches the way they loved Jesus in his day? In practice, for whom do we really exist: the well or the sick (Luke 5:31-32)?

Mocking him, accusing him, the Bible-thumping community leaders of Jesus’ day said, “He is a friend of sinners – like them.” With an ache, and an edge of hope, in her voice, the desperate woman said, “He is a friend of sinners – like me.” See the difference?

Jesus! what a Friend for sinners!
Jesus! Lover of my soul;
Friends may fail me, foes assail me,
He, my Savior, makes me whole.

Hallelujah! what a Savior!
Hallelujah! what a Friend!
Saving, helping, keeping, loving,
He is with me to the end.

Jesus! I do now receive Him,
More than all in Him I find.
He hath granted me forgiveness,
I am His, and He is mine.

Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners by John Chapman

meditations on Holy Week (1): Jesus the radical

Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, the remembrance of Jesus’ last pre-resurrection week of life on earth. A full one-third of the four accounts of Jesus’ life (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, together making up half the New Testament) is solely dedicated to Holy Week. Its events make up our gospel, our good news (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). Without it there is no hope.

Something you’ll soon notice when you read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – particularly the accounts of Holy Week – is that Jesus was an absolute radical. People who have not read these books, Christians or not, often entertain ideas that he was nice, friendly, sociable, or polite. This is simply untrue. Respectable people would have been cautious about inviting him to dinner, and rightly so. He was less like a teddy bear and more like a roaring lion; less like a sympathetic therapist and more like a lightning storm.

“Palm Sunday” = Luke 19:28-48

If Jesus does not offend us, we are missing something. Read the gospels and you’ll soon see. In reality, Jesus is the most offensive man who ever lived. His names in this passage are Lord (verse 31), and King (verse 38). That means Lord and King of you, too. He is so worthy to be worshiped and adored that if humans fall silent, inanimate rocks will without hesitation take up the song (verse 40). His claim on your life is total. You owe him not a penny less than your entire existence; you were made for him (Colossians 1:16). He says: the standard is perfection. If you don’t meet the standard – and I am the Judge – you deserve nothing from me but “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I came to bring a sword, not peace (Matthew 10:34).

Imagine if you saw an impoverished-looking man parading through the center of Washington D.C. with a crowd of similarly unsophisticated people following him, singing and shouting things like “This is the glorious King of the world who comes from God.” What would happen? Politicians would get defensive and upset; the police would shut him down and throw him in a mental institution; headlines would laugh about the crazy homeless man who made a scene. If the man got a large enough following, our institutions would quickly get more aggressive. America (including many who now claim to know him) would react the same way to Jesus as Israel did 2,000 years ago, and it would be right to do so – unless, of course, it was true. If it was true, everything would be changed.

It’s little wonder, then, that the Pharisees got upset. He unabashedly demolished everything they stood for. He does the same to us as well, in our pride and self-sufficiency. But notice this: Jesus wept over rebellious humanity (verse 41). Even a cursory reading of the gospels reveals this, too: if Jesus does not attract us, we are missing something. Jesus lived with more passion – for life, for people, for God – than anyone else who ever lived. His emotions ran deeper, he felt them more profoundly, than any of us. Everything about him – his sermons, his conversations, his acts of power, his acts of humility, his prayers, his interactions with people, his whole personality – is stunning. It’s little wonder the people were “hanging on his words” (verse 48).

Come to the Bible expecting some Sunday-school-sanitized version of Jesus and you will be quickly forced to blush. He is not sanitized. He is not nice. He never accommodates to sin or lies, not once. Come to the Bible with a heart to learn and you will meet someone so much better, so much more worthy of your love: Christ the Lord, the King, the Servant, the Radical.