The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners.’” But wisdom is proved right by her actions.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Jesus?
You’ve got to wonder, had God sent Jesus into our world, how far could He go? Could His ministry even get off the ground? Without divine intervention, I’m not so sure. Our post-industrial culture puts far too much trust in mass production for an iconoclastic preacher like Jesus to run loose very long without getting reeled back in. Anyone aspiring to ministry today must comply certain protocols and standards. While I’m not questioning their validity or necessity, I mention them because their main purpose is “quality control”—cranking out ministers to meet fixed standards and qualifications.
Let’s review how Jesus begins His ministry. He gets baptized, spends 40 days in the wilderness, and—bam!—He’s preaching and healing, calling disciples and challenging temple elders, and revolutionizing religious thought. Just imagining such a thing now would make some queasy and others laugh. Although ancient Palestine’s climate isn’t nearly as cool as ours toward self-styled prophets, it still doesn't take long for Jesus to get on a lot of people’s nerves. Not only does His radical take on Scripture rattle their cages. His social habits don't comply with their standards of rabbinical behavior. They scrutinize His every move and go off when they catch Him where they think He shouldn’t be, with people they think He shouldn’t be around, and doing things they think He shouldn’t do. Yet their outrage hardly fazes Him. “Say what you will,” He essentially tells His critics in Matthew 11.19. “The wisdom in what I do will prove itself in the end.” Yes, Jesus is problem for many people, a problem that adamantly refuses to be solved.
Nothing to Explain
Jesus’s doesn’t downplay His whereabouts and associations to prove His defiance or superiority. As He sees it, there’s nothing to explain. Even on the odd occasion when He does humor his critics, they don’t get it. In Luke 5.31-32, He replies to questions about Him dining with the wrong crowd this way: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Later on, when He calls Zaccheus down from the tree and invites Himself to the taxman’s house, the nay-sayers are at it again, grumbling, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’” (Luke 19.7) Staying clear of the wrong crowd to please the “right crowd” (if such a thing exists) won’t help those who need Him most. What’s not to understand about that?
Jesus has nothing to explain because He befriends the wrong crowd for the right reasons. He gives them His time, attention, and respect—at the risk of losing the respect of others—because no one else will. Truth be told, though, He doesn’t make things easy for Himself. He doesn’t limit Himself to an almost-right crowd—middle-of-the-road people who behave most of the time. Jesus jumps headlong into the worst of the worst, tax collectors and “sinners.” Jews revile tax collectors as traitors who profit by working for Romans, turning a blind eye to their tax-poor countrymen. “Sinners”—braced in quotes to denote a different word than the one for run-of-the-mill transgressors—are so repugnant to the mainstream they’re shunned by society and banned from worship. This is Jesus’s crowd, traitors and pariahs. He’s not ashamed to be seen with them, in their homes, eating their food, and drinking their wine. It’s exactly where He needs to be.
Coming Out to Go Back In
“A house is known by the company it keeps,” we’re told to warn us about “guilt by association.” This concept doesn’t match anything Jesus says or does, though many try to justify it with scriptural admonitions to pursue godly lives set apart from those pursuing their own pleasure. A favorite is 2 Corinthians 6.17: “Come out from them and be separate, say the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” Most assuredly, God’s presence should bring a noticeable change in our lives. But misconstruing being separate to mean separation misses the point. It shifts the emphasis from being to not doing. Worse yet, thinking separation will save our reputations (or souls) ignores the internal contradiction screaming down the middle of such logic. Self-imposed isolation from the wrong crowd for our benefit and safety puts us in the wrong crowd. How can we obey Christ’s law to love our neighbors as ourselves if we place our interests above theirs?
The purpose for coming out and being separate is going back in and becoming useful. Resisting bad influences and avoiding badly influenced people are not the same. Confusing them results in a fear-based strategy. If we’ve truly left the wrong crowd’s ways, there’s no reason to fear going back in to help others come out. On the other hand, if we return to dabble in their harmful attitudes and actions, we should be afraid—very afraid. We’re not opening our hearts to them; we’re opening our minds to their influences. We’re with the wrong crowd for the wrong reasons and we’ve got some explaining to do. When we’re with the wrong crowd for the right reasons, however, there’s nothing to explain.
Hanging with the wrong crowd for the right reasons is never wrong.
(Tomorrow: When Push Comes to Shove)
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